A field guide to atheism?

The book Seven Types of Atheism, by the British philosopher and atheist John Gray, and published earlier this year, looks at first glance like a field guide to godlessness. Gray distinguishes and explores the branches of atheism ancient and modern, from the old atheists of the Enlightenment through to the New Atheists of the recent past, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, whom he describes as ‘mostly a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment’. That comment immediately tells you that Gray’s book is not merely a field guide (although it is that too, and a very enjoyable one), but also a polemic against the types of atheism Gray thinks are too much in debt to religion.

Gray’s antipathy to the New Atheists generally and Richard Dawkins in particular has been well known at least since his blistering review of An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins’s autobiography, in 2014. His chapter dealing with the New Atheists is the shortest of the book, and it seems clear he regards them as the least interesting type of all seven.

His argument, which he pursues relentlessly through the book, is that most types of atheism have retained religious ways of thinking even while they rejected belief in God. Faith in science, faith in progress, faith in technology, have all been championed by atheists of different persuasions, and in this, Gray argues, they are merely ‘surrogates of the God they have cast aside’. His conclusion? ‘Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means.’

Gray’s seven types of atheism are as follows:

1. New atheism
2. Secular humanism
3. Faith is science
4. Political religion
5. God-haters
6. Atheism without progress
7. Mystical atheism

Gray’s chapter 3, which provides probably the most uncomfortable reading in the book, deals with how atheists have used science in advancing their case. He was asked about the chapter in an interview earlier this year and said:

‘Science has always been – and always will be – used by all sorts of people with different values. Many people have used scientism – the attempt to turn a bundle of scientific methods into a kind of gospel – to justify racism, imperialism or even genocide. It tends to embrace the dominant values of the time. People can’t explain why science should embrace liberal values, though the assumption is often there nowadays. There’s nothing in science that tells you to be kind, or help the poor. Science is a set of methods – it tries to explain practical things. But it can’t dictate values.’

We will shortly be producing a booklet based on Seven Types of Atheism, by Andrew Walker, the theologian and sociologist.