The Myth of Progress

Joby Sessions/University of Oxford
John Gray at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, 2015

Over the past two decades, at the end of a long career as an academic political philosopher, John Gray has written a series of short, studiously unacademic books with suggestive titles like Straw Dogs, The Silence of Animals, and The Soul of the Marionette. These books tend toward the aphoristic and are more apt to quote Jorge Luis Borges or Wallace Stevens than Friedrich Hayek or John Maynard Keynes. Though they vary in emphasis and point of attack, all advance the same essential argument—that our ostensibly secular post-Enlightenment age has failed to face up to the full implications of its materialist worldview, that we remain haunted by the ghosts of Western Christianity, chief among them the belief in moral progress, universal values, and human exceptionalism. “Unbelief today,” Gray has written, “should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith.”

The latest book in this series, Seven Types of Atheism, is a sustained effort to do just that. While it contains much that will be familiar to readers of Gray’s earlier work, its focus on the strain of modern thought that most loudly proclaims its independence from our religious past sharpens his argument in various fruitful ways. Like any line-drawing exercise, Gray’s taxonomy has an occasionally arbitrary air—most of his seven “types” are better understood as different aspects of a single dominant strain of contemporary atheism—but his categories usefully remind us that different ways of being an atheist exist and demonstrate how much most of them owe to the traditions they claim to reject.

Gray’s first type is the now-familiar New Atheism that defines itself in opposition to religion. To some readers this may sound almost tautological, but as Gray points out, the denial of the existence of a transcendent god is not inherently a denial of religious truth, because not all religions are theistic. Even among those that are, most have been far more concerned with practice than with personal belief. In ancient Athens, it was perfectly normal for a philosophical atheist such as Epicurus or monotheist such as Plato to participate in the communal rituals of the polytheistic cult. The Roman Empire allowed conquered people to worship their local gods, provided that they observed the public practice of the state religio. Early Judaism, Gray notes, “was a type not of monotheism—the assertion that there is only one God—but of henotheism, the exclusive worship of [one’s] own God. Worshipping foreign gods was condemned as disloyalty, not as unbelief.”

This changed with Christianity, which is unmistakably a creedal faith, but even here New Atheists misunderstand what “belief” has meant to most Christians throughout history, treating religious doctrine as a series of statements about reality, many of which science has subsequently disproven. For example, New Atheists commonly hold that ancient Jews and Christians read scripture…

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