A Critique of “Seven Types of Atheism”

John Gray may be a contented atheist, but he is not pleased with other atheists whom he believes are mistaken in their goals or advocacy.  He has written a book to express that displeasure, Seven Types of Atheism. Published in 2018, it is a volume similar to his 2002 work, Straw Dogs.  But Seven Types of Atheism is a more comprehensive and scholarly work that describes each of the categories of atheism that he has chosen to classify and critique.  He is an English political philosopher, and a retired Professor of European Thought of the London School of Economics and Political Thought.  He has written over sixteen books on various political, economic, and philosophic thought and is a regular contributor to such publications as The Guardian.  In many quarters he is generally thought of as a conservative with a small “c.”

Mr. Gray’s publications display a gloomy view of the human race and its future prospects.  He does not believe that societal improvement and progression is viable for any lengthy period and has scant respect for human reason or consciousness. He claims that atheism is ” … a closed system of thought”.  He presents an interesting,  but in my opinion, a wrong-headed notion that many atheist stances are simply an inheritance from monotheism.  That humans have had what he deems “common goals”   for societal improvement throughout history is a simply “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. He does not believe those goals ever existed before monotheism and are a fantasy that has passed from such religions as Christianity to secular thinkers,  beginning with the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. He finds it regrettable that such goals persist in the present day.  Despite his confident pronouncements,  I do not believe that Gray is correct.  I find that some critics have not been as critical as they might concerning his claims, perhaps intimidated by his formidable scholarship, which has seemed to cloud their critical insight.  Nevertheless, there are some clear-sighted critiques of Seven Types of Atheism, and Atheist Scholar joins them in refuting many of Gray’s pronouncements.

Seven Types of Atheism is organized into what Gray claims are definitive categories of secular thought. He discusses each one in his lucid prose.  Five of the types selected are “New Atheism”, secular humanism “,  “a strange faith in science”, “atheism, Gnosticism and modern political religion”, and “God-haters”. He heaps scholarly scorn on the first five he has selected to examine. The two final types of atheism are his preference, and his choices are not surprising.  He prefers “atheism without progress” and the “atheism of silence.”  The best atheists are those who do not believe in  human improvement and who do not make professions of their unbelief, according to Mr. Gray.

His first choice for being deserving of scorn and criticism is the so-called “New Atheism.”  He is very selective in this first chapter, choosing Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins, renowned  biologist and author,  for his criticism and dismissal of the new atheism. Both men are not without some well publicized faults or missteps,  but I believe that  Gray attacks their thinking and conclusions in a one-sided manner that allows him to contemptuously dismiss the entire research and thought  of the resurgent atheist movement.  The New Atheists  have obviously not been quiet enough for Professor Gray and he has  singled them out for scorn and worse.  His final paragraphs in the chapter on the new atheists condemns “the terrible violence of the secular faiths through much of the twentieth century.”  Gray has conflated the violence of so-called secular governments  (which this review will analyze later) with the new atheism without providing any proof of such similarity. After the dubious  conflation of the new atheism with violence and suppression, he then dismisses it as relatively harmless, a phantom atheism. He concludes that “the organized atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.” One wishes to ask Professor Gray if the New Atheism is a potentially dangerous and violent movement or an entertaining and harmless spectacle of no consequence?

Of the two outspoken atheists chosen by Gray as examples of the inanity of the new atheism, Sam Harris is his first target.  Since the publication of his two books, The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Harris has been embraced by many secular people.  His many books and his outspoken behavior have been well covered by the American press and the press of other countries.  One of the books in particular has drawn the contempt of Gray.  In the 2010 The  Moral Landscape: How Science Could Determine Human Values, Harris claims that moral values and questions are best discovered by the methods of science.  Such ideas are perilously close to scientism, the excessive belief in the power and efficacy of scientific knowledge and techniques to help determine morality and happiness.

Harris argues that what he calls “meaning, morality and larger purpose” can be provided by recourse to science and its discoveries.  As Gray points out, Harris is advocating a type of the earlier theory of Utilitarianism which was promoted by John Stuart Mill and others in the mid 19th century.  The theory is often simply described as the belief that society should endeavor to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  The flaws in such theories have been exposed, particularly what “the good” might mean  for different people and groups.   Science has surely improved our lives and health, but  is it capable of making people happier, more tolerant, or more wise?  Its enormous impact and amelioration in the lives of so many people make it a sine qua non for civilization. But Harris does not prove how science will be able to determine “meaning, morality and larger purpose” for most people.  Kwame Anthony Appiah  argues that  “moral truths can be rationally investigated without holding that the experimental  sciences provide the right method for doing so.” Gray’s criticism of “The Moral Landscape” deserves consideration.

Ironically, Harris should suit Gray in at least two respects. Harris showed some regard for Eastern religions in his “End of Faith.” Gray seems to approve of Buddhism, which he finds atheistic.  In the sense that Buddhism does not have a god, that is so.  But the doctrines of Karma and Rebirth embraced by several schools of that religion are surely intermixed with some supernatural belief.  Karma does not necessarily manifest a person’s good or wicked behavior in one’s present life, but in one of the many cycles of rebirth.  One is born into a new body, not necessarily human, until achieving Nirvana, which is the end of all endless desire and many forms of ignorance.  This is a final death, but a glorious extinction.  Gray would also likely agree with Harris that the notion that human beings have a self is an illusion.  Since 2013, Harris has advocated secular meditation, beginning with his “Making Sense” podcast.  In 2014, he authored “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” and now has a popular meditation app titled “Waking Up with Sam Harris.” One need not necessarily agree with Harris to understand that he is thoughtful and aspires to share his thinking with others.

Richard Dawkins deserves the respect of many people, particularly those who claim to be atheists.  It is true that he has sometimes become a polarizing figure, but his early works, The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986) about evolution, are written in an elegant prose which is very accessible and have enlightened countless readers about the process of evolution.  But Professor Gray is pleased to focus on Dawkins’ coining of the word, “meme,” beginning with the  volume, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins believes that a meme “…is a unit of cultural transmission”  and that it is the cultural equivalent of a gene. Memes are ideas, tunes, styles, and behaviors that spread from one person to another by means of imitation.

It is unfortunate that Dawkins has made the claim in essays such as the 1991 “Viruses of the Mind” that religion is a mind virus which has spread from person to person for centuries.  The transmission and long duration of religion is much more complicated.  Furthermore, while the idea of a meme is an interesting metaphorical concept, there is nothing to provide any proof that it is an actual, measurable entity such as the gene, the physical unit of inheritance. Scientists and philosophers, many of them atheists, have criticized Dawkins ‘ meme theory. The esteemed evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, has expressed disapproval of Dawkins’  view of memes. Mayr  has stated that “meme” should not take the place of the word, concept, as concepts can persist for long periods of time and may evolve.”

Gray ignores Dawkins’ other works.  The 2006 “God Delusion” has had an enormous effect on not atheists alone, but on people who have had doubts about the existence of god and the truth of religion. His book has convinced  many people, quite of few of them young, that their doubts were credible.  Not only have his works on evolution been invaluable but his influence on people that were confused and anxious has been praiseworthy. One cannot exclude Dawkins’ formation of the Dawkins Foundation in 2006, which merged with the Center for Inquiry in 2016. His foundation is an effective and much needed source for the promotion of “scientific literacy and secularism.”

A partial and very incomplete mention of the many atheists of the current day provides a refutation of Gray’s denigration of the very over used term of New Atheism.  The plethora of works by scientists, writers and thinkers of the contemporary scene are examples of what atheists are presently writing and reading.  These scientists and intellectuals are more complex and disparate than their dismissal under a common umbrella term such as the New Atheism deserves.   Jerry Coyne, Susan Jacoby, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, A.C. Grayling, Steven Weinberg, E.O.Wilson, Michael Martin and many other eminent thinkers are atheists, but they are also people who have produced important work and helped to  advance knowledge in the  many fields in which they excel.

The second bête noire of Mr. Gray is secular humanism.  He describes it in Chapter 2 as a “sacred relic.”  Why he should be so interested in a critique of a “relic” is puzzling.  The truth is that secular humanism is alive and well.  Gray’s claim is that secular humanism, the belief in human improvement and progress, is an inverted form of the Christian religion.  He states that the classical world, prior to Christianity, believed in cyclical forms of history.  He believes that pre-Christian thought was based on the premise that societies improved, only to be wiped out and then to begin again.  He makes the claim that the pagan world did not  have the concept of linear human progress. His statements are somewhat misleading, but this paper will shortly take up some of the thinking of the classical civilization of Greece and Rome concerning progress and change.  The issue is more complex than Professor Gray states.

Gray traces the beginning of the belief in human progress to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century and what he calls the rise of “post- millennialism” in 17th Century Protestantism. He claims that the Christian myth of salvation “transformed the idea of Jesus’ return” only after it (the world) had slowly been improved by human effort. The different versions of Protestant millennialism have always been a minority view.  Gray  also makes the rather extravagant claim that “the modern myth of progress came into being as a fusion of Christian faith and Gnostic thinking.” The importance of Gnostic beliefs will be elaborated on in Chapter 4 of his volume. But both post-millennialism and Gnosticism have been distinctly minority Christian beliefs, which makes Gray’s claims very puzzling to this reviewer.

This paper will thoroughly discuss Professor Gray’s claim that Gnosticism blended with 17th Century Protestantism created a belief in human progress. But I would first like to say a few words about his approach to some of the historical figures he singles out as some of secular humanism’s most important advocates.  I am of the opinion that his points are often obscured and made weaker by the ad hominem derision and meandering biographical detail of this chapter. Among other thinkers, he dwells on the lives and backgrounds of such intellectuals as John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand.  The biographical detail seems unnecessary to the discussion of secular humanism.  Sometimes, especially in the case of Rand, it sinks into erudite gossip. A more concentrated focus on the ideas rather than the lives of the intellectuals he discusses would have made his arguments more convincing.

He is particularly off-key with his critique of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It is true, as Gray states, that Nietzsche has been taken up by many secular thinkers, particularly by the French.  But Nietzsche did not believe all people could be “redeemed.”  That is why he clung to the idea of the ubermensch, or superior man.  The superior person elevated himself ( Nietzsche had a poor opinion of women) by individual effort above the vast herd of complacent, fearful humans.  He could influence, or even dominate, the herd, but he was not really a redeemer.  Nietzsche’s conception of superiority had very little to do with secular humanism or societal improvement.

What does Gray make of Nietzsche’s belief in the “eternal return”?  This was a cyclical view of life that some intellectuals of the time entertained.  Whether Nietzsche’s embrace of “eternal return” was metaphorical or actual, there is no doubt that the idea is a cyclical one.  Again it must be emphasized that the “eternal return” was an individual life, lived over and over.  Nietzsche has become a central figure and sometimes whipping boy, for many 20th and 21st Century intellectuals.  His ideas have been struggled with in very disparate quarters.  Gray is correct in noting that some French intellectuals retain Nietzsche as a central figure when they attempt to grapple with religion in the present day.  But many of those thinkers, particularly the postmoderns, are not secular humanists.  Steven Pinker, the author of 2019, “Enlightenment Now”, and a proponent of secular humanism, is extravagant in the blame he lays on Nietzsche.  Pinker believes nearly all the obscurantism of the past and present history of ideas can be traced to Nietzsche.

Gray states definitively that the classical world of Greece and Rome embraced a cyclical view of history.  This paper will discuss the progressive point of view of the Epicurean School of Philosophy shortly. But I believe Gray’s discussion is puzzling when he maintains  that the Christian view of salvation was definitively progressive from the 17th Century to the present.  Hardly any mainstream Christian religion has abandoned the notion of an apocalyptic ending to the world at some future point. Progress in some humans to a more enlightened and moral state would continue to be challenged by ancient evil in other people.  A certain minority of Protestant Christians continue to believe in some form of millenarianism- that Christ will return to establish a thousand year rule on Earth. But even that minority believes that after this “end times” period, Earth will eventually be destroyed and Christ will depart with the saved. Some do have the notion that people will improve before Christ’s coming, but that is a minority view.

One of Christianity’s most significant doctrines gradually centered on the idea of Jesus returning to Earth at the “end times” when a large number of people had become morally worse. Jesus would judge individual humans.  The good would depart with him to live in heaven and the wicked would be sent to eternal punishment in hell. Earth would be over for humanity.  There would be no more chance for amelioration. It would be the end of history. One might call this notion a linear one, but it led to the belief in the permanent destruction of earthly civilization.  The Christian belief differs from the pagan one of cyclical improvement and destruction of society because it did not allow for continuous cycles but rather culminated in the end of life on Earth.

The great classical historian J.B. Bury (1861-1927), contradicts Gray’s statement that the pagan world had a cyclical view of history and no other.  Most thinkers of the time did embrace that notion.  But Bury stated that the Epicurean School of Philosophy had the potential to be a theory of progress. The Epicureans were very important from the 4th Century BCE until the late 3rd Century CE.  Bury maintained that the ancient Greek Epicureans had the ability to become progressive because of their embrace of the atomism of Democritus.  Gray ignores the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus (around 460-70 BCE)  to which Bury referred.  But the Roman Epicurean, Lucretius, has preserved Democritus’ account of evolution in Book 5 of his great 1st Century BCE work, “On The Nature of Things.”

Gray also fails to mention Heraclitus, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher working around 500 BCE. There is an assumption, if one is to pay attention to both Heraclitus’s and Darwin’s accounts of evolution, that “time is real and that its flow has been extraordinarily long.” Many historians agree that Heraclitus’s vision reappears in 19th Century Western Europe with G.W.F. Hegel, a German Idealist philosopher. Hegel believed that progress was a synthesis between a thesis and an antithesis.  Heraclitus’s idea reappears in the 20th Century socialist, Marx, who saw the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat resulting in the progress of a classless society.  The idea of history and human society having roots that can be traced back to the classical world is an accepted fact in many quarters. The idea of progress does begin in part with the classical world of scientific and philosophical thought, rather than to the Christianity of the 17th Century alone.

Professor Gray has also “loaded the deck” with his praise of some customs of the ancient world of Greece and Rome.  He states that there was no heresy persecution in Ancient Greece. That is true, but it is a misleading statement. There was the general charge of “Impiety” which could carry a sentence of exile or death for one found guilty of it.  (Please see “Blasphemy” at AtheistScholar.org.)  Gray is correct when he states that gay men were accepted in classical Greece, but in most city states, they were only accepted in the context of an older man as mentor, as well as lover, to a younger man. Mature gay relationships were frowned on, except in Sparta. In ancient Rome,  a patrician man could lose his wealth and/or his life if he was found to have been penetrated by another man, rather than being the penetrator.  Mr. Gray also seems to have forgotten that it was only Roman women who had relative freedom. In Greece, women were decidedly second class citizens.

He claims that slavery is quite pronounced in the present day and therefore there has been no improvement since classical times in Greece and Rome and other ancient societies. But slavery is no longer considered a “normal state of things” in the present societies of the West. There are laws in most Western states that prohibit it and organizations which work against it. There is a moral repugnance concerning slavery that did not exist in pagan societies. Mr. Gray claims that torture has been normalized since the practices of the George W. Bush presidency and its war on terror.  But as with the concept of slavery, torture is still considered an extreme violation of human rights by most civilized people and countries. The American Press pursues and condemns instances of it. There are also organizations such as Amnesty International that expose the practice of terror in nations and work effectively against it.  Professor Gray uses such examples as slavery and torture in the present day as a buttress for his argument that little has changed in human society.  But I am of the opinion that  his argument is incomplete.

Steven Pinker is a contemporary thinker, among others, who continues to embrace the idea of societal progress.  In his 2018 book, “Enlightenment Now”, Pinker not only advocates an affirmation of Enlightenment values, but provides graphic proof that most of the world, not only the West, has progressed with the use of reason and science.  Humans have found improved existence in many critical areas, such as life expectancy, sustenance, wages, knowledge, and quality of life.  Graphic proof of human progress, such as Pinker provides in page after page, and graph after graph, confirms the course of human progress.

Gradual improvement of the world and its societies is possible. If things fall apart, humans eventually restore them.  That the effort is worthwhile is a principal belief of secular humanism. Reason often errs, but we would be undone without it.  Reason helps humans to achieve gradual amelioration of their lot. We have often stood at the brink and managed to overcome disaster.  That effort  and that belief in gradual human progress are worth working for.  Human progress is not merely the childish offspring of Christianity, but a legacy that existed in the classical world of Greece and Rome.  Reason, consciousness, and science have brought us along.  It is a journey that  falters at times, but the drum beat of progress continues to sound, and we humans now courageously follow it.  Secular Humanism is not a “sacred relic”, but a strong conviction that leads to human flourishing.  It is the belief that happiness is better than suffering, that knowledge is  better than ignorance, that science helps humans to better lives and that people can rise to heights that were unknown in earlier societies.  Secular Humanism believes in humans, not gods.  It is a story of gradual and unrelenting improvement.  It is worth clinging to and worth fighting for.

Professor Gray begins Chapter 3 with an interesting array of scholars, philosophers, and scientists whom he believes have displayed a  “strange faith in science.”  But many of his examples are puzzling.  He writes of scientists and others who misused science for the advancement of their own often racist theories.  Many of them embraced eugenics as well. They appear to have been people who were less inclined to put faith in science but more inclined to manipulate facts to suit their inclinations.  There is a group of men discussed in this chapter who were not atheists at all.   It seems that Professor Gray has two particular targets in his discussion. One of them is the French Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  The other is the advocate of transhumanism,  Ray Kurzweil,  whose 2005 volume, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” expresses the hope that humans will be able to transcend, with their minds at least, both the limitations of the physical world and death.

Mr. Gray’s criticisms of transhumanism are astute and perceptive.  But his condemnation of the French Enlightenment is rather less so. The same problem emerges again and again in this chapter.  Many of the thinkers he discusses were not atheists.  The strange faith in science he critiques would be expected to belong to a type of atheism, according to his thesis.  Even Ray Kurzweil has faith in some sort of god as part of some evolutionary process which humans will aspire to and eventually reach.

Gray begins his critique with  Ernest Haeckel, whose 1899 volume, “Riddle of the Universe,” was hostile toward Jewish and Christian beliefs.  Haeckel was the founder of Monism, a new religion, one of whose tenets  claimed to prove , by means of “scientific anthropology” , that humans were arranged  in hierarchal racial groups and that white Europeans were at the top of that hierarchy. Haeckel’s theory of white racial superiority was embraced by many Central European intellectuals, and later, by the German Nazi Party.  The theory never had demonstrable scientific proof.

Gray goes on to write of such thinkers as Julian Huxley, the grandson of T.H. Huxley, the vigorous promoter of Darwin’s evolutionary theory , and H.G. Wells, a well known and popular author.  Both men were proponents of the notion of the innate racial inferiority of black and brown people.  But Gray’s criticism of their unscientific embrace of racism in the 20th Century seems rather off the mark.  The theory of evolution has nothing to do with the racial superiority of the white race, which is an unscientific belief. The theory of evolution has nothing to do with human progress or perfection.  It is a natural process with no teleological end.

Gray prefaces what will culminate in his condemnation of the French Enlightenment  with the acknowledgment that Christian European thinkers in previous centuries had written various versions concerning the origins of Indians, Blacks, and other indigenous people.  Much of the controversy of those earlier eras centered around whether such people were true descendants of Adam or if they had been born of nonhuman creatures like nymphs and other mythical beings.  The various theories put forward about indigenous peoples’ origins were particularly focused on whether such people had souls. Gray rightly concludes that such theories functioned to attempt to justify the enslavement of many of the people conquered by white Europeans during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is possible to find similar claims about enslaved people made by the ancient Greek and Roman cultures of the classical world, in order to justify the theft of conquered peoples’ freedom.  The people of the classical world were color blind in their tyranny, enslaving many of the people they conquered with no particular interest in their color.  The Greeks believed that any person who was not an authentic Greek, born and living in Greece, and speaking the Greek language, was a barbarian and much inferior to the Greek people. But enslaving people based on their inferior humanity as in Greece and Rome demonstrates that later civilizations were not the only ones to dehumanize people for profit. That the Greeks and Romans did not make scientific calculations to do so does not make the practice less heinous.

Christian anti-Semitism existed in Christian medieval and Renaissance Europe, much before the Enlightenment.  It was vicious and deadly, often wiping out entire neighborhoods and cities where Jewish citizens resided. (Please see Christian Anti-Semitism, Part One and Part Two, at AtheistScholar.org). Anti-Semitism was not based on “scientific” racism, but it was equally dehumanizing and monstrous.

It is clear that Professor Gray cannot make the case that ideas that justified the racist enslavement of indigenous people were the invention of atheists. The same difficulty arises with his condemnation of the racism of the 18th Century French Enlightenment .  He focuses on three thinkers of the time, Kant, Voltaire, and David Hume.  Only Hume can be considered an atheist. Voltaire outspokenly discussed his belief in god and Kant stopped short when his thinking began to lead to atheism and swerved deliberately into profession of god’s existence.  Gray condemns the French Enlightenment philosophers  because he believes that they formulated modern racist ideology.  Many critiques of the Enlightenment project have claimed in recent years that its racism was formulated as a justification for the thriving and profitable slave trade which many European nations engaged in at that time. But Gray condemns the French Enlightenment specifically for founding its racism on reason and attempting to give racism a justification based on a rational foundation.

Yet the Romantic era, which followed the Enlightenment and was a repudiation of its tenets and projects, continued the racism of the Enlightenment with a different discourse.  Ethnic nationalism was influenced by the Romantic nationalist movement at the turn of the 19th Century. It was a reaction to the Enlightenment and according to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, blended scientific racist discourses with continental imperialist discourses.  It was represented by such important figures as Johann Herder, Johan Fichte, Friedrich Hegel and in France, Jules Michelet. Apparently Romanticism’s rejection of the Enlightenment did not include any rejection, but rather an embrace, of racism.

The Enlightenment was not without errors, but one need only consider that its many projects were based on the attempt to lift humankind from the darkness and error of organized religion and obscurantist regimes.  It believed in education, science, and the equality of many people.  (For a complete discussion of the Enlightenment, its goals, and its history, please see The Enlightenment, Part One and Part Two, at atheistscholar.org). The Enlightenment was in error when it did not condemn racism, but it was never merely a project to condemn black and indigenous people to racial inferiority and slavery.  The racism of many of the Enlightenment Philosophers must be criticized in the strongest terms.  But at the same time, the Enlightenment  project of the emancipation of many people has helped in the culmination of the hard fought, and often won, freedom and equality for blacks, Indians, and other enslaved humans.  There were so many benefits to humanity from the efforts of the French Enlightenment thinkers that those benefits  cannot be relinquished .To abandon the idea of progress that may be attributed to the Enlightenment would be a serious error for those of us who are working for human improvement in the present day.

Professor Gray also attempts to discredit so-called acolytes of science, who were surely not practicing science but pursuing various hobby horses which had little to do with science but much to do with belief. He discusses Herbert Spenser, who was a leading figure in the Social Darwinism and eugenics movement of the 19th Century.  Spenser  was particularly popular in the United States. Social Darwinism, and particularly eugenics, was never completely discredited until the horrors of Nazi Germany’s embrace of eugenics was unveiled after World War II in the 1940’s.   The pseudo-science of eugenics is revived every so often by science writers and others, but it has never gained the foot hold it had in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Spenser was the prophet of capitalism, laissez faire style, and the notion that human progress could be equated with Darwin’s theory of evolution.  His ideas were less derived from science and more in line with American capitalism.  His expression, “the survival of the fittest”, along with his two books, “Principles of Biology” (1864) and Social Statics (1851) became very popular in the United States. (For an extended discussion of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in the United States, please see Social Darwinism at atheistscholar.org.)

C. Rosen’s excellent 2004 volume, “Preaching Eugenics” reveals how many liberal Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests embraced the pernicious notion of eugenics in the United States.  Some participated in a sermon contest, which awarded a prize for ministers who gave the best sermons popularizing eugenics .  While it is true that Spenser was likely an atheist, Gray admits that Social Darwinism and eugenics were not singular to atheism but taken up by many Christian and Jewish theologians and ministers.

Gray attempts to make a case for spurious theories and movements being an embrace of science.  Chapter 3 contains a short discussion of Mesmerism, begun by Franz Mesmer in 1775.  Mesmer claimed he had discovered a property he called “animal magnetism”, which could be transmitted from one person (a healer) to another, a sick person who could then be healed.  Gray considers Mesmerism as “the first religion of science”.  Yet Stuart Vyse, who has written extensively on superstition, labels both Mesmer’s claims and practice a superstition.  Despite its popularity, Mesmerism was discredited by a Royal Commission in France in 1784.  The commission conducted simple experiments which determined there was no actual effect from mesmerism and that its so-called cures could be attributed to “imagination.”

While not extolling his methods, Gray seems to believe that the American physician, Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), who measured the size and capacity of human skulls, was using “scientific methods”. This is arguable.  Morton concluded from his experiments that African skulls showed the least capacity for intelligence. A graduate student in anthropology discovered original notes by Morton that had been long mislaid and the issue of whether Morton’s methods were correct has been settled.  In 2018, Paul Wolff Mitchell revealed that although Morton’s measurements were in order, his conclusions were not correct.  Morton ignored skull size variation and that practice led to serious overlap.  There is an intriguing issue in the fact that another scientist of the time, Friedrich Tiedmann,  did identical studies of human skulls as well.  He came to a different conclusion. Tiedmann argued that racial hierarchy beliefs were incorrect.

Why was Morton’s study accepted and Tiedmann’s allowed to sink?  The answer seems less based on any sort of true scientific inquiry, but rather acceptance of a nefarious theory  that would maintain the status quo of the profitable slave trade and the practice of slavery.  Profit rather than science seems to have been the motivation for accepting and embracing Morton’s racist study.  Once again, it is difficult, in fact, impossible, to link atheism with false scientific research. One must look instead to the European and American slave trade that was justified by spurious experiments such as Morton’s.  Most slave traders and slave owners were not atheists.  Such work was not done in the name of science, but of profit.

Professor Gray closes his discussion of “a strange faith in science” with an interesting critique of the computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil .  Kurzweil has a belief that humans will someday be able to transcend the physical world and perhaps transcend death.  His 2005 volume, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”,  has sold very well and his predictions have been discussed and embraced in some quarters.  Transhumanism does seem to be anchored in science, but as Gray claims, there is some remnant of religion in the secular Kurzweil’s theories. Gray notes that a genuine materialist would not entertain the notion of the human mind somehow separating itself from the material world. Materialists believe the mind is material and dies with the body.

There is an array of scientists and philosophers who have perceptively critiqued Kurzweil’s theories.  Gray is one of those who have provided sophisticated repudiations of transhumanism.  He does not reject the science behind transhumanism but discusses the difficulty with its possible outcome. He speculates that should transhumanism prove to be possible, why would humans want to make way for a more clever species.  He goes on to say that: “Equally, why should a superhuman species fashioned by humans bother about its creators?”

Gray states that thinkers like Kurzweil believe that a deity “…must be inherent in the evolutionary process.”  It would seem that there would be no one god in the transhuman world, but many, according to Gray.  He believes that  “…there will be many different (post modern) gods, each of them a parody of human beings that once existed.”  It is doubtful that humans can successfully alter the normal process of evolution;  the physical difficulties involved in transhumanism  will be extremely difficult to overcome. But there is so much religious or utopian vision involved in Kurzweil’s theory that it seems that transhumanism is no more involved with atheism than the other theories, scientific or pseudo-scientific, surveyed by Gray.

Gray now turns to what he terms “Atheism, Gnosticism, and Modern Political Religion” in Chapter 4. He finds the strands of the Gnostic religion everywhere in the modern political spectrum. He veers from finding political systems heavily based on Gnosticism and then claiming that Gnosticism was a deeply personal belief system.  Gnosticism was based on spiritual liberation through attaining many levels of personal knowledge. An acolyte of that religion had to pass through many phases of personal spiritual levels, shedding ignorance at each step. I cannot understand Professor Gray’s continued insistence of Gnosticism “interacting with Christian millenarian myths to create the secular religions of the modern world.”

It is necessary to review some medieval so-called heresies against Christianity at the time of the Catholic Church’s struggle to prevail against all other beliefs.  I would like to turn to the Cathars, Gnostics who formed workable communities between the 12th and 14th Centuries in Northern Italy and Southern France.  The Cathars generally believed that the Jesus of the New Testament  was the true god and that the Old Testament god was an evil deity.  Some believed the old god  was Satan.  Many Cathars had the notion that beneath the perfect, spiritual god was an imperfect, undeveloped god, a demiurge, who through incompetence or hubris or both, created the fallen world men and women inhabited. Salvation came through knowledge, but inner knowledge, and after many stages of becoming more knowledgeable and spiritually perfect, believers would ultimately merge with the true god. Gnostic beliefs varied in accordance with the different groups to which they gave their allegiance. Most did not believe in propagating the human race and prolonging the fallen world, but there were many Gnostics who were married.  When Cathar strongholds fell to the soldiers of the Catholic Church,  most of the people were put to death, but married couples were often spared.

There were also many antinomian groups, particularly “The Movement of the Free Spirit”, which enjoyed some flourishing from the 13th to 16th Centuries in Europe. Raoul Vaneigen’s 1994 volume, “Movement of the Free Spirit”, contains Protestants writings that appear to recount actual descriptions of the beliefs and behavior of some of the members of the Free Spirit. The Christian Church responded to those anarchist Christians in the same way it had to Gnosticism and its communities. The Church deemed all such groups heretics and burned and killed as many of them as it could find. In the case of the Cathar communities, many of which were thriving and successful, their strongholds were destroyed by the Catholic Church and its people murdered . Christianity was never the monolith that the established Church tried to claim it was, but it burned and destroyed its way into one belief system that condemned all other versions as heresy. By the end of the 15th Century, most of the so-called heresies had ceased to exist as movements.

I do not understand Professor Gray’s  insistence that Gnosticism and millenarianism have been intertwining strands in modern political movements.  He is correct that the Gnostics believed in human perfection that came from attaining wisdom, but such perfection was a private, spiritual path that was never based on earthly, or scientific wisdom.   Gnosticism did embody a certain utopian spirit, but such ideals have run through many societies, Eastern and Western, prior to Plato’s utopian “Republic” of 375 BCE, and continuing up to the present day. ( This paper will touch on the issue of Utopias shortly). In the case of millenarianism, it was a minority Protestant notion. Catholic doctrine had crystallized by the 15th or 16th Century. One of the most important doctrines was that human salvation would not be on this Earth, but in Heaven. Millenarianism was a minority Protestant belief in the 16th and 17th Centuries and remains a minority notion among some Protestant Christians in the present day. The even earlier belief that Jesus would return to Earth, do away with evil forces, and then rule over an earthly paradise had long faded from official Christian doctrine. Salvation would be attained only in Heaven.

Gray writes at length of communist tyrannies ruled by Christian leaders, such as Jon Bockelson’s  reign over Munster, Germany from about 1534-1535. Despite his avowed rejection of the authority of the Catholic Church, Bockelson established a reign of terror in his state that included public executions.  One can conclude that Munster had exchanged the tyranny of the Church for another religious tyrant. Gray seems, however, to hint that Bockelson’s communism was the villain in that brief saga of inhumane government.  The truth about Munster’s dystopia  lies in the spirit of the times and the tyrannical embrace of power.

Gray then shifts to what seems to be his real point to relating the 16th Century Anabaptist tyranny in Munster, which is in the similarity between Munster and the Nazi Germany of the 20th Century. He cites German writings from the late 1930’s and 1940’s that drew comparisons between Bockelson and Hitler.  The history of the human race contains accounts of one tyranny after another, that briefly prevail, and then fortunately are defeated by the desire of humans to survive and flourish.  Nazi Germany can be compared to other historical reigns of terror in the past.  The major difference between the Nazis and earlier tyrants was that the Nazis commanded enough technology to carry out their carnage on a more efficient and larger scale.  Gray’s comparison between Bockelson and Hitler is apt but leaves out the long trail of other men driven by madness, hubris, and a desire to remake the world in whatever schema they cherished. The beliefs differ somewhat; the methods never do. 

From the Anabaptists, Gray turns to the Jacobins, whose belief system he calls “The First Modern Political Religion”.  In around 1792, the Jacobins emerged out of the French Revolution as the temporary power in France.  They had earlier called themselves “The Friends of the Constitution”.  They lost no time in showing that they were not the friends of any civilized society or any rational constitution. The Jacobins were tyrannical rulers and their reign of terror caused the death of many Frenchmen. Their rise to power displays the weaknesses inherent in the French Revolution.  Their despicable and vicious regime is sadly part of that Revolution’s history.

De Tocqueville, the 19th century writer, made many  keen observations on the French Revolution. He pointed out that Jacobin philosophy resembled religion.  The Jacobins” so-called worship of Reason” was not reasonable, measured, or rational. They displayed a murderous zeal to do away with anyone whom they deemed opponents.  They wanted to remake society in their  vision of a nation governed by reason.  By worshipping a concept beyond reason, they merely repeated the intolerance  that led to the torture and execution of dissenters that the Christian Church had displayed through the ages. They culminated their reign of terror with the establishment of the 1794 “Cult of the Supreme Being.”  It seems superfluous to point out that reason, carried to such extremes as the Jacobin excesses, becomes unreason. They fell back on a god to help their doomed cause prevail.

Gray has excoriated many political movements in Chapter 4 that were failed, bloody and unreasonable attempts to create earthly paradises. But I believe that he fails to connect them to most atheists from the past or the present. It does not seem that he has proved his argument that those mainly religious movements and their excesses have been adopted by modern secular humanism.  The links he has found between such monstrous regimes seem to be religious but they have not been carried forward to contemporary atheism. They appear to have everything to do with religion and not atheism. In my opinion, he has failed to make the case that atheism is an inversion of Christian millenarianism and that there is  there a connection between Gnosticism and atheism.

But Gray continues his attempt to create a connection between modern political movements to millenarian Christianity as well as Gnosticism . He notes that the name of the Nazi regime was the “Third Reich”, which was taken from a medieval apocalyptic myth. The myth was concocted by a 12th century Christian theologian who divided history into three ages, the third being a perfect society. Professor Gray also connects the Nazi regime’s embrace of scientific racism with Ernest Haeckel, and unsurprisingly, with the French Revolution.   He cites the near extermination of the Herero and Nama indigenous people of South West Africa by Germany between 1904 and 1907. He believes that it was a foreshadowing the future Nazi regime’s concentration camps, planned exterminations, and egregious medical experiments on humans.

Gray is correct that Nazi Germany was not an atheist state, but one that had Christian beliefs at its roots.   It was the Catholic Church in medieval Europe that persecuted Jewish people because they had supposedly killed Jesus. That notion was never contradicted or seriously opposed by any religions of that era and by religions of succeeding eras, sometimes up to the present day.  The Nazis simply took up Christian lies about the Jewish people and embellished them.  The financial and other difficulties faced by Germany in the 1930’s were blamed on Jewish plots.

But according to Julian Baggini, as well as other historians, the Catholic Church signed a concordat in 1933 with the Nazis.  The Protestant Church colluded with the Nazi regime even more blatantly.  The anti-Semitic tradition in German Protestantism made its ties to Hitler’s government even closer than that of the Catholic Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller were pastors of the breakaway Confessional Church, not of the established Church. They were heroic resisters, but they were not affiliated with the established Church of Germany, which was quite willing to cooperate with Hitler and close its eyes to Nazi atrocities.

Professor Gray rightfully sees Soviet Communism as having roots in religion. At the same time, communism under Lenin and Stalin was official atheism. Gray is correct that it was Lenin who initiated the horrors of the methodical terrorism that was to purge Russia of the old world of the tyrannical czars. Gray notes that churches and synagogues were sacked, and their buildings either demolished or put to other state uses. To expedite the new disposition, the Bolsheviks changed the names of cities, streets, public places, and even instituted a new calendar. The Christian Church did the same when it emerged as the victor in the war against pagan classical civilization by the 6th century. The Church  appropriated many pagan places of worship and civic buildings as it established itself as the preeminent power in Rome and elsewhere in the former Empire.

Worker revolts and peasant rebellions were punished with tens of thousands of executions in Russia. Bolshevik repression included consignment to twenty work, or concentration, camps, where people seen as hindering or opposing the regime met death from cold, overwork, beatings, and lack of food. Gray cites official statistics, collected at the time, which demonstrate that 80% of the camps’ inmates were illiterate or had little education or schooling. The greatest majority of targets repressed and murdered by the Bolsheviks were ordinary citizens, the ones their new regime was supposed to liberate.

The Soviet Revolution, which began in 1917, even had a putative god in Lenin. Government officials and some Russian thinkers  had a strange notion, based on pseudoscience, that there would be a future technological escape from death in the future.  Some of the highest officials in the Soviet Government believed that Lenin might be revived after his death by means of advanced science at some future date. Gray states that there were two attempts to freeze the leader’s body that failed.  They finally had to settle with embalming him and presenting him as an object of worship to the Russian people.

The Soviet Union and the Russian Orthodox Church were not as antagonistic  as both sides would like to have believed. Stalin allowed a central body of the Russian Orthodox Church to be formed, the Moscow Patriarchate.  That group, according to the historian, Michael Bordeaux, “… overtly backed every military initiative of the Soviet Regime:  suppression of the Hungarian Uprising (1956), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan in 1979.”

Professor Gray turns to Auguste Comte (1798-1857) to end his chapter.  Comte is disdained by Gray because he proposed a religion of humanity. In Gray’s opinion, Comte’s dream exemplifies the  charge that liberal thinkers’ beliefs lead to a dead end historically. I shall discuss Gray’s condemnation of secular humanism’s liberalism at the end of this paper. Comte was a founder of Positivism, a philosophy which was very popular in the 19th century and was consigned to oblivion in the 20th. Comte’s importance now lies in what he attempted to accomplish in the sciences. He is often described as the first person to develop a philosophy of science, as he attempted to articulate philosophies of science, physics, chemistry, and biology. Comte’s idea, The Religion of Humanity, for both public and private worship, was supposed to be a secular one, but was broadly based on Catholicism. Comte’ s influence on modern politics is still the subject of debate in scholarly papers, but the matter has not been settled.  Gray believes Comte’s ideas were a mixture of Christian and Gnostic myths and still shapes the modern secular mind today. I have researched his claim and in my opinion it is very debatable and his statement broad and over -reaching.

In Chapter 5, Gray turns to those writers and thinkers he considers God-haters: the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and William Empson (1906-1984).  The Marquis remains a curiosity among authors. He hated his fellow men because they had come up with the idea of god. Then he attempted to follow Nature. But his dark, sadistic impulses made him suspicious of Nature as well. He was a revolutionary, a philosopher and a writer who spent many years of his life incarcerated.  Today he is best known for his erotic novels, which feature sex, sadism, torture, and murder. I can remember many years ago, having to present my identification along with my library card, as proof that I was of a legal age to read the Marquis at the library.  His books were brought out to me from a restricted area and handed to me by a pursed-lipped librarian.  I was soon dismayed to discover how boring his rants, his tortures and his murders really were. As a type of atheist, he is not interesting nor is he influential. As a writer, he is abysmally boring.

William Empson (1906-1984), famous for his 1930 book of literary criticism, “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, is an oddity on Gray’s list.  The professor finds Empson a failed atheist, and possibly a neo-Christian at the end of his life. Empson apparently resented the idea that humans were in need of redemption and resented much of Christian ideology in general.  As a type of atheist, he is of little interest. His most important works were in the areas of English Literature and Buddhist Art.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is the most interesting and talented of Gray’s so-called God-haters. In his youth, Dostoevsky belonged to a group of Russian Nihilists of the 1860’s. Nihilists at that time and place in history in Russia believed in science and wanted to destroy the old dispensation to make way for a better one for mankind.  Members of the group Dostoevsky was affiliated with were arrested. They were then cruelly subjected to a false execution which was stopped at the last minute.  They were sent for fairly lengthy sentences to Siberia. 

During his travails in Siberia, Dostoevsky became a fervent Russian Orthodox Christian and rejected Nihilism for the rest of his life.  He was a great writer and in the volume, “The Demons “(1872), he exposed many of the problems and contradictions of the Nihilist movement. But depicting Nihilist beliefs as leading to murder and suicide was melodramatic.  His thinking concerning the Crystal Palace was more discerning and thoughtful.  The Crystal Palace was a fixture constructed in London in 1851 for the Great Exhibition.  Such Exhibitions were produced to engage people with the newest products and experiences of the modern world. They were tributes to technology, consumerism, and capitalism. After seeing the Crystal Palace when he was in London in 1851,  Dostoevsky used it as a metaphor in his 1864 “Notes from the Underground”.  He critiqued Nihilist thinkers and their idea of progress as the touchstone toward which all societies and people must try to attain as erroneous and doomed to failure.

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is his most brilliant novel, one which questions the nature of the universe, the nature of man and Christian theodicy as well.  There are more splendid passages than can be traversed in this paper, but some highlights cannot go unmentioned.  In a brilliantly argued chapter, the intellectual brother, Ivan, tells his spiritual brother, Alyosha, that he rejects the notion of an ultimate reconciliation of all the world’s evil in heaven.  He cannot reconcile such a beatific vision with the tears of the tortured on earth, particularly the violence and cruelty visited on small children. But Ivan is not an atheist.  He is a reluctant believer, who rejects salvation. He says: “I most respectfully return him{God} the ticket.”

The Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov is a masterful examination of organized religion.  Jesus has returned to earth and been arrested by the Inquisition.  Before setting Jesus free and ordering him to return no more to earth, The Grand Inquisitor explains where Jesus erred.  He accuses Jesus of trying to give men the desire for freedom. The old Inquisitor claims that ordinary people are fearful and childlike and do not want to fashion their own destinies.  The Grand Inquisitor explains that the Church gave people myth, miracles, and someone to bow down to.  He explains that people want bread, and to be told what to do and what to believe. It is an exemplary portion of the novel and I recommend it to all secular people.

I must dispute Gray’s rather ambiguous characterization of Dostoevsky’s world view. Dostoevsky was not an atheist. He was a Russian Orthodox Christian and an anti-Semite.  There are some critics who believe his anti-Semitism was a result of his embrace of Christian theology.  Others believe he saw Jewish people as belonging to a religion that was a rival to Russian Orthodoxy.  Is it possible that Gray placed Dostoevsky in “Seven Types of Atheism” not for his ambiguity towards religion but rather for his condemnation of those thinkers and activists who believed in visions of human progress based on science?  I am unsure why Gray has labeled many of the thinkers and writers he discusses in “Seven Types of Atheism”  atheists, including those in the chapter labeled “God-haters”.  Many of the writers he discusses were thoroughly ambiguous in their approach to religion.

Professor Gray now turns his attention to the types of atheism of which he approves. Chapter 6 is devoted to the philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952), and the author, Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Gray approves of both men because they were atheists who did not believe in progress.

George Santayana was a philosopher who taught at Harvard for over twenty years, and after receiving a small legacy, retired to Europe.  He became well known outside academic and philosophic circles when his novel, the 1935 ” The Last Puritan”, became a best seller in America.  The book is a tale of the attempt to free oneself from a Puritan background in the modern world, but the main character remains circumscribed and restrained by the notion of duty.  This writer admits to being profoundly bored by the book, but it struck a chord with many Americans and provided Santayana with enough funds to live comfortably and donate money to other thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell.

Santayana was not popular with all American writers and philosophers. Gray recounts some of those criticisms of the philosopher.  A former admirer, Gore Vidal, related his dismay when he was speaking with Santayana and expressed his fear that Italy might go communist in the next election. Vidal was shocked to find that Santayana was indifferent and a bit mocking about the prospect of the Communists taking over Italy.  Vidal related that he was sickened and revolted by Santayana’s cynicism.  William James, the American philosopher, was also no admirer of Santayana.  He described Santayana’s philosophy as “the perfection of rottenness.”

Speaking about religion, Santayana said: “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety to the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image to be servants of their human interests.” His best writing  is contained in the elegant aphorisms he wrote and many are still frequently quoted today. Gray notes that Santayana believed that religion contained a truth that could not be conveyed in any other way. He thought that religion is natural to humans and said that hatred of religion was “… insensibility to the plight of man and all that man deeply loves.” From the philosopher’s many aphorisms and written statements,  one may ascertain that Gray is correct when he states that Santayana was an atheist who loved religion. Santayana was also a critic of the idea of progress which has possibly also recommended his work to Professor Gray. Gray finds that Santayana’s philosophy was close to that of the Hindu School of Samkhya, which teaches that matter is “real and independent of any mind.”  He also is of the opinion that Santayana sounded a Gnostic note in some of his writings about the human mind withdrawing into itself.

I would like to close this discussion of Santayana with Gray’s omission of accusations that Santayana was anti-Semitic. It only seems fair that Gray should note the fact, as he has been extremely critical of the racism and anti-Semitism of the French Enlightenment. It might not be true that Santayana was a racist, but his remarks about Jewish people seemed to betray his anti-Semitism. He is on the record that he believed that superior races should be “discouraged from intermarriage with inferior stock.” Santayana was too fond of religion to be any influence on contemporary atheism.  His aphorisms are a pleasure to read, but his philosophy is slowly sinking from the consideration of the modern thought.

Gray’s second choice for an atheist who had no belief in progress is Joseph Conrad, an excellent and engaging author. His sea novels are still popular and the 1899 novella, “Heart of Darkness”,  is one of the best books in the English canon.  It is still taught in many high schools and universities. Conrad spent six months in the Congo around 1886. Around this time, he retired from seafaring to devote himself to writing . His critiques of European colonialists who professed to believe they were bringing freedom and civilization to the “savages” of the Congo are devastating. He portrays the colonialists as self-deceiving profit seekers whose delusions met with utter failure.  The argument still continues as to whether or not Conrad was a racist. 

The author believed that humans were machines with consciousness. He questioned whether illusion might be superior to human awareness. Conrad was an atheist.  But he was also a man who rejected the idea of progress.  His disdain for human consciousness and progress  hints that Conrad was possibly  a man who had lost much of the engagement with the pleasure of living.  Hounded by many debts, he attempted suicide in 1878.

When he finished with his books of the sea, Conrad turned to many other topics, including politics. He had a confirmed distrust of democracy. But he also had a keen eye for the cruelty, illusion and betrayal of anarchist and communist beliefs and plots. The 1906 “Secret Agent” is a masterful treatment of anarchism gone wrong, resulting in betrayal and death.  Alfred Hitchcock used the plot for the excellent 1936 film, “Sabotage.”  Gray is correct about  Conrad.  He was an atheist who eschewed progress.  Many readers today enjoy Conrad’s novels, while passing over much of his philosophy.

Chapter 7 of Seven Types of Atheism reveals what sort of atheism Gray most admires.  He calls it “The Atheism of Silence.” His candidates for silent atheism are somewhat puzzling, however.  Neither Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) nor Baruch Spinoza (1632- 1677) were silent.  They both wrote many volumes about their beliefs.  There is a problem with Spinoza as well, in that it is still an open question whether he was an atheist.

Gray is engaging when discussing Schopenhauer’s many contradictions. The philosopher advocated against human striving and what he termed “willing”, but he led a double existence.  He never renounced life. He was careful of his inherited income and led a life of pleasurable hedonism. He was an avid reader of reviews of his books and took great pleasure when they were favorable. His most transcendent pleasure was music.

Schopenhauer believed that the prime agent in the world was a force he called “The Will”. He wrote that  The Will strives to seize matter or force from other forces and organisms. Such struggles exist throughout  the world, and possibly beyond, from inorganic to organic life, from nature itself to every form existing in nature.  The ceaseless conflict rages among all existence. The result of the unending struggle is one of conflict, ineffectual striving, and dissatisfaction.  Schopenhauer believed that humans are particularly doomed to suffer from the conditions dictated by the Will, because humans have intellectual abilities. Such abilities merely serve to magnify our sufferings because we are unable to cease the struggle even though we  often realize that our efforts and worldly pursuits are mere  illusions. Schopenhauer thought, as did Kant, that we humans only see the world through our own limited capacity.  Our interpretations of reality are conditioned by our own illusions, or representations. His 1819 work, “The World as Will and Representation” is a masterly summation of his philosophy and well worth reading.

The philosopher’s conclusions about turning away from life were influenced by his own pessimism and by the Eastern texts he studied and admired. He believed we humans must resign ourselves to life’s sufferings and turn away from striving.  He thought that some consolation and transcendence could be found from concentration on aesthetics, such as music or the arts. But resignation and silence was his prescription as the only way out, the only salvation from the insatiable Will.

As Gray admits, Schopenhauer never turned from the striving he described.  His cautious, mildly hedonistic lifestyle, combined with his avid desire for fame as a philosopher, undercut his own philosophy.  Most intellectuals who read his quotations and aphorisms will be horrified by Schopenhauer’s scurrilous racism.  This writer can no longer read him because of his disdain for black people. But he was a genuine atheist and his early work in understanding human representation  of the world rather than its reality was invaluable.  The solutions he proposed for ending the ceaseless struggle  of humans, which were silence and turning away from life, have not been followed, not even by him.

Professor Gray seems to save his most judgmental condemnation of racism for the so-called scientific racism of the  French Enlightenment  philosophers of the 18th Century. He skips over the racism and anti-Semitism of some of the atheists he admires.  I am of the opinion that he does not criticize the racism and anti-Semitism of the early Christian Church and other varieties of racism through the centuries enough, but of course that is not his stated purpose in “Seven Types of Atheism”.   When writing about the putative atheists he admires he neglects to include their prejudices. He ignores the anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky and Santayana.  He does not discuss the controversy concerning Conrad’s racism and neglects to mention Schopenhauer’s outspoken racism.

Does Professor Gray believe that the people tortured, enslaved, and killed by anti-Semitism and racism through the ages cared about the specific type of prejudice that had condemned them? The pain and death was the same under all the varieties of religions and governments.  As has been observed about Catholics who burned people for heresy and about Protestants who did away with the notion of heresy and burned people for blasphemy, the fires burned just as hot and searing under both Catholic and Protestant executions.   People that suffered under scientific racism, nationalist racism, religious racism, and political racism suffered and died in the same tortuous manner.

Professor Gray’s final essay in Chapter 7 briefly mentions a few minor figures who embraced a type of  negative atheism, but the most important philosopher in the chapter is Baruch, or Benedict, Spinoza (1632-1677). Unlike Schopenhauer, whose contemporaries described him as an unpleasant and nasty person, Spinoza was an exemplary human being. His philosophy and political thoughts are difficult to read and understand, but important to study. He was excommunicated by his Jewish synagogue in 1656 because of his religious views. His excommunication was based on doctrinal issues. But there were also political considerations that led to his ostracism from the Jewish community. Many Jewish people had found refuge in the Netherlands and did not want to become involved in the dangerous religious controversies of the time. An excommunication was serious in its consequences, as it made it very difficult to find lodging, work or help  from the Amsterdam Jewish community.  Spinoza suffered financially from his ostracism, but he refused to alter his philosophy.  Spinoza’s reputation was excellent, and he was known as an ethical, sweet, and courteous person.   Involved in a lawsuit with a stepsister over the inheritance left to them by their father, he gave most of the money back to her when he prevailed in court.   He spent his life as a lens grinder while writing his philosophical works.

But was Spinoza an atheist?  There are many biographers and scholars who have wildly different opinions concerning his beliefs. I have read people who argue that he was an atheist, a pantheist, or a believer in a chthonic god. There are some scholars who think he was an Epicurean and others who insist he was a Stoic.  This writer would love to claim him as an atheist, but honest doubt prevents me from making such a definitive statement.

Spinoza believed in a type of monism, the idea that the universe was composed of one substance and was one infinite and eternal system. He was a determinist who did not accept the belief in free will. Spinoza found a  type of ecstasy in his contemplation of a rational god, or universe, as for him, they were inseparable.  His 1677 “Ethics” is difficult to read, but the effort is very worthwhile.  His philosophy is grand, abstract, and unfathomable at times. Spinoza’s “Theologico-Political Treatise” of 1670 demonstrates a thinker very much ahead of his time.  It is a surprise and pleasure to read his defense of secular and constitutional government.  His thinking on freedom of inquiry and expression precedes the Enlightenment.  Although Voltaire denied Spinoza’s influence on the 18th Century Philosophers, many contemporary scholars believe his liberal views did influence the French Enlightenment.  He was an admirable man and philosopher.  Professor Gray  provides an excellent discussion of Spinoza and an exemplary place to conclude the discussion of “atheist” writers and philosophers in “Seven Types of Atheism”.

This paper will now turn to the issues of Utopias and Secular Humanism, both movements criticized by Professor Gray’s book.  Thomas More (14788-1535) was a prominent English Renaissance humanist.  He coined the word, utopia, in his 1516 book, “Utopia”.  The word has a double meaning. It means “no place”, or “nowhere”.  But Utopia is also a fictional happy or “good” place.  In several of his books, Mr. Gray finds utopian dreams farcical and doomed. He also finds them dangerous when utopian believers are able to seize power over people and impose their ideals on cities or countries at any cost. Such leaders have historically been very quick to imprison, torture and kill people they see as dissenters. Such so-called utopias become dystopias, bad places. Gray’s point is well taken.

But there are several questions to be raised concerning Professor Gray’s criticisms. Utopian dreams have been with us for centuries. In the West, the answer to why the disparate dreamed- of utopias resemble each other is simply because they all influence each other in various ways.  In my opinion it is unclear why Gray insists that Western utopian striving has come almost exclusively from Christian millenarianism with Gnostic strands running through it.  If one reads studies of utopian dreams and myths, it becomes apparent that there have been many influences on utopian ideas.  Secondly, whether utopian myths are described as actual states that have existed in the past and might be recovered in the future, or if they are sometimes simply fictional literary utopias, the dreams of humans who will try and fail and try again to achieve a better state of things will never be forsaken.

Utopias are not singular to the western world. Lyman Tower Sargent states that the idea exists in most, if not all, cultures. He explains that the great difference between the western utopia, Eden, and other cultures’ myths, is that the notion of the Fall is singular to Christianity.  While other cultures have explanations concerning why the earlier utopias failed, they do not recount a clean break with the past utopias such as the Christian one does. Such a difference raises the question of how much influence the Christian idea of a past Utopia has actually had in the West as opposed to other utopian theories. This paper has discussed the fact that Christians believed in a utopia to take place in a future Heaven, and not on the Earth, despite some minority Protestant beliefs in a thousand year rule of Christ on Earth.  But even most of millenarian believers believed that after that rule, Christ would depart Earth with the faithful to reside forever in heaven.

Sargent explains that the utopian past of other cultures is not considered to be “necessarily lost and can be used as a model for the future”. He maintains that such thinking is especially important in China. That country apparently believes that the Confucian and Taoist utopias of the past actually existed, and therefore might be regained if people would understand the principles correctly and put them into practice. Sargent discusses many non-Western versions of utopian societies in his book, “Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction”. Such visions of ideal societies have existed in the mythologies of China, Japan, India, Islam, and Africa. There have also been intentional communities, separating themselves from the greater societies they live in, who have the hope their ideals will come to be adopted by many others who will be influenced by their example.  Many of those societies have been religious in nature, but there are a growing number of secular intentional communities in the present day.

People from the early civilizations of Greece, China, Japan, India  and other nations up to contemporary times have understood that the state of things among humans living together is imperfect, often dismayingly so.  That is why ideas about a lost golden age and ideas about why it had gone away and thoughts about how it could be recovered are so prevalent.  Many people are not satisfied with the societies we are living in. But most secular humanists do not believe in a coming paradise on earth even if their beliefs would come to be embraced by a majority of people around the world.  Thinkers such as Albert Camus (1913-1960) and John Rawls (1921- 2002) spoke of “relative utopias”. They were passionately dedicated to effecting change in society but also able to be cautious about their dreams.

Professor Gray has pointed out the dangers of trying to effect utopian goals.  But people will try to create “good places” and when their plans fail, they will survey the wreckage and try again. And again. Is it criminal or insane to hope for vast improvement in the world?  Such ideas often lead to small, incremental changes that makes many peoples’ lives better. Most humanists believe that little by little, century by century, decade after decade, society has improved, by providing people with better  living wages, life expectancy, nutrition, IQ levels, work hours and so on.  To give up on dreams of an improved future, would mean to give up on the present as well. I would like to close this section on utopias with a quotation from Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (1790-18690): “Utopias are often only premature truths.”

In “Seven Types of Atheism” and his 2003 “Straw Dogs,” Professor Gray seems to accuses secular humanism of attempting to impose its tenets on the entire world.  He points out the attempt of Western governments to overturn oppressive regimes around the world during the last few decades. But was this attempt, now generally acknowledged as a mixed outcome, solely a humanitarian effort or was it combined with the ideals and profit motives of global free market capitalism?  Francis Fukayama’s 2003 book, “The End of History and the Last Man” is an excellent example of the belief that mankind had reached an apotheosis with the spread of liberalism and free market capitalism, which  would soon overtake the world.  Such fantasies have little to do with genuine secular humanism, and a great deal to do with the profit motive.

Secular humanists of the contemporary world would like to see humanist principles prevail over the entire world, but I do not know of many who would impose liberal and secular governments over people who have no desire to embrace them. Secular values can be pursued in a more private manner, even when people are living under totalitarian regimes.  We secular humanists try to help such people to do so, and we protest when atheists and religious critics are arrested and sometimes murdered.  The oppression seems to come from authoritarian governments, whether religious or secular, rather than from secular humanists.  Our secular humanist organizations are sometimes successful in helping people who have run afoul of their oppressive governments to leave their countries and start new lives elsewhere.

On a personal level, I agree with Professor Gray on one point. I confess I have become somewhat resigned to the fact that the world will, for many generations, be made up of different forms of government of many kinds. Gray’s stance that there will be a proliferation of disparate governments is a realistic one. Yet I have the hope that as science and improved material conditions make their way in the world, and as people become better schooled and their material conditions improve, that many will feel secure enough to shed their irrational and tyrannical governments and embrace more humanitarian ideals. Such change needs to come from the people themselves, and not from some foreign source, such as the United States or the European Union.

Surely life would be more rational and more worth living for people who have come to embrace secular humanism.  For an extended discussion of Secular Humanism, its history, ideals, and organizations, please see “Humanism” at atheistscholar.org.  The books of humanists such as Paul Kurtz and A.C. Grayling, both philosophers, are excellent volumes to learn and think about secular humanism and its ideals.

The late Paul Kurtz stated that the secular humanist paradigm has these main characteristics: “(1) it is a method of inquiry”; (2) it provides a naturalistic, cosmic outlook; (3) it is non- theistic; (4) it is committed to human ethics; (5) it offers a perspective that is democratic; and (6) it is planetary in scope.” Kurtz did not mean that we secularists want to take over the planet by imposing humanist governments over people. We are all inclusive but nonprescriptive.  A.C. Grayling  reaffirms our embrace of pluralism and respect for the plurality of people. Our organizations are spread throughout the world and are trying to help those oppressed by totalitarian and/or religious regimes. In recent years, many secular humanists have become more aware of additional goals, and have begun promoting animal rights, gender equality and genital integrity.

We are not a “sacred relic” as Professor Gray claims. We are moving forward and becoming more inclusive and more aware of not only the human condition but of the great cruelty we humans visit on animals,  our children and those who claim different sexual orientations and gender differences. We do not plan to sit idly by, contemplating the misery of other people and other species with a resigned detachment. Secular Humanism does not aspire to ruling the earth, but to helping people make their minds freer, more rational, and more respectful of the dignity of all life in order to bring about a flourishing for all species on our planet.  We shall continue to move in the direction of that goal one determined and relentless step at a time, for our children, for our future, for humans everywhere.

Note: Mary C. Taylor has written lectures on Humanism, Heresy, The Enlightenment, and other topics touched on in this essay.


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