IT IS as well to remember, when thinking about atheism, what a very relative term it is, a word with multiple meanings. After all, early Christians were accused of being atheists for not honouring the many Roman gods of their day. And, as John Gray reminds us, if we want to understand atheism and religion, we must forget the popular notion that they are opposites. Some forms of atheism merge with mysticism at a deep level.
Seven Types of Atheism is not an exhaustive list of all the atheisms of the world, but merely a convenient way for the author to break up his material as he explores the theme, while pursuing his own interests through Western philosophy. His quick dismissal of the New Atheists of today is a delight. They are given short shrift for directing their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part. Contemporary atheism, he suggests, in seeking a surrogate for the Creator-God that it has dismissed, tends to find meaning and redemption in ideas of progress.
Gray’s account of human nature as it attempts to find meaning in life is bleak. Chapters on “Atheism, Gnosticism and modern political religion”, and “God haters”, may shock the reader: how easily the behaviour of human beings, in both religious and non-religious communities, degenerates into cruelty, racism, and sickening assumptions of Western superiority. Anyone who naïvely accepts the atheist argument that the abolition of religion (with all its faults) would lead to a better world should read and digest these chapters.
Gray reserves his respect, one suspects, for those unruffled thinkers who find freedom and fulfilment by not looking for cosmic meaning, content with the world as they find it.
The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.
Seven Types of Atheism
Allen Lane £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20