Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

John Gray Seven Types of Atheism

441 1556789767

Anyone who has followed the work of John Gray over the past two decades could be forgiven for believing him to be endowed with the gift of prophecy.

False Dawn, published in 1998, argued that the free market was unstable and stood on the brink of collapse. The idea was largely dismissed out of hand until the financial crisis of 2008. Similarly, Gray's most famous work, Straw Dogs, emerged in the early noughties and presented a view of human affairs that many found intolerable. Back then, Gray's pessimism was a tough pill to swallow. Yet today, with political institutions in turmoil, the return of the far right and seemingly intractable global conflicts, Straw Dogs reads like a survival manual for staying sane in dangerous times.

But of course, Gray himself would reject any such notion of prophecy as hokum. Rather than look to the future, he has shifted his gaze to the past, to the recurring human dramas and the apparent inability of our species to learn from its errors. The peace and prosperity we've enjoyed since the end of WWII, he repeatedly suggests in his books, does not indicate the beginning of a new era, but rather a lull in an endless storm.

Since leaving his post as Professor of European Thought at LSE, Gray has published a new book every few years, none of them particularly academic in tone, most of them drawing on a host of forgotten or neglected writers. Rather than advance any new line of thought, his latest, Seven Types of Atheism, instead expands on ideas he has breezed over in the past.

The study begins with an unsparing critique of famous atheists like Richard Dawkins, whose opposition to religion Gray views as itself evangelical and who Gray does not regard as a true atheist, i.e. someone who simply has no use in his or her life for deities. It's not a case of science needing to replace religion, Gray says, because both serve entirely different human needs. As science explains more of the world away, reducing humans to evolutionary accidents in an indifferent cosmos, peaceful religious observance will go on: "Scientific inquiry answers a demand for explanation. The practice of religion expresses a need for meaning, which would remain unsatisfied even if everything could be explained."

At just over 150 pages, the book may appear short. But every page is so packed full of information that it can only be digested slowly, with pauses for reflection. Meanwhile, the threads between sections are both dizzying and troubling. For example, an exploration of brutal sixteenth-century millenarian theocracy later becomes tied in with the devastating atheism of Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany. "Contemporary atheism," Gray concludes, "is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science."

An atheist himself, the final two sections of the book are devoted to styles of atheism that Gray feels more congenial towards. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana provides some fascinating insights. He posited that human life is just a slow march towards the grave and that life itself is in a state of permanent flux. Yet this observation appears to have released him from despair. As Santayana wrote: "The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light among thorns."

Fritz Mauthner, meanwhile, who was a major influence on the playwright, poet and novelist Samuel Beckett, but whose work is almost impossible to come by these days, advocated a 'godless mysticism'. Mauthner believed that language distorts our view of the world. Through silent contemplation, we might catch a passing glimpse of a world unencumbered by words. Running with this idea, Gray concludes that a world minus some kind of divine presence does not bring about an end to mystery, but instead serves to heighten it, enriching life rather than devaluing it.

The book is grim and disturbing at times, but when relating the barbarity and cruelty of human affairs, how could it be otherwise? Gray doesn't paint a flattering picture of humans as masters of their fate. Nonetheless, the overall effect of his writing is to come away with a greater sense of compassion for those we share the world with and a deeper appreciation for the world itself - fragile and temporary though it may be.

Filed under: 

Next article in issue 134

More Wordlife

Jim Ottewill Out of Space

Author Jim Ottewill's new book is a fantastic exploration of clubs, their associated cultures and the sanctuary they still give to generations of the nation's youth in good times and bad.

Helen Mort A Line Above the Sky – Q&A

In advance of her book launch and conversation with rock climber Shauna Coxsey MBE at the Festival of Debate on 23rd April, Helen Mort talks to Rachel Bower about mountains, motherhood and women's bodies.

More Wordlife