Faith no more

seven types of atheismReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Seven Types of Atheism |John Gray

The cover of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism features seven highlighted gumnuts.

Is Gray suggesting atheism is a form of nuttiness? Sort of, as even though Gray is an atheist himself, he thinks that only a minority of the wide variety of atheisms surveyed here are legitimate.

Pure atheism, according to Gray, is harder than it looks, and much atheism simply fills the god-shaped hole with other grand ideas.

Modern atheists tend to be materialists, but atheists can believe in the continuity of life after death, as spiritualists did in the 19th century.

Schopenhauer, a dour atheist Gray admires, thought the spiritual was real and the material world illusory. You can have atheist religion, such as Buddhism.

Some atheists, such as Marx, put faith in the communal aspects of humanity. Nietzsche favoured the heroic individual and disdained the masses.

JS Mill was staid, while the Marquis de Sade’s atheism informed his libertinism.

Voltaire was money-grabbing and extravagant, Nietzsche an ascetic.

Atheism can breed tolerance or intolerance, sometimes in tandem. Gray notes the irony in secular humanists – who have inherited ideas of freedom of conscience from Christianity – wanting to ban religion. Atheism can be liberal or conservative. Although many modern atheists are liberals, the atheist capitalism of Ayn Rand is indifferent to the poor.

Gray defines atheism as simply the lack of need for a creator-god. His own version is a mix of misanthropy and shoulder-shrugging, which contrasts with the new atheists (whom he does not dignify with capital letters) and their blind faith in human progress.

Gray claims this is a legacy of Christianity, but many Christians share Gray’s scepticism over the purely human ability to create utopia. In this at least, Gray is closer to Christianity than he would like to think.

Available from Allen Lane

RRP $45

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