How dif­fer­ent, re­ally, are athe­ists and be­liev­ers?

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Faith & Values - BY COSTICA BRADATAN Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post

“If you want to un­der­stand athe­ism and re­li­gion,” writes John Gray in his new book, “Seven Types of Athe­ism,” “you must for­get the pop­u­lar no­tion that they are op­po­sites.” Gray uses para­dox not just for rhetor­i­cal ef­fect but to a philo­soph­i­cal end. If one is to be an hon­est thinker and ad­vance knowl­edge, one must ex­pose and dis­man­tle the web of pop­u­lar ideas, con­ve­nient la­bels and lazy think­ing that makes up the philo­soph­i­cal or­tho­doxy.

Gray claims that, since there is no such thing as sec­u­lar­ism (”sec­u­lar thought is mostly com­posed of re­pressed re­li­gion”), there “never was a sec­u­lar era.” And with this we are at the heart of “Seven Types of Athe­ism.” Athe­ism, Gray ar­gues, is rarely to be found in a pure state. Philo­soph­i­cally, it’s a po­si­tion dif­fi­cult to ar­tic­u­late in­de­pen­dently of re­li­gion. A neg­a­tive term, athe­ism needs the­is­tic ideas to give it life: It feeds off them and loi­ters around them and de­pends on them.

This is be­cause re­li­gion, born out of our fun­da­men­tal need for mean­ing, is ir­re­place­able, ac­cord­ing to Gray. A com­pletely mean­ing­less, chaotic world would be too much to bear, even for athe­ists; they cock­ily deny re­li­gion only to end up with “sur­ro­gates of the God they have cast aside,” as Gray puts it. Even at its most so­phis­ti­cated, athe­ism is bound not to stray too much from its more for­tu­nate re­la­tion, with the re­sult that “some of the most rad­i­cal forms of athe­ism” are in­dis­tin­guish­able from “some mys­ti­cal va­ri­eties of re­li­gion.” Gray ac­cepts that this is un­avoid­able and un­der­stand­able, given the need for mean­ing that re­li­gion sat­is­fies. What trou­bles him is how un-self-re­flec­tive and self-de­cep­tive some athe­ists are.

The seven types of athe­ism in the book’s ti­tle re­fer to the ways mod­ern athe­ism re­lates to re­li­gion. The first type, rep­re­sented by “the new athe­ists,” is also the least in­ter­est­ing. They tend to treat re­li­gion as a mere sys­tem of be­liefs, and im­plic­itly as “a prim­i­tive sort of sci­ence,” and find it want­ing on that ac­count. This is no sur­prise be­cause re­li­gion has never meant to re­place sci­ence. The sec­ond type is “sec­u­lar hu­man­ism,” man­i­fest in thinkers as di­verse as John Stu­art Mill, Bertrand Rus­sell, Ni­et­zsche and Ayn Rand. For all its vo­cal pro­fes­sion of un­be­lief, Gray finds this type to be noth­ing but “a hol­lowed-out ver­sion of the Chris­tian be­lief in sal­va­tion in his­tory.” A third cat­e­gory of athe­ism makes a re­li­gion out of sci­ence through a va­ri­ety of in­tel­lec­tual fash­ions such as evo­lu­tion­ary hu­man­ism, mes­merism, di­alec­ti­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism and tran­shu­man­ism. The fourth is of a blood­ier kind: Turn­ing pol­i­tics into a form of re­li­gion (un­der such guises as Ja­cobin­ism, Nazism, com­mu­nism and evan­gel­i­cal lib­er­al­ism), it has over the past cou­ple of cen­turies left mil­lions of vic­tims across the globe. The fifth cat­e­gory, quite a spec­tac­u­lar one, is that of the God-haters such as the Mar­quis de Sade and Ivan Kara­ma­zov.

Gray is “re­pelled” by these five types of athe­ism. Not be­cause he is a be­liever. He is not - or, if he is, his re­li­gios­ity is of a dif­fer­ent kind. Judg­ing the first five forms of athe­ism philo­soph­i­cally mud­dled and in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est, he finds him­self at­tracted to two other types: Atheisms that are “happy to live with a god­less world or an un­name­able God.” One is rather dis­en­chanted and mis­an­thropic (”athe­ism with­out progress,” Gray calls it) and is em­bod­ied in such fig­ures as Ge­orge San­tayana and Joseph Con­rad. The other is a form of athe­ism that, while re­mote from con­ven­tional re­li­gion, could be seen as a form of mys­ti­cism.

Gray has emerged as a unique thinker pre­cisely be­cause he has no time for the pi­ous lies and empty niceties of the aca­demic es­tab­lish­ment. He seems to have a sixth sense that helps him de­tect what­ever is shal­low, self-flat­ter­ing and self-de­cep­tive in our no­tions of our­selves. He is eru­dite, witty and per­sua­sive. A lover of para­dox, Gray is him­self para­dox­i­cal: at once pas­sion­ate and de­tached, bold and skep­ti­cal, vi­sion­ary and hum­ble.

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