John Gray purports to review de Boutton, but really reviews atheism

February 23, 2012 • 9:30 am

At least half a dozen readers have called my attention to John Gray’s review in The New Statesman of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.  de Botton, you’ll recall, is the guy who wants humanists and atheists to adopt the trappings of religion—weekly meetings, sermons, holidays and the like—to enforce our deep need for social ritual.  de Botton also proposed the erection of an atheist temple, though that appears to have fallen by the wayside.

I don’t have much use for de Botton’s ideas, but I feel sorry for his having fallen into the clutches of Gray, who appears to be a nasty piece of work. I haven’t followed his writings, but he’s described as the head book reviewer for The New Statesman. His review of de Botton’s book, which is mixed, turns out to be a review (and a critical one) of atheism.  And it’s snide in the way that only a pompous British intellectual can be snide (recall Terry Eagleton):

A few snippets from Gray:

The paradox of an immensely powerful mind mistrusting the intellect is not new. Pascal needed intellectual humility because he had so many reasons to be proud of his intelligence. It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton.

I don’t think Augustine, Maimonides, and the like were stupid.  Who has ever claimed that? And they’re not thoughtless, for they had lots of thoughts. It’s just that those thoughts were misguided, and theologians who follow them are even more misguided, since the history of science has eaten away whatever evidence for God existed for these men.  The people who are really misguided—indeed, deluded—are modern theologians who try to find the missing evidence for God and even speculate on God’s nature. They are wasting their time and their intellect. Think of all the ways society would be better if theologians were engaged in more rational pursuits!

I don’t have a problem with Biblical studies, for that’s an empirically based discipline that aims to reconstruct the origins of religion and its scriptures, nor do I have a problem with comparative religion classes. I do have a problem with people getting paid, as they are in my own University, to speculate about the mind of God and make up stuff trying to demonstrate his existence, omnipotence, and general character.

Thomas Jefferson had the right idea when he founded the University of Virginia: he dictated that “a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.” And indeed, U. Va. has none now. It’s a pity that institutions as august as Harvard and The University of Chicago do.

More from Gray on de Botton:

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.

Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

Two this I have two responses.  Yes, “these goods can be achieved without religion.” They are, regularly, in Europe, particularly in northern Europe.

Second: the comparative value of science and religion.  I offer Gray a choice: the choice between living in a world in which religion never arose but science did, or a world in which science never arose but religion did.  Which would you choose?

Ergo science.

72 thoughts on “John Gray purports to review de Boutton, but really reviews atheism

  1. Talking of the benefits of religion, Gray says, “I would add the practice of toleration . . .”


    Tell that to the Spanish Inquisition, or to any American Fundie today.

      1. Ah, but if we didn’t have religious tribalism then we would need to have tolerance, so religion gives us the chance to be tolerant.

        Or something.

  2. I would not give Gray or de Bottom the time of day or the attention they have managed to get from us on this subject. It is a stupid idea for atheists to emulate religion, or believe that apples should taste like oranges.

    1. This isn’t trying to believe that apples should taste like oranges.

      This is trying to believe that cow manure tastes like oranges.

    2. Science (not religion) does make apple juice taste (a little) like orange juice, or don’t you have what is called here Just Juice, deionised apple juice flavourised with orange juice – or as they call it “Orange Juice (with apple base)? It’s transsubstantiation, folks!

  3. Hey Jerry, that’s not a relative of yours working over there in the “philosophy of religion” department is it? Ryan Coyne? Must make for some interesting family gatherings if it is. I like his quote about how “interdisciplinary” they are in his department. Translated to mean, we involve other departments with us, to show how useful we are to them, thus disguising the fact of how truly useless we really are to the concept of higher learning in the process. “Philosophy of religion”, oh please, that degree and $1.57 is barely good for a cup of coffee, or a job at your school, I imagine.

  4. Funny that all theists in the U.S., without exception, who have had an accident involving a limb amputation, seek medical treatment. Why? Scripture says prayer should suffice.

    Hypocrisy. Prayer is ineffective. Science is effective.

    Funny that the pope relies on bullet-proof glass for the popemobile, and not god’s protection (which he should be able to get, claiming the promise of John 14:14). Why?

    Hypocrisy. Prayer is ineffective. Science is effective.

    I could give example after example.

    Mr. Gray: To insist that religion is peculiarly beneficial is fanaticism, or mere stupidity. Hitchens was right, it poisons everything.

  5. I did warn you on an earlier thread that I needed polychaete annelids to cheer me up after reading this drivel. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

    Gray is another one like Howard Jacobsen, they mostly write nonsense like this, but very occasionally they write something good and so you get sucked into reading them in case its one of the rare good ones.

  6. I find John Gray to be a fantastic example of intellectualism gone awry. He’s an atheist by the way, just in case that isn’t clear (which it isn’t when you read many of his articles).

    1. Pseudo-intellectualism gone awry.
      There are so many unwarranted assertions and factual inaccuracies in his off-handed aperçu that setting them straight would take a journal-sized essay, were Gray’s inflated letter-soup in any way important. As it isn’t, it ain’t.

  7. An ex-muslim insight into this ridiculous book review :
    Al-Ghazali may not have been stupid, but he did have a morbid sadomasochistic obsession witg hell. And he was an intellectual disaster all right. His influential book “the incoherence of the philosophers” has been blamed for the closing of muslim mind to science and and an islamic dark age.

    1. An ex-Jews insight:
      I think Gray is right. Religion is very tolerant, especially of religious dissent. That is why European rabbis arranged to have Maimonidies’ works, even though they were somewhat unorthodox, duly respected and studied because their “intellectual vitality”…just kidding; They had the books burned of course! Also, Almohad Muslim offers of tolerance in Spain(convert, die, or leave) was a very big influence in Maimonidies’ early life.

      Also, a provision in Mishna Torah, Maimonidies’ book of Jewish Law, says that a non-Jews attempt to observe the Sabbath (even on the wrong day and/or the wrong way) is punishable by death. This would require the execution of every Christian and Muslim, ~3 billion people now. Very tolerant and kind.

      1. “Smokers are most tolerant.
        Never has a smoker, while smoking, objected to the presence of a non-smoker.”

        (Graffito in the restroom of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Munich)

      2. You’re referring to the Maimonidean controversy. Many people (not all European rabbis) held his works in high regard and still do to this day, but as is well documented, others thought his works were heretical and banned them or even burned them. One such latter incident was in 1233 at Montpellier. Maimonides was undoubtedly a controversial figure.

        As I recall from Mishneh Torah, he forbade people who specifically practised “avodat cochavim” (literally “star worship”, referring to idolaters) from observing the Jewish sabbath but I don’t think it could have referred to everybody who wasn’t Jewish. If that had been the case, it would necessarily apply to anybody in the process of conversion to Judaism which would have been self-defeating. Could you provide a reference, so that I can look it up?

        1. משנה תורה לרמב”ם, ספר שופטים, הלכות מלכים ומלחמות, פרק י, יא
          גוי שעסק בתורה, חייב מיתה; לא יעסוק אלא בשבע מצוות שלהן בלבד. וכן גוי ששבת–אפילו ביום מימות החול–אם עשה אותו לעצמו כמו שבת, חייב מיתה; ואין צריך לומר אם עשה מועד לעצמו.

          (Translation for non-Hebrew speakers: A non-Jew that studies the Torah [Old Testament] is liable to death. [They] should only study the seven commandments given to them. So too a non-Jew that observes the Shabbat-even on a weekday-if he makes it to himself like the Sabbath, he is liable to death. And it need not be said [what happens] if he makes for himself a [Jewish] holiday [ie. he is liable to death].)

          This version uses Goy. Other editions might use the term Ovday Kochavim, but IIRC that is also a term for any non-Jew (perhaps excepting a Ger Toshav). The Rambam’s position is based upon the implication from the Torah that the Torah, Shabbat, and holidays are supposed to be exclusive to the Jews. I don’t think it would matter what religion the non-Jew was, as long as they weren’t Jewish. Regarding training converts, I would guess they carry something in their pocket or there is a loophole (and there may be opinions that don’t have problems with goyim keeping shabbat).

          I just realized the first part of this mishna may put a death penalty on many Christians who study the Torah/Old Testament, but I’m not sure.

          1. I’m surprised it appears that way in the text that you’ve quoted, specifically because the underlying passage in Talmud that I think Maimonides is quoting does indeed use the acronym “akum” and not “goy” (and I remember the same in the Maimonides text that I read). Ovday Kochavim was used in a much more restrictive sense and does not apply to everybody outside Judaism.

            1. OK, here’s what I found. It has substituted “akum” for “goy”. I believe it has a much more restrictive meaning, but then I’m not convinced that “goy” in the context of these writings (as opposed to its usage in modern Hebrew) has the breadth of meaning that you attribute to it.

              ט. עכו”ם שעסק בתורה חייב מיתה לא יעסוק אלא בשבע מצות שלהן בלבד וכן עכו”ם ששבת אפילו ביום מימות החול אם עשאהו לעצמו כמו שבת חייב מיתה ואין צריך לומר אם עשה מועד לעצמו כללו של דבר אין מניחין אותן לחדש דת ולעשות מצות לעצמן מדעתן אלא או יהיה גר צדק ויקבל כל המצות או יעמוד בתורתו ולא יוסיף ולא יגרע ואם עסק בתורה או שבת או חדש דבר מכין אותו ועונשין אותו ומודיעין אותו שהוא חייב מיתה על זה אבל אינו נהרג:

              Note the final three words אבל אינו נהרג
              which means “but he should not be killed.”

              I do think this is an interesting discussion, and I’d like to continue it with you, but given the aims of Jerry’s website, could we do it offline?

    2. This is a really good point. I think the scientific backwardness of the Muslim world today is evidence of what happens when religion so totally dominates law, culture, and education.

      This article about Arab science quotes some stunningly tragic figures on the paucity of translations, scientific publications, research and patents in the Arab world.

  8. I liked this article, but is it really necessary to make generalisations about “pompous British intellectuals”. Would you be comfortable using the phrase “pompous Jewish intellectuals”? I think you risk undermining the good will of your many British admirers, of which I count myself one (if that doesn’t sound too pompous)…

    1. I think you risk undermining the good will of your many British admirers ….

      You may be right, but that seems like a rather juvenile reason to do so. Perhaps such a touchy person would not be a great loss.

          1. None taken. My only point was that I was not at all offended by Jerry’s remark.

            By the way, when I saw your name, I almost read it as Jeremy Clarkson in recognition of the fact that BBC America seems to have endless re-runs of Top Gear, and I often find myself watching them.

      1. Yes we do. But so do other countries don’t they? I kind of agree with Jeremy about the slightly unnecessary casual slur on the British, although I wouldn’t stop reading this site because of it. Jerry’s got too much in the pros column for this to upset me too much.

        1. I dunno.

          I think it’s going to be hard going for a pompous Australian to out-pompous a pompous Brit.

          Just my two cents there – could very easily just be prejudice talking, so I’m happy to be corrected with a counter example.


    2. Except we’re not really bothered about it are we?

      That sort of nationalistic touchiness is the sort of thing we expect from Johnny Foreigner.

  9. I will–happily and with gusto–defend the intelligence of Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings, if John Gray will only volunteer to defend his Mormon faith.

  10. Not much evil (to my knowledge) has been done IN THE NAME OF science. Yes, an atomic bomb and weapons technology is bad, but also good, see nuclear powers plants, chips, sensors, the internet, etc.

    Gray is a but of a snide agitated moron, pretending to be the smartest man in the world.

    1. Actually, Muffit, the “twin study” during WWII was done purportedly strictly for science. Horrendous. Abomination. Done primarily on children. Not a cause for anyone to be excommunicated for, though.

  11. I offer Gray a choice: the choice between living in a world in which religion never arose but science did, or a world in which science never arose but religion did. Which would you choose?

    Good one! Game, set, match, Coyne.

  12. I’m getting a bit tired of religion taking the credit for art and architecture. It wasn’t theology or doctrine that employed Michelangelo or Bernini to create masterpieces, it was money. The money happened to be in the hands of the Church, for not entirely laudable reasons, but that’s it. The Medicis also acted as patrons of artists, on a similar scale, even, considering comparative purchasing power, and nobody thinks that family is a reason to conclude God exists.

    1. Perhaps the banks should cite all the fabulous works of art the Medicis paid for in Florence as evidence of the benefits of banking when they trash the world’s economy!

  13. Gray *reviewed* Pinker’s book and didn’t even address the data and empirical research supporting the book’s thesis. John Gray seems to me like one of those intellectuals who are completely ignorant of empirical evidence and reality.

  14. Took me a while to remember where I know the name ‘John Gray’ from.

    Is it the same John Gray that was given a raking over by AC Grayling here?

    I remember being very pleased the first time I read that article – it was the first time I’d seen Anthony unsheathe his claws. ^_^

  15. It is annoying to hear these PhD’s in theology accuse just about the entire world of being uneducated cretins because they can not go toe to toe in arguing their apologetic nonsense. These self-described intellectuals just might realize how irrational they are being if they could just reined in their egos and truly listened to their critics.

    1. MAUCH, you hit the nail on the head. “Self-described intellectuals” indeed.

      Autofellating nincompoops more like.

      1. That’s not entirely fair.

        I find that the problem with theologians is that they start from false or fallacious premises, and then start down a path of attempting to hone an intellectual path from these to their desired conclusion.

        The obfuscatory bafflegab only really kicks in whenever they need to cover up one of those fatal premises. The rest of the time they’re not too bad – not any worse than anyone else.

        The problem isn’t a lack of intellectualism. It’s the commitment to their conclusion at all costs combined with the fact that some kind of veneer of intellectual respectability is important for PR purposes. So they have to backfill an intellectual rationalization and then find a way of glossing over the fact that not all the premises that they’d like to start with are true or valid.

        First thing I always look for is a foundational premise of God’s existence, usually disguised in a definition of a label without reference to evidence.

        They get bonus bullshit points if they then manage to not state the definition outright by hiding it inside a fallacious analogy. ^_^

        1. The implication from all this is that when they are offhandedly dismissed for reasoning from faulty premise, they can quickly restructure their argument so that the premise is hidden away as an implication, then say ‘this is untrue, they are dismissing me unfairly – see, this thing they say I said is not in my argument at all – and look at how intellectual and fancy all the rest of my reasoning is, they are clearly dismissing me without taking my arguments seriously first, a great intellectual crime, such philistines and barbarians’.

          A sympathetic audience, not being inclined to dig too deeply for the implied premise, and not having time to actually trace through all of that impressive-seeming reasoning, accept, nod, and dismiss the theologian’s critics…

          And the faulty premises remain.

          Which, when you think about it, is actually very clever.

          Not clever as in ‘they are skilled and capable in the search for truth’ but instead ‘they are skilled and capable in the attempt to hold onto their identity as [insert religion collective term] so as to continue with the associated psychological payoffs and indefinitely defer the psychological costs of defecting’.

          To do all that when the ideologies underlying religious identities are all so patently absurd is ingenious in its own way, and should be given it’s dues.

  16. You know, I don’t like this sort of discourse about “stupid people” and (elsewhere) “irrational people”. Firstly because the focus shouldn’t be on people but ideas. (Ad hominem fallacy!) Secondly because people are complex and no one is 100% stupid or 100% not stupid. It isn’t people as a whole who are stupid, it is their ideas that are stupid and I think it is fine to say people hold stupid ideas.

    Mostly this just completely misses the point. It stems from a misconception that smart people are infallible geniuses. I mean, how many mistakes (typically not published thankfully) do intellectuals make regularly, sign errors and such? They just know how to correct them. How many so-called genuises like Newton did brilliant work while also doing occult studies? The smarter you are, the more you challenge yourself and put yourself in a situation where you think something you later realize is completely stupid. Also the more easily you can deceive yourself with clever rationalizations. That’s why we have things like the scientific method. It’s a technique for stopping genius from believing stupid ideas.

    Augustine and Maimonides were in some sense stupid. They didn’t lack “intellectual vitality”, on the contrary they came up with brilliant rationalizations that turned out to be stupid. Jerry said this as “misguided”, but no need to be that diplomatic.

    Religious people aren’t stupid people. I just think they just have stupid ideas about religion.

    1. The flip side to this is that we run the risk of branding atheism as a conclusion that you have to be particularly clever in order to realize.

      It isn’t.

      It doesn’t take any kind of intellectual skill or rigor to arrive at the conclusion of atheism.

      Very simple questions and observations, the kind that are open to everyone, are all it takes.

      I think you only need two questions:

      1) “How do you know your religion is true?”

      2) “How is that any different from what all the other religions say about how they know their religion is true?”

      Get those two questions down and that’s pretty much it for religion.

      It doesn’t require much cleverness to do so.

      1. Um, in what way is “atheism is super clever” the flip side of “religious ideas are stupid”?

        This at best is just even more missing the point. It is beyond ridiculous to think of humanity as divided into this strict classiciation of “stupid people”, “super clever people (geniuses)”, and “ordinary people”. That’s just not how people work. Everyone — even Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Sarah Palin, and W Bush — is ordinary. People can and do hold both brilliant ideas and stupid ideas. And every one has moments of brilliance and stupidity. Though an education you rationalize with style! Also, most ideas aren’t that clever, they are just simple ideas that are either elegantly insightful or combined with other simple ideas.

        In branding atheism, let’s not brand it in terms of an incorrect myth of stupid people vs geniuses, let’s correct the myth and demystify the situation.

        Atheism is just another idea for anyone to consider and hold. Anyone could be an atheist or theist.

        1. Um, in what way is “atheism is super clever” the flip side of “religious ideas are stupid”?

          Short Version

          Specifically: Ethos and pathos.

          Long Version
          How a speaker presents themselves, along with how that speaker appeals to the emotions of his audience, can both have a very, very large effect on how that audience interprets the logic (logos) of his argument.

          In the case of ‘religious ideas are stupid’ it’s only natural for people who invest their identity in the idea to take it personally and feel slighted. I do this too, it’s just a quirk of how our brains and personalities are wired.

          The emotional affect is as if the speaker had said ‘you’re all big ugly stinky dumb-dumbs, and as I am the one explaining this to you I am therefore a big handsome smarty-pants that smells of roses and I am better than you‘. The ethos of pure, idealized dispassionate criticism either reinforces this at worst or fails to address it at best.

          These emotions then shape perception of the argument such that it is interpreted in such a way as to fit that perception.

          So while you’re absolutely correct that one does not follow from the other logically, it needs to be pointed out that this doesn’t matter when considering an argument from a rhetorical perspective.

          Logic is concerned with determining truth from a set of first principles, along with the evaluation of such arguments to determine logical validity. It’s useful and powerful and I love it.

          However, rhetoric is concerned with the speakers affect on their audience, along with the evaluation of such speech to determine whether the speaker’s goals have been or will be met. It’s also useful and powerful and I love it too.

          We need both.

          Because human beings aren’t Vulcans, and most of human psychology that goes on below the level of logic is beyond ridiculous.

          We can either ignore that or deal with it.

          I choose to deal with it.


          Note: Before everyone piles on, this isn’t a ‘don’t be a dick’ thing. Go ahead. Be a dick. Be a great big rampaging dick. Whatever helps you get your message across and fits with your passion and your critique is fine by me.

          What I do think is that it pays to be aware of our affect on our audience(s). Go in with your eyes open, and make your decisions with as much information available as you can manage. Good information is important for good decision making.

          If you do that and still think that blowing raspberries is called for on grounds that ridicule is the appropriate response to the ridiculous and that the only way to deal with the argumentatively obtuse is to embarrass them into making even bigger fools of themselves to scare of the community of followers on which they depends – then by all means, go nuts.

      1. By the ad hominem I mean attacking an idea based on a character criticism of the people advocating/holding the idea. Typically “John’s idea is dumb because John is ugly/mean.” And honestly “Steve’s idea is right because Steve is a nice guy/ a genius!”. Yes, it is always a fallacy to judge an idea on the person with the idea. You should judge an idea solely on the merits of the idea.

        That isn’t to say you can’t criticize people, call a spade a spade. You can criticize people. You just can’t criticize an idea based solely on a criticism of a person with the idea.

    1. You know…like:
      1. to spare you from eternal torture in hell – with which they themselves threaten you – only if you believe in their deity; or
      2. to let you live as long as you agree to second-class citizen status and a non-believer tax

      That sort of things

      1. 3) To apply for state-funded religious councilors to help you manage the depression and suicidal tendencies that are obvious symptoms of the mental health problems caused by your non-hetero-normative lifestyle.

        Incidentally, these mental health problems are the ones that we speak about in ambiguous terms to implicitly justify the toxic environment of bullying and social ostracisation by your religious peers with which we are tacitly complicit for refusing to step in and protect you from on grounds of ‘religious freedom’.

        This is because these behaviors exhibited by your religious peers are clearly intended to dissuade you from the lifestyle choices that are causing you to suffer from mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

        So not only are your peers showing a religious kind of kindness by trying to steer you away from a path leading to mental illness by bullying and ostracising you, but we in turn are showing you additional kindness by providing religious councilors that can explain how everything you’re experiencing is actually your own fault for not being able to deal with the consequences of your filthy, evil lifestyle choices.

        We’re super nice that way.


        Yes, I know I’m ranting – but I’m not sorry.

        This got me really worked up this morning.

        I need more coffee.

  17. I have to agree that Gray has a point here:

    Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

    Pointing out the evil done in the name of religion does not entirely discredit religion; it does refute the notion that religion is a source of particularly moral behavior. But this is one of the weakest of atheist arguments. It’s too vulnerable to the Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao kind of retort. The truth is that humans can get up to plenty of evil with or without religion.

    Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality?

    Here is the problem with Gray’s point about great theological thinkers of the past: they were operating in the past, a time of enormous ignorance about nature and science compared with today. Does anyone really doubt that many of the great thinkers associated with theology would have failed to recognize the overwhelming evidence against theistic belief? These examples might well have been atheists if they were alive today.

  18. “…these goods can be achieved without religion…”

    Yup. They sure can. But come on, let’s drop that other shoe! Community, art, architecture and education (!) are parallel endeavors with religion. They do not find their source in religion. Sometimes you find those goods in a religious context, but religion is an accidental part of them, not an essential part. Bach’s keen musical mind would’ve produced masterpieces even if he hadn’t been a devout Lutheran. (although I feel – projection alert – there is reason to doubt his devoutness.)

    1. Also don’t forget that whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

      Religion has been in power for most of human history.

      So of course the history of art has been historically skewed in favor of those with the wealth and power to patronize it.

      It could not have been otherwise.

  19. I just had this great idea for a book: “Hairstyling Tips For The Bald”.

    I’m sure it will open up a whole new untapped market for combs, brushes, hairspray, shampoo and conditioner, not to mention scrunchies, hairbands and curling tongs.

    Perhaps Alain de Botton would like to write the foreword.

  20. FTFA “Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality?”

    If you can’t tell the difference between “stupid” and “wrong”, then, well, you just might be stupid. And wrong.

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