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on 27 February 2014
This is a book to make you think. It traces many trends in religious and secular thinking that all stem from what the author sees as a harmful myth - the idea that a perfect world can be achieved. He traces this myth back to the Christian idea of the imminent end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Having led to much violence in its religious setting, in modern times it has been transposed into a secular guide through such movements as the French Revolution, Communism and other revolutions, all of which have led to reigns of terror. Apocalyptic thinking is willing to sacrifice any number of lives now for the sake of a perfect future which it 'knows' is coming. Gray sees this in the missionary enthusiasm that assumes that all the problems of the world will be solved when the American style of democracy becomes the norm everywhere. This has led to such things as the disastrous invasion of Iraq. This is a complex book which deserves to be read and re-read. In the end it pleads for realism rather than utopianism - the willingness to do what w can to improve things while recognising that the world will never be perfect.
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on 3 May 2017
Hmm. I was at first intruigued and interested by this book, but became bored with the unrelentingly dark vision it expresses. I wanted to see where the book would go 'beyond' the kind of religion he refers to, into something 'behind' these megalithic social/political forms. In that, I remained a little disappointed.
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on 3 September 2016
John Gray has indeed shed a strong shaft of light into the millennial beliefs of societies and world leaders in ancient and modern times. He has exposed these beliefs for what they are, comforting human constructs, but he has also debunked the idea that if only the right formula or religion is followed humans will change their nature and all will be harmony. Going back to the earliest writings to the present religion has existed and probably always will and Gray bases this as a human need for purpose in life. As with evolution, things will constantly change and stasis will not occur. I shall look forward to reading more.
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on 16 January 2015
Thought-provoking, radical and essential. He may do more to undermine devout faith than Dawkins, and his political perspectives challenge socialists, liberals and conservatives. He is no neo-con, despite having been a Thatcherite. The subtitle is more informative than the misleading but punchy title.
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on 9 March 2017
thought provoking, challenging - a refreshing alternative to the religious mumbo jumbo we are fed every day
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on 28 September 2014
If you don't read, and take on, John Greys thoughts and ideas you are missing the world as it is. No thinker does more to dispel our myths than Grey.
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on 2 September 2010
Frankly how can anyone resist a book with the Sunday Telegraph review of :"A load of bollocks... could hardly be more bonkers if it was crawling with lizards"

Myself, I think the book is mostly spot on; in it basic premise that secular ideas are prone to infection from our cultural history (such as religious ideas)... and I dont think thats really that shocking. Clearly we have to really examine why we think what we think, if we want to avoid falling into culturally biased thoughts (but Im not sure its really possible to avoid entirely... thinking it is mght be a delusion).
I think its helpful to have the 'utopian myth' framed as a cultural effect, especially in regard to liberalism; where many people seem to be unwilling to even examine the fact it might be harmful as a universal aim. While I dont think 'secular religion'is a good way to describe secular movements and political ideology, I do think that there is a risk of dogmatic acceptance as there is in religion. It should be possible to discuss this stuff without causing offence.

However, I did find myself a little irritated by the Enlightenment bashing; although to be fair he does admit that there may be no such thing as 'the Enlightenment project'and that it 'was a heterogenous and often contridictory movement' (p59)... which I guess covers him from tarring every form of it with the same brush.
But, then he goes and does the same thing with atheism (and as he mentions Dawkins and Dennett, we have to assume he is using the term to mean 'no belief in God'or 'theory that there is no God' rather than 'believes there is not a God').
I do have a certain amount of sympathy with his view that if our worldview puts humanity on a pedestal above other animals that this is speciesism, probably influenced by religion (or in a more round about way through the cultural impact of religious thinkers such as Decartes). Im also in agreement that there is no reason to think science/humanity is capable of solving all problems.
I also think seem 'certain' forms of humanism to be bordering on specieism and the elevating humanity to the vacant position left by God. That said, I think as humanity is all we have, some effort to make things better is not ridiculous (because better doesnt have to mean perfect or fixed). Gray seems not to see the middle ground between utopian perfect and ideas that target specific issues but have no grander vision (e.g systems to mop up oil spills, heart transplants etc).

Perplexingly he seems to attempt to conflate atheism with humanism (when it seems clear that they are very different concepts- atheism is only a position on god- humanism is about much more than that).
He then goes on to argue for the meaning giving benefits of religion, he say we cannot do without myths that give meaning... well Im not too convinced about that as I dont seem to be ceasing to exist by not having any myths in everything turning out fine (secular or religious). l would argue that meaning is possibly the crux of the matter and it does not necessarily require myths, it can come from reality as much as myth. As Bentham pointed out utilitarians can value pushpin as much as philosphy; and Gray even acknowledges this in his comment about hedonists and poets.

It is good that he acknowledges that Realism has a similar problem with infection with the utopian myth as anything else.

The criticisms aside, the book is very easy to read, it flows well and makes many many good points.
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on 14 September 2013
I seem to recall that I was perceived to be a little uncharitable towards Heresies, so I will make up for that by expressing my pleasure in this book. I will thus ignore any doubts I might have over Gray's grasp of history, or the accuracy of his predictions - the book is a few years old now; for, his central thesis, that Liberalism is a form of secular Christianism with its proponents setting sail for Utopia (and dare I add without Forgiveness - one of Christianity's better aspects) is not merely pleasing to me but seemingly correct.

I recommend this book.
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on 18 January 2010
In Black Mass, John Gray's thesis is that modern political utopian ideas and projects have their roots in religion. However, he takes the view that utopian projects have failed in their attempts to improve the world. By way of an example Gray cites Communism and Nazism as being said to be based on science but according to him this is a fraudulent claim. Instead Gray argues that both Communism and Nazism were framed in secular terms which, however, was a vehicle for religious myths. Of course we cannot dispute the fact that ultimately both Communism and Nazism failed.

Utopian ideas and projects are apocalyptic in nature. That is such ideas are based on a particular way of life coming to an end with a new utopian world order coming into being. Gray then makes matters complex by pointing out that utopian thinkers see history as having an end purpose. He then traces the idea of history with an end purpose back to Christianity with its ideas that informed eschatology and millenarianism - some concepts that Gray fully explains. Those Gray hold responsible for this way of thinking are leaders and intellectuals such as Jesus, St.Paul and Augustine. His punch line in this scenario is that these ideas influenced the Enlightenment. He appears to have an axe to grind with the Enlightenment movement so he is keen to point out that it was not totally secular. The connection with modern contemporary politics and life of course is that the Enlightenment had and still has a huge influence on us.

Gray has set himself an ambitious task in this book. He defines utopian projects as: "A project is utopian if there are no circumstances under which it can be realised." By that definition, ironically, it could be said that Gray's task in this book is utopian. Early in the book, one could see that what he sets out to do was unachievable. For example, in chapter 3, Utopian Enters the Main Stream, one is left with the impression that Gray has stretched his argument too far by arguing that the Thatcher era was one tainted with the hallmarks of utopianism. Indeed, the chapter loses the logic of an argument with most of it being a rehash of the Thatcher period.

Also, in other places Gray's arguments are threadbare and unconvincing. One instance is where he tries to argue that George W Bush might have had utopian ideals. However, Bush's utopian ideals are not shown by arguing that his use of religious language and fervent religious beliefs makes him a utopian. Take another example, that is, Gray's analysis of the neo-conservatives. What I find fascinating here is not so much the making of a case for utopian ideals but rather Gray's analysis of the neo-conservatives mindset in respect of their methodology in gathering and using intelligence. Here Gray appears to have given up on his thesis.

In the end, the book reads more like a history of economic and political thought and not so much a critique of utopianism. I was not necessarily disappointed with this outcome as Gray gave me a concise reminder of the views of some great thinkers of the past. To name a few, he revives Auguste Comte, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, J M Keynes and F A Hayek.

What we ultimately get through Gray's broad knowledge is a very good analysis of movements such as the Enlightenment and Romanticism. To put it another way for me there were some very good eye openers in terms of how the Enlightenment influenced totalitarian regimes, and the folly of many of the ideas pursued by politicians.
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on 22 November 2007
This disturbing book needs to be read with Straw Dogs which is a more accessible (but no less unsettling) exposition of Gray's thinking. Like Nietzche and Freud, Gray is a master of suspicion. Our ideologies, faiths (whether in gods or progress) are illusions masking our animal nature. We (humans) are not in control of our destinies or even the technologies we make as part of our species-being. So, great historical projects such as scientific socialism, liberalism, modernism etc ad nauseum are no better nor more likely to succeed than catholicism, lutheranism or Islam. These delusions tend to end in slaughter and poverty. For Gray, humans don't progress as a species, we just get better at science and technology. If more people accepted this quite simple conclusion from Darwinism we might see fewer mad projects like nazism and globalism and we might all get along better. But that's just not what we are like - we love a big myth and we love a good fight.
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