By John Gray.
Reviewed by Dr. Safaruk Z. Chowdhury,
John Gray is one of the eminent British philosophers and public intellectuals writing today. His academic interests have been in politics, cultural studies and analytic philosophy. A keen historian of ideas, Gray’s numerous works have been praised for being innovative, challenging and prophetic. Born to a working-class family in the coastal town of South Shields, County Durham, Gray studied at a South Shields Grammar-Technical School for boys and then went on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford, gaining his B.A., M.Phil and D.Phil. He formerly held posts at Exeter University, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and London School of Economics (LSE). He retired from professional academic life in 2008.
Gray, to those who know his works, is quite the contrarian intellectual and has never shied away from making bold assertions and even bolder analysis. Writing in highly lucid, descriptive and imaginatively constructed turns of phrases, he is never short of elegance, wit and informative fervour. The current book under review also does not fail to deliver on all these counts.
Before analysing Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, in a little detail, I’ll give a short overview of it for the benefit of having a synopsis. The book consists of an introduction, followed by seven chapters and a conclusion. In the introduction, Gray situates the aim behind his book which is to open up the reader to an anti-essentialist idea of atheism, one “that can have multiple meanings” (p.2). He wants to wrestle the reader from embracing a contemporary atheism that is militant, belligerent and a “closed system of thought” (p.2). He wants to avoid those atheists he sees as “looking for surrogates of the God they have cast aside” (p.1). His provisional definition of atheism and one that he pretty much sticks to throughout is “anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world” (p.2) – a definition he stipulates to principally attack the Omnicompetent Creator-God of monotheism. Gray, being an atheist himself, wastes no time in making his position clear: he is “repelled” by five of the seven varieties of atheism he will survey in his book and favours “atheisms that are happy to live in a godless world or an unnameable God” (p.7). I’ll now summarise each of the seven types of atheism that are discussed in a corresponding chapter. Chapter One begins the survey of what Gray dubs “the New atheism” of the post-Enlightenment 19th century Victorian Era, which is defined by grand theories. This type of atheism posits an evolutionary view of history where human history as argued by for example James George Frazer (1854-1941), who following the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), is marked by epochs of progression beginning with the religious (primitive), then moving to the philosophical and metaphysical only to then reach its pinnacle in the positive and scientific (pp.9-13). Gray mentions how the atheism of this Victorian Era was mainly reactionary to Christian monotheism and in doing that, effectively replaced Christian concepts with secular counterparts, e.g. the Kingdom of God is replaced by the Republic of humanity or “a self-realising God was replaced by a self-deifying humanity” (p.30; cf. ch. 2). Gray’s drift from this chapter through the next few chapters is that atheism is post-Christian thinking, and much of that bad thinking as well.
In Chapter Two (a rather untidy one), Gray introduces us to another type of atheism; one that takes the baton from the previous type. It looks to history as “the story of the progress of humankind” (p.30), i.e. the progress of history leads humanity to an inevitable wish-fulfilment. This, Gray tells us, is a reworking of medieval Christian mystical deliberations about God requiring creation to mirror His self-realisation. Ideas of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) and the Lutheran Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) morph into the grand secular ideas of George W. F. Hegel’s (1170-1831) philosophy of the Weltgeist (world-spirit) and Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) insistence on an inexorable future summation of humanity under communism (pp.30-33). Gray thinks this late-Victorian period also marked an overt rationalist form of atheism and he ends the chapter critiquing several atheist thinkers from John Stuart Mill (pp.33-40), who “never shook off the influence of Victorian Christian values” (p.38), Bertrand Russell (pp.40-44), who always had a “mystical impulse” (p.41), Nietzsche (pp.44-49), who may be considered a “compelling critic of Christian values”, but did not “succeed in shaking off these values himself” (pp.46-47) to Ayn Rand (pp.49-52) who “rejected any conception of morality in which it is essentially concerned with the welfare of others” (p.50). What emerges from Gray’s broad critique is not only the shortcoming and dangerous implications some of the core ideas these rationalist atheists had on human welfare, development and progress, but its entirely borrowed nature. Rationalist atheism is living in the shadows of European Christianity.
In Chapter Three (a far tidier one!), Gray expounds on the third of his seven types of atheism. In this focussed account, continuing from the rationalism of the previous chapter, he brings the reader into the early 20th century taking them methodically through various ugly instantiations of a form of atheism that replaces religious faith with a dogmatic faith in science where the implications are disturbing levels of “scientific racism” constructed out of a “scientific anthropology” (p.53), where at the top of a hierarchy of racial groups are white Europeans. A broader idea some of rationalist atheists like H. G. Wells (1866-1946) had embraced while at the cusp of a new century was that a new world order is to be led by a white scientific elite. The ultimate logic of such ideas extended as far as dismissing certain groups of the human community as expendable with the outcome of such programs as Nazi Eugenics (pp.53-57). Gray points out how conflating biological (Darwinian) evolution with science, progressive history and perfectionism gave rise to subjugation, domination and unethical experimentation on other human beings and thus evolutionary optimism was not in fact a means towards augmenting human progress, but à la C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) led to the “abolition of man” (pp.64-66). This misuse of evolution and science leads Gray to conclude the chapter with a brief assessment of transhumanism (pp.66-70), which is a way of imagining the future based on the assumption that human species in their current form do not represent the summation of their development, but rather a comparatively primitive one. Gray sees the transhumanism movement as a “modern variant of the dream of transcending contingency that possessed mystics in ancient times” (p.67). Although such groups as Gnostics or those in the Platonic tradition could conceive of humans surpassing their bodily trappings and ascend into something higher, transhumanism has no objective ideational or transcendent domain beyond the material and thus cannot accommodate that aim in a robustly meaningful sense.
Chapter Four takes the reader over the halfway mark of the book. Familiar by now to the reader, Gray’s conclusion is that atheists have telescoped earlier religious ideas into their own socio-cultural and political context. Indeed, “they think that they have left religion behind when all they have done is renew it in shapes they fail to recognise” (p.71). Gray adds new sources to modern atheism, this time non-evolutionary ones – Christian millenarianism and (secularised) Gnosticism. The former is a notion in Christian eschatological doctrine that Christ before the Last Judgment will establish a supreme reign of the saints for a thousand years and the latter is loosely organised religious and philosophical movement that flourished in the first two centuries after Christianity utilising Jewish apocalyptic writings as well as Platonic philosophy (pp.71-75). Gray’s claim is that the political atheism of modern 20th century revolutions (e.g. Bolsheviks in Russia) and authoritarian and fascist governments (like the Nazis) are an outcome of internalised millenarianism and Gnosticism where an apocalyptic transformation of the social and political order is brought to final conclusion via human conflict (pp.80-89). This secular political atheism seems to smuggle in a kind of teleology, another hang up from Christianity.
In Chapter Five, Gray gives entry to the misotheists or “God-haters”, those atheists that are hostile towards God due to what they see is His indulgence in evil at the expense of human suffering. It is no coincidence that the figures he selects for analysis – Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and William Empson (1906-1984) – are literary artists because literature was the principal vehicle for two centuries by which God-hatred was most vehemently expressed. Gray here demolishes the confused and muddled protests these authors have against God and this form of atheism – especially in the likes of Sade who merely transmutes God into a dark and bleak view of nature.
Having swept away in one hundred and twenty-two pages the prior five types of atheism as dangerous, depraved, disruptive and degenerate, Gray ushers into view (in a comparatively less thirty-two pages) for the reader two types he believes are more congenial atheisms. In Chapter Six, a race through the metaphysical naturalism of the Spanish-born George Santayana (1863-1952) is made followed by that of the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Both are paired as representatives of anti-transformative views of human nature towards some higher end. Santayana on the one hand eschewed any notion of human essences and indeed of a spirit (soul); all we are, he tells us, is “momentary sensations in individual minds” (p.131). There is no immaterial aspect of human beings that ultimately take their place in a greater metaphysical residence (like a Platonic realm or Heaven) because for him there is no “higher reality to which contemplation gives access” (p.130). Thus, there is nothing substantive to transform, be transformed by and transform towards. All there is “is the godless flux of matter” (p.132), which may reveal itself aesthetically and generate our wonder and appreciation. For Conrad on the other hand, and similarly, the world is not “rational” and there is “no order at the bottom of things” (p.140) because all there is in a “godless universe” is an “invincible fatality” (p.141) that resists being pressed into and refashioned for nobler goals. This inevitable indifference, though, is what evokes “the most worthwhile qualities in human beings” (p.141), it is what makes us truly human.
Gray’s last destination in his self-constructed terrain of atheist typologies is what he calls “the atheism of silence”. Here, in the final chapter, he glowingly glides through the melancholic Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and wraps up with two Jewish philosophers: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who received an official cherem (חֵרֶם) – the highest ecclesiastical censure – resulting in excommunication from the Jewish-Portuguese community of Amsterdam and the paradoxical Russian existentialist thinker Lev Shestov (1866-1938). Gray, taking his cue from Schopenhauer, seems to gravitate towards a “mystical atheism” (p.146) – a “godless mysticism” as Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923) would dub – that sees nature as ineffable because “language could not capture the reality that lay behind changing appearances” (p.142) while also embracing anything that is “a creative contradiction” (p.143). In addition, he agrees with rejecting – contra Hegel – any philosophy “in which history is a process of human self-emancipation” (p.144). In the end, perhaps there is only “silent contemplation of a world beyond words” (p.146). The conclusion of the book consists of summary thoughts with repetition of ideas already examined in the previous chapters with closing remarks.
The merits of the book are many. For one, and much to the glee of religious believers on the outside, Gray appears to be sowing discord among the atheist community from the inside by essentially shunning uglier incarnations of atheism. Another one is the boldness with which he exposes sanctified Enlightenment intellectuals like David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Voltaire (1694-1778) as inherently racist and supremacist. This chapter will undoubtedly resonate strongly in movements like Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism. It would not be far to imagine portraits of these intellectuals coming down from corridors and common rooms of universities across Europe. Yet another merit, and connected to the previous one, is that Gray scathingly critiques Enlightenment values. In fact, he claims that racism is an offspring of these values. He writes:
Racism and anti-Semitism are not incidental defects in Enlightenment thinking. They flow from some of the Enlightenment’s central beliefs. For Voltaire, Kant, and Hume, European civilization was not only the highest there had ever been. It was the model for civilization that would replace all others (p.62)
These are bold remarks and Gray has opened the door wide open by an insider for serious conversation to flow on the alleged unstoppable optimism of the militant atheism sold today (quite literally) through the books of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as well as their mediators.
The merits of Gray’s book have equal levels criticism. For example, despite what the title may suggest, Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is not strictly a book about a philosophical exploration of different types of atheists. Students of philosophy or general researchers will not find here a rigorous analysis of atheism, whether that be its set of presuppositions or epistemological and metaphysical principles. Although typologies are helpful, and a historian’s study, interpretation and classification are always very welcome, Gray’s categorisation of atheism appears unworkable because they are vague and ill-defined. His New Atheist category of Chapter One may well include the misotheists of Chapter Five and the political atheism represented by for example the Hitler and Nazis of Chapter 4 easily slot into the place of scientific atheism of Chapter Three. The nebulous nature of the typology causes it to lack precision and ultimately lose heuristic value.
Another criticism is that Gray often does not give the benefit of the doubt to his opponents and entirely overlooks any counterarguments to his own analysis and particular take on historical events, something evident in his other writings like Straw Dogs (2003). All this no doubt construes this book more as a polemical piece than an academic tract. Another related point is how the reader’s patience may be frustrated with Gray’s repeated mantra that atheism is really reworked religion. Atheism’s resemblance to Christianity (religion) may seem strained in the many places where Gray forces the point of the former’s continuity with the latter. To use Peter Gay’s phrase in his critique of Becker’s Heavenly City, Gray may be committing the fallacy of spurious persistence, a tendency to insist on false or exaggerated continuities between one set of ideas and another.
Clearly, the variety of atheism that Gray finds most affinity with is one that either embraces paradox – whether that is George Santayana as “atheist who loved religion” and Arthur Schopenhauer as a “mystical” atheist – or one that is content with things as they are without “looking for cosmic meaning” (p.1); the latter, more particularly, a docile atheism that sees no larger imperative for humanity and no need for subscription to any grand secular salvation or deliverance story. With this characterisation, Gray’s kind of atheism does not offer any transformative hope, no matrix of a higher meaning and no explanation of phenomena in terms of purposes they may serve. There is only what there is and nothing more for it to become. Therefore, in a world ravaged by systemic injustice, scarred by environmental degradation and heaving with intense suffering, Gray’s atheist posturing pessimistically offers only silence. Finally, despite the bleak nihilism of it all, Gray still wants to leave room for a little mystery, a sprinkling of enough Zauber in nature to activate the human impulse to marvel and gaze and be drawn to it but not something higher. Yet in doing that, he falls prey to the very atheists he so harshly dismisses in his book.