The Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray
I liked this book for its main idea, more than for its writing or details, which frankly were often over my head.
The main idea is one I’ve tried to fully form in my head many a time, about progress being a myth. Gray argues here that much of modern atheism, notably secular humanism, is wholly religious in nature, and owes its existence to monotheism and Christianity.
Prior to Christianity, so it goes, the ancients had no concept of a grand narrative of human progress. Things were seen as cyclical. Humans progressed, and then fell back as often as not. Knowledge was gained and lost. There was nothing new under the sun.
Pow! Here comes Christianity. Now history becomes a story of before and after, human striving serving an ultimate purpose.
Whereas Christianity is what lent humanity the idea of salvation and progression, what monotheism brought to the table was universalism. No longer would I worship my local gods and you yours; not even would it be the case that I would worship my “God” and you yours. No, now there was ONLY ONE god – for EVERYONE. From here arose the tendency of humans not just to conquer, not just to impose their physical will on others, but to insist on imposing their very morality and religion on others, which was something new.
There is a lot in this book about the religious nature of so-called atheistic movements – Bolshevism, Naziism, and lots of obscure movements and tyrants that I for one don’t think I had ever heard of – “Bockelson” or “John of Leiden,” for example, an Anabaptist from the 16th century, made for a particularly gruesome digression. Gray seems to almost delight in ticking off atrocities committed throughout the ages by the religious and allegedly areligious alike. I could have done without it.
This world view of life as cyclical and non-improving is one that resonates with me, and though I usually think of it on the micro rather than macro scale, it seems to fit the facts well enough on both levels. I feel exactly like the four-year-old child I once was. True, I used to be two feet tall, and now I am five foot four. Is that “progress”? I am better now at follow spelling rules. I’ve amassed some knowledge. Progress can only be proven on trivial levels such as this. In so many more senses, I am the same.
Similarly, you cannot deny that humans own more cell phones now than ever before, certainly more than in the 15th century. It’s a fact. Is that progress? We’ve managed to amass technical knowledge, and not yet lose it, though there is no guarantee we won’t lose it all somewhere down the line. But despots and intolerance continue to rule as much of the globe as they ever did. I won’t bog down in a scorecard of what ways we’ve progressed and what ways we haven’t – ultimately, I’m not here to convert you, and neither is Gray. One of the types of atheism he semi-ridicules is that which does nothing but position itself in opposition to religion. Religion is part of human nature; why single it out for opposition? Science and religion are not opposites or opposed to each other any more than are science and art. Do scientists seek to stamp out art? Why not? So, why try to stamp out religion? Think about it. And if you are a secular humanist, and your “religion” is that of human progress, then good for you. Different people can have different religions and moralities. We very likely need them, and have them for a purpose.