Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Seven shades of Gray

Sorry about the title. Couldn’t resist it.
Actually the shades in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism are pretty dark. He will upset quite a few people, and is not very sorry about it. The reader might be forgiven for imagining that this is an anti-religious polemic, but far from it. Gray is certainly an atheist – so much so that he does not regard religious positions as particularly intellectually serious or worth engaging with. His brief, by-numbers section debunking Christianity is one of the few disappointing bits of the book: I have a hunch his publishers might have told him he’d better put it in. He means it – for sure! – but it's not what's stoking his fires. His real targets are inadequate or flawed atheisms, and he has plenty to choose from.
The result is an engagingly malicious travelling circus of atheism which puts a plague on every house it visits. Virtually no-one escapes. He has a handful of admirable figures, most of whom surface in the final two chapters. ‘There is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness’ (for Gray, that counts as a compliment). Spinoza comes out of this pretty well too, along with Santayana and Joseph Conrad.
The real enemy here is not religion, but ‘contemporary atheism’, which he sees in its various forms as ‘a continuation of monotheism by other means’. ‘Secular thought,’ he insists – with ample evidence – ‘is mostly composed of repressed religion.’ Above all, atheism has repeatedly claimed to transcend Christianity’s ethical framework before proceeding to ‘simply regurgitate some secular version of Christian morality’. Even those who have tried hardest to break out of that framework have failed. Nietzsche gets an hon mensh for efforts in this regard, but Gray sees him in the end as ‘an incurably Christian thinker’.
Gray’s own preference is for the kind of Epicurean withdrawal he finds in Lucretius:
Watching calmly as others drowned in misery, the Epicureans were content in the tranquil retreat of their secluded gardens. “Humanity” could do what it pleased. It was no concern of theirs.
Now Gray is a philosopher and that’s the sort of thing philosophers do, so, fine. But from a historian’s or a social-scientist’s point of view, this is not a view which is going anywhere. Withdrawing to the margins is, by definition, a marginal position. We can all enjoy watching Gray taking an intellectual scythe to contemporary fallacies, but that neither explains them nor uproots them.
If contemporary atheism’s greatest failure is its failure to transcend theistic morality, surely that tells us something: namely, that contemporary atheism is largely a moral critique of theism mounted in theism’s own terms. (As Dominic Erdozain has argued.) Of course it can’t transcend theistic morals: those morals are its whole basis. It is in the end an ethical revolt, which is with immense moral seriousness sawing off the branch it sits on. It is telling that one of the handful of modern thinkers to emerge from this book virtually unscathed is C. S. Lewis – not for his fiction or his apologetics, but for his ‘prescient’ exposé of transhumanism’s self-cannibalism in The Abolition of Man.
Gray leaves you with two options. He recommends his own brutally honest, Lucretian withdrawal, which abandons morality as we conventionally understand it, along with any notion of ‘humanity’ (a particular bugbear of his). Alternatively, ‘anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion’. Well, if you insist.

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