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‘To the Angels and the Sparrows’

A review of John Gray's, Seven Types of Atheism

It was incomprehensible to Pascal, who lived in horror of perpetual oblivion and staked his happiness on the immortality of the soul, that an individual could be ambivalent in respect to eternity. Such a person, ‘indifferent to the loss of their being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness’, goes ‘against nature’. Who is this phantom, he wonders, who expects nothing of the hereafter, and is prepared to be ‘plunged into impenetrable darkness’? This miserable creature, an isolated outpost confronting the ‘terrifying spaces of the universe’, knowing not the whence or wherefore of its existence, expecting nothing, observing ‘only infinity on every side’, is for him pitiable in the extreme. All it knows is that ‘it must soon die’ — an event about which it knows least but ‘cannot evade’.[1]

The inscrutability of atheism, so far as the religious are concerned, has often consisted in its rejection of what is usually seen as a gift (everlasting life) bestowed by a benevolent Father, gratefully accepted in the acknowledgement of a divine power. Instead, ‘we leave Heaven to the angels and the sparrows’, runs a line in Heine’s poem Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen. Here the atheist revolts against the assurance of eternal childhood, against immortal obedience, against the doting, omnipotent parent. The atheist rebels against Freud’s ‘universal obsessional neurosis’. But as the Pew Research Center’s 2015 polling showed, in a world accelerating beyond the capacity of reason to comprehend it, religious faith is surging: its adherents multiply. In fact, ‘as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century’. Demography and fertility are factors at play here, but the consolations of religion are not easily denied. If the idea of heaven is absurd, so too is the reality that inspires it.

But for atheists, the consolations ring hollow. Of what value is compulsory love under threat of eternal punishment? How worthy of respect is the being who makes such an offer? Still, how emancipated are they, really, from wishful-thinking? Though atheists may have forsaken the unfalsifiable idea of a transcendent heaven presided over by an irascible deity, John Gray, in his latest book Seven Types of Atheism, contends that they have sought to construct substitutes on earth which have more in common with the theism from which they purportedly depart. Gray charges that the fundamental problem with atheism these days is that it is implicitly religious. In his usual modus operandi as peevish contrarian muse, he scorns the intellectual integrity not of atheism per se, but of atheists who he claims are more religious than anything else. Whether it’s the type of atheist who trembles before the power of science, or the type who seeks to turn politics into a religion, each expresses explicitly religious sensibilities — not least the desire for salvation. He seeks to give a sense of the variety of beliefs with which atheism is compatible; mainly motivated, or so it seems, by his overblown dislike of the new atheists (the torchbearers of a vocal and militant strain of what Christopher Hitchens called ‘antitheism’). Viewing it as overly strident, redolent of an intolerant mindset, he describes today’s atheism as ‘a closed system of thought’ burdened by certain ‘needs and hopes’ inherited from monotheism.

Unfortunately, Gray seems unable to countenance the possibility that the new atheists may have made a good point or two, carelessly dismissing them (‘mostly a media phenomenon’) with very little evidence that he’s more than glanced over their books. His meagre, 15-page, chapter on ‘The New Atheism: A Nineteenth-Century Orthodoxy’ contains but one mention of an actual new atheist, Sam Harris, and despite quoting him directly deems him unworthy of inclusion in his end-notes to the chapter, which contains a grand total of… two references! For a former Oxford and LSE professor, these are very shallow waters indeed. Often, he presents as self-evident propositions that in reality require further justification, or are so oversimplified as to be barely tenable. Fundamentally, this book mainly serves as another opportunity for Gray to rail against his favorite irritation — the idea of persistent and irreversible progress, with history acting as an escalator on which humanity ascends to still greater heights of moral and technical achievement. In other words, it’s a renewed attack against Gray’s old foe: teleology in secular disguise.

Gray sees plenty of meaning in the world — even if it’s not of the metaphysical variety – but thinks trying to measure it is pointless. Hence, his well-documented determination to deflate the Steven Pinkers of the world, who have the temerity to quantify human progress. His preference is for an atheism that is appreciative of mystery and accepting of the unknown, averse to claims about the inevitable betterment of human beings, and unwilling to worship humanity as a ‘collective agent’ who pursues ‘its self-realization in history’. According to Gray, you’re not a ‘real’ atheist unless you accede to this vision. But it’s possible he overestimates how many atheists would reject it. When he says that, in fact, ‘the only observable reality is the multitudinous human animal, with its conflicting goals, values and ways of life’, one suspects most atheists might agree.

Gray’s book isn’t quite as advertised in its title. It’s not a strict typology of atheism because atheism is simply the absence of belief in a transcendent creator – nothing more, nothing less. It simply recognizes that the world neither necessitates nor implies the existence of a divine author. Trivially, if I disavow belief in the Easter Bunny, there’s no more to my ‘aEasterBunnyism’ than the fact that I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. My lack of belief demands nothing more of me than that I reject the idea that it is hopping around somewhere, waiting to bring me chocolate eggs. So, to be a secular humanist (according to Gray a creed indebted to monotheism) isn’t technically to espouse a ‘type’ of atheism at all. Not, at any rate, if one sticks to the idea of atheism as contentless in respect to deities of a supernatural variety. (This implies, mostly, that atheists are materialists who respect science because it attends to the workings of the only world whose existence they can positively assert: the material one.)

In secular humanism, to be human emerges as the highest of all values. Invoking what is human leads to tautology (what is most human about ourselves merely turns out to be what we as humans do), but it’s really the only other game in town. Hence, Gray declares that Humanity now takes the place of God, and History has become its means of redemption. Certainly, in secular terms a human paradise attained through the progressive historical development of the human species proves a redoubtable attraction. Like God, both history and humanity remain concepts tempting in their suggestiveness, seductive in the ambiguity of their promise. The main conduits to the future are found in the current faith in science and technology to, in a religious sense, deliver us from evil: not from sin, but from the evils of want, squalor, disease and, perhaps, death itself. In humanist terms, history’s ‘goal’ or ‘end’ is the mitigation and final elimination of such evils from the face of the earth.

Gray is keen to inform us, then, that we atheists have never really ‘gotten over’ religion at all and have merely transplanted theological themes and longings into new receptacles for their development, not least techno-science and politics. Reserving his admiration for atheists with whom he identifies in his book — like Schopenhauer, Shestov and Santayana, each of whom had little use for the idea of progress and didn’t waste time mourning an absent God – Gray laments that atheists, having been unable to rid themselves of regret over God’s passing, have sought to resurrect him in these imitative forms (what he calls ‘monotheism by other means’). Yet should one really equate faith in progress, science and humanity with faith in God? This only works if you accept his extremely expansive definition of religion as ‘an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe’. Who doesn’t attempt this? Hence it conveniently follows: ‘religion is universal’.

But to ‘find’ meaning in events, everyone (the religious included) must superimpose some ‘theory’ or story on or about them from which meaning can be inferred. To ensure its meaningfulness is possible, the dominant religions do ‘explain’ the universe by offering theories — though not testable ones — about how it began and where it’s going. These entail a set of mutually dependent beliefs from which inferences about the meaning of events can be drawn. Contrary to Gray’s claim that ‘religion has always consisted of practices more than beliefs’, such theories consist of and require belief just as much as practice; indeed, the practices depend on the beliefs. It may be unexamined belief, for the most part, but it is belief nonetheless. Furthermore, with his attempt to elide religion and atheism, Gray only confuses rather than clarifies matters. He seems at once to depart from and agree with William James, for whom being religious involved an explicit commitment to the divine, but who left room for the term to cover beliefs that serve to integrate human experience and lend it significance. It instead seems more useful to think of religion as that which traces the meaning of human existence back to an antecedent, specifically transcendent source beyond it. This condition is restrictive, but it counteracts the vague religious universalism Gray propounds.

His definition of an atheist — as ‘anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world’ — is accompanied by a certain dismissiveness, immediately asserting that ‘in this sense atheism does not amount to very much’. But this isn’t a credible claim. Many atheists are torn, sometimes for years, over questions of religious belief, precisely because it is an issue on which the concept of meaning, and on what it is or isn’t based, hangs. In his tone of disdain, Gray seems to have little appreciable sense of what it is like to struggle over these questions. And it is this lack of sensitivity and fair mindedness towards his new atheist foes that mars an otherwise readable book. Aside from this, again and again the temptation is to remark: what of it? If atheists have imitated religion in some respects it’s hardly surprising: we live in an overwhelmingly religious world, saturated historically, morally and socially with religious sentiment. Even so, they still aren’t the same thing. On the main point, the distinction that makes the difference between the atheist and religious believer still stands.

The better test of how ‘pure’ my atheism is, has less to do with whether my thinking retains some religious trappings (it’s almost bound to), but whether I illogically despise an idea which I hold corresponds to no actual reality. If so, then to what extent can I be said to have divested myself of it? If I regard the religious with a misplaced measure of condescending pity, then perhaps I’ve neglected to note the things in which I am forced to have faith to orientate my life. If I throw myself at the feet of science and expect it to show me what to value, I have neither grasped in what science consists, nor have I sufficiently deflated my conception of what ‘value’ is, and where it comes from. Surely the best sort of atheism is not one that wastes time raging at an empty sky, or developing a misplaced faith in already fallen idols, but one which regards religion as just another way of making life make sense, worthy neither of excessive praise or approbation, nor deserving of unqualified contempt.

We would do better to recognize that atheists must also deal in illusion, because illusion makes life worth living. No one can live (or at least live contentedly) without a serviceable dose of it. The transhumanists, the tedious tech obsessives, the wearisome idolaters of science and progress, are ample testament to that. Gray is partly right to say that there is more than a little of the religious impulse in today’s atheism, insofar as it seeks the sanctification of human life by other, non-metaphysical means. Some atheists have yet to shed the human desire to worship, to submit unquestioningly to the will of others. Yet in the end, as Cioran points out, ‘Being itself is only a pretension of Nothingness’. [2] This arresting fact ensures (as Freud remarks) that we are all, in one form or another, ‘chasing an illusion’.[3] Surely nothing – apart from to err – is more human than that.

Alexandre Leskanich is a Ph.D. student in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Royal Holloway, University of London. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hong Kong Review of Books, The LSE Review of Books, The Oxonian Review,3:AM Magazine, Review 31, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, Journal of the Philosophy of History, and Critical Inquiry.

 


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995), pp. 130-31.

[2] E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin Books, 2010) p. 50.

[3] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), p. 48.

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