Black Mass

John Gray
2007

No, not that John Gray, the “Mars and Venus” guy. This is the British philosopher John Gray, the one whose thinking goes beyond marketable clichés. Before you get too excited, the full title is Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. While there are evil rites here, they’re performed by “neo- millenarians” like Lenin and George W. Bush. 

Gray makes his central point early:

The Enlightenment ideologies of the past centuries were very largely spilt theology. The history of the past century is not a tale of secular advance, as bien-pensants of Right and Left like to think. The Bolshevik and Nazi seizures of power were faith-based upheavals just as much as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic insurrection in Iran. The very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion. Modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means.

Most of the content of Black Mass is Gray’s catalogue of evidence for this claim. In the last part of the book, he makes his case for replacing failed teleology — and to him, all teleologies are failures — with political realism. Like Machiavelli and Hobbes before him, Gray rejects the notion that human nature can be changed by ideology. For Gray, realpolitik is our only way to maximize civilization and minimize chaos.

(Gray’s enthusiasm for rejection leads him to reject parts of Machiavelli and Hobbes, as well. He’s nothing if not an equal opportunity rejecter!)

Political realism is for Gray very expressly not our “road to salvation,” for it is belief in salvation — for the individual in the next world or for the society in this one — that has led us to into the mess in which we now find ourselves.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment aimed to supplant Christianity, but they could do so only if they were able to satisfy the hopes it had implanted. As a result they could not admit — what pre-Christian thinkers took for granted — that human history has no overall meaning.

In Gray’s analysis, “Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. … It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces.” Given this artificial opposition of presumed good and assumed evil, Gray argues, there is no way that contemporary political movements can avoid the myth of human progress, and belief in human progress is inherently end-seeking. And it is this end-seeking that links secular political movements with the millenarians who await the End-Times.

If anything defines “the West” it is the pursuit of salvation in history. It is historical teleology — the belief that history has a built-in purpose or goal  — rather than traditions of democracy or tolerance, that sets western civilization apart from all others.

Gray focuses on the American occupation of Iraq as the best contemporary example of how attempting to impose one civilization’s myths on the people of another culture must fail. He writes of the Iraq incursion that “it is hard to think of a clearer example of the rationalist perversion of modern politics.”

The configuration of ideas and movements that led to America’s ruinous engagement in Iraq included more than a fusion of the neo-conservative utopians, Armageddonite fundamentalists and Straussian seers that have been examined so far. This exotic blend of beliefs, none of them grounded in any observable or even plausible reality, had one further but equally dangerous ingredient: a type of “liberal imperialism” based on human rights.

Gray writes that all of the Enlightenment-inspired political ideologies perpetuated a “myth of salvation” that he calls “Christianity’s most dubious gift to humanity.”

The faith-based violence to which this myth gave rise is a congenital western disorder. The early Christian belief in an End-Time that would bring about a new type of human life was transmitted via the medieval millenarians to become secular utopianism and, in another incarnation, the belief in progress.

And what of contemporary secular humanism? In Gray’s assessment, although “Darwinist thinkers” like Dawkins and Dennett are fervent anti-Christians, “their atheism and humanism are versions of Christianity.”

How to escape this legacy of imaginary salvation and false progress?

Realism is the only way of thinking about issues of tyranny and freedom, war and peace that can truly claim not to be based on faith and, despite its reputation for amorality, the only one that is ethically serious.

Realism requires an acceptance of the limitations of human nature, as well as a realization that there is no goal at the end of history.

Realists should reject teleological views of history. The belief that humanity is moving towards a condition in which there will be no more conflict over the nature of government is not only delusive but also dangerous. Basing policies on an assumption that a mysterious process of evolution is taking mankind to a promised land leads to a state of mind that is unprepared for intractable conflict.

Gray believes that “Liberalism has been as utopian as other philosophies in positing a kind of ultimate harmony as an achievable goal.”

Secular myths reproduce the narrative form of Christian apocalyptic, and if there is a way of tempering the violence of faith it must begin by questioning these myths. In secular thought science has come to be viewed as a vehicle of revelation, a repository of truth rather than a system of symbols that serves the human need to understand and control.

Gray’s analysis is neither uplifting nor flattering, but then, that’s precisely his point. If he’s right that human nature is fixed and history is not a journey toward perfection but merely a pleasing narrative, then a cautious realism would seem to be the only reasonable approach.

After all, if we are still standing naked on the veld, we’ll need to tread lightly and keep a keen eye out for danger.

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2 thoughts on “Black Mass

  1. Nice review Ron. I recently ordered this book, but have yet to read it. As much as I like Gray (I think he’s brilliant), he tends to be a bit too pessimistic. Yes, there are problems with finding absolute meaning and salvation in history (or in any other source), but that does not mean that we cannot strive for the ‘relative’ kind of meaning or even hold a ‘relative’ optimism for our future. Despite all of our problems, is it not too much to hope that we could leave this world a little bit better than we found it?

  2. Your question at the end is why this book has been added to the topic list for my weekly discussion group, a set of friends that includes several lifelong social activists. Answering it will make for a lively conversation.

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