The God of monotheism did not die, it only left the scene for a while in order to reappear as humanity – the human species dressed up as a collective agent, pursuing its self-realization in history. But, like the God of monotheism, humanity is a work of the imagination. The only observable reality is the multitudinous human animal, with its conflicting goals, values and ways of life. As an object of worship, this fractious species has some disadvantages. Old-fashioned monotheism had the merit of admitting that very little can be known of God. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the faithful have allowed that the Deity may have withdrawn from the world. Awaiting some sign of a divine presence, they have encountered only deus absconditus – an absent God.
The end-result of trying to abolish monotheism is much the same. Generations of atheists have lived in expectation of the arrival of a truly human species: the communal workers of Marx, Mill’s autonomous individuals and Nietzsche’s absurd Übermensch, among many others. None of these fantastical creatures has been seen by human eyes. A truly human species remains as elusive as any Deity. Humanity is the deus absconditus of modern atheism.
A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning the prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.
According to the grandiose theories today’s atheists have inherited from Positivism, religion will wither away as science continues its advance. But while science is advancing more quickly than it has ever done, religion is thriving – at times violently. Secular believers say this is a blip – eventually, religion will decline and die away. But their angry bafflement at the re-emergence of traditional faiths shows they do not believe in their theories themselves. For them religion is as inexplicable as original sin. Atheists who demonize religion face a problem of evil as insoluble as that which faces Christianity.
If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites. If you can see what a millenarian theocracy in early sixteenth-century Münster has in common with Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany, you will have a clearer view of the modern scene. If you can see how theologies that affirm the ineffability of God and some types of atheism are not so far apart, you will learn something about the limits of human understanding.
Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism. But there is no need for panic or despair. Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality. A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.
GRAY, John, Seven Types of Atheism. London: Picador, 2019.