When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions—secular or religious—are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thought.
For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often vaguely understood “science.” John Gray’s stimulating and enjoyable new book, Seven Types of Atheism, describes the complex, dynamic world of older atheisms, a tradition that is, he writes, in many ways intertwined with and as rich as religion itself.
Along a spectrum that ranges from the convictions of “God-haters” like the Marquis de Sade to the mysticism of Arthur Schopenhauer, from Bertrand Russell’s search for truth in mathematics to secular political religions like Jacobinism and Nazism, Gray explores the various ways great minds have attempted to understand the questions of salvation, purpose, progress, and evil. The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary light on what it is to be human.
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About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:1951
Place of Birth:Houston, Texas
Education:B.A., M.A., Maharishi European Research University; Ph.D., Columbia Pacific University, 1982
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The New Atheism: A Nineteenth-Century Orthodoxy
The new atheists have directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part. Seeing religion as a system of beliefs, they have attacked it as if it was no more than an obsolete scientific theory. Hence the 'God debate' – a tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion. But the idea that religion consists of a bunch of discredited theories is itself a discredited theory – a relic of the nineteenth-century philosophy of Positivism.
THE GRAND PONTIFF OF HUMANITY
The idea that religion is a primitive sort of science was popularized by the anthropologist J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, which first appeared in 1890. Following the French sociologist and philosopher Auguste Comte, Frazer believed that human thought developed in three phases: the theological, or religious; the metaphysical-philosophical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive. Magic, metaphysics and theology belonged in the infancy of the species. As it approached adulthood humankind would shed them and accept science as the only authority in knowledge and ethics.
This way of thinking, which Comte called 'the Positive philosophy', developed some of the ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), for whom Comte for a time acted as an assistant. Saint-Simon led a turbulent life. Coming from an impoverished aristocratic family, he was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, became rich through property speculation in nationalized land, consumed his wealth in reckless extravagance and lived much of his later years in poverty. Like his disciple Comte, he was prone to depression, at one point attempting suicide by shooting himself but succeeding only in blinding himself in one eye.
Despite these eccentricities, Saint-Simon was widely admired. Recognized by Marx as one of the founding theorists of socialism, he was among the first to understand that industrialization would bring about radical changes in society. He was also the first to set out, in his book Nouveau Christianisme (1825), the religion of humanity that Comte would promote.
This new faith was not Saint-Simon's invention. As will be seen in Chapters 2 and 3, it emerged in the late eighteenth century in the work of the French philosophes and became overtly religious in the cult of reason in the aftermath of the French Revolution. But it was Saint-Simon who first presented the religion of humanity in systematic form. In future, scientists would replace priests as the spiritual leaders of society. Government would be an easy matter of 'the administration of things'. Religion would become the self-worship of humankind.
Though it was Saint-Simon who first formulated this philosophy, it was Comte who was most successful in propagating it. The cult he established has been almost forgotten. Yet it formed the template for the secular humanism that all evangelical atheists promote today.
In some ways Comte was more intelligent than the secular thinkers who followed him. He was also semi-deranged. Recognizing that the need for religion would not wither away when society was governed by science, he founded a church to meet this need. The new faith was equipped with an ecclesiastical hierarchy, a calendar organized around figures such as Archimedes and Descartes, a regime of daily observances (including a ritual that involved tapping parts of the cranium based on the popular science of phrenology) and a Virgin Mother modelled on a married woman with whom Comte had fallen in love and from whose untimely death he never fully recovered.
In his book Cathechisme Positiviste (1852), Comte set out the dogmas of the new creed. There were Positivist sacraments and places of pilgrimage. Special types of clothing were designed, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism (a word Comte invented). A Grand Pontiff of Humanity was to be established in Paris. No doubt Comte envisioned occupying the position himself. Certainly he imagined himself a person of some importance. In the ceremony in which he married his wife, he signed himself 'Brutus Napoleon Comte'. During his lifetime (born in 1798, he died of cancer in 1857), he failed to achieve the eminence of which he dreamt. But his church spread from France to Britain and other European countries, then to Latin America, where it continues to exist in Brazil, while his philosophy had a profound impact on leading nineteenth-century thinkers. It continues to have a pervasive though unrecognized influence today.
The new atheists are unwitting disciples of Comte's Positivist philosophy. It seems self-evident to them that religion is a primitive sort of science. But this is itself a primitive view, and a remark made by Wittgenstein about Frazer applies equally to Richard Dawkins and his followers: 'Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages ... His explanations of primitive practices are much cruder than the meaning of these practices themselves.'
The primitive character of the new atheism shows itself in the notion that religions are erroneous hypotheses. The Genesis story is not an early theory of the origin of species. In the fourth century AD, the founding theologian of western Christianity, St Augustine, devoted fifteen years to composing a treatise on The Literal Meaning of Genesis, never completed, in which he argued that the biblical text need not be understood literally if it goes against what we know to be true from other sources. Before Augustine, and more radically, the first-century Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria presented Genesis as an allegory or myth – an interweaving of symbolic imagery with imagined events that contained a body of meaning that could not easily be expressed in other ways.
The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a mythical imagining of the ambiguous impact of knowledge on human freedom. Rather than being inherently liberating, knowledge can be used for purposes of enslavement. That is what is meant when, having eaten the forbidden apple after the serpent promises them they will become like gods, Adam and Eve find themselves exiled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to a life of unceasing labour. Unlike scientific theories, myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience. The Genesis myth is a more truthful rendition of enduring human conflicts than anything in Greek philosophy, which is founded on the myth that knowledge and goodness are inseparably connected.
Part of the blame for the confusion of myths with theories comes from theists peddling an Argument from Design. From the eighteenth-century English theologian William Paley (who famously compared God to a clock-maker) to twenty-first-century exponents of creationism, apologists for theism have tried to develop theories that explain the origins of the universe and humankind better than prevailing scientific accounts. In doing so they are conceding to science an unwarranted authority over other ways of thinking. Religion is no more a primitive type of science than is art or poetry. Scientific inquiry answers a demand for explanation. The practice of religion expresses a need for meaning, which would remain unsatisfied even if everything could be explained.
WHY SCIENCE CANNOT DISPEL RELIGION
Science cannot replace a religious view of the world, since there is no such thing as 'the scientific worldview'. A method of inquiry rather than a settled body of theories, science yields different views of the world as knowledge advances. Until Charles Darwin showed that species change over time, science pictured a world of fixed species. In the same way, classical physics has been followed by quantum mechanics. It is commonly assumed that science will someday yield a single unchanging view of things. Certainly some views of the world are eliminated as scientific knowledge advances. But there is no reason for supposing that the progress of science will reach a point where only one worldview is left standing.
Some will say this is tantamount to relativism – the claim that views of the world are only cultural constructions, none of them true or false. Against this philosophy, it is asserted that science is the exercise of discovering universal laws of nature. But unless you believe the human mind mirrors a rational cosmos – the faith of Plato and the Stoics, which helped shape Christianity – science can only be a tool the human animal has invented to deal with a world it cannot fully understand. No doubt our knowledge has increased, and will continue to increase. But the order that appears to prevail in our corner of the universe may be local and ephemeral, emerging randomly and then melting away. The very idea that we live in a law-governed cosmos may be not much more than a fading legacy of faith in a divine law-giver.
Above all, science cannot dispel religion by showing it to be an illusion. The rationalist philosophy according to which religion is an intellectual error is fundamentally at odds with scientific inquiry into religion as a natural human activity. Religion may involve the creation of illusions. But there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life. The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth. Rather than producing minds that see the world ever more clearly, evolution could have the effect of breeding any clear view of things out of the mind. The upshot of scientific inquiry could be that a need for illusion goes with being human. The recurring appearance of religions of science suggests this may in fact be the case.
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.
If Comte's nineteenth-century cult of science produced an ersatz religion joined with the pseudo-science of phrenology, Dawkins and his disciples have embellished Darwinism with the cod-science of memes – units of information that compete for survival in a process of natural selection like that which operates on genes. But memes are not physical entities like genes. No mechanism has been identified whereby memes could replicate themselves and be transmitted within or across cultures. Lacking any unit or mechanism of selection, the theory of memes is barely a theory at all.
The idea of memes belongs in an obsolete philosophy of language. The early Wittgenstein imagined that language could be broken down into 'logical atoms', elementary propositions that refer to irreducibly simple facts about the world. But he was never able to provide an example of such an atom – a failing which led him to his later philosophy in which language is understood as a body of interconnected practices. Memes are like Wittgenstein's logical atoms, theoretical constructions of which no convincing examples can be found. Is Romanticism a meme? Or the Middle Ages? Genes can be identified by well- established scientific procedures; memes cannot. As insubstantial as phlogiston, memes are posited only in order to bolster the belief that evolution can explain everything.
Whenever it has appeared as an organized movement in modern times, atheism has always allied itself with pseudo-science. Dawkins's memes belong in the same category as the bumps on the head that Comte instructed his disciples to tap as part of the daily observances of the religion of humanity.
THE TRUE THREAT TO MONOTHEISM
The Victorian debate between science and religion is best forgotten. A more serious challenge to Christianity comes from history. If Jesus was not crucified and did not return from the dead, the Christian religion is seriously compromised. The same is true if what Jesus taught was other than Christians later came to believe.
The real conflict is not between religion and science but between Christianity and history. The Christian religion rests on the belief that human salvation is bound up with particular historical events – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 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.
It is a difficulty that cannot be avoided by placing the story of Jesus in the category of the Genesis myth. Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise will remain one of humankind's most instructive myths however much scientific understanding of human origins advances. In contrast, Christianity will be badly shaken if the received story of Jesus can be shown to be false. Jewish and Christian scholars have recognized for millennia that the Genesis story is not a rendition of fact. The New Testament account of the life of Jesus has been reported as fact ever since the Christian religion was invented.
Investigations of the historical Jesus have gone through a number of phases. The eighteenth-century German Enlightenment thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus began the inquiry with a study, not published in his lifetime, in which he pictured Jesus as a revolutionary Jewish prophet who failed to achieve his goals and died in despair on the cross, leaving his disciples with a dilemma they resolved by telling a story of his resurrection that they knew to be groundless. The search for the historical Jesus was continued by the nineteenth-century German David Strauss, whose work sparked a controversy as intense and as long-lasting as that triggered by Darwin's writings. Arguing that the life of Jesus should be understood without any recourse to miracles, Strauss suggested that the view of him accepted by Christians was a myth fashioned by Jesus' disciples. The work of Reimarus and Strauss initiated many later studies, including Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), in which Jesus was portrayed as a Jewish prophet the heart of whose teaching was the belief that the world was about to end. The quest has continued into recent times, featuring seminal studies such as Géza Vermes's The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000).
While much of this inquiry has involved textual criticism of the four gospels of the New Testament, more recent inquiries have taken into account texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s in caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea. The implications of these texts are disputed, with Christian scholars attempting to defuse the threat the texts pose to the accepted picture of Jesus and his teachings. Yet the clear upshot is that the story of Jesus that has been told by Christians is only one of many that can reasonably be told about him.
In one plausible account, Jesus was not the founder of Christianity. A charismatic Jewish teacher (Yeshua in Hebrew) who joined a movement led by John the Baptist, he was one of many itinerant Jewish prophets preaching at the time. He had no message for Gentiles and no idea of founding a universal religion. He did not claim to be the messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, still less a saviour for all of humankind. His religion was that of Moses applied in what he believed were the final days of the world. He expected the arrival of the 'day of the Lord' (in Greek, eschaton) to occur during his lifetime. The morality he taught his disciples was what Schweitzer called an Interimsethik – a way of life meant for the short period before the advent of the kingdom of God. There was no mention of free will; the world was about to end whatever anyone did. The idea of an immortal soul was nowhere to be found. In the religion of Jesus, pretty much all of Christian belief is absent.
Above all, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus announced was meant for Jews like himself. He may have accepted the message of the Book of Isaiah, which suggests that Gentiles could follow Jews into God's Kingdom. Even so, Jesus' mission was addressed only to other Jews. So how did this charismatic Jewish prophet come to be seen as the saviour of humankind?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seven Types of Atheism"
Copyright © 2018 John Gray.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: How to be an Atheist
What religion is not
1. The New Atheism: A Nineteenth-century Orthodoxy
The Grand Pontiff of Humanity
Why science cannot dispel religion
The true threat to monotheism
New atheism and old illiberalism
2. Secular Humanism, a Sacred Relic
Progress, a Christian myth
Plato for the masses
John Stuart Mill, the saint of rationalism
Bertrand Russell, unwilling sceptic
From Nietzsche to Ayn Rand
3. A Strange Faith in Science
Evolution vs ethics
Racism and anti-Semitism in the Enlightenment
Mesmerism, the first religion of science
Science and the abolition of man
Transhumanism as techno-monotheism
4. Atheism, Gnosticism and Modern Political Religion
Millenarianism and Gnosticism in the western tradition
Jan Bockelson’s Münster: an early modern communist theocracy
Jacobinism, the first modern political religion
Bolshevism: millenarian hopes, Gnostic visions
Bockelson, Hitler and the Nazis
The Marquis de Sade and the dark divinity of Nature
Ivan Karamazov hands back his ticket
William Empson: God as a Belsen commandant
6. Atheism without Progress
George Santayana, an atheist who loved religion
Joseph Conrad and the godless sea
7. The Atheism of Silence
The mystical atheism of Arthur Schopenhauer
Two negative theologies: Benedict Spinoza and Lev Shestov
Living without belief or unbelief