Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray review – is every atheist an inverted believer?

An an impressively erudite work, ranging from St Augustine to Joseph Conrad, embraces an atheism that finds enough mystery in the material world

There has been a rash of books in recent years by thinkers for whom the human race is getting nicer and nicer. Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and Sam Harris are rational humanists who believe in progress, however many famines and genocides may disfigure the planet. We are en route to a vastly improved future. Perhaps this return to the values of the western Enlightenment is not unrelated to the threat of radical Islam. The philosopher John Gray’s role has been to act as a Jeremiah among these Pollyannas, insisting that we are every bit as nasty as we ever were. If there is anything he detests, it is schemes of visionary transformation. He is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has ...

Terry Eagleton: a lit crit of the party manifestos

‘For the Posh and Powerful, Not For Riff-Raff Like You’ … the critic deconstructs the party promises The title of the Conservative party manifesto is “Forward, Together”, presumably because “Backward, Apart” isn’t much of a vote catcher. The prime minister’s mind-numbing mantra, “strong and stable government” (anyone for the weak and turbulent kind?) crops up twice in consecutive lines on the first page, suggesting that the authors have a rather dim-witted audience in mind. Less blandly, Labour calls its manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few”, cunningly calculating that this might have a wider appeal than “For the Posh and Powerful, Not For Riff-Raff Like You”. Writing these things can’t be easy. You need to talk about the British Coal superannuation scheme surplus while still managing to sound a high moral tone. Party manifestos are part sermon, part technical guide. They must be morally uplifting but down to earth, ...

Be Like a Fox by Erica Benner review – was Machiavelli really not Machiavellian?

The Prince was meant ironically, and its author was really a nice guy, argues this compulsively readable studyOne has grown used to reading the kind of revisionist history in which the Renaissance was a myth, the Reformation never happened and the great Irish famine was a spot of food shortage. Britain blundered into ruling India by a series of unfortunate oversights, and Attila the Hun was by no means as bad as he has been painted. Related: Have we got Machiavelli all wrong? Continue reading...

The New Politics of Class review – has the working class been left behind?

Class divisions are as real as ever – it’s the politicians who have changed their priorities, as this illuminating book shows If you open a history of Britain at random, it will tell you two things about the period you chance on: that it was a time of rapid change, and that the middle classes went on rising. Rising is what God put the middle classes on Earth to do. In fact, according to this illuminating study, they have now risen to the point where they outnumber the working class. Whether this is true depends of course on how you define these categories. One might also wonder how much size matters. Marx thought that the proletariat would overthrow capitalism, but he did not think that this was because it formed a majority of the population. In fact, he was well aware that factory workers did not even constitute the majority ...

The Name of God Is Mercy by Pope Francis; Francis by Jimmy Burns review – the world’s most powerful voice against neoliberalism?

The popular and charismatic pope has proved to be passionate about social justice, but the story of his rise to power is not straightforward

A competent tango dancer and lifelong football fan who was “a little devil” at school, Pope Francis is not one’s conventional idea of a supreme pontiff. One of the several contradictions about him is that he is a Jesuit who behaves like a Franciscan. The Jesuits, despite their ascetic cult of military-style discipline, are for the most part a suave, worldly wise bunch – diplomats, administrators and intellectuals whose society was founded to defend Catholic orthodoxy against reformist zeal. They would be unlikely to find God in a sparrow, manual labour or the simple life, as a Franciscan would.

Despite being brought up within this spiritual aristocracy, Francis behaves like a plebeian, discarding the red shoes and decorative shoulder cape of his predecessors and shunning the ...

The Dark Side of the Soul review – an insider’s guide to sin, by a priest

How did wickedness become so alluring? The Anglican author suggests that vice is not to be prohibited, but is ‘something with which we need to develop a constructive relationship’ Some people think sex is sinful, while others think sin is sexy. The glamour of evil is the reason half the postgraduate English students in the world seem to be working on vampires and the gothic. Traditionally, however, it is virtue that is beguiling and vice that is boring. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the good life is about living as exuberantly as you can, whereas wickedness is a lack or defect. The wicked are those who have never quite got the hang of being human. They are botched imitations of real human beings, flashy but depthless. Then there are the genuinely evil, who destroy others not for some practical purpose but just for the obscene delight of it. The immoral are ...

And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens review – fearless, self-admiring, effortlessly eloquent

How the incomparable polemicist moved from being a practising Trotskyist (though he never practised enough to get good at it) to cosying up to the Washington neoconsChristopher Hitchens was the ultimate champagne socialist, though as his career progressed the champagne gradually took over from the socialism. Known in his student days as Hypocritchens for his habit of marching for the poor and dining with the rich, he was a public school renegade in a long English tradition of well-bred bohemians and upper-class dissenters. Had he been born a little earlier, he might well have been a raffish spy propping up the bar of a Pall Mall club. Like a querulous infant, he wanted everything and he wanted enormous helpings of it. He moved with aplomb from squatting in Afghan caves to holding forth about Saul Bellow at New York dinner parties, and endured a number of forms of torture, from ...

Neil Middleton obituary

Bold and imaginative publisher at Sheed and Ward, Penguin and Pluto Press who played a key role in the renewal of the Roman Catholic church in BritainAs managing editor of the publishers Sheed and Ward, Neil Middleton, who has died aged 83, played a key role in the renewal of the Roman Catholic church in Britain during the period of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. More or less single-handedly he imported some of the most enlightened mainland European theology of the time, notably by Hans Küng and Karl Rahner, as well as publishing works by the leftwing Dominican Herbert McCabe, his close friend. The reforming spirit of the council was evident on a number of levels: more democracy in the church and a greater openness to the world beyond it, a more enlightened sexual morality, moves towards unity between the Christian churches, a renewal of ...

Elizabeth II by Douglas Hurd review – bootlicking obsequiousness

The Queen is revealed by the former home secretary to be without moral defect, possessed of penetrating insight and only an accidental tax dodger

Slight, dry and dismally unoriginal though it is, Douglas Hurd’s oleaginous portrait of the Queen contains one stunning revelation. Uniquely among humankind, it would seem that she is afflicted by not a single moral defect. No suggestion that she falls short of the archangel Gabriel in perfection is allowed to pollute these pages. Her notorious rudeness and intell ectual nullity? Not a whisper. The swollen coffers of this former tax dodger, some of whose subjects can scarcely feed their children? No comment. Her renowned ability to freeze a dandelion at 100 paces? All a misunderstanding. Hurd even manages to whitewash her curmudgeonly consort, a man who has “unintentionally [sic] acquired a reputation for tactless, even brutal remarks”, though he wisely draws the line at putting in ...

More Human by Steve Hilton review – freemarketeering is now called putting people first

Earnest cliches and high-minded pieties from David Cameron’s former adviser – his conservatism fails to address the real problems and forces him into idle fantasy

Every now and then, the system we live under is seized by a spasm of self-doubt. Appalled by the brutalities to which it has given birth, it comes up with a new vision: compassionate capitalism, small is beautiful, the big society, citizen stake-holding, all-in-it-togetherness and so on. When things get really serious, wackier solutions may be on offer: mindfulness, Scientology, off-the-peg Theosophy, packaged Kabbalah, ready-to-serve transcendentalism and outbreaks of touchy-feelyism, most of them fashionable in the California to which Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former adviser, has now decamped. It isn’t surprising that a former resident of the state, Steve Jobs, was a monster when it came to business and a sucker when it came to the life of the spirit. The flipside of the hard-nosed operator is the gullible dreamer.

In ...