Older readers might remember the UK late night comedy show Banzai. This was basically a sketch show, knockabout, childish and even slightly racist in retrospect, that parodied Japanese game show formats. Now, Banzai had this character called Mr Shake Hands Man. Mr Shake Hands Man’s job was to approach a celebrity outside a restaurant or somewhere, shake the celebrity’s hand and try to start some bullshit conversation and keep it going. Eventually the celebrity’s open and friendly exterior would dissolve into an expression of frightened bewilderment as s/he realises that Mr Shake Hands Man is still shaking their hand after a full moment and a half. The object of the sketch was to see how long Mr Shake Hands Man could keep the handshake going.
I thought of this when I read the latest gushing profile of John Gray, UK literati’s favourite celebrity philosopher. John Gray is an intellectual Mr Shake Hands Man. He has one big idea – that religious fundamentalism, New Atheism, neoconservatism, and various apparently secular philosophies are just a derivative of doomed Christian utopianism - and he has spieled this out into numerous books, articles, lectures, reviews and collections over what seems like the last two thousand years. Norman Geras has a collection of his greatest hits:
[The] idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.
To believe in progress is to believe that… humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.
Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world… but their core belief in progress is a superstition.
[T]he belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as [Professor A C] Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species.
When contemporary humanists invoke the idea of progress they are mixing together two different myths: a Socratic myth of reason and a Christian myth of salvation.
Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.
Get the idea? The argument that progress is an illusion, and that humanity is doomed to a cyclical and meaningless existence, is certainly one that becomes convincing after listening to Professor Gray reiterate this sort of thing year after year. Get a hundred pages into Black Mass and you’ll see what I mean.
Norman has taken this idea apart and raises two basic objections. One is that there obviously has been some kind of progress, if you count liberal secularist frivolities like longer life expectancies, the extinction of terrifying diseases, the acceptance of democratic frameworks, individual liberties and human rights. The world is a better place in night and day differences compared to fifty years ago, never mind thinking in centuries. The second point Norm raises is that belief in progress doesn’t always have to be about grand sweeping millennarian ideas. I would bet that almost no one in the progress industry – politicians, aid workers, doctors, scientists – thinks of progress in this way. They just want to make a difference. Clearly, Gray wouldn’t oppose these small steps. But he doesn’t admit to that, perhaps because the admission would introduce qualification and nuance into his own grand theory, and people would pay less attention to him.
Gray has recently introduced something that’s almost hopeful, that jars with the smug chin-stroking tone of most of his work. That is the idea that we should focus on the here and now. As he says: ‘Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.’ This is all good, I’m all for living for today, in fact my main objection to religion is it treats lived life as a mere prelude to what comes after. But Norm’s ahead of both of us here, too, and points out that it’s a natural human impulse to look to the future and to plan for it. From his response:
However, as Gray is evidently resistant to this notion, perhaps I’ll just leave it at this: even if we were to listen to him and fasten our attention on the present, take meaning from the here and now, human beings seem to have an impulse to do things better – better next time than last time, avoiding that mistake, introducing this modification, and so on. They also, many of them, want good things for their children, sometimes better things than they had themselves or perceived they had. For these kinds of reason, living in the present already contains something of thinking about the future; the present can’t entirely shut the future out.
So if Gray’s really asking us to forget what’s up ahead, he’s fighting immutable human instinct in the same way that he accuses the critics of religion of so doing.