John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, London: Allen Lane, 2018
Many in secularised Europe regard atheism as the default position of the thinking person. But most people in other parts of the world are believers. Religious belief is the default position of most of humanity, about 85% is the estimate, and growing. This is no proof that God exists, of course, but is worth noting. Gray puts atheism through a rigorous critique in this interesting book, even though he affirms his own, not very clear, form of nuanced unbelief at the end of it.
Gray, former academic and one of Britain’s best known public intellectuals, returns in his latest book to a favourite theme, the debunking of the Enlightenment myths of human progress and the attempts to put meaning into history without the help of God. The various atheisms he examines - New Atheism, secular humanism, scientific rationalism, atheistic gnosticism, hatred of God, atheism without progress and the atheism of silence - are all, he asserts, to some degree repressed forms of religion, substitutes for belief in God.
Before launching into his critique of atheism, or atheisms, he stresses the fact that Judaeo-Christian belief in one God, monotheism, is responsible for mistakenly giving meaning to history and introducing the whole idea of progress in the first place.
Hitherto, various cultures seemed quite happy with a cyclical view of things. The mysteriousness and intractability of history should have been left alone by the likes of St Augustine and other Christian thinkers, saving much futile philosophical speculation since the post-Enlightenment disenchantment of the world and the withdrawal of God.
In a key passage Gray writes: ‘The belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion. If it means only that the power of the Christian churches has declined in many western countries, it is a description of fact. But secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion’ (p.72). According to Gray, therefore, atheism is really religious belief by other means and atheists seem blissfully unaware that this is the case.
This description of atheism, or secularism, as a repressed form of religion is not a new idea. It is one of the key assertions of the theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, which Gray does not mention. Anglican theologian and high priest of the movement, John Milbank, asserts that secular reason, which he traces back to the nominalism of the late middle ages, is really theology in disguise, or as he prefers to call it, ‘anti-theology’ (Theology and Social Theory, 1990). In this sense, Gray’s book is a guided tour through the anti-theologies of modernity.
His panoramic view of European philosophy since the Enlightenment is brilliantly succinct and readable. Few can write with his panache in presenting difficult ideas both interestingly and simply, with little touches of humour and quiet wit. For example: ‘If Nietzsche shouted the death of God from the rooftops, Arthur Schopenhauer gave the Deity a quiet burial’ (p.142). Or, ‘Wander among the shelves of the social science stacks in university libraries, and you find yourself in a mausoleum of dead theories. These theories have not passed into the intellectual netherworld by being falsified. Most are not even false; they are too nebulous to allow empirical testing’ (p.13).
But by the end of the book one is left wondering just where Gray himself stands. After subjecting his targeted thinkers to a withering critique, he seems unwilling to come off the fence and say what he does believe in, apart from the nihilism of Joseph Conrad who believed neither in humanity nor in God. The book ends cryptically with the words: ‘But there is no need for panic or despair. Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of 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’ (p.158).
I couldn’t help thinking that the next logical step for Gray has to be Christian belief. If atheism is religion by other means and the secular doesn’t really exist, as he asserts, then why doesn’t he come clean and go for the real thing, religious belief in a loving creator God? Living without belief or unbelief, which seems to be Gray’s position, is a cop-out. Probably without realizing it, he has done religious belief a service in exposing the illusory underbelly of modern atheism. For that he deserves our thanks. But I feel he needs our prayers, too.