The other week I watched the 2006 science fiction film Sunshine, a box office flop that got moderately positive reviews from critics, with some considering it a masterpiece. It tells of a small crew on a desperate mission to reignite a dying sun and save humanity. There is much to admire about the film’s visual design, acting, and storytelling elements. Like many critics, I did grow increasingly unenthused with the horror-suspense sequence the story morphed into in the last act, but nevertheless my overall experience was positive.
The shift in tone at the climax is effected when an antagonist crashes into the scene, the disfigured and crazed Captain Pinbacker. After deliberately sabotaging his own mission, he was abandoned to himself on Mercury for years. Now he wanders around the protagonists’ ship, murdering its crew, and explains his motives along these lines: the sun, the source of all human existence, is dying. While alone in the cold insensibility of space, he had a religious experience and realized that human existence is so insubstantial, it ought not to interfere with what God wills–it must allow the sun, and humanity, to die, and so find Heaven. Conceptually interesting, the character is little more than a ranting monster on screen. That said, the character plays a role invested with deep thematic significance, for he is intended as a pointed allegory for religious fundamentalism.
The Silence of Animals is a recent book by iconoclast writer John Gray. Gray gives the impression of an ancient pagan philosopher, at odds with his time. His influence as a popular thinker can be attributed not only to his literary style, but his willingness to attack cherished popular beliefs and espouse a radical rethinking of basic assumptions.
Gray is an atheist, but decidedly an outsider. Contemporary atheist culture tends toward secular humanism and rationalism, philosophies Gray despises as vacuous and challenges in this book. Not the stereotypical modern atheist, Gray is a genuine philosophical skeptic. His worldview is an eclectic composite of the archaic and the novel.
To his mind, the important question is not whether one believes in God, but whether one believes in humanity. An atheist who answers the latter question affirmatively is still a “believer.” Such an atheist is also, methinks, the principal target of his book. Gray tries to persuade his readers to give up the last vestiges of religious thought and embrace a more thoroughgoing, liberated godlessness.
Why, then, should I find this book worth reading? If I do not accept his premise that theism is an impossible intellectual position (and I don’t), the rest of his argument—the whole antihuman tirade—is not especially convincing or apposite. Nevertheless, Gray strikes me as a potentially important original voice. His is a well-read, blunt, oddly appealing nihilism. Though his attacks are not directed chiefly at religion in The Silence of Animals, the alternative to religious thought Gray espouses here may prove far more dangerous to Christianity than any of the popular rationalisms that currently afflict our culture.