Book cover

This article is a preview from the Summer 2018 edition of New Humanist

Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane) by John Gray

One of the finest exchanges in Monty Python’s Life of Brian takes place when the title character accidentally picks up a cult following. “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity,” one of Brian’s followers declares. “Well, what sort of chance does that give me?” he screams back. “All right, I am the Messiah!” Cue gleeful cheers: “He is! He is the Messiah!”

There is something almost Pythonesque in various passages of Seven Types of Atheism. Examining the atheist thinkers to have emerged in the last several hundred years, John Gray is at such pains to underline the debt that non-religious intellectuals owe religion that it tips into the absurd. On John Stuart Mill, Gray writes: “When he insisted that morality did not depend on religion, he invoked an idea of morality that was borrowed from Christian religion.” To say that all of us, religious or not, have our thinking shaped by the existence of religion is one thing. But it is quite another to claim that someone insisting one does not need to be religious in order to be moral is in some sense “borrowing” from Christianity. Or: “When they declare themselves unbelievers, atheists are invoking an understanding of religion that has been unthinkingly inherited from monotheism.”

While he may occasionally overstate his points, Gray is an intelligent and necessary bulwark against contemporary atheism’s uglier traits – Sam Harris’s defence of torture, for example. Gray is a non-believer who delights in producing a magnifying glass to point out atheism’s cracks and stains – its “primitive” thinking; its “cod science”; its “mawkish” tone. He is right, for example, to point out that atheists have a tendency to attack “religion” as though it comprises little more than a narrow definition of Christianity – the belief system with which most prominent atheists are most familiar. He is right to warn that contemporary atheism might be a dangerously “closed system of thought” (its online, male-dominated forums can be infamously hostile to women). And, simply in walking the reader through some of history’s most villainous atheists – he excerpts a letter in which Ayn Rand describes the “masses” as “millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls” who ought to be “ground under foot” – he is right to provide a cautionary lesson to those convinced that it is only religion that poisons.

But Gray’s personal opinion – that atheism is by and large walking in religion’s shadow, forever desperate to emulate it – can’t help but muddy his analysis in places. Seven Types of Atheism is a rather uneasy mix – as though, while giving a history lecture, Gray is handing out derogatory notes about the people he is discussing. Discussing the racism of the Enlightenment and the 1930s, for instance, he makes two revealing omissions. Referring to Julian Huxley’s bogus theories on innate racial inequality, he writes that in the early 20th century these attitudes were “commonplace among rationalists”. He neglects to say that they would have been just as commonplace among the religious. Eight pages later he writes that “modern secular anti-Semitism originated in the Enlightenment itself”. Yet he does not go the extra yard to say that old-fashioned anti-Semitism originated in the New Testament and, unlike that of the Enlightenment, can be and is reinforced through constant re-reading of the source material.

Ultimately, it is all too easy to point out that many of the problems Gray appears to believe are unanswerable for atheists are just – if not more – so for believers. “What these secular believers cannot digest,” writes Gray, “is the fact that gains in ethics and politics regularly come and go – a fact that confounds any story of continuing human advance.” For the majority of religious belief systems, this cyclical notion of history must be harder to rationalise. Likewise, examine the following contention: “Atheists who demonise religion face a problem of evil as insoluble as that which faces Christianity.” If this were actually true, it would be difficult to account for the fact that the phrase “the problem of evil” is considered a fundamentally – and, for many, insolubly – Christian quandary. As a handbook to history’s most prominent atheists, Gray’s book is commendable. As a polemic, it feels a little like a first draft.