It is always refreshing to open a new book by John Gray as he is so adept at stripping away much of the white noise which characterises so much atheist discourse, in order to let the reader see clearly right through to the guts of the matter. This book is a useful contribution in that the author, in his usual incisive style, embarks upon a forensic dissection of the various models of atheism which are imbibed, often in the most uncritical manner possible, by modern secularists. Gray has identified seven main variants, but much like the proliferation of gender identities (56 and counting on FaceBook), no doubt there will be those amongst the throngs of the godless who will complain that they have been overlooked in what is otherwise a meticulous categorisation.
And John Gray should know. As a convinced atheist himself, but possessed of an uncannily objective frame of mind, he is able to present these seven models, warts and all. This is immensely helpful for those of us who are at times baffled by the various permutations of atheist thinking. And it’s clear that Gray shares a similar bafflement, at least when it comes to the kind of unquestioned presuppositions which appear to underpin most of the more modern variants. The ‘Seven Types of Atheism’ covered by his treatment are:
- The New Atheism (a 19th Century orthodoxy)
- Secular Humanism (a Sacred Relic)
- A Strange Faith in Science (the abolition of man, evolution vs ethics & transhumanism)
- Atheism, Gnosticism and Modern Political Religion (Bockelson, Bolshevism etc)
- God-haters (Marquis de Sade and Empson)
- Atheism without Progress (Santayana, Conrad et al)
- The Atheism of Silence (Schopenhauer, Spinoza & Shestov)
Of these seven variants, Gray is self-confessedly drawn to the last two, and I suspect (judging from the tone of his commentary), it’s the last one which holds the most sway. This is the bleakest of all possible positions, but it is, I suspect, the most logical, given the starting presuppositions of an atheistic worldview. It is not a perspective which one encounters very frequently, as most modern atheists are riffing off models 1-5, with (usually) a very heavy emphasis on model 1. It is this first model which yodels most loudly about its intellectual credentials but which, according to Gray, actually has the flimsiest basis for such pretensions. In practice, as we observe the secular hegemony attempting to maintain its ascendent position within Western culture, the strands woven into this kind of ideology tend to be drawn most frequently from models 1-4.
I think that John Gray would have enjoyed a constructive exchange with Francis Schaeffer, despite coming to a conclusion about the existence of a Creator-God which is diametrically the opposite of Schaeffer’s conviction. In his treatment of model 1 (the New Atheism) he demonstrates persuasively how the whole house of cards stands (and therefore falls) upon the philosophical contributions of Henri de Saint-Simon and his disciple Auguste Comte, effectively spawning a new religion in the shadow of Madame Guillotine. Schaeffer had a world-class mind when it came to excavating the bedrock upon which ideologies are founded. This backdrop to modern atheism is all-but invisible to its adherents, yet (as Gray states) “…it formed the template for the secular humanism that all evangelical atheists promote today” (p10). Swiftly, he moves on to demonstrate ‘Why science cannot dispel religion’, an intriguing statement, given that most populist exponents of atheism make precisely the reverse argument. He gives his reasons at some length and they are actually the mainstream lines of reasoning advanced by Christian philosophers and theologians. This is neither rocket-science, nor the kind of blinkered metaphysical eccentricity which is supposed to be the unique disability of those ‘faith-heads’ that Dawkins and his cohorts love to revile. After all, John Gray is singularly uninfected by anything resembling faith when he says, “…unless you believe the human mind mirrors a rational cosmos – the faith of Plato and the Stoics, which helped shape Christianity – science can only be a tool the human animal has invented to deal with a world it cannot fully understand” (p13). This is perhaps a more nuanced way of restating the profound doubt that Darwin himself articulated in a letter to his friend William Graham Down in July 1881, when he stated “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the minds of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” If our explanation of origins is (i) undirected, (ii) unintelligent and (iii) solely a product of physical functions of matter, then there can clearly be no hierarchy of ‘science’ over and above ‘religion’, despite all the most optimistic pronouncements of the most devoted disciples of what Gray categorises as a ‘new religion’.
For all these positives, there remain the usual frustrations with Gray’s thinking. He very correctly identifies the key truth that, uniquely, “…Christianity is liable to falsification by historical fact” and then accurately comments that “In contrast, Christianity will be badly shaken if the received story of Jesus can be shown to be false” (p15), a line of thinking which directly echoes what the Apostle Paul himself argued in 1 Corinthians 15 verses 16-19. And then, having stated the proposition with admirable clarity, he immediately dives down the rabbit-hole of Enlightenment scepticism, as embodied by the theories of Reimarus (18th C) and Strauss (19th C). There is nary a reference in the direction of modern scholarship which has systematically exposed the pathology of this form of scepticism and which instead supplies an abundance of support for the historicity of the New Testament narratives. This is a surprising defect in a new book, published in the UK only a month or two ago. It is, however, indicative of the lengths that atheists have to go to, to prop up their ideology, once models 1-5 have been convincingly trashed. As another contemporary atheist thinker made clear, in 1997:
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.” (Richard Lewontin).
This is a minor, and entirely predictable disappointment, however. Overall, this book is a model of clarity and rigour, and I do highly recommend it.