Imagining the Future   /   Spring 2008   /    Reviews

John Gray’s Black Mass

Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

This is a rich and wide-ranging book, with several levels to its argument. The book’s most immediate, political target is the Iraq policy of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, which Gray criticizes as a species of utopianism. In the middle range, its target is utopianism in general, which, following Isaiah Berlin, Gray defines as “the pursuit of a condition of harmony” (17). Utopias are, Gray tells us, “dreams of collective deliverance that in waking life are found to be nightmares” (17). At the deepest level, the book’s target is millenarian Christianity, which bequeathed to the West the notion that humanity is redeemable and that history is a story of this redemption. Gray finds in this the wellspring of all utopias, religious and secular, and thus the ultimate source of history’s worst episodes of violence and oppression. This includes communism and, on Gray’s reading, fascism. But it also includes “imperial liberalism,” the drive to spread democracy and human rights around the globe, by force if necessary. “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion…. The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium,” Gray writes on the opening page, “is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths”

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