John Gray—veteran British philosopher, intellectual historian, and book reviewer—has no intention of converting anybody. But his Seven Types of Atheism is a searching and helpful taxonomy of unbelief ancient and modern, and it has the potential to make the second of these two scenarios disappear altogether.
Imagine a conversation in which well-meaning skeptics try to deconvert you from Christianity by debunking the prosperity gospel. They marshal their evidence, tell some stories that horrify you as much as them, quote the most egregious theological howlers you’ve ever heard, and then conclude that the message of Jesus can’t possibly be true. If you’ve ever had such an experience—and pastors of charismatic churches, like me, do occasionally—you’ll know how frustrating it is. Everything in you wants to reply: I don’t hold to that type of Christianity either. I probably disagree with it more than you do.
Now imagine a second scenario. You’re an atheist, and you have the same problem. Well-meaning Christians tries to convert you to Christianity by debunking the “new atheism.” They go into great detail about how Richard Dawkins is historically ignorant, Sam Harris morally incontinent, and Christopher Hitchens logically incoherent—and then conclude that atheism can’t be true. And you’re sitting there thinking, I don’t hold to that type of atheism either. I probably disagree with it more than you do.
John Gray—veteran British philosopher, intellectual historian, and book reviewer—has no intention of converting anybody. But his Seven Types of Atheism is a searching and helpful taxonomy of unbelief ancient and modern, and it has the potential to make the second of these two scenarios disappear altogether. By carefully disentangling the different ways atheism works, and the different reasons why people find it compelling, he has done a great service not just for atheists who want to be understood but also for Christians who want to understand.
Varieties of Atheism
The seven types of atheism, for Gray, are as follows.
1. ‘New Atheism’
A 19th-century orthodoxy—think Henri de Saint-Simon, August Comte, J. G. Frazer, and so on—the new atheism lives on in the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and company, although it contains “little that is novel or interesting.”
In a manner reminiscent of Christianity’s most ebullient defenders, Gray waves away this recent movement as a “discredited theory,” and concludes that “the organized atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.” Given that this is the variety of atheism that gets the most apologetic attention, this is worth noting.
2. Secular Humanism
Following Nietzsche, Gray argues that modern progressivism is a “sacred relic” of Christianity, as people continue to believe in progress and development in history but change the source of this progress from God to humanity. In doing so, however, they saw off the branch they’re sitting on, as can be seen in the works of Marx, Mill, Sidgwick, Russell, Ayn Rand (a surprising inclusion in the book), and in some ways Nietzsche himself. “The belief that humans are gradually improving is the central article of faith of modern humanism,” Gray writes. “When wrenched from monotheistic religion, however, it is not so much false as meaningless.”
This chapter makes uncomfortable reading, because it pulls together a variety of atheist expressions—scientific racism, mesmerism, communism, and transhumanism—which their proponents would claim to be quite different, but which share the same underlying commitment to human advancement through increased scientific knowledge. “Modern racism emerged from the work of Enlightenment philosophes,” including giants like Voltaire, Hume, and Kant (some of the quotations here are appalling); it was integral to the Enlightenment project that some parts of humanity were, and could be, more advanced than others. This continued into the 20th century, albeit in a different form: “Social evolution is an exceptionally bad idea. But bad ideas rarely evolve into better ones. Instead they mutate, and reproduce themselves into new guises.”
4. Political Religion
“Partisans of revolution, reform and counterrevolution think they have left religion behind when all they have done is renew it in shapes they fail to recognise.” This, for Gray, results from a fusion of Gnosticism and Christianity; humans can be delivered from the darkness through knowledge (Gnosis), but this can happen within this world, through a collective, terrestrial, imminent, and total renewal (Christianity).
As such, there is a surprisingly clear line from John of Leyden and the Kingdom of Munster (1534–5), via the French and Russian Revolutions, to Nazi Germany and even (in perhaps the book’s most audacious move) modern liberalism, which attempts to remake the world in its own image, certain that “only ignorance prevents their gospel from being accepted by all of humankind.”
We’re dealing here with millenarian movements, even if they mostly take place without reference to God.