You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bad Faith

Do atheists think too much like believers?

Illustration by Guy Billout

Our hominid ancestors first appeared around six million years ago. They started to use symbols around 150,000 years ago, and the first of the major religions began 5,000 years ago. What are we to make of this? Did humans have souls before then? If not, how did we acquire them? If so, why didn’t God reveal Himself throughout 99.9 percent of humanity’s life span? What was He thinking? And God’s puzzling silence didn’t end with the advent of religion. The God of the Old Testament was fairly communicative, and the gods of the Hindu pantheon made frequent appearances, at least for a while. But since Jesus ascended to heaven (or, if you prefer, since the angel Gabriel finished dictating to Muhammad), transmissions have all but ceased.

This would seem to call for some explanation. As the infidel Tom Paine scoffed: “A revelation which is to be received as true ought to be written on the sun.” The devout Cardinal Newman agreed but thought it had been: “The Visible Church was, at least to her children,” he wrote in 1870, “the light of the world, as conspicuous as the sun in the heavens, and the Creed was written on her forehead.” Unfortunately, the Church’s radiance has dimmed somewhat since then, and many unbelievers have wondered why God can’t write “YES, I EXIST” across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters visible (to each viewer in her own language, of course) everywhere on earth, each night for a week, once a year. Is that too much to ask of an omnipotent, infinitely loving Being?

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pp., $25.00

God’s inexplicable reticence has always made life difficult for theists. John Gray thinks that such problems with theism shouldn’t make most atheists any more confident about their own outlook. Gray is professor emeritus of European thought at the London School of Economics, a prolific author (Seven Types of Atheism is his 22nd book), and a columnist for the New Statesman. He was briefly a Thatcherite, then became a critic of free-market fundamentalism, then (briefly, again) a New Labourite, though he strongly opposed (and was acutely prescient about) the Iraq war. Since around 2003 he has turned from political theory and current affairs to a more philosophical, even prophetic, vein, producing numerous short books that take a very long—and glum—view of Western intellectual history.

A similar argument runs through all these later books, including Seven Types of Atheism. The secular, progressive, rationalist ideologies of the West are so much “spilt theology.” The expectation that science, or more generally knowledge, will transform the human condition is a form of Gnosticism, the esoteric doctrine that the world is ruled by an evil demiurge, whom only those in possession of secret, saving knowledge can defeat. The belief that humankind will eventually achieve lasting peace and happiness merely recapitulates Christianity’s salvation history, in which the People of God will be redeemed at the end of days. Very few, mostly marginal figures, in either East or West, have achieved the detachment and disenchantment that would signal a genuine break with religious thinking. Most atheists have instead “searched for a surrogate Deity to fill the hole left by the God that has departed.”

The archetype of this quest was the Enlightenment, with its confident efforts to fashion a science of man. Unfortunately, these efforts issued in the racist pseudo-science of Voltaire and Hume (or so Gray claims), while all attempts to inaugurate the rule of reason have resulted in bloody fanaticisms, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism, that equaled the worst atrocities attributable to believers. Perhaps this should have come as no surprise. As Carl Becker argued 85 years ago in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (still “the best book on the Enlightenment,” in Gray’s opinion), the philosophes “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials.” Gray’s verdict is even harsher: “Racism and anti-Semitism are not incidental defects in Enlightenment thinking. They flow from some of the Enlightenment’s central beliefs.”

Seven Types of Atheism does not offer a rigorous or exhaustive taxonomy of nonbelief. The seven sections mainly provide a convenient way of organizing Gray’s likes and (more often) dislikes. He starts with a chapter on the New Atheists, who have poured scorn on the more obvious logical difficulties and historical implausibilities of dogmatic religion. Even the New Atheists’ admirers must admit that they sometimes display more zeal than finesse, and that they give a general impression of punching down. Gray’s contempt for these contemporary would-be philosophes is such that he can barely bring himself to refer to them by name. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are, he judges, “mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.”

Instead he sets out some intellectual scaffolding. “There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview,’” he argues, because “atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god.” Some people identify atheism with scientific rationalism, but science cannot dispel religion—not least because religion is not a set of hypotheses to be disproven. Rather, it is anything—myths, rituals, even illusions—that makes sense of our passage through life. Others equate atheism with disbelief in the omnipotent God of Christianity and Islam; Gray counters that this notion falls short, since “religion is universal, whereas monotheism is a local cult.” Still others imagine that religion was simply a stage in human evolution, now left behind, to which Gray responds: “The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.” (Gray is much given to such lapidary pronouncements, perhaps because he is an ardent admirer of the brilliantly witty philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and George Santayana.)

Gray’s next category, secular humanists, includes Mill, Marx, and Bertrand Russell, who for all their differences are alike in their “vast hopes for social transformation.” Atheists of this sort think they have left religion behind, but they are wrong. The history of Christianity is shot through with millenarian movements promising the end of history. After the Reformation, humanists dropped this apocalypticism in favor of gradual progress and swapped the aim of reaching the Heavenly City for the goal of building a utopia in this world through human effort. What Christianity and secular humanism share is more important than their differences: No other religious tradition—Jewish, Greek, Indian, Chinese—envisions history as linear rather than cyclical or conceives of humanity as a unitary collective subject. The very idea of utopia—a place where everyone is happy—could not have occurred to people who took for granted that individuals have irreconcilable desires and ideals, and that conflict is therefore impossible to eliminate. Western universalism, Gray scoffs, is very provincial indeed.

The same pattern appears again and again, Gray finds, as a mode of thought overthrows religion, only to imitate some of its characteristic intellectual moves. Evolution had no sooner vanquished Christian theology than outcroppings of “evolutionary theology” began appearing. Gray rebukes Darwin, who wrote: “As natural selection works solely for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress to perfection.” Natural selection does not work solely for the good of each being, as Darwin himself acknowledged often enough elsewhere. But the impulse to identify evolution with progress has proved hard to resist, as has the temptation to lend evolution a hand with eugenics. “Evolutionary humanism” birthed some dehumanizing attitudes in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Julian Huxley, and H.G. Wells, who tended to view ordinary people as merely grist for the production of “men like gods,” in Wells’s famous (or infamous) phrase.

A subset of science-based atheists are the “transhumanists,” who believe that we are destined to become gods. Such prophecies were numerous in the twentieth century: The illustrious scientist J.D. Bernal imagined humans becoming creatures of pure light, Arthur C. Clarke foresaw a similar end for humanity in his 1953 novel Childhood’s End, and even Trotsky predicted that, after the Revolution, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” Ray Kurzweil is the most confident exponent of transhumanism today, certain that by genetically enhancing ourselves and melding our minds with machines, we will produce a qualitatively new version of Homo sapiens, perhaps in the twenty-first century. Yuval Noah Harari is more ambivalent, pointing out that this new version of humanity, which he calls Homo Deus, may not see much point in keeping old and unimproved specimens of its predecessor species around. Gray, as usual, finds these supposedly daring speculations to be merely variations on an ancient tune: the age-old dream of transcending physical limitations and historical contingency and uniting with the Absolute.

In his 1953 novel, Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke imagined the perfection of humanity.
Peter MacDiarmid/Getty

Not all modern atheists are unwitting Christians. Some are unwitting Gnostics. In that ancient mystery religion, remember, the earth was created by a malevolent demiurge, while a transcendent God dwells, inaccessible, in a realm of light, unknowable except by those who receive a special, secret revelation. The baneful lure of esoteric knowledge—ideology—is, Gray argues, responsible for the modern political religions. Jacobins, Positivists, Bolsheviks, Nazis, and Maoists all featured an elite stratum of intellectuals whose mastery of some body of liberating ideas—Rousseauist republicanism, Comtean “social science,” Marxism-Leninism, Aryan race science, Mao Zedong Thought—entitled them to rule the uninitiated. That each of these movements was irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, and apocalyptic—hence religious, on one view of religion—no one can dispute. Yet whether it is useful, given the absence from all of them of a malevolent demiurge and a transcendent God, to call them “Gnostic” is less certain.

Most of Gray’s subjects are rationalists, who thought their way (or so they believed) out of religion. But he also contends with passionate or existential atheists, rebels who cannot forgive God for the horrors of the world or the miseries of their own natures. The dark prince of these “misotheists” (God-haters) is the Marquis de Sade. Finding himself beset by impulses to cruelty and sexual domination, he ascribed them to Nature, which, after the eighteenth-century French fashion, he equated with God. Sade’s distinction, however, is to have disenchanted Nature, which until then had been almost universally reverenced but which he saw as a cesspool of violent and lustful drives. Of course, as Gray points out, “Sade was mistaken when he imagined he had left monotheism behind. Instead he changed one unforgivable deity for another.”

More appealing misotheists include Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who “hands back his ticket” to heaven because an Almighty God allows innocent children to suffer, and William Empson, whose classic Seven Types of Ambiguity suggested the title of Gray’s book. Empson, a literary critic, derived an intense revulsion against Christianity from studying Paradise Lost, in which God is an all-powerful tyrant who created Hell and consigned to it a large part of human- (and angel-) kind. “The Christian God the Father, the God of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas,” he wrote, “is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man.” Nevertheless, Gray finds Empson, too, insufficiently emancipated. “By invoking an idea of metaphysical evil, Empson showed he remained wedded to a Christian worldview.” A world in which God is the Devil is a Christian world, albeit with all the signs reversed.

At this point the reader, especially if she has encountered similar arguments in Gray’s previous books, may find a question arising in her mind: So what? Why does it matter that Bolshevism and Nazism both have certain structural and psychological resemblances to Christianity? Christianity has, after all, had benign as well as malign consequences; and the murderousness of Nazism and Bolshevism surely had far more to do with both societies’ history of absolutism than with those ideologies’ prophetic and millenarian character. Christianity has pervaded Western culture for over 1,000 years; its traces are bound to be everywhere—even in atheisms.

In another example of guilt by somewhat far-fetched association, Gray writes that Kant and Mill “believed that a universal moral law could be grounded in reason,” giving rise to an “evangelical liberalism” that has led modern Western governments, “possessed by chimerical visions of universal human rights,” to disastrous interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya “in order to promote a liberal way of life in societies that have never known it.” Leaving aside the fact that these interventions had nothing whatever to do with promoting a liberal way of life and that the Western governments in question (especially our own) cared not a fig for universal human rights, does all this really call into question Kant’s and Mill’s theories or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Can Kant and Mill really be held responsible for Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton?

In fact, some of the resemblances Gray claims to see between Christianity and various types of atheism are less than compelling. In a devastating critique of Becker’s Heavenly City, Peter Gay coined the phrase “the fallacy of spurious persistence” to name a tendency to claim false or exaggerated continuities. When Auguste Comte issued a “Catechism of Positive Religion,” the continuity with Roman Catholicism was clear. That Mill’s liberalism “aimed to replace monotheism even as it continued monotheistic thinking in another guise,” as Gray claims, is much less plausible—Mill’s thinking is “monotheistic” only in a very strained sense. “If you want to understand modern politics,” Gray writes, “you must set aside the idea that secular and religious movements are opposites.” Secular and religious people may beg to differ, but Gray knows better.

A close student of Isaiah Berlin, and the author of a notable book about him, Gray has clearly absorbed Berlin’s sensitivity to the dangers to liberty posed by ideologies, both rationalist and irrationalist, as well as by styles of thought, irrespective of content. Hence his concern with the extreme, unworldly, uncompromising character of the thinking of many who believe they have emancipated themselves from Christianity. It is a useful interpretive approach, from the viewpoint of mental hygiene—even if he sometimes takes aim at largely blameless thinkers like Hume, Kant, Mill, Marx, Darwin, and Russell.

At last, just as many readers will have begun to wonder if any Western thinkers ever succeeded in freeing themselves from monotheism, millenarianism, and Gnosticism, Gray introduces us to his favorite atheists: the anti-progressives and the mystics. George Santayana was a philosopher of amiable imperturbability. He wrote fluently but entirely unsystematically and without the slightest concession to the interests of academic philosophers, so he is largely forgotten. Instead of staging his exit from religion as a kind of cosmic melodrama, he simply “stepped out of monotheism altogether.” In a charming irony, he passed the last decade of his life in Rome, at the Convent of the Blue Nuns, producing countless exquisite sentences like this: “A mind enlightened by skepticism and cured of noisy dogma, a mind discounting all reports, and freed from all tormenting anxiety about its own fortunes and existence, finds in the wilderness of essence a very sweet and marvelous solitude.” Gray calls him “an atheist who loved religion.”

Joseph Conrad was as fatalistic and disillusioned as Santayana, but without Santayana’s lightheartedness and sense of mischief. If Santayana was an Epicurean, Conrad was a Stoic, certain that Fate would eventually come for each individual and that all that mattered was how she met it. Gray quotes Conrad’s famous letter to Bertrand Russell, who had asked his opinion of “international socialism” and its prospects: “I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Conrad thought reason grossly overrated; competence and courage were enough to see one through. Santayana played with ideas; Conrad mistrusted them, sure that some fool would get hold of them and wreak havoc.

Schopenhauer, whom Gray exalts above Hegel and Nietzsche, was a “mystical” atheist. His philosophy of the will furnished Freud with many mordant apothegms. He studied Indian philosophy, which supported his belief that selfhood was an illusion, and that destroying this illusion was the only possible salvation. Curiously, Schopenhauer lived a far more sensual and worldly life than his ideal of salvation might suggest. With his poodles, his concert-going, and his “carefully managed hedonism,” he was sublimely selfish and wholly bourgeois. And yet, Gray writes, “for anyone weary of self-admiring world-improvers, there is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness.”

Spinoza, on the other hand, was notably unworldly, and the least self-assertive of philosophers. He was a hero of the philosophes, partly because he was one of the last thinkers to be actively persecuted for his atheism, but also because he wrote an influential treatise on politics denying the legitimacy of censorship and advocating democratic republicanism. Gray admires him and Lev Shestov, a twentieth-century Russian existentialist, both “negative theologians” who predicated a God about which nothing could be said. Spinoza was a pantheist, but not in the same sense as most of his predecessors of that description. He did not conceive of countless individual gods dwelling in every separate object, but rather of a single God diffused through and in fact identical with the universe. He was also an early specimen of that recurring paradox (which is not really a paradox): the philosophical determinist who is also a passionate champion of freedom.

Gray is at his best in these sketches of writers he admires, as well as in the many similar sketches scattered through his previous books: Varlam Shalamov, Stanislaw Lem, J.G. Ballard (Straw Dogs); Sigmund Freud, Joseph Roth, Norman Lewis, T.E. Hulme, Llewelyn Powys (The Silence of Animals); Giacomo Leopardi, T. F. Powys, Philip K. Dick (The Soul of the Marionette); among others. They earn Gray’s highest praise: “Not looking for cosmic meaning, they were content with the world as they found it.” Such all-too-rare detachment is the beginning of wisdom. Addressing readers directly (at the end of Straw Dogs), Gray asks us to do likewise: “Other animals do not need a purpose in life.… Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”

With considerable respect for Gray (and for Conrad, Santayana, et al.), I would answer no. As long as so much of what we see is unnecessary suffering, we cannot be content with the world as we find it. Of course we should keep Gray’s cautions well in mind. The catastrophic revolutionary ideologies of the past were ersatz religions. Scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Moral and political progress are always subject to reversal. Humans are animals; human nature is riven with conflicts; reason is a frail reed. But even if we can’t set the cosmos right, we can’t leave our corner of it the way it is. Whatever else may be an illusion, other people’s suffering is not.