Seven types of Atheism by John Gray

Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm

John Gray is often described as a pessimist and a career contrarian. He certainly loves putting a view that counters the conventional wisdom and that is why I appreciate him so much. No theist himself, his criticisms of atheists and particularly the new atheists, I find devastating. While they think they have abandoned and debunked religion, Gray thinks that they continue ways of thinking that derive from monotheism and the ‘religion’ they debunk is largely American fundamentalism, just a small subset of a hugely diverse phenomenon.

Here’s a summary of the seven types:
  1. The New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and many others) regards religions as erroneous scientific hypotheses, a primitive sort of science, when in Gray’s view they are not theoretical explanations, but a way of finding meaning. The values espoused cannot be derived from atheism.

  2. Secular Humanism. This is characterised by a belief in progress, which is a secular variant of Christianity. Before Christianity, history was regarded as going in cycles; sure, things might improve, but then they would go back again. “When secular thinkers tell the history of humankind as a story of progress, they flatter themselves that they embody the progress of which they speak.”  John Stuart Mill was its founder. It runs on the principle, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” but provides no arguments for being altruistic when this conflicts with my wants or needs. Secular humanists believe that humanity can raise itself to a higher level through the exercise of reason. In other words, it continues with a Christian view of morality.
  3. Scientific Humanism. This type of atheism believes itself to be merely following the science, when in fact it is turning it into a kind of religion. Many variants rely on evolution and equate social evolution with progress, even though in Darwin’s theory, natural selection is a purposeless process.

  4. Modern Political Religion. Various atheisms try to bring salvation through politics. You could call this ‘revolutionary millenarianism.’ A social struggle is seen as an event of unique importance, a cataclysm from which the world will emerge totally transformed. Lenin’s communism, Hitler and the Nazis, and American attempts to install their values throughout the world in a succession of wars, are all examples of political religion.

  5. God-haters. William Empson came to a damning judgement of the Christian God by considering the Christian heaven, in which the just are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned, rather like Nazi concentration camp inmates, who are encouraged, through small privileges, to torture their fellows.

  6. Atheism without progress. For example, George Santayana and Joseph Conrad.

  7. Mystical atheism. For example, Arthur Schopenhauer. Here the boundary is not clear between atheism and an apophatic theism. 



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