The religious impulse, Gray argues in a later work (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions
), is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversions.
Thus the Marxist faith in our passage into socialist utopia after revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death - the former, heaven-on-earth, as unrealistic than the latter. Communism is thus, as an American Conservative commented, 'the opiate of the intellectuals'. Similarly, humanism replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god, with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of mankind himself (p38).
Of course, humanism is a hopelessly broad term, encompassing pretty much anyone who is neither religious nor a nazi. What Gray has in mind by humanism is a faith in the inevitability of social and political progress, a faith shared by neo-conservatives, who think they can transform Islamic tribal societies and Soviet Republics to capitalist democracies, and Marxists, who think Islamic tribal societies and capitalist democracies will eventually give way to communism.
Notwithstanding an early discussion of the irrational origins of modern science (p20-23), Gray does not deny the reality of scientific progress. What he doubts is the inevitability of social, moral and political progress accompanying it.
Whereas scientific progress is self-perpetuating (a society that unilaterally gave up technology would be conquered by one with technologically superior weapons), political progress is not. Nor does progress in science and technology necessarily lead to social and political progress. After all, "without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no holocause" (p14).
Therefore, "even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war" (p123) and "if one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it" (p14). In other words, "technology is not something humankind can control" but rather "an event that has befalled the world" (p14).
This is because, although technology progresses, human nature remains unchanged. Therefore, "the uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves" (p28). Ironically, therefore, the chief problem with belief in societal progress is its failure to come to grips with one aspect of scientific progress - namely in the scientific understanding of human nature. The discoveries of sociobiologists demonstrate a degree of selfishness and nepotism innate among humans and incompatible with societal utopias (see A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation (Darwinism Today)
Sociobiologists emphasise the degree to which innate mechanisms respond to environmental variables to maximise fitness in diverse environments, including by producing altruism, suggesting that this can allow more egalitarian societies to be engineered. However, this analysis ignores the reality that the social engineers (politicians) are themselves possessed of the same human nature and therefore would not be motivated to do so, even assuming they are able. Even if human nature were itself to be reengineered, "it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control" (p6), and reflect the interests of those doing the reengineering.
There are weaknesses in Gray's thesis. While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality. The Romans, transported to our times, would accept the superiority of our technology and, if they refused, we would out-compete them economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves. However, they would view our social and moral values as decadent. While scientific and technological progress exists objectively, what constitutes moral and social progress is a matter of opinion. To his credit, Gray does occasionally hint in this direction ("Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats" (p103) is one of his countless quotable aphorisms).
Given his tendency to pontificate about subjects outside his sphere of expertise, Gray also gets it wrong on more specific issues. Particularly curious given his pessimistic outlook is his enthusiasm for 'Gaia theory'. Contrary to Lovelock's disciples, our planet is not a harmonious self-sustaining organism. On the contrary, organisms are in vigorous competition with one another (although their evolution to exploit the presence of other organisms in their environment may give the superficial appearance of cooperation).
Dawkins describes Gaia theory as "a cult" (Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Penguin Press Science)
: p223). It should therefore be viewed, within Gray's framework, as yet another perversion of humanity's religious impulse. (Given his enthusiasm for this cult, perhaps Gray himself is no more immune from the universal religious impulse than those he attacks.)
I generally dislike books written in a pretentious aphoristic style. They typically replace the argumentation necessary to substantiate their claims with bad poetry. This is not the case in Straw Dogs. Perhaps this is because his arguments, though controversial, are straightforward. One suspects the inability of other thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of the will rather than the intellect - an unwillingness to face the reality of the human condition.
Beware that there is no sugar-coating to Gray's analysis. Moral philosophy is "an exercise in make-believe" (p109) and "very largely a branch of fiction" (p109), albeit fiction which reflects the real world less than that of successful novelists. He purports to prefer non-Western philosophical traditions, which, unpolluted by Christianity, supposedly see mankind as merely another animal and, like Schopenhauer (along with Hume, one of the few philosophers he mentions without disparaging), he draws on Eastern philosophical traditions. However, he rejects Buddhism too, arguing that "death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving" (p129).
Refreshingly, Gray does not portray himself as a saviour. He discusses the Buddhist notion that we require a saviour to save us from saviours, but renounces even this role. We do not take our saviours seriously enough to require saving from them. We look to our saviours, not for salvation, but "for distraction" (p121). He thus relegates our self-appointed saviours (from religious leaders to political gurus) to glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.
Going further, he argues that it is towards "distraction", not production, that modern economic life is now geared (p162). In societies living so far above subsistence levels that, even among the underclass, obesity is more widespread health problem than starvation, yet where depression has grown into one of the biggest health problems of all, this view deserves to be taken seriously.
In viewing "distraction" rather than production as at the heart of modern economic life, Gray does not disparage distraction as a diversion from more important concerns. On the contrary, he seems to see distraction, if not much-maligned escapism, as the key to, if not happinesss, then at least to whatever is the closest we are able to come to this elusive state. "Fulfilment is found," he concludes in a passage which is perhaps the closest he comes to self-help, "not in daily life, but in escaping from it" (p141-2)
By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of distraction that Gray's own work ought ultimately to be judged and, with its thoroughly invigorating pessimism, Straw Dogs distracted me immensely!