Thursday, November 21, 2019

Book Review: Seven Types of Atheism, by John Gray

JOHN GRAY IS AN ENGLISH POLITICAL PHILOSOPHER with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.
            An impressively erudite work, Seven Types of Atheism covers thinkers ranging from St Augustine to Joseph Conrad. The reach of his mind is remarkable, and every chapter is full of fascinating facts and factoids.
1) New atheism – the idea that religion is just bad science – mostly old-fashioned attempts to explain the world without the benefit of scientific method. According to Gray this idea is neither novel nor interesting.
2) Secular humanism – in which a new religion is established, substituting humankind for God – what he calls “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history.” In this category, he includes all kinds of philosophers from John Stuart Mill to Ayn Rand, of all people.
He walks the reader through some of history’s most villainous atheists. For example, he quotes a letter from Ayn Rand in which she describes the “masses” as “millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls” who ought to be “ground under foot.” In this way he illustrates how her secular religion of “Objectivism” is a religion that can poison the true believer. I found this comment fascinating because, as a high school student, I was obsessed with Ms. Rand’s work – I read the fat book Atlas Shrugged, for example, six times.
3) Then there is the category that makes a religion of science. This category includes, he says, “evolutionary humanism, Mesmerism, dialectical materialism and contemporary transhumanism,” includes artificial intelligence. According to many in the scientific community, he says, science will replace the need for religion.
4) Then there are the political religions, “from Jacobism through communism and Nazism to evangelical liberalism.” The idea is that everybody in the world actually wants to be free and independent. However, they don’t know that my group and I have the answers. So they need to be converted.
5) Another group of atheists are what Gray calls “God haters” – those like the Marquis de Sade who simply reject God and all the morality he is said to represent.
6) The sixth group of atheists includes thinkers like George Santayana and Joseph Conrad. They reject a creator God, without substituting humanity for the divine.
 7) Mystical atheism is his last category. It’s essentially negative theology – the idea that nothing can be known about God. Philosophers who reflect these ideas include, for example, Benedict Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch philosopher and Arthur Schopenhauer, who was born later. The people on the planet must submit to necessity. Essentially, the idea of mystical atheism is that “the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will.”
 Gray says he personally is most happy with the last two ideas. “Repelled by the first five categories,” he writes, “I am drawn to the last two, atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnameable God.”
The book is filled with vivid and engaging descriptions of the ideas of philosophers and other thought leaders, and comments on odd details about their lives. It is an entertaining, thought-provoking exploration of the varieties and foibles of various kinds of atheism. In it, Gray provides a refreshing commentary on the degree to which forms of atheism are based on Christian belief. It provides illuminating insight into the history of atheism and the subtle distinctions between approaches to atheism. The book would be equally interesting for theists, atheists, and those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
Ultimately, it is all too easy to point out that many of the problems that are unanswerable for atheists are just as unanswerable for believers. “What these secular believers cannot digest,” writes Gray, “is the fact that gains in ethics and politics regularly come and go – a fact that confounds any story of continuing human advance.”
In the end, though, he embraces atheisms that find mystery in the material world. I’ll drink to that.

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