The Washington Post, November 16, 2018
‘If you want to understand atheism and religion,” writes John Gray in his new book, “Seven Types of Atheism,” “you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites.” The book, just like the rest of Gray’s work, is replete with juicy paradoxes of this sort. A master contrarian in the tradition of philosophers Lev Shestov and Emil Cioran, Gray uses paradox not just for rhetorical effect but to a philosophical end. A major unmasking defines his approach: If one is to be an honest thinker and advance knowledge, one must expose and dismantle the web of popular ideas, convenient labels and lazy thinking that makes up the philosophical orthodoxy.
Following this method, Gray shows convincingly how, for example, Voltaire — the Enlightenment’s atheist philosopher par excellence, as he’s usually characterized — “seems never to have been an atheist.” Much as he hated Christianity, Voltaire still needed the idea of God to make sense of the world; the Jesuits, with whom he studied, taught him something after all. Nietzsche — the anti-Christ of the modern era, as countless textbooks have portrayed him — is exposed in Gray’s telling as an undercover Christian. An “implacable enemy of Christianity,” Nietzsche was also “an incurably Christian thinker,” Gray writes. “Like the Christians he despised, he regarded the human animal as a species in need of redemption.”
In a similar provocative manner, Gray claims that, since there is no such thing as secularism (“secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion”), there “never was a secular era.” And with this we are at the heart of “Seven Types of Atheism.” Atheism, Gray argues, is rarely to be found in a pure state. Philosophically, it’s a position difficult to articulate independently of religion. A negative term, atheism needs theistic ideas to give it life: It feeds off them and loiters around them and depends on them, as poor relatives often tend to do.
This is because religion, born out of our fundamental need for meaning, is irreplaceable, according to Gray. A completely meaningless, chaotic world would be too much to bear, even for atheists; they cockily deny religion only to end up with “surrogates of the God they have cast aside,” as Gray puts it. Even at its most sophisticated, atheism is bound not to stray too much from its more fortunate relation, with the result that “some of the most radical forms of atheism” are indistinguishable from “some mystical varieties of religion.” Gray accepts that this is unavoidable and understandable, given the need for meaning that religion satisfies. What troubles him is how un-self-reflective and self-deceptive some atheists are.
The seven types of atheism in the book’s title refer to the ways modern atheism relates to religion. The first type, represented by “the new atheists,” is also the least interesting. They tend to treat religion as a mere system of beliefs, and implicitly as “a primitive sort of science,” and find it wanting on that account. This is no surprise because religion has never meant to replace science. The second type is “secular humanism,” manifest in thinkers as diverse as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. For all its vocal profession of unbelief, Gray finds this type to be nothing but “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history.” A third category of atheism makes a religion out of science through a variety of intellectual fashions such as evolutionary humanism, mesmerism, dialectical materialism and transhumanism. The fourth is of a bloodier kind: Turning politics into a form of religion (under such guises as Jacobinism, Nazism, communism and evangelical liberalism), it has over the past couple of centuries left millions of victims across the globe. The fifth category, quite a spectacular one, is that of the God-haters such as the Marquis de Sade and Ivan Karamazov.
Gray is “repelled” by these five types of atheism. Not because he is a believer. He is not — or, if he is, his religiosity is of a different kind. Judging the first five forms of atheism philosophically muddled and intellectually dishonest, he finds himself attracted to two other types: Atheisms that are “happy to live with a godless world or an unnameable God.” One is rather disenchanted and misanthropic (“atheism without progress,” Gray calls it) and is embodied in such figures as George Santayana and Joseph Conrad. The other is a form of atheism that, while remote from conventional religion, could be seen as a form of mysticism.
Gray has emerged as a unique thinker precisely because he has no time for the pious lies and empty niceties of the academic establishment. He seems to have a sixth sense that helps him detect whatever is shallow, self-flattering and self-deceptive in our notions of ourselves. He is erudite, witty and persuasive. A lover of paradox, Gray is himself paradoxical: at once passionate and detached, bold and skeptical, visionary and humble. Indeed, a sense of cosmic humility permeates his thinking. There is nothing special about us in this world, he conveys, and that’s an important part of our humanity. Yet that’s no reason for panic or despair. The final line of Gray’s book is strangely comforting: “A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”