The Atheist Illusion

By Ed SimonOctober 21, 2019

The Atheist Illusion

Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

[A]theism is not an end in itself. Do away with God, yes, but then what? Another morality, a new ethic, values never before thought of because unthinkable, this innovation is what makes it possible to arrive at atheism and to surpass it. A formidable task.

— Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam


WHENEVER I’M MISIDENTIFIED as an atheist writer, which happens frequently, I always find it inordinately frustrating. Such an accusation is understandable, but born from a superficial reading of my theological eccentricities. To be an atheist proper, I’d have to know what the word “God” means exactly in the first place; my entire writing career has been an attempt to find out just that. Call me disingenuous or cagey, but I’ve got enough of a drunken sense of the numinous that I’m confident that “atheist” isn’t the correct designation for myself. Mine may be an idiosyncratic gospel, but it’s no less God-intoxicated because of it. Not that the presumption of some pure abstracted atheism would necessarily offend me, but the term has acquired a certain connotation in modern parlance. Where once atheists may have been figured as brave free-thinkers, today their contemporary descendants have (perhaps no less admirably, if in an ironic way) proved that an atheist can be just as proudly stupid as everybody else.

I’m speaking of the so-called “New Atheists,” the indomitable quartet of the late essayist and Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative-apologist Christopher Hitchens, the biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I’m unsure what exactly he is, but the media personality Sam Harris. In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, the New Atheists dressed up warmed-over positivist fallacies, as well as historical and literary misinterpretations, with a bourgeoisie politics whose radicalism was in inverse relationship to how interesting its proponents thought that they were. Where atheism was once the position of metaphysical radicals like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, now it was the refugee of “Well, actually…” guys on the internet. Philosophers, theologians, and religious studies scholars have made a veritable genre out of the anti-Dawkinsoniade, but this essay won’t be in that tradition (mostly).

To demonstrate all that’s shallow, superficial, incorrect, and glib about Hitchens’s God Is Not Great or Dawkins’s The God Delusion is tired — it’s very 2007. Nor will I attempt to excavate all that’s reactionary in the ideology of the New Atheists: Terry Eagleton has already aptly demonstrated the High Church WAPSy politics of “Dithkins” in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. For the quartet, God may not be real, and all religions may be lies, but somehow, someway, the Protestantism of their youths is still a bit truer than all the other religions. As the British philosopher John Gray observes in his brilliant Seven Types of Atheism, the “more hostile secular thinking is to Jewish and Christian religion, the less likely it is to be liberal,” something verified as Harris now spends his time agreeing with figures like the Canadian psychotherapeutic guru Jordan Peterson, who, while not exactly an atheist, would probably do all of us some good to consider it.

The New Atheists promulgated a faux-radicalism that basically amounted to gentlemanly unbelief for the country club set, and while they gleefully mocked the faiths of the global poor, they never questioned those idols that actually do damage to the affairs of humans: international capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and so on. Furthermore, as Gray explains, the faithless faith of the New Atheists evidences its origins in belief far more than they’re aware of, for “[w]hen they declare themselves unbelievers, atheists are invoking an understanding of religion that has been unthinkingly inherited from monotheism.” New Atheists don’t even know what they don’t know: they demolish a straw god of their own construction and declare a victory.

Fundamentally, the New Atheists are a variety of Protestant heretic, still privileging belief to the exclusion of everything else. An iconoclast who destroys an idol made by his own hands is a neurotic iconoclast. When considering the New Atheists, it behooves us to ask: What benefit is their so-called atheism if it doesn’t even allow them to denounce those gods of this world who deserve the denouncing? Disbelieving a god of their own perception, the New Atheists rarely turn their focus to the actual gods of our age. For if their atheism attacked capitalism and nationalism, patriarchy and systemic racism, it might be critically useful. Instead, atheism has become a basement of neckbeards and fedoras, as cheap, expendable, mawkish, and superficial as our era. Yet, as Gray reminds us with some hope, atheism “has not always been like this.”

Drawing its title from William Empson’s classic study of literary ambiguity, Seven Types of Atheism presents Gray’s anatomy of the different ways to disbelieve in God. Atheism includes everything from Marx and Bakunin’s rejection of “theism because it was an obstacle to human solidarity […] and Friedrich Nietzsche’s [rejection] because it promoted ‘slave virtues’ like humility” to the liberal Protestant atheism of a John Stuart Mill who “shared with the Christians of his time the conviction that life should be devoted to mental and moral self-improvement rather than to enjoyment of physical pleasures.” Philosophically astute, Gray understands atheism better than the New Atheists do, demonstrating how much of their liberal (and increasingly illiberal) politics owes itself to a secularized version of the Christianity which they have ostensibly rejected.

Thankfully, Gray spends little time on the New Atheists, getting them out of the way in the perfunctory first chapter, while acknowledging that their contributions to disbelief, while the most recent and the most visible among the wider public, they’re also historically the least interesting. Rather, he spends most of his time giving a fuller taxonomy of the ways to not believe in God that go beyond the middle-class affectations of a Hitchens or Dawkins. Seven Types of Atheism categorizes its subject in the same number of broad tenets, with Gray including alongside the suburban New Atheists more provocative tribes of non-sectarians such as those who’ve made a religion of science, those who’ve made a religion of radical politics, those who’ve embraced a misotheistic hatred of God, and finally two categories for whom Gray has an obvious affection: the disbeliever who still sees the utility of religious ritual and the apophatic visionary for whom, paradoxically, “some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion.”

The thread connecting Gray’s classification system — which finds confluences between the Enlightenment Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and Mill, the holy asceticism of Benedict Spinoza, the ruthless honesty of Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the civil religion of Jacobinism, the prophetic madness of Bolshevism and fascism, the millenarian insanities of Reformation cults, and the techno-utopianism of the transhumanists — is the claim that for all of their diversities, “atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means.” All systems made by humans, even if their adherents steadfastly protest their secularism, are simultaneously blessed and damned with religion. Which goes to explaining what I feel most galling about being accused of atheism. I’m bothered by such a misidentification for the simple reason that I don’t think that atheism actually exists.

Gray writes that partisans of “revolution, reform and counter-revolution think they have left religion behind, when all they have does is renew it in shapes they fail to recognize.” Contra the unempirical claims of the secularization hypothesis, Gray maintains that our reality remains far from disenchanted — in fact, it’s positively God-haunted. Seven Types of Atheism is ultimately about how each of Gray’s categories (even if he has obvious preferences for some over others) is really a type of sublimated faith. Such a position isn’t new to Gray’s thought, for the claim that religion has never really left the world has been the major argument of his philosophical career, brilliantly elucidated in works like Straw Dogs and especially Black Mass. Gray is of course not the only contemporary philosopher to make such an argument; thinkers as varied as Habermas and Žižek have “turned to religion” in their later work. But alongside Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless, Gray has made untangling sublimated religion in ostensibly secular ideologies not just a mainstay of his thought, but one which he has illuminated accessibly and with panache.

Gray explains that the “God of monotheism did not die, it only left the scene for a while in order to reappear as humanity — the human species dressed up as a collective agent, pursuing its self-realization in history.” For Gray, atheism has “acquired the trappings of traditional religions.” He lists the so-called Cult of Reason from Jacobin France, the secular mysticism of Auguste Comte, the dialectical materialism of Vladimir Lenin, and Ayn Rand’s secondhand pilfering of Nietzsche as examples of how “atheist movements have been vehicles for surrogate religions,” even as their “secular” proponents deny their own hair shirts and cilice. As I read Gray’s book, this struck me as his dominant message: that deny the traces of faith all we like, religion can’t be exorcized from the body of humanity. Gray writes that the “belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion,” since “secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion […] there never was a secular era.” That Gray is himself an atheist does nothing to diminish his argument — quite the opposite.

Gray’s religious skepticism allows him to elucidate the contours of contemporary ideology more accurately and more honestly, while also allowing him to critique our modern gods in need of critique, from myths of progress to utopianism. “If you want to understand modern politics,” he writes, “you must set aside the idea that secular and religious movements are opposites.” For the philosopher, every type of politics betrays its own theological positions. Gray’s own political orientation has been slippery over the years: working-class Brit that he was, his youth was in the Labour Party. In the ’70s and ’80s he gravitated toward the Thatcherite politics of the New Right, by the ’90s he moved closer to the Blairite position of triangulated third-way liberalism (using that last word in the American sense). As a result, he is sometimes identified as a conservative (lower-case “c”), and there is something fair in that assessment. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret him as a rightist: his interpretation of the apocalyptic elements of neoconservatism in Black Mass and his cognoscente analysis of the totalizing and destructive millennialism of neoliberalism in False Dawn make clear that his commitments have kept the most pernicious idols of our age firmly within his sights.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to classify Gray as an adherent of anti-utopian liberalism, or “agonistic liberalism,” as he’s used that term in his study of Isaiah Berlin. Gray is a conservative in the truest, and most British, sense of the word in that he can be placed in a tradition from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott which looks askance at claims that the world can be remade again. In our apocalyptic States of America, such a sober position has never been popular; there have never really been any conservatives in this country. By contrast, Gray is fearful of New Men and the Year Zero, seeing in such millennial utopianism, whether of the left or right, a type of sublimated apocalyptic yearning which leaves in its wake millions of deaths. As he indicates in the last two chapters of his book, Gray’s own religion (despite his atheism) is arguably manifest in his politics. He rejects the positions of revolutionary chiliasts, a cadre whom Gray identifies as burning the world down in the faith that only they can build it up again, whether at Münster in 1535, or St. Petersburg in 1917, or Berlin in 1933. By contrast, he is almost a mystical High Church Taoist (my term), his positions perhaps closest to that of being an apolitical aesthete who waits for the rising water to flood his home, fully aware that even our favored forms of organizing a polity are contingent and relative. He can claim that a “liberal way of life remains one of the more civilized ways in which human beings can live together. But it is local, accidental, and mortal, like the other ways of life human beings have fashioned for themselves and then destroyed.”

A frustrating aspect of Gray’s thought is that while he provides diagnoses, he can offer no treatment. With forces of reaction ascendant in Moscow and Budapest, Manila and Brasília, London and Washington, one sometimes wishes for a bit more of our own utopianism to counter the cracked malignant variety which spreads like cancer across the world. But if what Gray offers is sober analysis, that clear-eyed understanding is invaluable if we’re to comprehend that what we face is never just politics, but the fervency of dark faith. As he writes,

If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites. If you can see what a millenarian theocracy in early sixteenth-century Münster has in common with Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany, you will have a clearer view of the modern scene.

Gray’s analysis is so helpful because his liberal agnosticism questions the unthinking (and secularized) shibboleths of so much normative political discourse. “A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning the prevailing faith in humanity,” and in this Gray’s career has been marked by a healthy iconoclasm. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the emotional appeal in the faith that holds that humanity is always morally progressing; it’s that he understands such a position is just that — a faith. He explains that “progress of humanity has replaced belief in divine providence. But this faith in humanity makes sense only if it continues ways of thinking that have been inherited from monotheism.” We see indications of such faith in the commitments of those who note the dark winds gathering, but assuage their apprehensions by quoting the 19th-century liberal theologian Theodore Parker, who famously said that the “arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Even though Gray rejects utopianism, it does not mean that we need to; even though Seven Types of Atheism underscores that we cannot forget that when we speak of our own politics what we’re really speaking of is a type of religion. In fact, it is the confirmation of the fundamental truth that secularized politics is sublimated religion which the efficacy of our utopianism demands. Inheritors of the Enlightenment which we imagine ourselves to be (as if such a thing had ever really happened anyhow), Gray reminds us that “[s]cientific 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.” The forces of reaction offer their adherents meaning, and if we’re to have any hope of staving them we have to offer something commensurate. For those of us who consider ourselves on the left, Gray’s analysis has to be understood and internalized. There’s no hope of winning a war at all if you erroneously believe that some abstracted, rarefied History has already guaranteed you its spoils. Even more crucially, there’s no hope of winning a religious war if you don’t even know that you’re fighting it.

Gray’s High Church Taoist agnosticism may not broker that there’s much hope of diking up the water as the ice caps melt, or that we’ll be able to turn the barbarians at the gate back, but it does allow him to tend to his own garden, and what a beautiful garden it can be. In his taxonomy of atheisms, it’s clear that there are some which he prefers. Having eliminated the inanities of the New Atheists, the sanctimonies of the secular humanists, the pious irrationalities of the transhumanists, the raging madness of the political chiliasts, and the hatefulness of the misotheists, Gray examines the last two manners of rejecting God. The first is a kind of ritual without faith, an acknowledgment of the husk of religion while finding that the kernel of belief is not there. For Gray, this position is exemplified by the philosopher George Santayana, content to live in a convent of blue nuns and to embrace that which is beautiful about religion without really believing in any of it. This, it should be said to me, seems a very Anglican position.

Sympathetic as an Englishman of Gray’s variety would be to the accoutrements of stained glass and pipe organ without all of that God business, it’s the final category of atheism that he most fully embraces, the disbelief that he most totally believes, the nonexistent God to whom he most clearly directs his prayers. Gray promises that “theologies that affirm the ineffability of God and some types of atheism are not so far apart,” and that subsequently “you will learn something about the limits of human understanding.” Embodied in the thought of Schopenhauer, he describes this mystical atheism as similar to the thought of the negative theologians, who believe that God is a “state of pure being.” Those philosophers held that “[i]n order for this God to show itself, the Christian God to be given the last rites and put to rest.” The prayed-to-god, it would seem, is not the real God. This is the position of that God-intoxicated atheist Spinoza, who, while denying the deity of scriptures, could affirm that “our salvation or blessedness or freedom consists […] in a constant and eternal love of God.” With sympathy to Spinoza, Gray understands that a “godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”

Still there is the pesky issue of ethics. The New Atheists, never ones to shy away from an unconvincing conclusion, might think that the abandonment of God has no influence on how we conceive of morality, that we can easily kill God and go on as if nothing has changed, but actual atheists from Nietzsche to Schopenhauer (and Gray) have been wiser. Not to enter into the silly debate about whether or not atheists can be moral — of course they can — but the nonexistence of a divine law-giver inescapably has implications for how we can be certain objective morality exists or not. Without some absolute and metaphysical basis for ethics, Gray argues that “there is no reason to think of ethics as obedience to any law.” What we can have obedience to, however, is our shared humanity, our shared understanding of what it means to have a body, a face, a mind; what it means to feel pain, ecstasy, intense sorrow, and extreme elation. Gray writes that “the basis of ethics […] [is] in feeling.” We might not discover God as the law-giver, but we find each other, and it’s in the “emotion of compassion for others” that comes the “realization that selfhood is an illusion. Salvation was the dissolution of this illusion.” And thus, we have a political theology, and an ethics, based not on an objective outside presence but rather the shared commonality of what it means to be human. There is an overblown fear that rejection of a divine law-maker, the smashing of the tablets, implies an irrevocable ethical nihilism. A fallacy in this, for it ignores that whether or not God is real, we’re real. And we can know what it means to feel pain, and in empathy tend to the wounds of the injured; that we can know what it means to feel sorrow, and we can console the mourning; that we can know what it means to feel joy, and we can celebrate with our sisters and brothers, whether or not God is in heaven.

Ever comfortable with ambiguity, Empson — to whom, as you may recall, Gray owes the book’s title — noted that “the human mind can recognize actually incommensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” Part of Gray’s astuteness is that his entire philosophical career is a testament to that reality, the secularist who knows secularity to be a myth, the atheist who loves God. In a rare misstep where Gray doesn’t follow through on the radical implications of his own argument, he writes that “Christianity will be badly shaken if the received story of Jesus can be shown to be false.” It strikes me that certainly Christians would be badly shaken, but Christianity need not be. The passage put me in mind of an argument I had almost 20 years ago, when an evangelical Christian and I got into the sort of shouting match that one gets into with an evangelical Christian. Posing to him an admittedly far-fetched hypothetical, I asked what he would do should archaeologists and historians unequivocally proved that Christ’s tomb was still occupied on Sunday, and that the resurrection and all that it implies about salvation was nothing but a hoax. He admitted that he would then abandon his faith, to which I replied that he’d never really been a Christian to begin with. I don’t believe that the resurrection happened, holding more stock in the crucifix of Friday rather than the empty cross of Sunday. But I affirm that all which is rational isn’t deserving of faith, that God need not be a fact to be true, and that meaning and belief are not synonymous. My heart tells me that my evangelical interlocutor was one of the most atheistic people I’ve ever met. For the beautiful reality is that God doesn’t need to be real to be sublime; that we can doubt Christ’s existence, but we should never doubt His love.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions and an editor at Berfrois. His latest book is Furnace of This World; or 36 Observations about Goodness, available from Zero Books.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The AtlanticThe Paris Review DailyAeonJacobin, The Washington Post, The New York TimesKilling the BuddhaSalonThe Public Domain ReviewAtlas ObscuraJSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. The author of several books, he most recently wrote Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost (2023). He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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