What Type are You?
Anyone who has been interested in atheism (or agnosticism, humanism, or freethought) for any length of time has probably run into this seeming non sequitur: atheism is just another religion, which is usually quickly brushed off, at least to one’s self (cognitive dissonance, you know). But can it honestly be dismissed that easily, even to one’s own way of thinking? It might not be as easily dismissed if you are discussing the topic with another, however, especially someone with a little background on the topic. Atheism is about religion after all—so isn’t it possible that there is a nexus of “aboutness” and identity? Perhaps the arrival of a new year is a good time to check your position on the road map of ideas about the topic.
Philosopher John Gray explores this and other nuances of atheism and religion and their common ground and differences in his recently published book Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 2018). Gray himself is an atheist, and places himself belonging to one or two of the “types” he details. What keeps his account interesting—unlike some philosophical texts on the subject of atheism which augment or even base the author’s opinion with propositional logic truth tables and the excruciating differences between the semantics of “entails” and “implies” (Michael Martin’s Atheism. A Philosophical Justification is a good example of this)—is Gray’s use of liberal smatterings of references to literature, offbeat culture, and obscure and all-too-dominant political personalities and social movements.
In the coming weeks I will review the book, but only one or more chapters at a time due to the space required to pay consideration to all of the ideas worthy of coverage.
New Atheism is Not So New
To John Gray, author of Seven Types of Atheism, there is not much new under the sun, especially the latest renewal of the god question that has received a lot of attention—indeed, has had a large influence on religious thought—in the industrial West over the past two decades. New Atheism (a term coined by journalist Gary Wolf in an essay critical of the newly emerging movement) is but one and the first “type” of atheism he analyzes in his latest book, and one he thinks so little of as far as bearing any new fruit to the market of ideas on the subject, that he vows not to refer back to it in the rest of the book.
The new atheism popularized by the anti-pantheon of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens (who were also called—from the Book of Revelations—the Four Horsemen), and many others is, according to Gray “a campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand that small part.” That small part is: “[religion] is no more than an obsolete scientific theory,” making the “God debate” no more than “a tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion.”
Gray appears to create a straw man argument here, but it could also be that the vague category and loose terms defining “new atheism” lends itself to criticism from all angles. He reiterates his earlier position that the new atheist sees religion as an “obsolete scientific theory,” tweaking the wording to “a primitive sort of science,” and then proceeding to inform the reader that the early Christian and Jewish theologians St. Augustine and Philo of Alexandria wrote convincing accounts of the allegorical nature of the Book of Genesis; that the “meaning” of the human predicament was expressed therein was in the form of a myth, and was, for its time, an excellent way to present it, but was never intended to be a historically accurate , much less a scientific account. But the fact remains that neither new nor old atheists have ever claimed that the religious myths or dogmas or holy books are sound history or scientific theories. Any atheists worth his salt will tell you that the disagreement turns on the conviction that when modern scientific theory contradicts religious doctrine (the theory of evolution is the prime offender), for the theist the results of the scientific method used to arrive at the theory are false, simply by virtue of being contradictory to religious doctrine. Any religious doctrine at that point becomes, in the view of religious leaders and adherents, a science itself— albeit a science with no method, no evidence, no peer review—a supra-science of sorts, a way of knowing the world that is superior to what science is now understood to be. So it is only from the religious outlook that religion is a science—obsolete, primitive, or otherwise; from the point of view of new atheists, the scientific hypotheses, and the documented testing of them and the search for their weaknesses and inconsistencies is the antipode of religious-literary superstitions, scripture, and edicts, most all originating from oral traditions dating back three millennia or earlier.
Gray proposes the true debate against monotheism centers around the the question of Christianity and history rather than science. While “Religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and the innumerable varieties of polytheism all contain stories of what would now be seen as miracles. But these religions do not depend on such stories being accepted as literally true, whereas Christianity is liable to falsification by historical fact….and Christianity will be badly shaken if the received story of Jesus can be shown to be false.” Again, I do not think an argument is to be found in the writings of new atheism denying or even minimizing this point. Dan Barker wrote two chapters in his book Godless—with a foreword by Richard Dawkins—titled did “Did Jesus Exist?” and “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” Two chapters on two very important historical issues Gray emphasizes. But give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is only trying to draw attention to the relative importance new atheism places on the scientific argument (as skewed as he presents it) over the historical argument contra modern religion. And John Gray, as will be seen, is not prone to use the stock criticisms or orthodox models for creating the other types of atheism in his book. It is ironic that he closes this chapter saying “atheism of the present century is best appreciated as a type of entertainment.”
—Reporting for The Humanist Advocate