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Where are we in history?

Moderator's note: In the wake of Caspar Melville's recent comments and the responses to them, A C Grayling has kindly given us his permission to post this, the first chapter of his recent book To Set Prometheus Free, published by Oberon.

Where are we in history?

Where are we in human history? Are we close to the end of mankind’s story, either because we are in the process of making our world uninhabitable, or because the wars and conflicts that perennially wrack us will escalate to a catastrophe? Or are we at the beginning of history, just starting to have the means – through technology and its promise for education, health, communication, global co-operation – which will help us become wise enough at last to live in peace, so that we can devote our pooled energies and resources wholly to progressive endeavours?

The answer to both questions is Yes – and there is no contradiction in saying so. We might be close to the end of humanity’s history because of environmental damage or because conflict could get out of hand – or more likely both, because each makes the other worse. But if we survive climate change and a rash of nuclear wars, we will find that we are still at an early stage of human development, an immature stage, barely adolescent, only just at the beginning of scientific understanding of the world, still wedded to infantile beliefs and practices that are holding us back and causing or exacerbating the harms that threaten our existence.

The chief of these divisive, regressive obstacles is superstition, not least in its organised form as religion. It is not possible to underestimate the drag on human history that religion represents, standing in the way of progress towards individual liberation, the gathering and application of scientific knowledge, the development of open and pluralistic societies, and the adoption of a humane morality which is tolerant, generous, inclusive and just, and in which it is the fact of being human rather than the ethnicity, gender or sexuality of individuals that determines how they treat each other.

Of course religion is not the only problem confronting mankind – economic and other forms of injustice loom large among those problems too – but it is a very major one, and in recent years it has returned to being more open and active in its resistance to the modern world. We see creationists in America opposing science and science education, Anglicans refusing to countenance gay relationships, Catholics opposing important medical research, ultra-orthodox Jews provocatively building settlements on Palestinian land, Hindus beating Muslims to death, fundamentalist Muslims repressing women, reacting with infantile violence to criticism of its sacred texts and prophets, and in some of its extremer reaches encouraging indiscriminate mass murder through terrorism. This just skims the surface of an utterly unacceptable situation, in which large portions of mankind remain in some degree of thrall to myths dating from an ignorant and illiterate past.

A tide has turned, though, in attitudes about religion on the part of those who do not share its sentiments. Until the end of the twentieth century there was an elephant-in-the-room attitude towards religion. People without religion would by and large maintain a polite silence when confronted with someone who avowed a faith, though it was usually only those among the latter who lacked taste or sufficient social sense who would speak about their religious commitments at what we would than have thought inappropriate moments, such as a dinner party or in a meeting at work. The only public avowals of religion by otherwise normal-seeming people were made by American politicians seeking election; with sometimes comic results. Democratic candidate Howard Dean from New England, prompted by his minders to make friendly noises towards religion for the sake of possible electors in the Bible Belt of his country, got someone to ask him to nominate his favourite book of the New Testament (New Testament, note); he answered, “The Book of Job”. No one minded; he had made a vaguely Biblical noise, and that was enough.

But everything changed on an identifiable date. The atrocity now universally known as “9/11” – the attack by suicidal Islamic fanatics flying hijacked aircraft into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington – changed all that. Suddenly people who had kept a polite silence when confronted with someone whose beliefs are premised on the superstitions of illiterate goatherds living over two thousand years ago, were no longer prepared to stay either silent or polite. The whole history of religion’s oppressions, repressions and oppositions to progress, its promotion of lunatic and murderous certainties, its capacity to justify huge wrong, came shudderingly back into focus. The elephant is crashing about in the room, trampling people to death, and politely ignoring it is no longer an option.

Religion’s critics now speak bluntly of what they really think about it – a bluntness that makes the faithful protest in indignation: but the faithful forget that wherever and whenever they have the upper hand, they do not restrict themselves to blunt speech in opposing those who oppose them, but take blunt action: burning people at the stake, stretching them on the rack, hanging them as they do in today’s Iran, stoning them as they do in today’s Saudi Arabia, cutting off their heads as they do in the Taliban-controlled parts of today’s Afghanistan.

Religion’s apologists protest that this is a one-sided caricature of religion only: they insist that we remember charity, art, plainsong, soaring cathedrals, the comforts provided by faith, the spiritual dimensions of life. These things are deliberately neglected by our critics, say the religionists, who give a deliberately and indeed maliciously skewed portrait of religion as a result.

To which I reply: the kind acts of charity, the making of beautiful art, the giving of comfort, the heightened numinous sense of the universe’s oneness and majesty, are not the monopoly of religious people. There are many non-religious people who are charitable, comforting, makers and enjoyers of art, and deeply moved by the universe. They are not people who think that these things can only be explained in terms of the existence of supernatural agencies, who at the same time, not untypically, threaten eternal torments to non-believers and gays, and who prompt their faithful to kill and die for what goatherds long ago superstitiously believed. No, the positive things that defenders of religion claim for religion are not the monopoly of religion; but killing people for alleged blasphemy and heresy, for going after false gods, for desecrating such fetishes as holy texts or icons or the memory of prophets, for not wearing a beard or eating meat on Fridays or being a woman who dares think or choose for herself – these crimes are committed only with the special sanction of religion; they are marks of the mental pathology that is religious faith.

One major task in reducing the conflict and regressiveness in our world, therefore, is to abate the nuisance of religion. So let me be clear what I mean by this, as follows.

Three separable but naturally connected debates are involved here. There is a metaphysical debate about what the universe contains. There is a debate about the place of religious organisations and movements in society. And there is a debate about the basis and nature of ethics. The first concerns the quarrel between theists and atheists. The second concerns secularism and the degree to which religion should have a footprint in the public square. The third concerns the claim by theists that there can be no morality unless there is an invisible police force in the sky that will give you a bad time after death if you sin, and reward you if you behave as your religion instructs you. Humanism is the family of non-religious alternatives to such an ethics.

In the essays to follow I discuss the first and third – the metaphysical and the ethical – debates. Here a few remarks will suffice on the secularism question.

In any liberal democratic society, people must be free to think and believe what they like, provided they do no harm to others. The problem is, religion too frequently does harm. And one main reason why it is able to do so is because of the inflated place it has in the public sphere. Take Britain as an egregious example: the Anglican version of Christianity is the established religion of part of the state, namely England. Twenty-six bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, there to vote on legislation affecting the whole state, not just England; a number of retired bishops and archbishops are given life peerages to swell their ranks. Public tax money goes to funding faith-based schools, thus ghettoizing children into separate religious communities – an experiment that violently and tragically failed in Northern Ireland, but despite that is being expanded in mainland Britain. The publicly-funded broadcasting service, the BBC, has a dedicated “Religion and Ethics Broadcasting Unit” which puts out several religious programmes every day of the week, every week of the year. And all this take place against this background: that the number of regular weekly attenders at churches, mosques, temples and synagogues totals less than 10% of the country’s population. This is a stark example of the grossly over-amplified voice, the massively over-inflated, publicly-subsidised presence of religion in the public square. And of course the United Kingdom is far from alone in the world in this respect.

The solution? Religious organisations and movements should be seen, and should see themselves, for what they are: self-constituted special-interest groups, civil society organisations of the same stamp as political parties, trades unions, lobbying groups and NGOs. They have every right to exist and to have their say, but no greater right than any other self-constituted civil society group. These other groups are not given public money, tax-exempt status, their own broadcast programmes, seats in Parliament, and tax dollars to run schools to proselytize the young into their particular political, trades union or stamp-collecting way of thinking. The religions have exploited their historical position to gain a vast advantage over other such organisations. They use it to keep their reactionary views tangled around the feet of science, society and progress; in too many parts of the world they use it subjugate women, murder those who do not agree with their beliefs or observe their practices, justify wars, and generally, too often, make themselves a cancer in the body of humanity.

Apart from relegating religious groups to ordinary civil society organisations by removing the various and many privileges that keep a megaphone to their mouths out of all proportion to their merits or numbers, there is the difficult question of whether, if they wish to brainwash their small children into their beliefs, they should be allowed to do so, even at their own expense. Liberal principles and acceptance of the view that parents have a right to determine their children’s faith and education together point in the direction of accepting this. Well: I wonder. Does society have a duty to protect the young from proselytisation? Think of a row of chubby little babies, each with a label around its neck, one label saying “Democrat”, the next “Communist”, the next “Republican” – would we not be outraged at the implication? But so with religion: no-one is born a Muslim, a Hindu or a Christian; a considerable effort has to be applied to making them so. To become committed devotees of the faith that their parents and communities wish them to be, they have to be told many falsehoods, stuffed with many fantasies and absurdities, and rendered incapable of thinking for themselves sufficiently to challenge the falsehoods and fantasies in question.

Indeed the single largest factor that keeps the antique faiths of the world in existence is the proselytisation of the young. While we think as we do about what is acceptable in the way of parents’ rights over children, and what children can therefore be made to believe while they are intellectually defenceless in their earliest years, we need the robust and vociferous counterblast of arguments against religion on all three fronts of metaphysics, secularism and ethics, in the hope of rescuing as many as possible from the prison-house of religious belief, and liberating them into the sunlit uplands of free thinking, open minds, a vigorous sense of personal responsibility for their values and actions, a clear-eyed vision of the world, and an interest in participating in the great adventure of finding out more about it.

So let us return to the question of where we are in history. Palaeoanthropologists hypothesise that when the ancestors of modern humans left Africa, they did so in small numbers making a perilous journey through a bottle-neck: perhaps the isthmus of land through which the Suez Canal now runs, or perhaps the short passage across the Bab el Mandeb at the southernmost point of the Red Sea. Like their distant forebears, today’s human beings are again passing through a perilous bottleneck, trying to navigate the environmental and ideological dangers that threaten to extinguish humankind before it can escape into the broad fertile plains of possibility that lie beyond them.

I see human history thus: for many tens of thousands of years our ancestors struggled with the challenge of survival, in small numbers, with one weapon at their disposal – not claws or sabre-teeth or venomous stings, but intelligence and eventually its great potentiator, language. In those indeterminate epochs, fifty to a hundred thousand years ago and more, our ancestors employed stories about their environment – about the animals, the weather, the rivers, the landscape, very much as Australia’s aboriginals still do – which helped them to relate to it, to encapsulate their understanding of it, and to pass that understanding on to their inheritors. Despite the tools, burial remains and cave art of these ancestors, together with the residual examples of such culture in the present, we can only surmise what their theories of the world were like, but it might be reasonable to assume that they constituted a kind of proto-science, a set of explanations probably couched in anthropomorphic or animist terms. Thus, perhaps, they thought that thunder is caused by a giant being walking on the clouds, that lightning is a spear it threw down to earth; a river flooded because an agency within it was angry; the beings who control the rain can be supplicated for help; and so on. This is not supernaturalism, but a form of naturalism; it explains nature in the most obvious way, by imputing to it the same intentionality and agency as humans themselves possess. But as practical knowledge and understanding of nature increased, these agencies were thought of in more and more remote terms – they were shifted off to mountain tops, into the sun, into the sky, finally beyond space and time itself. They became supernatural, shrouded in mystery, interpreted by specialized priesthoods who thereby exercised control and influence over society, and who were therefore useful to the temporal powers, who encouraged, protected and abetted the priests in their influence. And that is why the religions remain potent forces in the world today, fundamentally because of the unholy alliance they forged with those who saw their usefulness in keeping the majority in line.

The first Enlightenment that we know of in human history occurred in the classical epoch of ancient Greece. In very summary outline, the science and philosophy of classical antiquity was an enlightenment in the same way as the eighteenth century Enlightenment was, for it sought to apply reason, observation and scientific method to the quest for an understanding of the world and human society without reliance on supernaturalistic explanations. The achievements of the classical world, all its deficits acknowledged, are astonishing across the range from literature to engineering, from architecture to government, from quality of life to empire. The irruption into the classical world of the oriental superstition of Christianity interrupted the course of progress for a thousand years – the thousand years between the basilica of Maxentius in Rome and Brunelleschi’s dome for Florence’s cathedral, for until the latter was achieved, no-one knew how to repeat the architectural and engineering feat of the basilica. That is merely a marker of what was lost when religion became the main issue, destroying a civilisation by its schisms, heresies, its divisions, internal weakness, its focus not on the human good in this life but a suppositious utopia in a posthumous existence. Only in Byzantium did the strength of the classical inheritance survive long enough – but by no means completely – under the weight imposed on it by Christianity for some of the lineaments of that civilisation to survive. It took another equally destructive religion to erase it completely.

Let us put a little flesh on the bones of the foregoing claim, by making two points: one about what classical civilisation promised, and one about the submersion of Western mankind in a long dark age because of the hegemony of Christianity (this latter woeful tale is well told, correct in all outline, by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall).

The first point is made by the example of Thales of Miletus, who lived about 600 BCE and who was regarded by Aristotle as the first in the great tradition of philosophy in classical antiquity. He asked himself a question that many must have asked before, namely “what explains the world? What is its origin, what is it made of ultimately? What is its arché, its principle?” It is his answer that makes him the first of the “physicists,” as the early philosophers were known. He did not reach for myths or supernatural explanations, for doing this is not an explanation but merely pushes the mystery back into another and even more obscure mystery (that is what “there is a god who created the world” uselessly does). Instead he observed, and reasoned. He concluded that the ultimate stuff of which the world is made is water. Water is ubiquitous; it is in the sea, the rivers, the veins of men, the sap of trees, and it falls from the sky – which shows that the sky itself is water. Water is necessary to life; nothing survives without it. It alone among the substances known to Thales could take all three forms of solid, liquid and gas: solid when it froze, liquid in its normal state, gas when it boiled away in steam or rose in vapour. And from it, said Thales, comes earth, as the silt of the Nile shows.

Thales was of course wrong, but it is not the answer itself so much as the manner of its formulation which sets him apart, and likewise the whole tradition that came after him – a tradition in which Pythagoras saw that number describes the basis of reality and that the earth is spherical, in which Democritus and Leucippus formulated the atomic hypothesis, in which Xenophanes understood the implications of finding sea shells on mountain tops, in which Anaximander hypothesised the evolution of life forms from the sea, in which Alcmaeon traced the anatomy of the nervous system, in which Anaxagoras described the sun as a burning rock, in which Inopedes correctly calculated the angle at which the earth is inclined relative to the plane of its orbit, in which numbers of others including Archimedes, Hero (inventor of a prototype steam engine), and the physicians who used the electric shocks delivered by torpedo fish to stimulate the hearts of sick patients, showed that the classical world was on the brink of science. The advances in technology of the Roman phase of classical antiquity, most remarkably in engineering, carry the story forward in an applied direction. There is an interesting comparison to be made between the practicality and pragmatism of the Chinese and Romans and the theoretical understanding sought by the Greeks. If a methodology of experimentation had resulted from a marriage between the praxis and gnosis of that epoch, the true scientific revolution of the late Renaissance (the 16th and 17th centuries CE) could well have occurred a millennium and a half earlier.

The second point concerns the dark age introduced by the success of Christianity, this latter in a trajectory from, approximately speaking, the late fourth to the early sixteenth centuries of the Common Era, the darkest centuries being the fifth to the eleventh. Above I used the example of the loss of knowledge that meant nothing like the Basilica of Maxentius (308-12 CE) could be built in Italy until Brunelleschi’s dome for Florence’s Duomo (1419-36 CE), but across the range of literature, philosophy, science, technology, painting, sculpture, the art of living itself, the best that the Dark Ages could produce – it produced some – fails to compare. Petrarch and the other movers of the Renaissance, a term they themselves coined to mean the rebirth of civilisation, themselves also coined the term “the middle ages” to denote the period between their own rediscovery of the ancient world and the ancient world itself. It was a conscious reawakening, and the degree to which it succeeded in opening minds and encouraging independence of thought was what made the 16th and 17th century scientific and philosophical revolutions, and they in turn the 18th century Enlightenment and the modern world, eventually possible. I say all this in the most schematic form here; in two books, What is Good (2002) and Towards the Light (2007) I say more.

Note this fact therefore: it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the common era, with the renewed rise of science and the Enlightenment it prompted, that the course set by the philosophers of antiquity was properly resumed. If we are indeed in an early phase of human history, historians ten thousand years from now might see this period of interruption in the first major chapter of humanity’s progress as a blip, a temporary distraction as humanity tried to shed the cocoon of its earliest superstitions.

As so often, the Greeks themselves understood with a preternatural clarity the nature of the turning point they represented in this story. Aeschylus says much of what the preceding paragraphs have been saying, but in other words: the words of his play Prometheus Bound. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, “a measureless resource for man, and mighty teacher of all arts”; and for making man powerful in this way, and no longer dependent on the gods’ favour – for helping mankind towards its maturity and self-reliance, and thus promising to free it from subjection to religion – Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who bound him to a rock on a high mountain, and set an eagle to gnaw his liver every day, the liver regrowing at night in preparation for the next day’s torture.

The idea of freeing the world from the tyranny of religion can be therefore be symbolized as the task of setting free Prometheus himself. Hence the title of this book. In choosing it I follow Shelley’s version of the myth, expressed in the introduction to his Prometheus Unbound, having it that Prometheus’s liberation represents the overthrow of “mankind’s oppressor,” that is, Zeus. In this Shelley was right as regards the philosophical truth that the myth reaches towards, for there can be no reconciliation, only victory to one side or other, in this titanic struggle – which is not a struggle between gods and men, for there are no gods, but rather between man and the religions he invents out of ignorance, fear, and desire for power, with which to oppress others and his own mind.

Ch 2. Why I do not subscribe to religious beliefs How to prove there are no gods

Ch 3. Why Bertrand Russell was not religious Including why agnosticism is wrong and atheism right

Ch 4. Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism As it says

Ch 5 The War of the Books The current quarrel between religon and anti-religion

Ch 6 the Good Life Humanist ethics



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