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 literally as a matter of course. Only after science definitively falsified much of the Bible did resourceful religious leaders (“Sophisticated Theologians,” the biologist Jerry Coyne mockingly calls them) propose various allegorical readings in an attempt to salvage something from the rubble.
The truth is closer to the opposite. Allegorical readings of Genesis date back at least to Philo of Alexandria in the first century AD, and Gray notes that in the fourth century Saint Augustine—the man most responsible, after Saint Paul and Jesus himself, for the intellectual form of early Christianity—wrote a treatise “in which he argued that the biblical text need not be understood literally if it goes against what we know to be true from other sources.” It is precisely when scientific standards of fact became authoritative in the modern era that some strains of Christianity—fewer than New Atheists seem to think—became preoccupied with proving the historical basis of the creation story. While they pride themselves on empiricism, most New Atheists remain blissfully incurious about the contours of religious experience as it actually exists in the world. As Gray succinctly puts it, they have “directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part.”
But Gray is less concerned with the beliefs that atheists reject than with those they embrace. The heart of the book is an examination of the various ways in which contemporary atheists have “looked for surrogates of the God they have cast aside” in the form of secular humanism (Gray’s second type of atheism), scientific rationalism (type 3), and various evangelical political creeds from Marxism to globalist neoliberalism (type 4). Though they differ in many ways, these worldviews share several important features, chief among them a belief in the possibility of moral progress and an understanding of humans as fundamentally reasonable. Gray is skeptical of both.
Plenty of political thinkers—especially those, like Gray, of a generally conservative persuasion—have warned against utopian efforts to perfect human society, but fewer deny the more modest claim that mankind is capable of sustained incremental improvement. Despite the occasional setback, we all like to believe that we are, on the whole, more enlightened—more compassionate, more tolerant, less superstitious—than people who lived fifty or a hundred, let alone a thousand, years before us, and that the world of our children and grandchildren will be better than our own. This belief feels so natural that it may be surprising to discover that it has been relatively uncommon in most cultures:
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, history revealed no pattern other than the regular growth and decline of civilization—a rhythm not essentially different from those found in the natural world. There was no prospect of indefinite improvement. Judged by the standards of the time, civilization might improve for a while. But eventually the process would stall, then go into reverse. Rooted in the innate defects of the human animal, cycles of this kind could not be overcome. If the gods intervened, the result was only to make the human world even more unpredictable and treacherous.
Gray sees our contemporary faith in progress as a Christian inheritance. Jesus’ appearance on earth represents for Christians a breach in history, which could no longer be understood in a cyclical way—a fact neatly encapsulated by the establishment of Jesus’ birth as year zero. The Second Coming represents another such breach, which encourages Christians to look forward to a radically different future, one in which all the losses of the present will be redeemed. When Christian faith began to lose sway over Europe in the eighteenth century, Gray argues, “the Christian myth of history as a redemptive drama was not abandoned but renewed in another guise. A story of redemption through divine providence was replaced by one of progress through the collective efforts of humanity.”
Skepticism about human progress has been a prominent feature of Gray’s later work. His critics have generally responded that their belief is not faith-based but grounded in empirical evidence. Progress may not be inevitable, and it may not continue into the future, but who can compare the modern world to that of the ancient Greeks and say that things aren’t better now? If earlier cultures didn’t share our view, it is because the rate of change was too slow to make visible to them what is obvious to us now.
Gray does not deny the reality of scientific, technological, and material improvements. He only insists that the things we mean when we call such improvements “progress”—that gains, once made, are not lost but built upon, that setbacks are rare and temporary—has no analogy in morality or human affairs: “Knowledge increases at an accelerating rate, but human beings are no more reasonable than they have ever been.” He, too, can marshal empirical evidence in his defense:
Slavery was reintroduced in the twentieth century on a vast scale in Nazi Germany and the Soviet and Maoist gulags. Slave auctions in the so-called Caliphate established by the Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria were advertised on Facebook. Human trafficking flourishes throughout much of the world. Torture has been renormalized. Banned in England in the mid-seventeenth century and in Europe by the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa in the late eighteenth, the practice was revived by the world’s pre-eminent democracy when George W. Bush sanctioned it in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Instead of being left behind, old evils return under new names.
Proponents of human progress tend to conflate technological and moral advances, so that, say, the lives saved by the smallpox vaccine are placed in the balance against those lost in the Holocaust, to show that humanity is in the aggregate improving, despite all the atrocities Gray cites. But while vaccines have unquestionably saved many human lives and alleviated great suffering, they have not made us more civilized. For the past several years, overall life expectancy has dropped in the United States, not because we have lost access to medical or technical knowledge, but because living in history’s richest society has become so unbearable for so many people that they are killing themselves in unprecedented numbers, either intentionally or by accidental overdoses of opiates. Meanwhile, much polling suggests that two decades of the greatest increases in material wealth the world has ever seen have made the Chinese population less happy than it was before.
To respond that subjective well-being is not a good measure of progress only raises deeper questions, for what measure should we use? Any coherent vision of progress will require a widely agreed-upon notion of the good, something secular ideologies have been notoriously bad at generating. There have been countless efforts to ground morality rationally, without the backstop of belief in a transcendent order, but none has been wholly successful, in the sense that there is still no single moral code that all or even most rational people can agree upon as binding. Even within the dominant schools of thought, there is wide variation. One of the greatest living utilitarian philosophers, Peter Singer, is a leading proponent of animal liberation. Meanwhile, other utilitarians reject the idea that the pain and pleasure of nonhuman animals should register at all in our moral calculus, arguing that “human flourishing” is the only sensible basis for ethical judgments. There is simply no rational way to adjudicate such differences. “When wrenched from monotheistic religion,” Gray contends, the idea of progress “is not so much false as meaningless.”
To Gray this is not a problem; it is just how the world works. “Human beings will always have disparate goals and values,” a fact that premodern polytheistic religions comfortably recognized. The assumption that our values ought to be universal is yet another holdover from Western Christianity. Jesus preached to his fellow Jews, who likely saw him in a long tradition of internal critics and reformers, but after his death Saint Paul brought his message of salvation to all who were willing to be baptized. This shift is generally understood as a great improvement on the tribalism of earlier faiths, but Gray sees it as a step backward, because “the price of universal hope was evangelical belief.” That is, the possibility that everyone might be saved brings the obligation to go forth and convert: “If there is one law binding on everyone, every way of life but one must be sinful.”
The secular version of universalism generally rests on an idea of humankind as fundamentally rational. The use of reason separates humans from other animals and binds us together; it is what creates ethical obligations that extend beyond our kin or countrymen. Again, this is taken to be an improvement on sectarian moralities, but faith in reason tends to inspire its own evangelical zeal. It encourages—even demands—that reason stamp out unreason wherever it is found. Because rationalism, like Christianity, is a creedal faith, it is not enough that the unreasonable change their behavior; they must change their beliefs. The establishment of reason as the sine qua non of human exceptionalism also allows some people to be cast outside the circle of humanity. In The Silence of Animals, Gray quotes two of the greatest Enlightenment philosophers: “There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white” (David Hume); “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that arises above the trifling” (Immanuel Kant). “Racial prejudice may be immemorial,” Gray adds, “but racism is a product of the Enlightenment.”
Gray is not a thoroughgoing relativist; he does think that some universal human values exist, not in any abstract sense but in the sense that there are things that all or nearly all humans desire. We all want ourselves and those close to us to be protected from the threat of violence and premature death. We all have basic material needs. It is less clear that all humans in all times and places have wanted freedom, in the sense that Western liberals use the term, or political self-determination, especially when those values conflict with security and material comfort, as they often do. (The American notion that the freedom to own guns is worth the price of near-daily mass shootings strikes most rational human beings—including many Americans—as patently absurd.)
It is not just that certain rational interests conflict with each other, but that human beings have all sorts of desires that run counter to their rational interests. Peace and stability would seem to be universal goods, but there is obviously something in humans that wants conflict and change. The Christian view of man as a fallen creature, divided against his own better nature, can at least make sense of this fact. The Enlightenment view of man as a rational animal cannot, but it is difficult to give up, because in the absence of any theistic framework, it’s the one thing that makes humanity special.
Gray’s answer to this dilemma is simple: humanity isn’t special. In fact, there is no such thing as “humanity”; there is just an endless variety of individual humans, going about fulfilling their wants and needs in much the same way as other animals do. Human nature may change over time, but there is no “upward” trajectory to these changes, nor could there be, because there is no objective hierarchy by which such a trajectory could be judged. Since all values exist at the human level, they will simply change along with us. To Gray, this is the unmistakable lesson of the Darwinist materialism that most atheists claim to accept, though it is a tough lesson to swallow. (So tough that even Darwin couldn’t take it whole. “As natural selection works solely for the good of each being,” he wrote in On the Origin of Species, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress to perfection.”)
Where does that leave us? Gray’s book ends with several chapters about other ways of being atheist, ways that eschew secular humanism and Enlightenment ideals. The first of these is the tradition of misotheism, or God-hatred (type 5), whose “greatest modern prophet” was the Marquis de Sade. Rather than rejecting theism as wishful thinking, misotheists view the very idea of God as evil, and they embrace cruelty and criminality as principled responses to the possibility of this evil. Gray’s objection to this tradition is not its immorality but its self-conscious immorality, which relies on the perpetuation of the Judeo-Christian ethic it seeks to subvert. (Very few of the hyperrationalist New Atheists would claim any kinship with Sade, but Gray believes they run into the same problem when they attack religion using the language of theistic morality.)
Gray’s other criticism of misotheism is that by setting mankind in a sort of cosmic face-off with God, it embraces the same human exceptionalism that plagues so much post-Christian thought. His last two types of atheists take a more modest view of man’s place in the world. Some of them—like George Santayana and Joseph Conrad—have been materialists who accepted the full implications of their materialism and given up any hopes for human progress (type 6). Others—like Arthur Schopenhauer and Baruch Spinoza—have a skepticism about how much we can know about the underlying nature of reality that approaches the via negativa of certain theologians (type 7). Indeed, Gray notes, “Some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion.” Though these skeptics all reject the notion of a divine creator imposing order on the universe, they accept religion as a natural feature of human behavior, one that meets various needs that cannot be rationally satisfied.
Gray insists that he does not mean to convert anyone, but he obviously finds these thinkers far more congenial than the other five “types.” Santayana, in particular, seems a kind of model, and Gray might be describing his own late works when he commends the writing that Santayana did after his early retirement from Harvard as “deliberately unacademic in style: polished and glittering, studded with aphorisms, addressing the unprofessional reader in conversational terms without giving away anything of the author’s life or emotions.”
Gray calls Santayana “one of very few philosophers to have lived in accordance with his avowed ideal of the good life,” that ideal being “the pursuit of equanimity,” an Epicurean goal Gray clearly admires. Throughout his writing, Gray has encouraged a kind of philosophical quietism—an embrace of the life of contemplation over the life of action—as the proper response to the reality of our place in the world. In The Soul of the Marionette, he puts it like this:
Those who seek inner freedom do not care what kind of government they live under as long as it does not prevent them from turning within themselves. This may seem a selfish attitude; but it makes sense in a time of endemic instability, when political systems cannot be expected to last. One such time was late European antiquity, when Christianity contended with Greco-Roman philosophies and mystery religions. Another may be today, when belief in political solutions is fading and renascent religion contends with the ruling faith in science.
Many readers will disapprove of the idea that withdrawal from public life in search of inner freedom might be an appropriate response to political instability. Gray does not think that we need to give up politics entirely, only that we must abandon the idea of politics—a “shabby and makeshift” thing that exists to manage our conflicting wants and needs—as an avenue to secular redemption. This may be his greatest heresy against liberal piety, for it entails recognizing the “vanity of politics.”
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s stirring words about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. In doing so, he implicitly offered his own presence in the White House as evidence of this trajectory. Now that Donald Trump has followed Obama into the Oval Office, Gray’s vision of history as just one thing after another, some good and some bad, some gains and some losses, seems more apt. But I suspect that few people will take up his invitation to look upon our current political situation with equanimity. There is undoubtedly something admirable in those who can view their own suffering sub specie aeternitatis, but it is a different matter to view the suffering of others this way, particularly when their suffering vastly exceeds your own.
These days the urge to act—to do something, no matter the particulars—seems stronger than ever, and quiet contemplation is treated as a form of irresponsibility. Some of this action has the air of secular redemption to it, but much of it takes the form of precisely the sort of makeshift response to immediate human needs that Gray would seem to embrace. The problem is that motivating even these narrow but necessary acts often requires a grand vision of the possibilities for permanent change. People don’t want to hear that their efforts will improve things—if they improve things at all—only for today, that tomorrow will bring much the same problems, require much the same efforts. No doubt Gray understands this very well. One of his abiding ideas is that you cannot dispel an illusion simply by demonstrating that it is an illusion: “The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”