“Atheism, Gnosticism and Modern Political Religion” – John GRAY

Seemingly opposed, utopian dreams of a perfect world and faith in gradual improvement have the same source in Christian monotheism. The idea of progress is a mutant version of the Christian belief that human salvation is found in history, while modern revolutionary and liberal movements continue the faith in an end to history that inspired the teaching of Jesus. Partisans of revolution, reform and counter-revolution think they have left religion behind, when all they have done is renew it in shapes they fail to recognize.

While the largest formative influence has been Christianity, modern politics has also been shaped by an older way of thinking. A powerful current in many religions, philosophies and political movements, Gnosticism – mentioned in earlier chapters discussing the origins of Christianity and modern humanism – is the belief that humans can be delivered from a dark world by the saving light of knowledge. There have been many ancient and modern views of the nature of this deliverance. (In one interpretation, the biblical Genesis myth can be read as a criticism of the ancient Gnostic belief in salvation through knowledge.) But the Gnostic impulse remains the same. When the twentieth-century scientist J. D. Bernal looked forward to the human animal ‘etherealizing’ itself to become ‘a ray of light’, he was renewing a Gnostic vision. Ray Kurzweil’s dream of uploading the human mind into cyberspace expresses the same Gnostic faith.

Gnostic ways of thinking are found in many cultures, but modern Gnosticism is a distinctively western phenomenon. A belief in salvation through knowledge is part of the western tradition. Plato believed freedom came with entering a mystical realm beyond the cave. If he was as Plato represented him, Socrates thought goodness and truth were one and the same. But it would never have occurred to them to imagine that this harmony could be realized in the course of history. Christianity was needed to turn Gnosticism into the explosive political force that it became in the modern west.

If you want to understand modern politics, you must set aside the idea that secular and religious movements are opposites. Since they aimed to extinguish the influence of religion in society, Jacobinism and Bolshevism were secularizing forces; but both were channels for the millenarian myths of apocalyptic Christianity. In that it rejected with contempt the egalitarian morality professed (if rarely consistently applied) by Enlightenment thinkers, Nazism was a Counter-Enlightenment movement. But when they tried to create a ‘science of man’ based in physiology, the Nazis continued an Enlightenment project. Liberalism emerged in the seventeenth century as the application of a universal morality inherited from monotheism; but from John Stuart Mill onwards it became a vehicle for the religion of humanity, which aimed to replace monotheism even as it continued monotheistic thinking in another guise. Islamist movements are expressions of religious fundamentalism; but they are also shaped by western ideologies such as Leninism and fascism, which were themselves partly shaped by religion.

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. The idea of a secular realm originated in Jesus teaching his disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. It is Jewish and Christian monotheism – not the European Enlightenment – that is the chief source of the practice of toleration. But monotheism also inspired many of the anti-liberal movements of modern times. A mix of Christian notions of redemption with a Gnostic belief in the salvific power of knowledge has propelled the project of salvation through politics. With the revival of religion in recent times, we may seem to be living in a post-secular era. But since secular thinking was not much more than repressed religion, there never was a secular era.


Modern revolutionary movements are continuations of medieval millenarianism. The myth that the human world can be remade in a cataclysmic upheaval has not died. Only the author of this world-transforming end-time has changed. In olden times, it was God. Now it is ‘humanity’.

In his seminal work The Pursuit of the Millennium, first published in 1957, Norman Cohn summarized the defining features of millenarian movements:

Millenarian sects or movements always picture salvation as

(a) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

(b) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven;

(c) imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

(d) total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

(e) miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies.

With the exception of the last, all these features are replicated in modern revolutionary movements. From the French Jacobins in the late eighteenth century through the Bolsheviks and the followers of Mao and Pol Pot in the twentieth century, these revolutionaries believed humankind was fashioning a new world. In ancient times, Gnostics imagined that individual adepts could free themselves from the prison of matter by ascending to another realm of being. Possessed by an even more fantastical vision, modern Gnostics imagine that another realm can be built on Earth.

Eric Voegelin, a leading twentieth-century scholar of Gnosticism, summarized the Gnostic way of thinking in six ideas. First, Gnostics are dissatisfied with their situation in the world; second, they explain their discontent by asserting that the world is inherently malformed; third, they believe salvation from the current order of things is possible; fourth, they assert that this order will have to be transformed in an historical process; fifth, they believe this transformation can be achieved by human effort; and lastly, this change requires deploying a special kind of knowledge, which the Gnostic adept possesses.

The six features that Voegelin identified can be found in modern types of Gnosticism. But he was mistaken in suggesting that Gnosticism has always featured the belief that the order of being can be changed in an historical process. Throughout most of its history, Gnostics have thought of salvation as an escape from history. Even when Gnosticism was blended with apocalyptic myth (as it was in some sects that were active around the time of Jesus) Gnostics did not believe the world could be improved, only destroyed in a cataclysmic end-time conflict. The belief that the world can be transformed in an historical process is found only in modern Gnosticism and was inherited from Christianity.

A more accurate summation of Gnostic thinking can be found in the works of the German scholar Hans Jonas. Gnosticism posits a radical discontinuity between humankind and God, Jonas writes:

The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness … the transcendent God himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of him requires supranatural revelation and illumination and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms.

Gnostic cosmology is dark and paranoid: ‘The universe … is like a vast prison whose inmost dungeon is the Earth, the scene of man’s life. Around and above it the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells.’ The human soul is ‘benumbed, asleep or intoxicated by the poison of the world: in brief, it is “ignorant”.’ Salvation means leaving the world: ‘The goal of gnostic striving is the release of the “inner man” from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light … Equipped with gnosis, the soul after death travels upwards … reaches the God beyond the world and becomes reunited with the divine substance.’ Complete liberation comes only after death.

The belief that the human world could be remade on a better plan is found nowhere among the ancient Gnostics. Why Voegelin insisted on identifying Gnosticism with this idea is not clear. Perhaps he wanted to believe that the west is innocent of the monstrous political religions of modern times. But Gnosticism is hardly alien to western traditions. Interacting with Christian millenarian myths, Gnosticism created the secular religions that fashioned the modern world.

GRAY, John, Seven Types of Atheism (2018)


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