Old-fashioned religion is well used to doubt. The Book of Job tells of a struggle with doubt of the most radical kind, while Christians from at least Augustine onwards have accepted that faith may require recurrent dark nights of the soul. In contrast, the secular religions of the past few centuries are notable for their intolerance of doubt. Exorcising it from the mind seems to be their chief function.
Why this is so is not hard to understand. Without a transcendental God, the meaning of human life is a chancy affair. Tragedy may be unredeemed, and many lives will end without making any discernible sense. Modern secular minds cannot endure such a perilous world, and seek redemption in belief in progress – a sometimes faltering but over the long term supposedly irresistible movement towards a better world, which serves as a secular providence. Anxious questions about whether progress is real are unwitting debates about the existence of God.
In line with their incapacity for doubt, few secular thinkers seem to have experienced any deep crisis of faith. Curiously, John Stuart Mill – “the Saint of Rationalism”, as Gladstone called him, and the canonical thinker of liberal humanism — is one that did. During his mental breakdown in early manhood he asked whether, when all the reforms he wanted in society had been achieved, he would himself be happy. “An irrepressible self-consciousness”, he writes in his Autobiography, “distinctly answered ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me; the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.”
But Mill never lost the need for secular faith, and went on to assert that “the Religion of Humanity” – a term he derived from the French Positivist thinker Auguste Comte – was “a better religion than any of those ordinarily called by this title.” In this new creed, ongoing human progress was the ultimate guarantor of meaning in the universe and redemption in history. As Comte declared, “humanity” – a wild abstraction from the multitudinous human species – would be the new Supreme Being. Despite the horrors of the 20th century – which Mill neither anticipated nor could have imagined – this remains the faith of secular believers today.
During the last century many of them lost faith in communism – the “God that failed”. But most went on to embrace some version of liberalism, another secular religion and one less commonly renounced. It might be thought a paradox that liberals – who are fond of thinking of themselves as free-thinkers – should be so adamant in their certainties. Yet avowed ex-liberals are rare. When liberals acknowledge the problems of liberal societies, it is always by asserting that the only solution lies in being more consistently liberal. That liberalism might itself might be at fault is too heretical a thought to be explored.
The coronavirus threatens this religion in a peculiarly disturbing manner. It is not that the outbreak was wholly unexpected. Virologists recognised a global pandemic as a real possibility and the threat was considered by a number of governments, but nothing was done. A pandemic must have seemed too apocalyptic a prospect to be taken really seriously.
Lying behind this was the conviction – central to the modern religion of progress – that the human species advances incrementally, with the gains of the past being embedded and extended in future. There might be nothing strictly inevitable in the process. Periods of regression could and did occur. But overall, the arc of history tended to move in a direction in which the achievements of earlier times were conserved and improved upon. The pandemic shows that the advances of the past cannot be preserved and enlarged in this way. There will be vast losses of income, wealth and opportunity, together will large political upheavals, in countries throughout the world for many years to come.
The current pandemic is not a one-off event that has temporarily disrupted the upward spiral of human progress. Whether as successive waves of the coronavirus or new viruses of sorts we cannot predict, pandemics will be with us for as far ahead as we can see. One way or another, humankind is going to have to live with them for the foreseeable future.
It is right that we should turn to growing scientific knowledge and its technological spin-offs for ways of coping with this and future pandemics. Science is the only area of human life in which progress – the incremental accretion of value – is a demonstrable reality. But science cannot deliver us from the perilous world the coronavirus has revealed, or rehabilitate the modern faith in progress whose hollowness the virus has made plain. The seeds of the pandemic were in the triumph of modern ideals.
Liberal humanists regard personal mobility and an interconnected world as a great advance on the claustrophobic communities they find in earlier times. Whether these older forms of life were so oppressive may be more questionable than is commonly supposed. It is true that sections of humanity are richer and live longer than ever before. It is also true that large numbers have been emancipated from the invasive pressures of a communal way of living.
At the same time many may now be more prone to loneliness, lack of purpose and despair. Is humankind on balance better or worse off? Either way, it was hyper-mobility and an abundance of connectivity – unavoidable features of societies that prize personal autonomy and social openness over other goods – that made human beings so vulnerable to Covid-19. The virus has exposed the essential fragility of a highly globalised world.
The Black Death that raged in Europe from 1348-50 was immensely costly in terms of human life, but it was not a global pandemic. During the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, mass air transportation did not exist and much of humankind lived relatively untouched by world markets. There was elite tourism and large-scale migration from Europe, but travellers moved at the speed of steam ships and railway trains while many people travelled hardly at all. The world was rapidly globalising, but in many ways it was much less mobile and integrated than in the recent pre-Covid past.
The influenza pandemic killed tens of millions of people. Many were weakened by the Great War and its aftermath of unemployment and hunger, economic collapse and social upheaval in much of Europe and in Russia. Today, partly because of globalisation, many are healthier than they were then. Also, medicine is much more highly developed. But because we live in such a mobile, interconnected and densely populated world, the coronavirus could still prove to be even more destructive than the pandemic of a century ago.
Unless it was humanly manufactured – a theory for which there is no conclusive evidence – Covid-19 was not caused by any of the scientific advances of recent times. But it is the highly interconnected planetary society that humanists celebrate that has enabled the pandemic to spread so rapidly and with such devastating effect.
The core belief of secular thinkers is that human beings can reshape the world and make it safe for them. The pandemic shows that this is fantasy. The human world will always be an unsafe space. Old-fashioned religions look for redemption to a power beyond this earthly realm, while thorough-going atheists resign themselves to an unending human struggle without redemption. Secular believers affirm the god-like possibilities of “humanity” – an act of faith more contrary to reason than anything in Christianity or other traditional religions, and particularly irrational in a time when the limits of human dominion have been so starkly revealed.
John Gray is the author of Seven Types of Atheism (Penguin Books), which won the Religion and Theology prize in the 2019 Catholic Herald Books awards