Where do atheists get their values?

John Gray explores fixed idea, unquestioning atheism in his new book Seven Types of Atheism

John Gray is a self-described atheist who thinks that prominent advocates of atheism have made non-belief seem intolerant, uninspiring and dull. At the end of the first chapter of his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, he concludes that "the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment".

He laughs when I remind him of this sick burn. “I wrote the book partly as a riposte to that kind of atheism,” he says. “There’s not much new in [new atheism] and what is in it is a tired recycled version of forms of atheism that were presented more interestingly in the 19th century. In the so-called new atheism people are [presented with] a binary option between atheism, as if there was only one kind, and religion, as if there was only one kind of religion. [It’s] historically illiterate.

"They don't even know when they're repeating ideas from the 19th or early 20th century . . .They don't know anything of the history of atheism or religion. They're also very parochial about religion. They take religion to be, not even monotheism or Christianity [but] contemporary American Protestant fundamentalism . . . It's a parochial, dull debate. I thought of having a subtitle called Why the God Debate is Dead."

In Seven Types of Atheism, Gray explores the rich philosophical history of non-belief and enlivens it with entertaining tales of humanists like August Comte who so believed in human co-operation he designed clothes that couldn't be put on without assistance and "god-haters" like the Marquis de Sade whose life was lived in debased defiance of the divine.


Rich ambiguity

Gray chose his title with reference to Seven Types of Ambiguity by the poet, critic and "misotheist" William Empson, in which Empson said "that far from ambiguity being a defect in language, it's what makes it so rich. Without ambiguity we couldn't deal with the world. I think the same is true of atheism and religion. They're fluid. They're multiple. They're plural. They flow into each other in different ways . . . It enables us to have a wide variety of frameworks we can call on when we're dealing with the experience of being human."

One of Gray’s key points, one he has stressed in previous books, is that some atheist thinkers inherit their beliefs from western monotheism and spend very little time developing their own philosophies. “They assume an enormous amount,” he says. “They take from the culture the liberal values they hold to and assume they’re somehow connected to atheism but there’s no logical or historical connection . . . [so] if you are an atheist where do you get your values from? Most think it would be obvious that you would be a liberal. They wouldn’t have thought that in the 1930s or in the 1890s because most atheists weren’t liberals then . . . Some were communists or Marxists. Some were fascists or Nazis. Some were liberals. There have been many atheist moralities just as there have been many religious moralities.”

There have been many atheist moralities just as there have been many religious moralities

One of the great and destructive inheritances that the new atheists and the post-religious West get from Judeo-Christian thought, according to Gray, is a belief in onward human progress (he explains in the book how this idea originated with monotheistic religions). We can see this, he says, in everything from the Marxist belief in a coming communist paradise and the late 20th-century faith in the historical inevitability of democratic capitalism to the transhumanist anticipation of a singularity.

Rise of authoritarianism

These notions are exacerbated by atheists who have confused and elided ethical and social development with scientific advancement. "But ethics and politics aren't like [science]," says Gray. "I think they're more cyclical. What's gained in one period is lost in another. Greek and Roman historians took that for granted but people find it too difficult to contemplate now . . . Which is why I'm not surprised by the rise of authoritarianism in Europe. I'm horrified by the rise of anti-Semitism but I'm not surprised by it."

In a chapter on secular humanism, Gray shows how philosophers like Comte and John Stuart Mill replaced a belief in God with a belief in humanity as a collective entity. "[Comte] explicitly says we must replace the supreme being [with] humanity. My argument . . . is that this idea of humanity is an inheritance from monotheism, because if you just use empirical means you don't find him anywhere. You find a particular animal species, of course, but [beyond this] you find multitudinous, multifarious human beings with different values, different ways of life, different goals. You don't find an entity with an agency that does anything. The idea that 'humanity' abolishes serfdom in the 17th century, ponders for a few decades and then decides to have democracy – a humanity that sets itself these great tasks and goes around achieving them – that's a residue from Christianity. It wasn't there in the ancient world. It's not an empirical idea. It's not based on observation."

Gray's next chapters move beyond relatively well-meaning humanists and on to scientific atheists and political atheists and the horrors their ideas propagated in the 19th and 20th centuries. "The new atheists don't like being reminded of this but if you had been a new atheist in 1920 or 1930 or the late 19th century you'd probably be a scientific racist," he says. "Because that was the type of science around at the time and it supported conventional values which at that time emphasised the superiority of European western culture . . . What the enlightenment thinkers all thought, apart from some with a soft spot for China, was that western civilisation was higher than other civilisations and that it would replace and should replace the others."

Myths vs science

Scientific atheists also tend to view religion as primitive, discredited science, says Gray. But most religions, he says, are centred on myths that are symbolic rather than explanatory.

"One of the great human myths, one of the greatest ever, I would say, is the story of the Garden of Eden. You can go back 2,000 years and find Jewish and Christian scholars saying, 'Don't read this literally.' Myths aren't failed scientific theories. They're complex structures of images and stories that human beings develop in order to find meaning in their lives. The Genesis myth isn't an early form of Darwinism, an early theory of the origin of species, it's something quite different."

Gray's own preferred branches of atheism are covered in the last two chapters of his book and they are philosophies not conducive to grand narratives. He calls them "atheism without progress" and "the atheism of silence". The former is a sort of stoical acceptance of an agencyless universe, found in the thinking of Joseph Conrad and George Santayana, and the latter is a mystical form of atheism exemplified by Baruch Spinoza.

The Genesis myth isn't an early form of Darwinism, an early theory of the origin of species, it's something quite different

Both these forms of atheism, it must be said, constitute a sort of retreat inward. “I don’t think of them as positions that could be evangelised about,” says Gray

He discusses Conrad who was, over his life, a gunrunner and a sailor who had witnessed the racist horrors of colonialism in the Congo. "What he admired in human beings the most was how they reckoned with things that couldn't be remedied or improved," says Gray. "Virtues of courage and resilience and fellow feeling for others who were struggling. He admired most in human beings how they reacted to their fate . . . Today the very idea of fate is rejected because it's considered to be inhuman or too inflexible. Actually, none of us fashions our own fate. We're born in a particular place and time and most of the things that happen to us are outside of our control."

Gray is not, incidentally, saying that societal improvements are impossible (he’s personally pro-choice, an advocate of gay rights and a passionate anti-fascist) but he is saying that they may not stick. “[People say] if I didn’t think that the improvements I achieved would be permanent I’d stay in bed today which I always reply, ‘stay in bed’. Or find a better reason for getting up.” He laughs. There is room for reform and politics, he says “but they wouldn’t be projects of universal human emancipation like communism or liberalism where it’s believed that all the world is moving towards a better state of affairs that everyone agrees on”.

Forbidden text

Unsurprisingly, Gray has in the past been called a misanthropist and a nihilist. “[A nihilist] is anyone who goes against the pieties of the age,” he says. “A misanthropist is anyone who doesn’t flatter his readers.”

Who are his readers? “Anyone who might pick this up in a bookshop,” he says.

Does he think any new atheists might pick up this book? “I think it would be useful to them but I’m not sure if they will, because it might be against their faith.” He laughs. “Maybe it would be a forbidden text?”

Has he ever debated with these new atheist figures publicly? “I don’t think the truth of this matter comes out in a debate format,” he says. “Partly because it isn’t binary and debates are adversarial so they always turn out to be binary, but also because, unlike them, I’m not evangelical. I’ve not written this to convert anyone from or to anything.”

He does not want a world dominated by one type of thought. “If you move away from that kind of monotheism . . . then you’ve got to accept that there are conflicting ways of life and conflicting values in the world,” he says. “And then the question is, will you stand up for the ones you believe in most? But don’t imagine there’s one way of life that everyone secretly wants. There isn’t a secret liberal trying to get out of every member of Isis. Just about 10 or 15 years ago [prominent atheist philosopher, Daniel] Dennett wrote that fundamentalism would be destroyed by the mobile phone.” He laughs. “A classic thing of someone who knows zero history and zero politics and zero about terrorism or zero about religion. On the contrary . . . Isis used video technology to promote its terrorist acts. The certainty of this type of atheist thought is very like the certainty of fundamentalist religion.” In contrast, he says that while he often disagrees with religious thinkers, he often finds them “more intelligent and more open-minded”.

Ultimately, Gray believes that the dichotomy between religion and atheism is a false and unhelpful one. “Wisdom is scattered about in human life,” he says. “It’s not in one place and it’s not necessarily connected with any single theory or faith or practice. It’s all over the place.”