UK Vice Magazine recently interviewed John Gray, the renowned English philosopher about atheism, and his critique of ‘new atheism’. Gray is not a religious believer, but he insists that nonbelief is a far more strange and subtle business.
VICE: You’re quite hard on the new atheism of Richard Dawkins and others. What frustrates you about their way of thinking?
John Gray: It’s their idea of religion as a failed scientific theory of everything, a primitive science. When it comes to the genesis myth, even the early Christian scholars said, “You mustn’t read this as a literal rendition of fact.” It’s a mistake to confuse religious fundamentalists with the vast, rich tradition of religious life. Religion is not an explanatory theory of the world; it’s a way of making sense of living in the world.
The other really widespread way of doing atheism these days is secular humanism. Why is it you think the humanists are misguided and are actually just repeating religious ideas?
The whole idea of progress comes from monotheistic religion, from Christianity in particular, and from the post-millennialism that says Christ will return one day, but only after we improve the world. The secular humanists have replaced the idea of God with the idea of humanity—an agent with a common set of goals that is gradually realized over time. Humanity is part of a story with redemptive meaning. So the secular humanists haven’t shed a way of thinking that comes from monotheism. In the pre-Christian world, they never assumed progress would occur. History has no redemptive significance.
There’s a third kind of atheism you identify—faith in science. Isn’t science something noble to believe in?
Science has always been—and always will be—used by all sorts of people with different values. Many people have used scientism—the attempt to turn a bundle of scientific methods into a kind of gospel—to justify racism, imperialism, or even genocide. It tends to embrace the dominant values of the time. People can’t explain why science should embrace liberal values, though the assumption is often there nowadays. There’s nothing in science that tells you to be kind or help the poor. Science is a set of methods—it tries to explain practical things. But it can’t dictate values.
The fourth kind of atheist is the kind who turn politics into a kind of religion. Does this kind of zealotry help explain things like the French revolution, the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism?
The millenarian religious movements of the late Middle Ages expected a new world to emerge after a period of catastrophic conflict. For modern revolutionaries, it’s humanity that brings in a society different from any in history. But both share the myth that history ends with a far better world. Curiously, a version of this belief gripped liberals after the fall of communism; they failed to recognize that what has been gained can always be lost because of the flawed nature of the human animal. The thinkers of the ancient world understood you always have these cycles of improvement and barbarism.
Let’s move on to the “God-haters.” These atheists seem to be so obsessed with evil that they actually still have some sort of belief in God.
The existence of evil in the world is a mystery. Christians have come up with fancy arguments for evil, about free will for humankind and so on, while others just accept the mystery. If you’re an atheist and you’re interested in evil, it’s a short step then to say there must be some element of evil in God, or the very idea of God is evil. The God-hater is one who can’t accept God because of all the evil in the world and then comes to hate that God. But it’s actually another iteration of monotheistic thought.
Let’s talk about the sixth strain of atheism you look at—atheism without any faith in progress. Is it fair to say this is the most vigorous kind of atheism?
Yes, I would say so. I use the example of the novelist Joseph Conrad—his atheism completely rejects the idea of progress, and yet he still admires human self-assertion in the face of a kind of bleak situation that cannot be overcome. The thinker, George Santayana, is someone who was impressed by the beauty of religion, but didn’t want it or need it for himself. They rejected the idea of the cosmos being rational.
You finish with the mystical kind of atheism. It sounds almost like people who have a big drug experience and talk about the oneness of everything.
Well, it’s a radical kind of atheism that asserts that the nature of reality is ineffable—it can’t be embodied in words. Schopenhauer thought the ultimate reality of things was spiritual, but we couldn’t really grasp it with our reasoning. He didn’t have any need for a creator God, but actually, he isn’t so far from certain traditions in mysticism and different religions. Some types of mystical religion come close to atheism in their understanding of God as unimaginable.
So these last two are the kinds of atheism you most admire?
Yes, they’re the ones I like the best in that they’re the most rigorous in stepping outside of a monotheistic way of thinking. There are many kinds of atheism. I think you’re an atheist if you don’t need the idea of a creator God. But if you really want to step outside of monotheism, I think these sorts of ideas are where you’ll get to.