Books September 2019
A review of Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray.
The British philosopher John Gray has been on the Left, and he has been on the Right. More recently, he has settled into the role of a brilliant, provocative, and contrarian curmudgeon, known for an aphoristic style rare in a discipline where opacity is often confused with erudition.
Naturally then in Seven Types of Atheism, Gray, an atheist, trains his heaviest fire, not on God (a target more filled with holes than poor Saint Sebastian), but on those atheisms that “repel” him, not least new atheism (“contains little that is novel or interesting”). Above all though, Gray is concerned with the atheist thinking and ideologies intended to fill the gap that a banished God has left behind.
And it is a God who haunts this particular feast. The bleak binary of monotheism (“a local cult”) preoccupies Gray and stalks the atheisms he describes, atheisms based on an absence of belief in a “creator-god,” a definition borrowed from classical times (it can also be found elsewhere). But this is an atheism that leaves open a door through which gods, ghosts, goblins, and the rest of the supernatural menagerie can pour, ancestral spirits of more sophisticated theologies to come: the road to Notre-Dame lies, if only circuitously, through the druids’ groves.
That door can never be bolted: superstition’s endurance over the millennia—and the only slightly less ancient compulsion to organize it into a system of belief and of ritual—suggests that this impulse is innate, built in to fulfill a need for structure and meaning. After all, confronted by the abyss, even Nietzsche chickened out. “Religion,” writes Gray, “may involve the creation of illusions. But there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life. The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.” In theory, evolution arguably dispensed with God. In practice, it (almost certainly) invented Him.
The divine may be fantasy, but the order and the sense of meaning it enables are real. The desire to preserve a structure while denying the nature of its foundations is how Gray explains—and convincingly so—the evolution of nominally secular thinking since the Enlightenment: “Contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world”; “Secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.”
Unable to deal honestly with what the lack of a deity could mean for the stability of their psyches and—absent a source of (in Gray’s phrase) “ultimate justice”—their societies, many atheists have, Gray maintains, replaced a belief “in divine providence” with a faith “in the progress of humanity.” This is not a faith that Gray, a philosopher known neither for his optimism nor for his fondness for our species, shares. It owes little, he contends, to reality and a lot to the “Christian myth of history as a redemptive drama.”
This leads, in due course, to Gray’s enjoyably acerbic analysis of how “repressed religion” re-emerged in political form: “If you want to understand modern politics, you must set aside the idea that secular and religious movements are opposites.” He backs up this claim with an examination of the millenarianism of, among other scourges, Bolsheviks, Nazis, and Jacobins (perhaps revealingly, Gray, who leans distinctly Green himself, omits certain strands of environmentalism from this miserable list). Shifting his focus onto a less bloody creed, he regards today’s increasingly assertive “evangelical liberalism” as a religious phenomenon too. The problem has not necessarily been what the Enlightenment knocked down, but what, in some—or even many—cases, it tried to put in its place, including “salvation through politics.”
That millenarianism and totalitarianism go hand and hand is hardly news. Gray cites Bertrand Russell’s conclusion, made shortly after visiting revolutionary Russia, that “Bolshevism . . . is to be reckoned as a religion.” It is no surprise that Gray doffs his cap to Norman Cohn, the author of The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), a masterly mid-century dissection of a plague that will last for as long—probably forever—as people are inspired by the dream of a judgment day that is just about to dawn.
Notwithstanding how compelling Gray may be (very) on the topic of millenarian politics, his critique of “evangelical liberalism” may interest readers even more. Still innovative, albeit an argument that Gray has been making elsewhere for some time, it is, in turn, an extension of Gray’s challenge to some of the more complacent assumptions made about the Enlightenment, an assault on orthodoxy worth reading even, or especially, by those who dissent from all or (as would I) part of it. Gray’s distaste for the philosophes and their kin does, however, occasionally lead him down some curious paths. It was a jolt to see someone with such scant enthusiasm for monotheism arguing that the concept of toleration is more a product of “Jewish and Christian monotheism” than of the Enlightenment. I suspect that it owes little to the latter, less to Christianity, and a lot to historical accident, scientific advance, and growing prosperity. As not infrequently in this book, Gray stretches too far, but in a way that forces those who disagree to think hard about why, which is no bad thing.
Gray does make, whether by chance or highly intelligent design, a convincing case that former monotheists might be better with the God they knew. As the once-splendid example of the Church of England shows, it may be wiser to defang God than to defenestrate Him. The choice between a domesticated deity and the more openly appalling of the political religions conceived to take His place ought to be straightforward for those (other than the sinisterly ambitious) who have hung onto their senses.
Unfortunately, even milder secular liberal ideologies have the capacity to evolve in a poisonous direction. That may owe more (or not, given his satisfactorily misanthropic tendencies) than Gray may credit to human nature—we are not a libertarian bunch—than to the legacy of religious thinking. Nevertheless, it is hard to find fault with the connection Gray draws between Christianity and the liberal conceit (somewhat battered, I would have thought, in an age of multiculturalist dogma) that “moral” values are universal, and the insistence that “only ignorance” prevents their acceptance. This missionary position adopts a specifically secular contortion when combined with the idea that “ethics can be a science,” an even more direct route to illiberal liberalism. What Gray refers to as the “frenzy of righteousness” in universities may be a glimpse of what is to come.
This book attempts a taxonomy of seven (sometimes overlapping) varieties of atheist: those disdained new atheists, adherents of secular humanism (“a sacred relic”), atheists with a “strange faith” in science (or pseudoscience), followers of political religions, God-haters (de Sade!), and the two tribes to which Gray is most drawn. There are those who have made the cleanest break with God and are “happy to live with a godless world,” and there are “mystical atheists,” still beguiled by the search for “meaning” and in whom, I presume, the “God gene” still lurks.
Anyone (such, full disclosure, as myself) who is unbothered about “meaning” in any grand sense of that word, who finds theology a bore, and who believes that the mysteries of the universe are simply destinations and a level of science currently beyond our reach will discover that Seven Types of Atheism is not without its longueurs. This was neither a shock nor a disappointment: such attitudes can present difficulties when reading a book written in a spirit of philosophical inquiry.
But even Gray’s excursions into denser philosophical exposition are more than compensated for by the humor, skill, and originality (for instance, Atlas Shrugged as a “reinvention of Christian apocalyptic myth”) with which he runs through an occasionally bewildering spectrum of beliefs—atheism is nothing if not protean. Gray sums up those atheist sects that have attracted his attention deftly and memorably: “The Epicureans were content in the tranquil retreat of their secluded gardens. ‘Humanity’ could do what it pleased. It was no concern of theirs.”
Atheism’s prophets and preachers are described, when opportunity arises, with brio: Nietzsche was “an implacable enemy of Christianity” but an “incurably Christian thinker. Like the Christians he despised, he regarded the human animal as a species in need of redemption.” Auguste Comte, meanwhile, the developer of a bizarre nineteenth-century religion of humanity, was “in some ways . . . more intelligent than the secular thinkers who followed him. He was also semi-deranged.” Yet, as Gray comments (in the course, a touch unfairly, of his discussion of Ayn Rand), “the maddest ideas are quite often the most influential.” Comte’s cult, maintains Gray, formed the “template for secular humanism.” Russia’s cosmists, meanwhile, were ultramontane materialists who believed that the dead could be brought back to life. They help explain Lenin’s long wait in his tomb and Sputnik storming the heavens.
Lest atheists feel picked upon, Gray offers plenty of reminders that not only unbelievers believe in the absurd. He discusses, for example, the sixteenth-century millenarians of Anabaptist Münster (precursors of both Bolshevism and isis) and the rather more genteel Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a once-fashionable Jesuit intellectual who thought that the “universe was evolving towards an ‘Omega Point’ of maximal consciousness.” Oh.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 1, on page 71
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