There’s more to atheism than the dim-witted Dawkins brigade

Some people believe that God exists. Others don’t. And we call those who don’t atheists. Straightforward enough, you might think. Well, why then has the philosopher John Gray written a book called “Seven types of Atheism“? Just as the question of God’s existence can be affirmed in various different ways, so too the corresponding denial of God takes on various forms. As Thomas Aquinas put it: “eadem est scientia oppositorum” – affirmation and their corresponding negations are fundamentally linked.

Already, this seems a little unfair on the atheist. The believer affirms a particular form of God. The atheist denies it. Then another believer affirms a quite different version of God, which the atheist has to set about denying all over again. It feels like a rather exhausting version of whack-a-mole.

If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites

In his brilliant inaugural lecture as Professor of Theology at Cambridge, cheekily titled “How to be an Atheist”, Denys Turner complains about forms of denial that are just too confident that they know what they are denying:

The problem is presented to us equally by those theists who know all too well what they are affirming when they say ‘God exists’ and by those atheists – the mirror-image of the first – who know all too well what they are denying when they say ‘God does not exist’. For both the affirmer and the denier are complicit in a sort of cosy and mutually reassuring idolatrous domesticity: in short, they keep each other in a job.

Here is part of the problem for the atheist. For much theology, the affirmation of God’s existence is not like the affirmation of unicorns or Santa Claus because God is not any sort of object in the world. So if, for example, you decided to embark upon some mad project of counting all the objects that exist in the universe as Thomas Aquinas suggests, you would never come across a thing called God that would go on that list.

To this extent, the atheists are clearly correct: there is no thing called God. But they are correct only in a trivial sense, because only the most Sunday school-ish mind thinks God to be the sort of thing that could exist in such a way.

Atheism is mostly an illiberal creed that does little to advance the cause of human flourishing

Gray, himself an atheist, understands that atheism is a far richer subject that the sort of trivial denial that the so-called New Atheists specialise in. Gray says he even seriously considered writing his book without any reference to people such as Dawkins and Sam Harris, such was his estimation of their non contribution to atheistic thought. A “media phenomenon” and “a tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion” he calls it.

But Gray does venture into their territory, not least because he wants to scotch the assumption that their sort of atheism is linked with the establishment of a more progressive politics. There is no good reason that atheism leads to liberalism, greater equality or a personal freedom. Indeed, historically speaking, most campaigning atheists have been profoundly illiberal in their approach – from Auguste Comte’s atheistic religion of humanity to the various versions of Communism to Nietzsche and Ayn Rand’s philosophically batty objectivism, atheism is mostly an illiberal creed that does little to advance the cause of human flourishing.

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Gray is at his strongest when he seeks to expose the ways in which supposedly atheistic philosophies are often shot through with religious assumptions. He called secular humanism, for instance, a “sacred relic”, not least because it often tends to be constructed around the notion of progress, which he sees as a secularised version of Christian eschatology, with history always pointing to the sunny uplands of some grand metaphysical conclusion.

Gray rightly shrugs at all this philosophical upspeak. Calm down, he councils, like some avuncular Geordie Eeyore, we are not on the verge of something new, we are not about to reinvent what it is to be human, we are not at some special point in history. The moral challenges of today are pretty much the same as they have been for centuries. There is no short cut out of constituent issues of being human.

For many, technology and science function in today’s society very much the same way as magic once did – they both represent the fantasy that there can be some quick fix to the challenges of being human.

The idea of exploding moral or existential short cuts is where Gray’s work is most important. As he rightly insists, the idea that science or technology can somehow deliver us from the sort of questions that have driven some of us to God – questions about mortality, for instance – is every bit as superstitious as any religious belief. For many, technology and science function in today’s society very much the same way as magic once did – they both represent the fantasy that there can be some quick fix to the challenges of being human.

The idea, for example, that we (our essence) might one day be uploaded into an app so we might live forever carries with it a “parody” of what it is to be human. Likewise, the way technology appears in the argument over climate change, for example, as some future saviour for our consumptive greed and expectation of endless growth, is a classic deus ex machina that would make even the most credulous believer blush. “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means,” Gray concludes, “Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism.”

Of the other forms of atheism, Gray also mentions what he calls the ‘God haters’. Now this is an interesting category because it includes those to whom the question of God’s existence is beside the point – they reject God if he exists or if he doesn’t.

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I once had a rather boozy lunch with the Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson (whose Who’s Who entry cites both “drinking” and “atheism” among his interests) and I remember him saying that even if God walked though the restaurant door and introduced himself, he would still be an atheist. And I completely get that. Like Ivan Karamazov in the Brother’s Karamazov, Rowson’s atheism is deeper than mere denial. It is moral rejection. And finding out that God actually exists wouldn’t make him believe in God one bit.

This makes an important point. Believing that God exists and believing in God are entirely different things. In this regard Rowson is a more sophisticated non-believer than the New Atheists who still think atheism is all about establishing whether a thing called God is on Aquinas’ inventory of things that exist in the universe.

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The most interesting aspect of Gray’s book is his insistence that “if you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites” – and this strikes me as absolutely right. Gray’s own sympathies lie closer to those of  Joseph Conrad, who had no use for the idea of God, but nonetheless wrote often of his characters as sailors dependent upon the vast, beautiful indifference of the oceans. This dependence has religion-like qualities – a sense of something much bigger than oneself, a sense that the waters provided the ship with its living and purpose, the need for shipmates to establish patterns of human solidarity in the face of the dangerous circumstances.

But this sailor atheism also contained a recognition that the ocean is wholly indifferent, without higher meaning or purpose. Gray’s atheism thus retains its sense of mystery – not mystery as in stuff that is yet to be found out, but mystery as in the intrinsic unknowability of the place in which human beings find ourselves.

Over the last few decades, atheism has got rather dull

Over the last few decades, atheism has got rather dull. The New Atheist debate was highly successful in an evangelical kind of way – and lots of people (in the west) have been converted to it. But atheism stopped being rich or interesting. And that is a pity because, as Gray demonstrated, there is so much more to atheism than the dim witted Dawkins brigade. I did my PhD on Nietzsche, have been intellectually shaped by several important atheists, notably Freud, and even my religious heroes have atheistic tendencies.

If I have one criticism of Gray’s book it is that he could have done more with the religious side of atheism – the whole iconoclastic tradition that deliberately smashes any settled representation of God as being a product of the human imagination. Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing etc.

There is a rich interaction to be had between belief and unbelief that the New Atheist debate has driven out with its juvenile ‘Boo Hurrah’ approach. My hope is that Gray’s book might spark a renewal in the creative interchange between believers and non believers. As his final words put it: “The difference between the two may be less than you think.”