After Secularism


What presents itself as the ’secularization’ of theological concepts will have to be understood, in the last analysis, as an adaptation of traditional theology to the intellectual climate produced by modern philosophy or science both natural and political.

(Leo Strauss)

The modern world began with wars of religion. During the Thirty Years War, Europe was devastated by armed struggle between Catholics and Protestants, with around a third of the population in parts of Germany perishing as a result. Much of early modern thought is a response to these conflicts. The need to restrain the violence of faith is central in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza – early Enlightenment thinkers who speak to us about the nature of present conflicts more clearly than most of those who came later.

The central theme of Hobbes’s thought is the condition of humanity in a state of nature, where government is lacking. As he put it in the famous thirteenth chapter of Leviathan, a state of nature lacks ‘commodious living’ – there are ‘no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death’. Without the power of government, humans are compelled to engage in a ‘war of all against all’ in which each is the enemy of every other. Hobbes’s insight into the realities of life when government breaks down is unflinching. It is his account of how humanity might escape this condition that is far-fetched. Hobbes was much concerned with taming fanaticism, which he recognized as the deadly enemy of civilization, but he hated fanatical belief too much to understand it and so failed to uncover its roots in the need for meaning. While he recognized the power of the passions, he believed reason could enable humanity to escape the state of nature – not for ever, but at least for a time. Believing he had fathomed the causes of human conflict, Hobbes imagined that if his writings fell into the hands of an intelligent ruler a new form of government could be established that was concerned only to maintain peace. By obeying such a government, humanity could be delivered from its natural condition. Though he is seen as an ultra-realist, Hobbes actually looked to politics for a kind of salvation.

Hobbes’s understanding of the dangers of anarchy resonates powerfully today. Liberal thinkers still see the unchecked power of the state as the chief danger to human freedom. Hobbes knew better: freedom’s worst enemy is anarchy, which is at its most destructive when it is a battleground of rival faiths. The sectarian death squads roaming Baghdad show that fundamentalism is itself a type of anarchy in which each prophet claims divine authority to rule. In well-governed societies, the power of faith is curbed. The state and the churches temper the claims of revelation and enforce peace. Where this kind is impossible, tyranny is better than being ruled by warring prophets. Hobbes is a more reliable guide to the present than the liberal thinkers who followed. Yet his veiw of human beings was too simple, and overly rationalistic. Assuming that humans dread violent death more than anything, he left out the most intractable sources of conflict. It is not always because human beings act irrationally that they fail to achieve peace. Sometimes it is because they do not want peace. They may want the victory of the One True Faith – whether a traditional religion or a secular succesor such as communism, democracy or universal human rights. Or – like the young people who joined far-Left terrorist groups in the 1970s, another generation of which is now joining Islamist networks – they may find in war a purpose that is lacking in peace. Nothing is more human than the readiness to kill and die in order to secure a meaning in life.

A deeper understanding of the disorders of faith can be found in the thought of Benedict Spinoza.2 Like Hobbes, Spinoza knew that religion can be destructive, and he was clear that freedom to practise it must yield to the needs of peace; but he understood, better than Hobbes, the role of religion in human life. Religions are not literally true, as their followers believe. They are myths that preserve in symbolic or metaphorical form truths that might otherwise be lost, and the mass of humankind will never be able to do without them. The term myth comes from the Greek word mythos, which means story, and the dominant western myths have been narratives in which history becomes a story of sin and redemption. Spinoza is rare among western thinkers in rejecting any such view of salvation as an historical event. Despite the fact that he seems to have been an atheist for most of his life, Hobbes never questioned the Christian belief that humans can transcend their natural condition. Indeed, this belief underpins his faith in government. In contrast, though he was attracted to a mystical version of rationalism, Spinoza understood that humans are an integral part of the natural world, and so he never turned to the state for salvation. Anarchy could be overcome as evolving patterns of social cooperation crystallized into civil institutions; but the order in society that resulted would regularly break down, and when this happened no social contract could restore order. Spinoza had a vision of salvation – a neo-Stoic ideal in which a few individuals could understand and accept their place in the scheme of things – but it had nothing to do with politics. While it is much preferable to anarchy, government cannot abolish the evils of the human condition. At any time the state is only one of the forces that shape human behaviour, and its power is never absolute. At present, fundamentalist religion and organized crime, ethnic-national allegiances and market forces all have the ability to elude the control of government, sometimes to overthrow or capture it. States are at the mercy of events as much as any other human institution, and over the longer course of history all of them fail. As Spinoza recognized, there is no reason to think the cycle of order and anarchy will ever end.3

Secular thinkers find this view of human affairs dispiriting, and most have retreated to some version of the Christian view in which history is a narrative of redemption. The most common of these narratives are theories of progress, in which the growth of knowledge enables humanity to advance and improve its condition. Actually, humanity cannot advance or retreat, for humanity cannot act: there is no collective entity with intentions or purposes, only ephemeral struggling animals each with its own passions and illusions. The growth of scientific knowledge cannot alter this fact. Believers in progress – whether social democrats or neoconservatives, Marxists, anarchists or technocratic Postitivists – think of ethics and politics as being like science, with each step forward enabling further advances in future. Improvement in society is cumulative, they believe, so that the elimination of one evil can be followed by the removal of others in an open-ended process. But human affairs show no sign of being additive in this way: what is gained can always be lost, sometimes – as with the return of torture as an accepted technique in war and government – in the blink of an eye. Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result. They remain prone to every kind of barbarism, and while the growth of knowledge allows them to improve their material conditions, it also increases the savagery of their conflicts.

If the political religions of the last century renewed Christian beliefs, secular humanism today is no different. Darwinist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are militant opponents of Christianity.4 Yet their atheism and humanism are versions of Christian concepts. As a defender of Darwinism, Dawkins is committed to the view that humans are like other animal species in being ‘gene machines’ ruled by the laws of natural selection. He asserts nevertheless that humans, uniquely, can defy these natural laws: ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’ In affirming human uniqueness in this way, Dawkins relies on a Christian world-view. The same is true of Dennett, who has spent much of his career labouring to show how scientific materialism can be reconciled with a form of free will – a project that would scarcely occur to someone from a culture not moulded by Christianity.

Pre-Chrsitian philosophers such as the Epicureans speculated about free will. But it only became a central issue in western philosophy with the rise of Christianity and has never been prominent in non-western philosophies that do not separate humans so radically from other animals. When secular thinkers ponder free will and consciousness they nearly always confine themselves to humans, but why assume these attributes are uniquely human? In taking for granted a categorical difference between humans and other animals these rationalists show their view of the world has been formed by faith. The comedy of militant unbelief is in the fact that the humanist creed it embodies is a by-product of Christianity.

Contemporary atheism is a Christian heresy that differs from earlier heresies chiefly in its intellectual crudity.5 This is nowhere clearer than in its view of religion itself. Marx held to a reductive view in which religion was a by-product of oppression; but he was clear it expressed the deepest human aspirations – it was not only the opiate of the masses but also ‘the heart of a heartless world’. The French Positivists wanted to replace Christianity by a ridiculous Religion of Humanity; but they understood that religion answered to universal human needs. Only a very credulous philosopher could believe that showing religion is an illusion will make it disappear. That assumes the human mind is an organ attuned to truth – a quasi-Platonic conception that is closer to religion than science and inconsistent with Darwinism. Yet such seems to be the view of contemporary unbelievers.

As used by many of its contemporary advocates secularism is not so much a view of the world as a political doctrine. In this sense, a secular state is one that banishes religion from public life while leaving people free to believe what they like. Secularism of this kind is consistent with religious belief, but it is mainly defended nowadays by rationalists who lament the renewed strength of religion in politics. They seem to have forgotten the political religions of the twentieth century and cannot have reflected on the fact that in the United States, a model secular regime, religion and politics are intertwined more closely that in any other advanced country. The unreality of this secularist stance does not come only from an ignorance of history. Those who demand that religion be exorcized from politics think this can be achieved by excluding traditional faiths from public institutions; but secular creeds are formed from religious concepts, and suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it.


1 Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1953, p.317
2 For an analysis of Spinoza as a decisive thinker of the early modern Enlightenment, see Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001
3 I discuss Spinoza in my ‘Reply to Crics’ in John Horton and Glen Newey (eds.), The Political Theory of John Gray, London, Routledge, 2006. For an illuminating recent interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy, see Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza and Spinozism, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005
4 See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London, Bantam, 2006, and Daniel. C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, London, Allen Lane, 2006
5 I leave aside atheism in Islamic cultures, though the same analysis applies.

  • About

    John Gray is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He is the acclaimed author of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern and Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.

    His essay 'After Secularism' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.