A Refutation of John Gray’s Rejection of Humanism

Jeff T. Haley, Ed Buckner

In his 2018 book Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray gives his understanding and opinions on seven ways that Western thinkers have fashioned worldviews free of Western monotheism. Gray rejects secular humanism as an attractive worldview, additionally rejecting four other manifestations of atheism. We believe Gray’s rejection of secular humanism is poorly founded and merits debate.

Gray finds, correctly, that there is no unifying concept behind various forms of atheism. Expecting that atheists would have much in common is like expecting that people who do not believe in unicorns would have much in common.

Gray similarly finds it difficult to define religion in a way that includes all forms that people often refer to as religion without excluding other forms that many would also consider religions. We agree that multifarious users of the word religion often intend importantly different meanings. Gray claims that “Religion is natural for the human animal” (129) and that “religion is an attempt to find meaning in events” (3). We agree that this is one useful way to think about religions. Indeed, for purposes of understanding the essence of religion, we think it is useful to consider every worldview a religion. In this sense, though certainly not in other senses, every atheist and every secular humanist has a religion. Gray seems to be using the concept of religion this broadly and analyzes secular humanism as a religion. We agree that a broad concept of “religion” can be useful for analysis. (Analogously, in Sharing Reality, Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan argue that, for legal purposes and public discussion, when any group wants to call itself a religion, no one should dispute it.)

We note, however, that many or most American atheists and secular humanists steadfastly deny that it makes any sense to call their ideas or worldviews “religions.” For example, Clark Adams asserted: “If atheism is a religion, then health is a disease.”* It is also worth noting that in the 1980s in an Alabama case that eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985), Paul Kurtz testified for hours against conservative Christian claims that secular humanism is a religion. The Christians’ intention was to stop the teaching of evolution in the public schools because evolution is supposedly just secular humanist religious dogma.**

Gray compares secular humanism to Christianity and to other forms of atheism. Gray finds several faults with secular humanism, all of them apparently stemming from what he considers secular humanists’ often unconscious belief in human progress, based in turn on the supposedly unquestioned confidence secular humanists have in human beings.

Gray does not dispute that progress, defined against the various values of cultures, can occur—only that it is temporary. He notes: “What these secular believers cannot digest is the fact that gains in ethics and politics regularly come and go—a fact that confounds any story of continuing human advance” (28).

An analysis of the writings of American secular humanists such as Paul Kurtz (1925–2012)—known as the father of modern secular humanism—or Steven Pinker shows that Gray has not grasped what secular humanism is or how it functions. Pinker has characterized Gray as an “avowed progressophobe” (Enlightenment Now, 191). Both Pinker (master of data and evidence) and Kurtz (philosopher and architect of secular humanist ideas) have indeed written with strong optimism and hope for progress and, at least in Pinker’s case, with strong and specific evidence of longstanding progress, very broadly defined. Neither has presented the sort of values-derived-from-the-philosophy-of-secular-humanism that Gray implies is the basis for what he calls a “garbled mix of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy” that sprang from “Christian monotheism” (28). Gray claims, without any good basis, that secular humanism rejected monotheism but not Christianity’s blind belief in progress. Gray ignores entirely the tentativeness and skepticism that inform any secular humanist definition of progress and the values against which secular humanists judge progress.

Any commitment to progress necessarily implies measures of what progress would mean. To those who might assume it is obvious what constitutes progress, try this thought experiment: In “the West” two hundred years ago, it was nearly unthinkable that adult women should be the legal and political equal of men. Now it is nearly unthinkable that they should not be. Any adult who is a part of the modern consensus would of course declare that this is progress. But consider another example: The U.S. Constitution would allow women citizens, if they were unanimous and patient, to amend the Constitution to deprive men of the right to vote or hold office. No one can imagine that happening, because there is such an overwhelming consensus, among all citizens, that it would be unjust and unreasonable, not progress. But consensuses do change.

Gray’s critique turns ultimately on the difficulty of specifying what counts as progress without an external god to declare what values to adopt. But Gray is mistaken to think that, without a god to give us values, the problem of finding good values has no workable solution. As Paul Kurtz noted in “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles,” tentatively held values can be derived not from dogma or from on high but from “normative standards that we discover together.” It is important to note that throughout that document and many other humanist statements, tentativeness and skepticism about everything, including our own values and moral standards, are emphasized.

Gray criticizes secular humanists as being atheists committed to progress, and he describes a variety of thinkers, mostly past, as secular humanists who in one way or another meet his basis for the critique. But he simply describes any atheist of that sort as a “secular humanist” with no regard for who qualifies in the eyes of secular humanists themselves and without a coherent definition of secular humanism. Ayn Rand, whom Gray includes (44–51) but never really explains in what sense she should count as a secular humanist—or why, other than that she fits into his critique in his view—would likely not be accepted as an exemplar by most modern secular humanists, including us.

Gray’s primary criticism is that humanists “have not shaken off a monotheistic way of thinking” (24). We don’t see why this is true or, if true in some sense, why it is an indictment. Secular humanists explicitly reject divine ideas (mono- or polytheistic) as true or useful. Of course, western humanist thinking has developed in societies with many shared values influenced by monotheistic thinking, and that is likely to have affected how we think about things. But it makes no sense to argue that we are inconsistent or muddled if we do not reject all values associated with monotheism.

Gray characterizes secular humanists as having blind faith in progress and adopting fixed values like most Christians claim to do. If we strive for progress in terms of certain values, it is not at all the same as thinking such progress is sure to come about. And if we specify values that we affirm, this does not imply that the values are derived from a dogmatic process. The “common moral decencies” cited by secular humanist philosophers such as Paul Kurtz (Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, 63–96) are not values he or others claim were generated by logical derivation from secular humanism. They are instead values developed by human societies, by a deep social consensus across cultures and eras, that secular humanists declare as worthy of protection and promotion. Kurtz’s analysis of these common moral decencies is too complex and nuanced to sum up easily here, but it is starkly different from the superficial picture Gray presents. A sample:

The common moral decencies are widely shared. They are essential to the survival of any human community. Meaningful coexistence cannot occur if they are consistently flouted. Handed down through countless generations, they are recognized throughout the world by friends and relatives, colleagues and coworkers, the native-born and immigrant, as basic rules of social intercourse. They are the foundation of moral education and are taught in the family and the schools. They express the elementary virtues of courtesy, politeness, and empathy so essential for living together; indeed, they are the very basis of civilized life itself. The common moral decencies are transcultural in their range and have their roots in generic human needs. They no doubt grow out of the long evolutionary struggle for survival and may even have some sociobiological basis, though they may be lacking in some individuals or societies since their emergence depends upon certain preconditions of moral and social development.***

Kurtz’s secular humanist philosophy has consistently been informed by the need to avoid magical thinking, what Kurtz called “the Transcendental Temptation” in his book of the same name (1986), and he always included a need not just to avoid confidence in imaginary gods but also to avoid overconfidence in our own ideas. Skepticism of our own progress and ethics is crucial to secular humanism, as Kurtz makes clear (37):

And we must always leave open the possibility that what we today affirm strongly may in time need to be revised. The history of thought is full of such developments. Knowledge needs to be revised continually; at least we should not foreclose inquiry. Even the most firmly held postulates and theories have at some time been questioned by later investigations; and even the most revered truths of mankind, whether in religion, ethics, politics, philosophy, or science, have often been replaced. Only a fool will refuse to see that he may be in error, or a fanatic, that his first principles and final conclusions are beyond criticism.

Steven Pinker is famous for his optimistic take on human progress and deservedly so. However, Pinker has, in books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature, concluded that:

The forces of modernity—reason, science, humanism, individual rights—have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence. (694)

Perhaps, like Dawkins and Hitchens, Gray was raised in a monotheistic religion and has such an aversion to the experience that he viscerally rejects all philosophical ideas that are embedded in Western monotheism. It seems to us narrow-minded to reject ideas based on the milieu in which those ideas are found. There are good ideas in Western monotheism. We think it is important to reject values that require as their foundation belief in facts that are not supported by the scientific way of knowing, but Western monotheism is full of values that do not depend on facts inconsistent with scientific consensus. These values should not be rejected out of hand.

According to Gray, “the belief that humans are gradually improving is the central article of faith of modern humanism” and this idea comes from monotheism (24). We agree that a commitment to progress is a core value of humanism, but it has shifted in crucial ways away from the inevitable, specific-to-set-values version that Western monotheism includes. The fact that Western monotheism adopted a view that hopes for progress prior to humanists adopting it is not, to us, an indictment.

Gray believes there is no lasting progress in human politics or cultural evolution, that history is cyclical, that civilizations will always rise and fall, and that humans will always have disparate goals and values. We think Gray’s view is factually wrong, and we think the correct facts are well established in Steven Pinker’s books The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018). Pinker shows that, with cultural evolution over long timescales, human violence has declined; he also shows that other aspects of human culture have improved as a result of cultural evolution driven primarily by improved communication. Gray could argue, perhaps, that the trend over thousands of years and across the globe is only temporary—that a nuclear war or precipitous climate change could reverse any such progress. But a reversal of that sort would not disprove the progress seen to this point, which has been so well documented by Pinker. Of course, to see all this as improvement, one must adopt values that favor human life and happiness, as all (or nearly all) humans do. If Gray rejects this value, that is his right, of course. For example, if one places a higher value on the lives of the many species that humans have extinguished than on the lives of humans, then, yes, one could take the view that there has been no progress or that it would be good progress if humans all kill each other.

Gray asserts: “The belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion. If it means only that the power of the Christian churches has declined in many western countries, it is a description of fact. But secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion” (72). That may be true for some people, but there are humanists who arrive at their values independently of Christianity and are not bothered by the fact that many of their values are shared with many religions, including Christianity. In Forbidden Fruit, Kurtz discussed these values (which he called the common moral decencies) at great length and with serious philosophical depth, and he demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these values developed in many cultures, eras, and religions, not just in a single theistic religion.

For a further criticism, Gray characterizes humanists as believing that progress is enhanced by “knowledge gained through science” (26). Gray believes that knowledge gained through science only contributes to material progress and not to political or ethical progress. We agree with Gray’s characterization of this aspect of humanism. Knowledge gained through science is a major contributor to progress for humans, but it contributes more than mere material benefits. Again, we believe that Pinker’s books well support the view that knowledge gained through science promotes political and ethical progress.

It may be that what really motivates Gray’s views is that he is less optimistic than the average human and more inclined to despair. Gray is more a cynic than a skeptic. He may be more realistic than average. We assert that, on average, humans are irrationally optimistic and that this aspect of human nature is a result of evolution. If the average human felt no purpose and no reason to live, humanity might have died out eons ago. Religions have evolved to give people more sense of purpose and reason to live than they can achieve by accurately perceiving reality and applying reason. For those who understand this dilemma of human existence, we think secular humanism is the best available antidote.

Gray shows his pessimism over this dilemma when he quotes from John Stuart Mill with sympathy:

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: “No!” At this my heart sank within me; the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for. (35)

Gray comments that Mill recovered from this despair, but Gray thinks his recovery was illusory, stating that Mill “failed to explain why anyone should want to be moral. He believed any rational person would want to promote collective well-being rather than their own self-interest. But if self-interest and the general welfare are at odds, why opt for self-sacrifice?” (38). Gray offers no answer to this question and believes there is no adequate answer. Humanism asserts that (a) humans have a moral instinct as a result of genetic evolution, and (b) as a result of cultural evolution developing the values of humanism, it is a widely shared value that people should strive to act in the general interest, at least to the extent permitted by narrow self-interest. It is worth repeating that the tentative, skeptical nature of secular humanism is quite compatible with, and aware of, the sort of uncertainty that troubled Mill. The alternative is not to ignore self-interest or a more general welfare but to strive to balance both, even if “ultimately” neither matters.

In his conclusion, Gray writes:

A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning the prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair. (157–158)

Steven Pinker’s clear-headedness contrasts well with Gray’s determined pessimism: “We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing” (Enlightenment Now, 453). Fortunately for us secular humanists, there is strong evidence that we stand at the head of an advancing species, and—even if that turns out, despite the evidence, somehow not to be true—it is the best way to live.


Further Reading

  • Gray, John. Seven Types of Atheism. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018.
  • Kurtz, Paul. “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles.” Free Inquiry, April/May 2019, Vol. 39, No. 3, inside back cover.
  • ———. The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991 (original 1986).
  • ———. “The Common Moral Decencies” in Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988, pp. 63–96.
  • ———. Embracing the Power of Humanism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
  • Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking, 2018.
  • ———. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011.



*https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/523526-if-atheism-is-a-religion-then-health-is-a-disease; accessed April 17, 2019.

**https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/655/939/1423583/; accessed June 11, 2019.

***Paul Kurtz, “Without Religion.” Free Inquiry, Winter 2002–2003, p. 5.

Photo credit: Vera de Kok (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jeff T. Haley

Jeff T. Haley is an inventor, entrepreneur, chemist, clinical researcher, patent lawyer, public interest advocate, and former civil rights lawyer.

Ed Buckner

Ed Buckner served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001–2003, as president of American Atheists 2008–2010, and, as of this writing, is the interim executive director of American Atheists. He and his wife live in Atlanta, their son lives in Decatur, GA. All three are proud life members of the Council.