Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray


“Secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.”

Seven Types of Atheism is a slender, quietly subversive book that takes a contrarian look at atheism. It’s written by John Gray, an atheist himself, and also a former academic (at Oxford and Harvard), a notoriously deep thinker and — thankfully for fans like me — a prolific writer.

In his latest book, Gray identifies seven of varieties of atheism that, at least in his opinion (and it carries a lot of weight), influenced contemporary atheism. He then explores the major thinkers and philosophers most readily identified with those lines of thoughts as well as the strength of their arguments, and mostly finds them wanting. Specifically, he sees most falling victim to the necessity, upon closer and unflinching examination, of an implied faith in something bigger and ineffable outside of human experience, an ideal upon which the model is reliant. Be it the forward march of progress, the force of history, the power of science to resolve fundamental conflicts of human nature or the belief that human nature itself is evolving to some perfect future state, these contrivances have no place in rational fact and are, in his opinion, as faulty as pinning our hopes on mythical external designers, i.e., gods.

When speaking of the myth of science as eventually able to usher in a utopia: “Science cannot close the gap between facts and values. No matter how much it may advance, scientific inquiry cannot tell you which ends to pursue or how to resolve conflicts between them.” In other words, science can’t make us not messily human.

When speaking of the myth of human progress: “Knowledge increases at an accelerating rate, but human beings are no more reasonable than they have ever been.”

Given how vocal some of today’s atheists are in the deriding the religious minded as faith-based escapists, this may come as a bitter pill for some.

“When individuals and groups choose between conflicting universal values, they create different moralities. Anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion.”

In Gray’s view, we’re mostly all faith-based escapists no matter what our particular belief system is — whether it’s built on a utopian foundation of progress or gradual improvement or Holy Scripture, it’s likely flawed.

As a long time John Gray fan, I found the logic inescapable, the writing — and analysis — spot on, and the book too short by half.

I wanted so much more, specifically how he, personally, uses this information to inform his own unique experience of atheism. What are the principles that allow him to avoid the abyss of nihilism and function effectively? With no god and no aligning force of forward progress, accepting we are simply animals doomed to live often brutishly and incompletely and die too soon and be forgotten even sooner, what gives John Gray the impetus to get up every day, think grand thoughts, wrestle with such weighty philosophic topics and publish such tremendous books?

Because, as he notes, “The only observable reality is the multitudinous human animal, with its conflicting goals, values and ways of life.”

And, in the end, “Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality.”

Along with the central thesis, two things struck me while reading this book. First, I am awed anew by his grasp of philosophy and philosophers, and his analysis of the historical context underlying their thought. Second, I find his focus on the myth of progress oddly comforting in these tumultuous times.

“Liberal societies are not templates for a universal political order but instances of a particular form of life. Yet liberals persist in imagining that only ignorance prevents their gospel from being accepted by all of humankind – a vision inherited from Christianity. They pass over the fact that liberal values have no very strong hold on the societies in which they emerged. In leading western institutions of learning, traditions of toleration and freedom of expression are being destroyed in a frenzy of righteousness that recalls the iconoclasm of Christianity when it came to power in the Roman Empire.”

It’s not paralyzing, and doesn’t make me disengage, but rather broadens my perspective and makes the current rancor seem somehow more tolerable. There are ebbs and flows, then, but never any actual progress.

Even though, “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.”

It’s a great read that approaches something very meaningful, but shouldn’t be mistaken for truth because, as he notes, “The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”