The final chapter of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism

Image result for seven types of atheismThe God of monotheism did not die, it only left the scene for a while in order to reappear as humanity – the human species dressed up as a collective agent, pursuing its self-realization in history. But, like the God of monotheism, humanity is a work of the imagination. The only observable reality is the multitudinous human animal, with its conflicting goals, values and ways of life. As an object of worship, this fractious species has some disadvantages. Old-fashioned monotheism had the merit of admitting that very little can be known of God. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the faithful have allowed that the Deity may have withdrawn from the world. Awaiting some sign of a divine presence, they have encountered only deus absconditus – an absent God.

The end result of trying to abolish monotheism is much the same. Generations of atheists have lived in expectation of the arrival of a truly human species: the communal workers of Marx, Mill’s autonomous individuals and Nietzsche’s absurd Übermensch , among many others. None of these fantastical creatures has been seen by human eyes. A truly human species remains as elusive as any Deity. Humanity is the deus absconditus of modern atheism.

A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning the prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.

Image result for seven types of atheismAccording to the grandiose theories today’s atheists have inherited from Positivism, religion will wither away as science continues its advance. But while science is advancing more quickly than it has ever done, religion is thriving – at times violently. Secular believers say this is a blip – eventually, religion will decline and die away. But their angry bafflement at the re-emergence of traditional faiths shows they do not believe in their theories themselves. For them religion is as inexplicable as original sin. Atheists who demonize religion face a problem of evil as insoluble as that which faces Christianity.

If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites. If you can see what a millenarian theocracy in early sixteenth-century Münster has in common with Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany, you will have a clearer view of the modern scene. If you can see how theologies that affirm the ineffability of God and some types of atheism are not so far apart, you will learn something about the limits of human understanding.

Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism. But there is no need for panic or despair. Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality. A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.

Image result for creation of adam

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40 Responses to The final chapter of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism

  1. Nicholas re

    “Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species …”

    Do atheists really believe in what used to be called the ‘great ladder ‘ of evolution : bacteria at the bottom fish in the middle and humanity at the top?

    • John R Walker says:

      BTW while glad he speaks of monotheism (and not of ‘religion’ ) the usage still has real problems as a category.
      Prime example is , Christians ( and one subgroup of Muslims )believe in the Trinity – in Luthers words trying to understand the Trinity would ‘ endanger your mental health ‘.

  2. John Birnheim says:

    The trouble with the cause of everything is that it explains nothing. The trouble with a common goal for all humanity is either that it warrants that anything people choose to want is a human goal, including anything we can imagine somebody wanting, and that is just a mess of desires that are in one way or another incompatible. The mythical common goal and the futile efforts of religions of all sorts to prescribe for it bear witness to a deep-seated desire to transcend being merely human.

    I suggest that the push towards transcendence is simply our particular version of the perpetual scramble to invent new complexes that is the blind driving force of evolution. It is not a convergent process, but one of discovering complexes with much more varied capacities than their components. A few subatomic particles make a much greater variety of atoms, which in turn make huge variety of chemical compounds and so on. The random interactions of particles following their own natural trajectories ensure that every possible combination at a certain level of complexity gets tried, but only a few turn out to be stable and survive long enough to interact with similar complexes to produce a new level of activity quite different from that of their components in virtue of the ways in which those components are organised.

    We humans have discovered a great variety of forms of organisation that enable us to do extraordinary things, acquire amazingly powerful real and imaginary capacities in virtue of different networks, mostly by chance, but sometimes by design. Unfortunately, destructive violence and threats thereof are generally easier an quicker than construction as feats are more compelling than hopes. We have invented all sorts of spurious reasons for employing these capacities on moral grounds. I suggest that the task that lies ahead of us is to develop specific forms of organisation that will find rewarding ways of inducing people to do the various things that need to be done without threats of violence, not because everybody shares the same interests and values, but because we feel that the variety of things that needs to be done enriches us all in unpredictable ways as the variety of opportunities open to us in both imagination and reality expands by a mixture of cooperation and happenstance.

    Every work of art is the valuable precisely in its originality. But at the same time is original only in relation to a tradition on which it is a comment. An ecosystem consists of organisms of very different kinds each doing it own thing, but adapting to the opportunities and nutrients that other organisms offer it. At the biological and animal levels organisms cannot create these things. We can, if only we can use our ability to cooperate in ways that others and we find fulfilling.

  3. paul frijters says:

    I have a lot of sympathy for the basic argument that religion does not need a supernatural god, an insight that opens us up to seeing religiosity in almost everyone. I also sympathise with the argument that monotheism is the norm and that it is particularly ill-suited to the way humans think, which means it must mainly be generated by the peculiar circumstances of our societies.

    Unfortunately, where the author displays his ignorance is when he overlays his reasons for belief onto the rest of us, ie his phrase “Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality.”
    Different peoples at different times have believed for far more prosaic and pragmatic reasons: they just believed what their carers taught them was true, or they anthropomorphised what was around them, or they were trying to bargain without having real power, etc.. John Gray makes the classic mistake of presuming that his pre-occupations are those of all humans at all times, a nice example of monotheism in action. He is trying to connect to us via his one god, ie his ‘unimaginable reality’. I wonder if he knew that this stance is reminiscent of the Greeks who took Chaos as the primal state from which gods were born. Sweet, in a way.

    • John R Walker says:

      I give you
      Brahms quartet g minor 4th movement

    • Nicholas Gruen says:


      Are you saying or assuming Gray is not an atheist?

      He describes himself as one in the book.

      • paul frijters says:

        well, he doesn’t sound like an atheist from how I would define it (he cares too much about his own constructs), but he might well be in the way he defines it!

        The text above says “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism” (which I largely agree with).

        What’s your take?

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          When Gray says “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism”, that’s the atheism he has it in for – what I call ‘schoolboy’ atheism. He also says that he’s an atheist in the mould of either his sixth or seventh kind of atheism.

          They are, for your reference
          6 Atheism without Progress

          George Santayana, an atheist who loved religion – Joseph Conrad and the godless sea

          7 The Atheism of Silence The mystical atheism ofArthur Schopenhauer

          Two negative theologies: Benedict Spinoza and Lev Shestov

          On the other hand Gray is convinced that what we might call ‘monotheistic atheists’ are caught up in projecting their monotheism into new channels – politics and history. He makes a good case as to the horrendous excesses of this and his case that it’s erroneous is quite well made. But the approach he doesn’t deal with is the lesser claim which is not that the world is ineluctably moving towards transcendence, but that that if not transcendence, then improvement a worthy aspiration for us – individually and collectively.

          I was raised as a schoolboy atheist and in that sense am a lapsed atheist. Sadly, that doesn’t lead me to anything much more than a wide eyed respect for the yawning chasm between what we know and what the world is. People tend to sentimentalise this – Philip Adams can’t wait to purr about ‘the numinous’ which sounds silly to me.

          I mostly intellectualise it – which is probably just as comical. I suspect a friend of mine emotionalises it – that is tries to relate to it emotionally and has become a Catholic. Good luck to him. My emotional reaction is despair if I’m to look it in the face, but it’s also a kind of bloody minded faith that I should do the right thing – that if there’s a God it’s immanent. Then I tend to have ideas from my culture about what that might be – which are essentially Christian.

          But this is just a nice middle class ‘faith’ in so far as it’s anything. It’s never been really tested, so it doesn’t amount to much.

          I’m not an atheist in the sense of having some strong sense of what the universe is not. That is a view that strikes me as absurd on its face – a refusal to shake ourselves out of the idea that really everything is pretty commonsensical whatever arguments the smarties come up with.

          It’s pretty obvious, for instance, that the world is made of matter, that this mind thing is constructed of it. Well it does seem obvious, but it also seems obvious that the sun is revolving round the earth. In fact this kind of thinking is mistakes all the way down because not only is the instinct behind it simply untutored – unreflective – but even if it’s true that the universe is made of nothing but matter, we haven’t the slightest idea what matter is. I discussed a little of this in this post.

          • Alan says:

            There are some extremely good arguments that the mind is not made of matter. See for example. almost anything by David Chalmers. The field of consciousness studies is filled with materialists, nonmaterialists, delusionists, intervalists, and several other positions.

            There are four fairly obvious propositions in consciousness studies, but no more than 3 of them can be valid.

            (1) The mind is a nonphysical thing.

            2) The body is a physical thing.

            3) The mind and the body interact.

            4) Physical and nonphysical things cannot interact.

            Westphal, Jonathan (2016-09-22T22:58:59). The Mind–Body Problem (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) (Kindle Locations 156-158). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

            I’m not advocating any particular position, just suggesting that it is a much more complex issue than you’ve described.

  4. R. N. England says:

    Some short musings on religion from this atheist.

    As far as I can make out, the Christian God is a personification of Christian culture. Christian culture is very real, and the dominant part of our cultural heritage, but it is an impersonal thing, and anthropomorphising it brings all sorts of problems. It doesn’t answer prayers. It didn’t create the earth etc.. It isn’t a feudal ruler in the sky. But it does continue to shape much of our behaviour for better and, more rarely for worse.

    On the manuscripts of many of his major works, Josef Haydn (1732-1809) wrote “In nomine Domini” at the beginning, and “Laus Deo” at the end. I learned long ago from a classical scholar that “Laus Deo” means “The praise belongs to God”. The scholar was headmaster of a school whose motto that was, so I have no doubt he would have done his homework. I therefore interpret Haydn’s inscriptions as: “This work is dedicated to the Christian culture whose servant I am”; and “The praise for it belongs to my Christian culture”. It is an acknowledgement by the musician that without his culture the work would not exist. I see this as a far more realistic, uplifting, and even scientific outlook, than sordid individualism in which everybody scrambles for every last bit of personal credit for some piece of rubbish they claim to have “created”.

  5. Michael Robbins here gives a pithy summing of the tediousness of schoolboy atheists .
    He concludes the piece:

    My own preferred image of God comes from Dante. At the end of the “Paradiso,” Dante the pilgrim has at last ascended to the Empyrean and is vouchsafed a vision of God, who is not the white-bearded figure of iconography. As often throughout the last canticle of his Comedy, Dante stresses that what he witnessed “was greater than speech can show.” Everything he can say of his vision is but an approximation, a translation of the ineffable into human terms.
    With this qualification in place, Dante describes God as an infinitely transparent point of light, conflating “substances and accidents and their modes … in such a way that what I describe is a simple light,” where goodness is gathered. “And what is perfect there falls short elsewhere.”

  6. David Walker says:

    Um … you don’t often encounter religious believers willing to concede the real possibility that their god may have withdrawn entirely from the world. The point of view seems particularly rare among noted religious thinkers. I’m not saying there are none, only that they are thin on the ground. I would in fact be grateful for pointers to those who have made this particular point.

    The far more common claim is that a god is present and has revealed himself to all who have opened themselves to the experience.

    • Matt Moore says:

      “you don’t often encounter religious believers willing to concede the real possibility that their god may have withdrawn entirely from the world”

      It was very common historically. The 17th & 18th century were rife with deists who believed exactly that.

  7. David Walker says:

    “While science is advancing more quickly than it has ever done, religion is thriving – at times violently …”

    In certain places, religion is thriving. In other places, not so much.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Indeed, putting your finger on an important weakness of Gray’s and a way in which he risks a kind of simpatico with the crazies. Personally I don’t think of fundamentalism as in any way religious. For me religion has to be about somehow submitting to our own ignorance of what this world of which we are a part is. And I’m afraid if you think it’s contained within the literal words of some translation of some holy book, you haven’t really turned up.

      • David Walker says:

        As one of many possible definitions, that seems fine.

        It is, however, incumbent on people who think this way about religion to acknowledge that it’s a view held by a tiny minority of believers. My guess is that it’s far less common than simply being unconvinced about the existence of a god or gods. If it had a name, it would be a type of belief you hardly ever heard of, like Yazidism or anarcho-syndicalism, held by people you rarely met and having little influence in the wider world.

        Most believers I have talked with think that Jesus actually came back to life or that Mohammed really flew to Heaven on the back of an actual flying horse, and regard those facts as integral to their belief.

        More generally, most religious people seem to be enthusiastic about the certainty aspects of their belief. Uncertainty is, for such people, a bug, not a feature. It’s really interesting to me that there are few if any religions which say “we think this might be how it is, but we’re not completely sure”. Some forms of Hinduism may get close.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Thanks David,

          But it’s NOT incumbent on me to speak on behalf of anyone ;)

          Nor you :)

          I’m not much of a one for pistols at dawn between two abstract nouns.

        • David
          while there are actually a large number of quiet comtemplatives in many faiths they are on the whole by nature ,quiet.

          BTW if I had certainty I would not need faith.

          • David Walker says:

            It was one such quiet contemplative who first made this point to me. “Whenever I speak to people at church about this,” she said, “I feel like I belong to a different religion than they do.”

            • David Walker says:

              And for her, talking about it at all was a bit of an experiment. I think she’s stopped now, in favour of, you know, quiet contemplation.

            • John R Walker says:

              Can’t say that I have felt a sense of , belonging to a different religion. Comtempative is simply one of the six ( or seven not sure) main threads of practice. The Desert Fathers after all go way back.

        • Matt Moore says:

          It’s important to remember that “believing” is simply one third of the “belonging, behaving, believing” triad of organised religion.

          Most self-identified Christians are not theologians. They do not have a rigorously worked out worldview. They may well believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in some manner. But fewer Australians believe that the Bible is literally true than believe in UFOs. And fewer still believe in something like young earth creationism.

          For some believers, certainty is draw – I absolutely agree. But for others structure and ritual or a sense of communal engagement are more important.

          • Matt
            That( mostly )tally’s with my experience of about 16 years of membership of the Canberra Goulburn diocese.
            Caveat is , the second great commandment and the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup is litteraly a link in a unbroken chain going right back to the events in that upstairs room in Jerusalem.

            • Matt Moore says:

              I’m not sure that I follow your “caveat”. What do you mean by it?

              • Simply that the communion and love your neighbors as yourself are (literally) primary – came, come first. They are not ‘just’ ritual bonding exercises.

                • Matt Moore says:

                  There’s nothing “just” about ritual bonding exercises. Human groups have engaged in rituals and rites that signify group membership (and exclusion) for millennia. They are incredibly primal.

                  Communion has much in common with other collective rituals in other communities. I doubt you will agree.

                  As for the injunction to love your neighbours, behaviour by Christians over the centuries has indicated that it is entirely optional.

                  • Matt

                    Re human behaviour .
                    Somebody asked Evelyn Waugh :
                    How come if your such a devout Christian, you can at times be such a hard bastard.
                    Waugh replied :
                    You don’t know what I’d be like without it.

                    • Matt Moore says:

                      I don’t believe that Christianity makes people especially violent. But I don’t believe that it makes them especially peaceful either. My point was that saying it’s “primary” for Christians is not held up by the evidence.

                      I reckon Evelyn Waugh would have been a right prick no matter what religion (or lack of) he was exposed to.

  8. Matt Moore says:

    I like John Gray’s writing and thought – although I also find it hilarious. His worldview is so unremittingly bleak that it goes right into self-parody. He is the Eeyore of modern philosophy. And a lot of the content in the passage above is familiar from Gray’s “Black Mass” where he links modern political movements to historical religious movements*.

    My take is related to Gray’s in that I don’t ever see “religion” disappearing from human societies. As I child I was told there was a “god shaped hole” in all of us. And there is. But I no longer think there is a god to fill it. Or rather we have to fill the hole ourselves. There is no supernatural readymade.

    There are two useful empirical studies of unbelief in Australia: Tom Frame’s Losing My Religion and Hugh Mackay’s Beyond Belief. Both of which are great when they stick to social science but become much less interesting when they shift to theology.

    The number of self-identified “atheists” in Australia is actually quite small (around 50,000 if I recall). Far larger are the people who have no interest in organised religion (around 20-30%) or have a vestigial attachment to Christianity (around 50-60%). Which isn’t to say that these groups do not have religious impulses and desires that manifest in other ways – as Mackay details at length in ch. 3 & 4 of his book.

    In a sense, Gray is behind the times. The New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins) who are obviously the targets of Gray’s scorn here were a 2000s phenomenon that arose out of a particular period in history. I don’t think they play that role now.

    A few people on this thread also talk about “Christian culture” – which is a concept which is bandied about a lot (along with the term “Judeo-Christian”) and that I am a little suspicious of. For example it implies that we have more in common with the Democratic Republic of Congo (a majority Christian country) rather than Japan (a nation shaped by Shinto and Buddhism). It also suppresses the violent disagreements within Christianity. Varieties of Christian belief have absolutely influenced the culture and laws of Australia but not in the monolithic way that this term sometimes implies.

    *On reflection, in his amodernism, he reminds me most of Bruno Latour.

  9. John R Walker says:

    The slow movement of the Brahms quartet I referenced is ironic ,very incheck.
    I am not your , object.

  10. Jay says:

    “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”(Deuteronomy 23:1)

    Fair enough.

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