Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.
The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.
If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).
I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.
Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.
The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).
The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate. We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.
Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.
Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:
‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’