My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The English thinker John Gray begins this 2018 book with an apparent paradox: “Contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world.” The balance of the text will explain the startling claim, itself reprised from earlier Gray books like Straw Dogs and Black Mass. Gray’s longstanding thesis is here put into more systematic order, as implied by the numeric title borrowed from literary critic William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. According to Gray, contemporary atheists, whether they are New Atheist liberals, Marxist progressives, or Ayn Rand acolyte libertarians, have swapped out one deity for another: “The progress of humanity has replaced belief in divine providence.”
He aims to correct this error by expanding our idea of atheism. “The notion that religions are creeds—lists of propositions or doctrines that everyone must accept or reject—emerged only with Christianity,” he argues, whereas both religion and atheism are better understood as a set of practices, active orientations toward the mystery of things, as they were before Christianity’s advents by Jews, Greeks, Buddhists, and other groups. He charges contemporary atheists with a kind of scientific vulgarity when they regard religious faith and practice as a mere error, a misjudgment about information, and reminds readers how much of science itself, especially so-called social science, is simply taken on faith and eventually disproved or discarded:
Atheists who think of religions as erroneous theories mistake faith—trust in an unknown power—for belief. But if there is a problem with belief, it is not confined to religion. Much of what passes as scientific knowledge is as open to doubt as the miraculous events that feature in traditional faiths. Wander among the shelves of the social sciences stacks in university libraries, and you find yourself in a mausoleum of dead theories. These theories have not passed into the intellectual netherworld by being falsified. Most are not even false; they are too nebulous to allow empirical testing. Systems of ideas, such as Positivism and Marxism, that forecast the decline of religion have been confounded time and time again. Yet these cod-scientific speculations linger on in a dim afterlife in the minds of many who have never heard of the ideas from which they sprang.
Just as Gray attributes disavowed religious impetus to secular creeds, so he locates a pragmatic godlessness in a mixed company of mystics and materialists, including ostensible theists like Spinoza or Meister Eckhardt.
He begins surveying his seven atheisms with the New Atheists of the early 21st century, whose ideas he construes as the unserious and largely unwitting rebirth of the 19th-century Positivism expounded by Auguste Comte. Writing with remarkable prescience just a few years before the pandemic, Gray foresees how this brand of atheism, with its faith in reason and material progress, leads by logic to the illiberal rule of a scientistic clerisy:
The project of a scientific ethics is an inheritance from Comte, who believed that once ethics had become a science liberal values would be obsolete. In a rational society, value-judgements would be left to scientific experts. Atheist illiberalism of this kind is one of the strongest currents in modern thought. The more hostile secular thinking is to Jewish and Christian religion, the less likely it is to be liberal.
This is almost word-for-word the argument of today’s philosophical lockdowners, like Benjamin Bratton. Pursuant to this critique of naive liberals and those who “believe in science,” Gray moves on in his second chapter to secular humanists—John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell are his chief exhibits. Their belief in the progress of humanity he regards as deriving from Christian eschatology, with its linear progress from the Fall of Man toward the Second Coming, the Final Conflict, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
He also sees a Neo-Platonist and Gnostic strain in progressivism. He crisply narrates how Platonism, passing through Plotinus to Erigena to Böhme to Hegel to Marx, became a superficially secular quasi-gnostic ideology of progressive liberation wherein our goal as humanity is to complete and thereby to become the God who has withdrawn from the creation. He finds this idea not only in Mill’s liberalism, but also in aspects of Marxism, in Nietzsche’s “incurably Christian” attempt to redeem humanity from nihilism, and in Ayn Rand’s cult of individualism. Of these options, he seems to find Nietzsche the least objectionable, since the tormented philosopher seemed at least to understand the stakes of God’s inexistence, unlike Mill or today’s atheists, who silently rely on monotheistic universalist ethics when they don’t believe in God: “An atheist because he rejected liberal values, Nietzsche is the ghost at the liberal humanist feast.”
In the third chapter, Gray discusses those who repose their faith in science, with a particular attention to the by-now well-known failings of Enlightenment thinkers, his chief examples being the racism of Kant and Hume and the anti-Semitism of Voltaire. This might be the weakest chapter, a mere compilation of scarifying quotes from 18th-century philosophers that the average bien pensant college student could produce today, quotes that, while disturbing, don’t irredeemably tarnish all the rest of these writers’ ideas. Gray is on stronger ground when he traces how Darwin’s successors turned his contingent theory of evolution into a strongly teleological belief in human improvement, a progressive goal whose chief sociopolitical manifestation was the popularity of eugenics in the early 20th century.
In his fourth chapter he makes an argument his regular readers will find familiar: that major modern political ideologies—communism, fascism, and liberal imperialism—descend from Christian millenarianism and the Gnostic conviction that humanity must be saved from the evil world of nature.
The name of the Nazi regime, the ‘Third Reich’, comes from medieval apocalyptic myth. The twelfth-century Christian theologian Joachim of Flora divided history into three ages, ending with a perfect society. Taken up by the Anabaptists during the Reformation, the idea of a Third Reich surfaced again in the work of the inter-war ‘revolutionary conservative’ Moeller van den Bruck, who looked to the establishment of a millennium-long new German order in his book The Third Empire (1932), which sold millions of copies.
Gray again displays his prescience, writing years before the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, when he mocks the liberal-imperialist pretension of the post-9/11 American foreign policy:
Possessed by chimerical visions of universal human rights, western governments have toppled despotic regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in order to promote a liberal way of life in societies that have never known it. In doing so they destroyed the states through which the despots ruled, and left nothing durable in their place. The result has been anarchy, followed by the rise of new and often worse kinds of tyranny.
He turns his attention, in the fifth chapter, to misotheists, or “God-haters.” Dostoevsky’s anguished Ivan Karamazov, who “turns back his ticket” to God when contemplating the pain of even a single child, is one example; the Marquis de Sade is another. Gray diagnoses Sade’s elaborate cosmology of nature-worship-through-sexual-torture as an inverted Christian theology:
Sade was mistaken when he imagined he had left monotheism behind. Instead he changed one unforgivable deity for another. If he raged against the God of Christianity for creating a world abounding in evil, he railed with equal violence at the malevolent goddess of Nature that he had invented. Only someone reared in Christian monotheism, and unable to shake it off, could have adopted such a stance.
This is also my judgment, in general, of the Sade-Bataille axis of French extremity; as I wrote in my essay on Bataille’s classic pornographic novel, The Story of the Eye, “Mechanically reversing the traditional pieties of the west like flipping a series of switches, the devotees of extremity have created a pious tradition of their own, carried on to a stultifying extent in the institutions of culture, particularly the art world and some wings of academe.”
Gray concludes this chapter with a discussion of William Empson himself, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Another of Empson’s classic books, Milton’s God, describes the Christian deity as a “Belsen commandant” and “astonishingly like Uncle Joe Stalin.” Gray observes that Empson, who lived for years in China and Japan, found in Buddhism the resolution of humanity’s conflicting desires—the “life-negating” desire to withdraw, the “life-enhancing” need to enjoy—without ever apprehending the same complexity in Christianity itself. Despite its sometimes vengeful-seeming God, Christianity conferred a divine dignity on human suffering that it had not enjoyed in the polytheistic Greco-Roman cosmos:
Empson’s genius was in recognizing the irreducible plurality of meaning and value in language and art. He saw this plurality in the contradictory expressions of the Buddha. He was too close to Christianity to see it there too.
Here Gray offers respect to religions themselves—even progressive, teleological Christianity—that he doesn’t pay to their ersatz descendants among modern secular ideologies. Rather than posing as rational systems cleansed of metaphysics, traditional religions admit the irrational and answer the seemingly incorrigible human need to place our sorrows and pleasures in some greater cosmic context.
Yet Gray ends his book with a look at “atheists without progress” and believers in “a silent God”—figures he admires for their ability to subsist in a cosmos without meaning. He provides a fascinating portrait of George Santayana—a literary giant in his time, but little read today—and of the much more canonical Joseph Conrad, whose seafaring skepticism and stoicism he submits as an admirable ethic for the present:
Conrad did not mourn the passing of a God through which human personality was projected throughout the universe. It was the impersonality of the sea—’the perfect wisdom of its grace’, as he put it in what must surely have been an ironical theological allusion—that gave human beings their freedom. The godless ocean gave Conrad’s seamen all they needed, and Conrad everything he wanted.
As in Straw Dogs, Gray again proffers the tonic of Schopenhauer’s pessimism and even suggests that the philosopher’s personal faults are almost admirable when juxtaposed with progressive moralism: “For anyone weary of self-admiring world-improvers, there is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness.” Neglecting the political, he doesn’t here share the anecdote, detailed in Straw Dogs, about Schopenhauer offering his lorgnette as a gun sight for government soldiers shooting at the revolutionaries in 1848—a militarized aestheticism one imagines today’s meme-happy social-media reactionaries admiring.
Gray concludes with Spinoza’s severe monism and expresses doubts I’ve always felt myself about the revered philosopher—
Again and again in [Spinoza’s] works, which were written in Latin, he enjoins the reader: Non ridere, non lugere, neque destestari, sed intelligere (Laugh not, weep not, be not angry, but understand). But it is not clear why anyone should immolate themselves on an altar built from metaphysical speculation. Why renounce our humanity for the sake of an indifferent Deity?
—before hailing Lev Shestov, a writer I’ve never read, influential on modernists like Bataille and Lawrence and now enjoying a comeback, for his conviction that religion “demands the impossible.”
In the end, Gray dissolves the boundary between religion and atheism to make a more consequential division: between those dangerous believers—Platonists, Christians, Gnostics, Marxists, New Atheists, scientific positivists, liberals, etc.—who think they have access to the one universal truth and the one true path to progress, and a more chastened company of diversely humble negative theologians, nihilists, aesthetes, Pragmatists, Stoics, Taoists, and more, who accept the limits to human knowledge and the plurality of human values and simply try to live the best they can within these bounds.
Like his English contemporary, the celebrated Kazuo Ishiguro, he is conservative in the deepest sense. An aphoristic essayist reminiscent of Cioran or Borges, a collector or connoisseur of the telling quotation and the crystalline anecdote, he doesn’t believe in any universal ethic, he scorns the idea of human progress, and he takes interest in life primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon. His aestheticism—his impeccable taste—guide him well when he dismisses the vulgarity of scientific positivism, facile political progressivism, or the techno-utopian fantasies of those who expect the Singularity. When he praises Christianity for its impossible demands and sublime absurdities, however, he shows his awareness that folly can be beautiful too. The chastened nihilism he shares with Conrad and Ishiguro may simply be the natural exhaustion that settles in old men’s bones at the twilight of empire.