John Gray Separates the Atheist Wheat from the Chaff

The potent thesis of John Gray’s short and eloquent new volume is: “If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites.”

Author of some 20 books, Gray is a public intellectual unafraid to enter the fray and here does so against many of the most cherished beliefs of secularists, leftists, and bien pensant establishment. This makes the book surprising because Gray is himself an atheist, but he is more vexed by bad atheistic thinking than by religious belief and practice.  

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d judge the lucidity of the writing to be a 10. Seven Types of Atheism is packed full of sentences like these about Arthur Schopenhauer: “Nor was his selfishness altogether unappealing. For anyone weary of self-admiring world-improvers, there is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness.” Besides a stray intellectual slip up here and there—oddly, the big one is about Eric Voegelin, whom the author admires—this is a consistently good read, brisk and conceptual at the same time.  

As well as discussing the ideas of atheism, Gray also offers a good deal of history. Sometimes the personalities and biography of the atheists in question become part of the argument against the ideas—an ad hominem gesture I imagine Gray forbids in his classroom—but the history does have a point. It is to show the intolerance of atheism and, during the times in which it has held power, its murderous fury. Amongst many examples, Gray captures the peculiar frenzy of atheism: “In 1919, all of Moscow’s Boy Scouts were shot and in 1920 all members of the law tennis club put to death.”

This book should put to rest the canard that atheism is free thinking, and oh so much more broad-minded and gentle than what is on offer from the dull and cramped-spirited God-fearing types. Gray thinks theism ill-conceived, but he does not think it has anything like the distasteful character of most atheism.

Gray reserves special scorn for those he terms“the Enlightenment Evangelists,” a camp that stands for the proposition that human nature freed from religious belief gives us benevolent liberalism. One of his seven types of atheism, Enlightenment Evangelism is represented by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Typical of this position is the oft-repeated claim that but for the obscurantism of religion, reason would prevail and a sort of John Lennonesque humanistic utopia, knowing neither gods nor borders, would prevail. 

Like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gray considers motiveless cruelty a formative human impulse. Hence he sees the Enlightenment Evangelists as far too quick to whitewash their collective memory and ignore how the scientific revolution was put into the service of the slave trade. Throughout the book, Gray minces few words: “Modern racist ideology is an Enlightenment project.” Members of the academy and the literati will blanch reading: “It is Jewish and Christian monotheism—not the European Enlightenment—that is the chief source of the practice of toleration.”      

A long-serving professor of political thought at Oxford, Gray knows whereof he speaks. (He has also taught at Harvard, Yale, and the London School of Economics.) He is an expert on the history of Western thought, and of the seven types of atheism he identifies—each has its own chapter in the book—he seems more or less to subscribe to Schopenhauer’s version.

First he covers that darling of publishing houses in recent years, the New Atheism, contending that it is neither new nor interesting, and certainly not a subtle version of atheism. Dating back well into the 19th century, the so-called New Atheism is crippled by the fact that it mistakes its target. The New Atheists assume that the struggle with religion is a quarrel over beliefs, but really “the idea that religion is a matter of belief is parochial.”

Gray notes, for example, that in Judaism worshipping foreign gods is a matter of disloyalty, not a matter of mistaken belief. Though an act of loyalty seems to entail belief of some sort, Gray’s point is that the Old Testament command to steer clear of strange gods does not compel much in the way of positive belief. To this day, Jews can be fiercely proud of their identity yet run the gamut on the variety of beliefs they hold dear. In a cutting line, he concludes that the New Atheists are “mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.” 

Cheekily, he also observes that though the atheistic professoriate sniffs at pop philosopher Ayn Rand, likely no one has done more to disseminate the basic claims of atheism than she. Rand’s scientism, rationalism, and libertinism are stock-in-trade for most college teachers.        

The reason Gray recommends Schopenhauer’s atheism is that it denies that history has any direction or inner meaning. This is the only position that conforms to empiricism, he argues, and he is especially critical of the tendency of atheists down the years to embrace elaborate pseudo-scientific theories. Atheists have carried water for scientific ethics, scientific materialism, phrenology, and bastardizations of Charles Darwin, to name some. Gray chides atheists for making a fetish of science, and for failing to grasp that science is no challenge to religion, as the latter meets the need for meaning, much like art or poetry. As Darwinism is wont to remind us, we are programmed for survival, not truth; and religion does help with the former, thinks Gray.

In some good pages on transhumanism (Chapter 4), Gray observes that Gnosticism is alive and well in our politics. Our tech overlords are committed to salvation through human knowledge. On account of Gnosticism’s soteriological ambition, modern politics is misrecognized if viewed as a clash between secular and religious movements. Hence the book’s opening line: “Contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world.”

For all his lightly worn sophistication, Gray mangles Voegelin horribly. He’s puzzled that Voegelin thinks modernity’s unabated killing spree stems from Gnosticism, for Gray insists that “the belief that the human world could be remade on a better plan is found nowhere among the ancient Gnostics.” Voegelin’s famous thesis is that the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore took Gnosticism’s valorization of reason, combined it with the Christian idea of providence and the Christian social form of the monk, and therewith bequeathed to the West the idea of a cadre of benevolent experts managing the world for its betterment. Voegelin sees modernity as a continuation of the Middle Ages, not the ancient world—and who can doubt the benevolent zeal of the modern academy and the vast missionary movement of idealist experts of the American and European non-profit sector?   

Gray is a follower of Heraclitus, convinced that empiricism reveals only vitalism: “All that can actually be observed is the multifarious human animal, with its intractable enmities and divisions.” Heraclitus begins Western metaphysics, but so does Parmenides, who concluded that empiricism revealed fixity, stability, wholeness, love, and the operation of mind. The data point of Parmenides is not taken seriously by Gray: “The idea that the human species is a collective agent, setting itself ‘big projects’ and pursuing them throughout history, is a humanist myth inherited from monotheism.” Yet evidence abounds that world civilizations do have things in common: mores, laws, games, dance, poetry, adornment, family, reverence. Despite the variety in these—though the human interest in chasing a ball around a field or court seems truly universal—all civilizations aim at a harmony between vitalism and mind.

In particular, the world’s religions try to think through the complex interaction of the two, and so the metaphysics of Gray’s own atheism appears lacking. Not, mind you, just as a matter of taste, but as bad philosophy. He’s right to reject contemporary Gnosticism, but not right to ignore the insight of Parmenides.

What is good about this quirky book is not its ending, but the very many good arguments throughout against the atheistic canon.