Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray describes in his entertaining and sometimes disturbing new book Seven Types of Atheism the scene in Berlin University in the 1820s, in which Arthur Schopenhauer laid down his plans for lectures to compete with the intellectual celebrity of the day, GWF Hegel. While only a handful of students were inclined to listen to Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook on humanity, people flocked to hear Hegel's optimistic message that "history was rational and morally satisfying."
A parallel drama may consciously be conjured up in the reader's imagination. In a sold-out theater (live stream on TED to a global audience) we have Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker – all heirs to Hegel's belief in progress – with their countless digital followers, while in a seedy classroom next to the broom cupboard we have Gray, the Schopenhauer sympathizer, who – for heaven's sake – does not even have a Twitter account.
However, this is Grays natural predicament. He is a career contrarian and was happy to punch ego or bring philosophical icons to a level. And not just for the sport. In Gray's view, human exceptionalism – the idea that human animals are above the natural world and morally independent of it – is the root of modern warfare and oppression.
Gray has reworked the thesis in various forms over the years, in this last letter, limiting his fire to those typically liberal, generally Anglo-American atheists who think they can separate themselves from deep and deep questions Addressing Religion Through Reading The God Delusion . The "new atheism" that this bestseller represents is quickly described by Gray as the least interesting atheism. The other six types he identifies are secular humanism, "a hollowed out version of Christian salvation in history"; scientific atheism with its fetishisation of the theory of evolution; political atheism, which Gray blames for Communism, National Socialism, and Evangelical Liberalism; "God hatred," an atheism born of the inhumanity of man towards man; "Atheism without progress" – the rejection of the idea of God without the deification of mankind; and finally mystical atheism, a mark that recognizes the limits of language.
Gray argues for the support of the last two atheisms, though the thrust of the book attacks the other five. Christians who feel external and internal critics under the kosh may enjoy the godless gray sowing discord among their own. "The belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion," he explains. "Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means," while "secular thought largely consists of repressed religion." All this is a red rag for the new atheist bull. However, it is a compliment to the religion that is held responsible for beginning utopian dreams. Along the way, Gray tries to claim a few scalps, and applies urgently needed attention to racist or anti-Semitic views of the wise Enlightenment figures Hume, Kant, and Voltaire.
Critics of Gray (of whom there are many)) will remain troubled by the way he denigrates progress while seemingly benefiting from it. The invention of penicillin, the creation of human rights institutions, and the brew of shallow whites count nothing in Grays eyes, if you consider them against the cosmic truth that humans are animals and give up any morality when the circumstances are right.
There is a nihilistic vein in Gray's work. He agrees with the egoism of one of his philosophical heroes: "For anyone who is tired of even admirable do-gooders, there is something refreshing in Schopenhauer's wickedness." Often, Gray is like a man waiting for the Apocalypse just so he can tell everyone, I told you. He is not a monster, however, and when his aversion to humanity inflates occasionally, he can be understood, if not necessarily apologized, by the depth of his sense of man's predatory approach to life on earth.
But do not let it be too generous for an author who does not give his opponents the benefit of the doubt. Seven types of atheism contain the same essential idea as Straw Dogs over fifteen years ago – and as in the past, Gray skips counterarguments rather than tackling them head-on. It is more of a polemical tract than a work of high learning, and the seven types of atheism are by no means a comprehensive or even a coherent list. Nonetheless, Gray emphasizes the rich potential within atheism for good or evil, and even points to the scope for new types of atheism that regard the human animal as the only living being worthy of homage.