Seven types of atheism


Professor John Gray’s 2018 book [1] is filled with interesting information that can give us an insight into religion, human concerns, and proper behavior.[2]

Atheism and the focus of this book

At the outset of his book, Professor Gray defines atheism, “an atheist is anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.… [Atheism] is simply the absence of a creator-god.” He states that atheists look “for surrogates of the god they have cast aside.”

The professor focuses on seven different types of people who do not see any involvement of a god in human affairs, see no benefit worshipping a being that is uninvolved in this world, and who seek something they should strive for rather than trying to appease a being that pays them no attention, an involvement in something that will give them satisfaction and add meaning to their lives. His list of “seven types” is, I believe, an arbitrary number, for there are many different goals and behaviors that people could think of and follow rather than spending time worshiping God.

What are the seven types that Professor Gray identifies?  

  1. These are people who dismiss religion in its entirety because they focus on only a few beliefs or practices of a religion, but not the religion as a whole, and consider these to be unscientific and pure superstition. They feel that religion is primitive science and scientists should replace priests. Gray considers them fools because they fail to reason properly, making a decision after a brief insufficient investigation.
  2. Type 2 people emphasize that knowledge increases at an accelerated rate today and humans should not accept old ideas but the rationalism of John Stuart Mill and such people as Bertrand Russell who was a sceptic, and Nietzsche and Ann Rand who emphasized the use of reason.
  3. People of the third type are like Julian Huxley, Hume, Kant, H. G. Wells, and Voltaire who took science a step back and insisted giving racism intellectual authority by asserting that it was grounded in reason. Voltaire, for example, mocked the biblical account of the common human ancestry, and asked whether Africans were descended from monkeys or monkeys from Africans.
  4. Then, of course, there are people who focus their lives on politics, such as communism, socialism, bolshevism, Jacobins during the French Reign of Terror, the Nazis, and, in contrast, the positive liberalism of John Locke who taught an idea accepted by the founders of the United States that humans are free beings who are protected by rights which should be in societal laws.
  5. Some people simply hate the idea of God. Gray includes Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fictional character Ivan Karamazov who hated God because of all the horrors, pains, and sufferings that God placed in this world.

Gray tells us that he dislikes these first five types of atheism and is repelled by them. He writes that he is “drawn to the last two, atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnameable God.” [3]

6. These people are like Joseph Conrad’s character Singleton in his 1897 novel “The Nigger of the Narcissus.” They reject rationalization, religion, and the various theories of society because they feel that none seem to work. Instead, they make sensible decisions when faced with a problem, common-sense decisions relating to what they are facing, not any preconceived system of thought or pattern of life.

7. Grays final type is based on Spinoza, who apparently unknown to the professor took his idea from Maimonides who lived several centuries before him.[4] They taught that God is unknowable. At best, all we can know are negatives, such as God cannot be more than one. Thus, writes Gray, one can live a good life without knowing whether God exists, without feeling any contact with God, and not knowing what God is or wants.[5]\

[1] John Gray, Seven Types of atheism, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

[2] Professor Gray is the author of close to two dozen books, mostly on philosophy and philosophers.

[3] By“unnameable,” he probably means an unidentifiable or unknown God, item 7.

[4] Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). Both were, among other things, Jewish philosophers.

[5] How does Maimonides deal with an unknowable God? How should a person act?  Maimonides answers that the Torah teaches proper behavior. He wrote in his “Guide of the Perplexed,” that the purpose of the Torah is to teach some truths, helps people be all they can be, and aids people to improve society.

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