Creative genius can at times be connected to crisis. Some of the most pathfinding literature and philosophy of the 20th century emerged from disaster. The most insightful work of Achebe, Adorno, Arendt, Benjamin, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn would not exist were it not for the debris of massacres. No one reading this new book about "apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia" can be under any illusion but that this is also a time of crisis. Indeed, one of John Gray's supreme qualities as a thinker is that he is bereft of illusions.
Stripping away the meaningless verbiage which swaddles so much analysis, Gray discerns an underlying structure of thought (or lack of thought) in the political landscape. This is the refuge in fantasies which derive either from apocalyptic religion or from secularist utopianism. Such fantasies, he shows, drive the neo- conservative agenda and are the true origins of the crisis faced today.
At first, this analysis may not appear original. Gray is hardly alone in drawing attention to the influence of the apocalyptic Christian right in America. The most disturbing instance came in October 2003, when under-secretary of defence William Boykin declared that the enemy in the "war on terror" was "a guy called Satan". As Gray notes, instead of this remark heralding the end of Boykin's career, he continues to work at the Pentagon.
Gray's importance, however, lies in tracing the connections of thought rather than in outlining the detail of politics. Black Mass shows the intellectual linkage between today's religious rhetoric and movements as diverse as the Bolsheviks, the Jacobins and the Nazis. His deep insight is that the underlying structure of modern politics derives from Christianity, and that the return of overt religious language to politics is merely the renewal of a latent characteristic.
There is much here to stir controversy. When British politics subsists within the parameters of secularism, the idea that this secularism is derivative of Christianity is highly provocative. Yet the argument is meticulous and persuasive. Gray shows lucidly how the secular utopian projects of both communism and Nazism were vehicles for religious myths.
Both ideologies held that after a great struggle the optimum social organisation would emerge for a chosen people - proletarians for the communists, Aryans for the Nazis. In this process there was a redemptive quality to the violence, which was an essential part of the process of revolution which accompanied the change.
This may seem a long way from Christianity but, as Gray shows, the concepts of an "end time" and of a final struggle leading to harmony are central to early Christian theology. Furthermore, "the very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion". Thus the ideas of the most brutal atheistic regimes of the 20th century derived their imagery from religious thought.
Nor is the influence of religion on political ideals restricted to these extremes. Gray goes much further, arguing that the "evangelism" of democratic liberalism itself derives from Christianity. In this light, the prevalent view amid the pseudo- comfort of the political classes of London and Washington, that …