6 Sep

Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 09/06/04

Professor and writer John Gray publishes book debunking the Enlightenment faith in progress.

Political philosopher John Gray spoke—on Volume 40 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal—about his 1998 book False Dawn, which delivered a soberly realistic assessment of the state of international economics (in novelist John Banville's words). Gray's most recent work, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, debunks the Enlightenment faith in progress that has shaped the modern era. The book is a collection of essays Gray wrote between 1990 and 2003 for the New Statesman. In the collection he explains that faith in progress—the belief that human beings become better with the growth of knowledge—is misdirected faith; human knowledge grows, he writes, but the human animal stays much the same. John Banville's review of Heresies was published on-line in the September 4, 2004, issue of The Guardian.

Some of the concerns of Gray's Heresies are addressed in An illusion with a future, published in the Summer 2004 issue of Dædalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the article, Gray writes that the idea of progress is a recent creed that has developed, and come to be believed in, in the last two centuries. Before its development thinkers never imagined that improvement in any area of life would be sustainable throughout time; while Christianity and its promise of salvation for those who would believe inspired people to hope for improvement in the human condition, after Christianity's advent people still believed that what was gained in one generation would surely be lost in another, explains Gray. Once modern science was established and started to effect dramatic improvements in the material quality of life, people transferred their hopes for a better future from religion to science and faith in progress. This transfer was misguided, however, because faith in progress cannot account for human nature and its hopes as religion can: Like older faiths, progress and the Religion of Humanity are illusions. But whereas the illusions of older faiths embody enduring human realities, the faith in progress depends on suppressing them. It represses the conflicts of human needs and denies the unalterable moral ambiguity of human knowledge. Gray, who is clearly as skeptical about religion as he is about secular progressivism, states that it may be possible to temper the modern faith in progress, but that overcoming it any time soon is not possible.