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Seven Types of Atheism Book Summary – John Gray

What you will learn from reading Seven Types of Atheism:

– Why a world without a god is a world that lacks meaning.

– How myths can be true.

– Why a belief in knowledge as salvation can’t truly give us the meaning we crave.

Seven kinds of atheism Book Summary

This was a book that really surprised me, the title alone would have been enough to put me off in the past. However, this book really opened my eyes to what the rise of atheism has meant for humanity. Books like this will completely open your eyes to the importance of religion as a mechanism for meaning as well as make you think twice about the current scientific visions of the future. I would recommend if you’re interested in this area to familiarise yourselves with some of the philosophical ‘isms’.


The Seven kinds of atheism:

The first of them – the so-called ‘new atheism’ – contains little that is novel or interesting.

The second type is secular humanism, a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history.

Third, there is the kind of atheism that makes a religion from science, a category that includes evolutionary humanism, Mesmerism, dialectical materialism and contemporary trans-humanism.

Fourth, there are modern political religions, from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism.

Fifth, there is the atheism of God-haters such as the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky’s fictional character Ivan Karamazov and William Empson himself.

Sixth, the atheisms of George Santayana and Joseph Conrad, which reject the idea of a creator god without having any piety towards ‘humanity’.

Seventh and last, there are the mystical atheism of Arthur Schopenhauer and the negative theologies of Benedict Spinoza and the early twentieth-century RussianJewish fideist Leo Shestov, all of which in different ways point to a God that transcends any human conception.


Contemporary atheism

Contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world. Life without any power that can secure order or some kind of ultimate justice is a frightening and for many an intolerable prospect. In the absence of such a power, human events could be finally chaotic, and no story could be told that satisfied the need for meaning. Struggling to escape this vision, atheists have looked for surrogates of the God they have cast aside.


Defining Atheism:

A provisional definition of atheism might still be useful, if only to indicate the drift of the book that follows. So I suggest that an atheist is anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world. In this sense atheism does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.


Defining religion:

A provisional definition of religion may also be useful. Many of the practices that are recognised as religious express a need to make sense of the human passage through the world. ‘Birth, and copulation, and death’ may be all there is in the end.

As Sweeney says in T. S. Eliot’s Fragment of an Agon – That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.’ But human beings have been reluctant to accept this, and struggle to bestow some more-than-human significance on their lives.

Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.


How Myths can be true:

Unlike scientific theories, myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience. The Genesis myth is a more truthful rendition of enduring human conflicts than anything in Greek philosophy, which is founded on the myth that knowledge and goodness are inseparably connected.

You should consider asking yourself the following question: does the story of Cain and Abel reveal more about the human condition or does the scientific materialist explanation that we are made out of matter explain the condition better?


Science, explanations and meaning:

Religion is no more a primitive type of science than is art or poetry. 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.

Science cannot replace a religious view of the world, since there is no such thing as ‘the scientific worldview’. A method of inquiry rather than a settled body of theories, science yields different views of the world as knowledge advances.

Above all, science cannot dispel religion by showing it to be an illusion. The rationalist philosophy according to which religion is an intellectual error is fundamentally at odds with scientific inquiry into religion as a natural human activity. Religion may involve the creation of illusions. But there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life. The human mind is programmed for survival, not truth.

None of the new atheists promotes tolerance as a central value. If ethics can be a science, there is no need for toleration. In fact all these versions of ‘scientific ethics’ are fraudulent, and not only because the sciences they invoke are bogus. Science cannot close the gap between facts and values. No matter how much it may advance, scientific inquiry cannot tell you which ends to pursue or how to resolve conflicts between them.


Secular views and progress:

Here it is worth noting that while modern meliorism claims to be based in science, the idea that civilisation improves throughout history has never been a falsifiable hypothesis. If it had been it would have been abandoned long ago.

For those who believe in progress, any regression that may occur can only be a temporary halt in an onward march to a better world. Yet if you look at the historical record without modern prejudices you will find it hard to detect any continuing strand of improvement.

A cyclical view of history was revived in Europe during the Renaissance by Niccolò Machiavelli. Rather than contesting Christian belief, the Florentine historian and adviser to princes stepped outside Christian ways of thinking. History was not a moral tale in which evil is punished or redeemed. A prince had to be ready to commit crime in order to protect the state. In order for virtue to survive, a ruler had to practise vice. Human goodness showed no tendency to increase over time. This view proved too uncomfortable to be adopted by Machiavelli’s contemporaries, and it is one most secular thinkers have found intolerable.

It is true that slavery and torture were flaws of pre-modern societies. But these practices have not disappeared. 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 renormalised.

Instead of being left behind, old evils return under new names. No thread of progress in civilisation is woven into the fabric of history. The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics, philosophy or the arts. Knowledge increases at an accelerating rate, but human beings are no more reasonable than they have ever been. Gains in civilisation occur from time to time, but they are lost after a few generations.


The myth of realising our possibilities:

The belief that humanity makes history in order to realise its full possibilities is a relic of mysticism. Unless you believe the species to be an instrument of some higher power, ‘humanity’ cannot do anything.

What actually exists is a host of human beings with common needs and abilities but differing goals and values. If you set metaphysics aside, you are left with the human animal and its many contending ways of life.

The faith that history has a builtin logic impelling humanity to a higher level is Platonism framed in historical terms. Marxists have thought of human development as being driven by new technologies and class conflict, whereas liberals have seen the growth of knowledge as the principal driver. No doubt these forces help shape the flow of events. But unless you posit a divinely ordained end-state there is no reason to think history has any overarching logic or goal.


Mill’s idea of progress:

It seemed obvious to Mill that humankind is progressing. But that  is far from being a self-evident truth. Certainly human beings have transformed their ways of living and the planet around them. It is less clear that they have improved themselves or the world they inhabit.

In what sense is a Nazi, a communist or an Islamist an improvement on an ancient Epicurean, Stoic or Taoist? How are the murderous political creeds of modern times better than the traditional faiths of the past? These are questions Mill’s latter-day disciples do not ask, still less answer.


Morality and it’s differences:

Human beings develop moralities as a normal part of living with each other, but no single morality is uniquely human. Understood as a set of categorical principles binding on all human beings, ‘morality’ itself is one more relic of monotheism – possibly the most important of them all.

The spectre of relativism is sure to appear on the scene – as when it is suggested that science need not eventuate in one true view of the world. If there are many moralities, it will be asked, how can there be truth in ethics?

Well, if you leave theism behind you must accept that human values cannot be independent of human needs and decisions. Some values may be humanly universal being tortured or persecuted is bad for all human beings, for example. But universal values do not make a universal morality, for these values often conflict with each other. Do you want more liberty at the price of less security? Peace if it means continuing injustice?

When individuals and groups choose between conflicting universal values, they create different moralities. Anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion.


Ethics and evolution:

The dangers of confusing evolution with ethics were recognized by Julian Huxley’s grandfather. T. H. Huxley was concerned that Darwin’s account of natural selection could be used to promote ideologies such as Victorian individualism. He was strongly opposed to what he called ‘the gladiatorial theory of existence’ – the misguided application of the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ to social questions.

Despite Huxley’s warnings, evolution and progress continue to be confused. Bookshops are filled with volumes claiming to reveal the evolution of morality. If Darwin’s theory is true – and it is the best account of how the human animal emerged to date – the moralities human beings practise must have an evolutionary explanation. But this says nothing about which morality anyone should adopt, or whether they should be moral at all. As Huxley pointed out in his lecture, morality and immorality are both of them products of evolution: “The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.’


Racism and the Enlightenment:

Racism and anti-Semitism are not incidental defects in Enlightenment thinking. They flow from some of the Enlightenment’s central beliefs. For Voltaire, Hume and Kant, European civilisation was not only the highest there had ever been. It was the model for a civilisation that would replace all others. The ‘scientific racism’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued a view of humankind promoted by some of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.


Advancing the human race begins with defining progress:

If progress means a ‘more advanced’ version of the human species, how do we know what is more or less advanced? This question was the subject of The Abolition of Man, a prescient little book by the linguist, theologian and writer of science fiction C. S. Lewis, first given as a lecture and published in 1943.

Lewis argued that progressive thinkers who wanted to reshape society, and eventually the human species itself, had no way of deciding what progress meant. For many it involved increasing human power and  using it to make Nature serve human ends. But the power of humankind over Nature, Lewis pointed out, means in practice the power of some human beings over others. If society is planned so as to maximize power over Nature, other human values will be crowded out.

Anyone who cherishes these values will be on the receiving end of power, not exercising it.

The progressive thinkers of Lewis’s day thought little of the average run of human beings. Like Trotsky, they believed they could design a better version of the human animal. After all, if most human beings are not just backward but obstacles to progress, what is the point of them?

Surely it would be better to sideline these inferior specimens. The future belonged to a post-human species. The end-result of humankind remaking Nature was remaking humankind itself. As Lewis wrote, ‘Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man.


The rise of gnosticism:

Gnostic ways of thinking are found in many cultures, but modern Gnosticism is a distinctively western phenomenon. A belief in salvation through knowledge is part of the western tradition.

Eric Voeglin, a leading twentieth-century scholar of Gnosticism, summarised the Gnostic way of thinking in six ideas.

First Gnostics are dissatisfied with their situation in the world; second, they explain their discontent by asserting that the world is inherently malformed; third, they believe salvation from the current order of things is possible; fourth, they assert that this order will have to be transformed in an historical process; fifth, they believe this transformation can be achieved by human effort; and lastly, this change requires deploying a special kind of knowledge, which the Gnostic adept possesses.


Dostoevsky and Atheism:

Dostoevsky rejected this rationalist faith. Human beings are  nothing like the rational animals imagined by philosophers. They are not guided in their lives chiefly by motives either of self-interest or of concern for the general welfare. Their actions express their impulses, which include not only a desire for cruelty for its own sake but also a desire for freedom.

The nature of atheism,  Dostoevsky believed was a project of self deification. Having renounced the idea of any divine power outside the human world, human beings could not avoid claiming divine powers for themselves. If they could not abolish death, they could prove themselves superior to it.

Think about this, if there is no God and no immortality, anyone who knows the truth ‘is permitted to settle things for himself, absolutely as he wishes, on new principles. In this sense, “everything is permitted” to him.’ Anyone who can live by this precept becomes a man-god, even if a new world never comes.


Meaning in suffering:

If the Christian universe is a vast torture-chamber, it is also a universe in which human suffering has moral significance. In the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, suffering might be the work of the gods; but the gods were arbitrary and capricious. Christianity answered a need ancient polytheism could not satisfy: it gave misery meaning and value. By taking suffering out of the realm of blind chance, Christianity imposed a responsibility on those who inflicted it.


Consciousness and awareness of tragedy:

Far from consciousness being humanity’s crowning glory, as humanists in his day and ours have proclaimed, it is self-awareness that makes the human predicament intractable:

Systems could be built, and rules could be made – if we could only get rid of consciousness. What makes mankind tragic is not that they are victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of the earth is very well-but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife – the tragedy begins.


Is civilisation improving?

Santayana dismissed any idea that civilization was improving. Insofar as it was real, progress meant refining particular ways of living:

‘The reader must not expect me to trace the fortunes of liberty historically or eschatologically, as if all were progress towards perfection. Everything in this world, considered temporally, is a progress towards death. True progress is an approach, in favourable seasons, to perfection in some kind of life. The idea that the universe is a hierarchy with God or humanity at the top Santayana repudiated entirely. Continuing progress is possible only in technology and the mechanical arts.

Rejecting Christianity, Schopenhauer also rejected any philosophy in which history is a process of human self-emancipation. ‘What history relates’, he wrote, ‘is in fact only the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind.’


The nature of value:

Platonism, and then Christianity, encouraged an illusion regarding the nature of value. For Santayana, values were animal needs turned into abstract categories and projected into the cosmos. Often condemned as a relativist, he did not blush at the description. ‘Value is something relative,’ he wrote, ‘a dignity which anything may acquire in view of the benefit or satisfaction which it brings to some living thing.”

That does not mean human values are matters of opinion. Though they are relative in that they reflect human needs and circumstances, judgements of value often stray from underlying realities. The good is by no means relative to opinion, but is rooted in the unconscious and fatal nature of living beings, a nature which predetermines for them the difference between foods and poisons, happiness and misery.’


Myths and Symbols:

But Spinoza did not imagine that most of humankind would ever become rational beings. In his writings on politics he is explicit that much of humanity cannot grasp truth and must be governed through the use of myths and symbols.


The meaning in History:

People seek the meaning of history, and they find it. But why must history have a meaning? The question is never raised. And yet if someone raised it, he would begin, perhaps, by doubting that history must have a meaning, then continue by becoming convinced that history is not at all called to have a meaning, that history is one thing and meaning another.

The 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-realisation 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.


Are religion and atheism opposites?

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

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 trans-humanism. 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.