Atheist philosopher warns against ‘illiberal liberalism’ at universities

Students doing humanities subjects at university are paying tens of thousands of pounds to learn “not freedom of mind, but freedom from thought”, a philosopher has warned.

John Gray was writing for the Unherd website about his concerns that “illiberal liberalism” is pervasive in university culture.

He said students are told disagreement is wrong and that anyone who departs “from the prevailing progressive consensus is not just mistaken but malevolent”.


Gray, who has written books on atheism and religions, made his comments under the title “Why the humanities can’t be saved”.

He said that in previous years humanities subjects helped students stretch their mind in ways that would be useful for working life.

But now “progressive dogmas” are passed down as “self-evident truths” despite them having “zero utility in the world”.


Gray warned that freedom of mind is being lost and quipped: “Losing the ability to think while attending a university may be considered a misfortune. Incurring fifty or sixty thousand pounds of debt in order to do so looks like carelessness.”

He went on to consider the reasons for this and said that the “metamorphosis in liberalism that has occurred over the past generation has played a role”.

Gray said instead of being tolerant, “it has become a persecutory orthodoxy that tolerates no view of the world other than its own”.

Free speech

Following numerous controversies around free speech at universities, in February the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said universities have a legal duty to uphold the principle of free speech.

The Commission stated that everybody has a right to express their views, even if they “offend, shock or disturb” others.

In a 53-page guidance document, the EHRC encouraged university institutions to “widen” debates, rather than narrow them.

No platform

In May, the Oxford Union voted to oppose the ‘no platforming’ of controversial speakers at in-house debates.

Ann Widdecombe, an opponent of no platforming who spoke at the debate, said: “It is always better to destroy a bad cause by argument rather than by silencing its exponents and universities of all places should know that.”

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