Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia by John Gray is one of those books that has attracted wildly differing reviews.

Much of the book is taken up with detailed accounts of the players and actions in and around the Iraq War, not least Tony Blair – since this disaster exemplifies Gray’s thesis, that utopian politics leads to human misery and catastrophe. An anecdote that Gray used in a talk last week adds another dimension. When Karl Rove occupied a few rooms in the White House that had previously been used by Hilary Clinton, from which to run one of his election operations, he had them exorcised by a priest. In other words, even in the most self-confessedly secular state, religion re-emerges in the most unlikely places, and like Freud’s repressed desires, often with powerfully disturbing consequences.

Gray also argues that since the Enlightenment and the French Terror, violence has come to be seen as a tool of progress, as opposed to an option of last resort as Just War Theory has it. This was obviously the case in Communist Russian and Moaist China but also obtains in neo-conservative America and Britain. This is a religious belief reinvented since it is based upon apocalyptic myths, in which the last days will witness horrors before the new age is born; violence is a necessary even desirable stage through which to pass. Even atheistic humanism doesn’t escape this synthesis of two apparently innate human capacities – religion and violence: its myths of progress – that mistake the accumulation of scientific knowledge for the advancement of humankind – are purged of doubt and so cannot fundamentally doubt themselves.

this here is, of course, my favourite part:

In one of the best aimed jibes in the book, Gray argues that Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett et al – the evangelical atheists – are really members of a late Christian sect: only someone from a Protestant culture could believe that people can be changed if only they would change their beliefs about the world. It is the same dynamic as the evangelical who believes that someone becomes a new person if they rationally accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.

Preach it John Gray, preach it! As the Bard would have said: they do protest too much, methinks…


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