Review: John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pp. 176. $25).
By Neil Dhingra
This may seem like a comforting book for Christians. Its iconoclastic force is directed against various forms of atheism, which ironically seem to resemble nothing so much as the religion that they had presumably rejected. God has been succeeded by “God surrogates.” To be sure, Gray does not find Christian belief historically persuasive (for a critique of his historical claims, see Nick Spencer). Nevertheless, the Christian may enjoy being reminded that “evangelical atheism has fueled faith-based politics,” as in the French Revolution; there, alas, has been “no detectable movement” towards any secular endpoint in history; and, if we still wish to dream of progress, we do not have any means of determining what it is, or it will not involve, as C.S. Lewis warned us, some humans exercising a quasi-clerical power over others.
Gray notes not only the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s prediction that humanity will technologically “upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo Deus” but also Harari’s admission that Homo Deus may be coldly indifferent to Homo sapiens. Poor humans.
However, Gray’s work poses a fascinating challenge to Christians as well as to atheists because it is not merely iconoclasm. Whereas Gray is critical of several forms of atheism — all the political religions and forms of scientism — he is much more affirming of a few others. He recalls that American philosopher George Santayana believed in contemplation, neither of progress nor of any higher metaphysical reality, but of the sheer “flux of things.” Resembling the Hindu Samkhya school, Santayana’s thought suggested that a mind disillusioned of salvation from reality could find itself liberated, through “doubt and renunciation,” into “fields of endless variety and peace,” amid “a sweet and marvelous solitude.”
In the novelist Joseph Conrad, Gray admires the tragic realization that the Socratic dictum Know thyself really means “Understand thou art nothing, less than a shadow, more insignificant than a drop of water in the ocean, more fleeting than the illusion of a dream.” Then, Conrad suggests, one might find “perfect wisdom,” even “grace,” in the impersonality of the sea.
In a somewhat ambivalent discussion of Arthur Schopenhauer, Gray argues that one should not look for salvation through the veil of an illusionary world. Gray, once again alluding to “some Indian traditions,” suggests acceptance that all is inescapably maya, universal illusion all the way down. Then, “seeking no deliverance from the world’s insubstantial splendor, a liberated mind might find fulfilment by playing its part in the universal illusion.”
Gray appeals to what he considers to be a near-completely apophatic theology. “An atheist who denies that any God created the world,” he says, “may affirm a God that permeates the world but about which little or nothing positive can be said.” Gray ends his book by claiming, “A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”
Some critics have suggested that Gray’s work ultimately presents a contentless spirituality that lacks any prophetic call to change our ways, “protecting the poor from the violence of the rich and providing for the widows and the orphans” (Terry Eagleton), for instance, and neglects that “other people’s suffering is not [an illusion]” (George Scialabba).
Yet Gray, though consistently anti-utopian, is not necessarily nihilistic. Santayana’s perspective saw the world as inevitably confused, but in it the “spirit blooms timidly,” seeing that same ever-changing world as “shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter.” Conrad imagined that the impersonality of the sea could provoke human solidarity and a strenuous life lived according to a code, and adds, “I’ll admit however that to look at the remorseless process is sometimes amusing.” When Gray suggests “pure play” in the “aimless world,” there is no sense that this ludic activity must be glib. However, Gray’s book, although short, does not explain how those who are not Santayana, Conrad, or (perhaps) Schopenhauer might live an atheism without dreams of progress and instead according to an apophatic theology — the contemplation of an unspeakable this-worldly mystery.
The answer is likely love, something that Gray does not discuss at any length. Of course, Christians do not believe in the ultimacy of the flux of things or the impersonality of the sea or an illusory cosmos. Nevertheless, Christian thinkers such as the Jesuit Henri de Lubac have been fascinated by the beautiful compassionate tenderness (maitri) in Buddhism — “one of the highest peaks to which humanity has attained,” de Lubac opines. This tenderness seems to be the means to detachment from a self that has no final ontological weight, of liberation from the prison of the ego and its self-centered projects, theological and otherwise.
Speaking of subtly self-centered projects, Gray seems to hold that religion and its post-religious successors are inescapable projections. He speaks of medieval millenarians mutating into modern revolutionary movements, 16th-century Münster and 20th-century Moscow linked by the fruitless if earnest desire to escape from history. Gray describes the death of Benjamin Fondane, the only disciple of the radical fideist Lev Shestov, who died in Auschwitz hoping for a miracle that would never come — a hope that, however poignant, was an impossible desire to “return to things as they were before the Fall, when all things seemed possible.” If we cannot cease being religious, yet there is no justification for being conventionally religious, our only hope would be at least a quasi-Buddhist deliverance from ourselves and our badly misplaced theological seriousness. In that case, we must see the self that desperately wants to escape from history through dogma or ritual or even a hope against hope as an illusion, a house that must be burned down.
Then, it’s possible that the way we can see the self and its inclinations and desires as illusory is through a radically ecstatic form of love. Within the Christian tradition, Pierre Rousselot, SJ, who influenced de Lubac, wrote critically about this ecstatic form of love in medieval thinkers, especially Franciscans, that was directly opposed to egoistic forms of love. Love for them was like a wound or death. The canticles of St. Francis already suggestively ask, “Love of charity, why have you wounded me so?”
Love was also unreasonable and blind, and, as Rousselot writes, would bear its own justification, reason, or end. The result of this form of love would be a personal disintegration, as well as the capacity to love without attachment — perhaps, finally, as play, amusement, and through Santayana’s “fields of endless variety and peace.” Conceivably, this rigorously ecstatic love should be the unsettling culmination of Gray’s book as the unexpected vehicle to his apophaticism. Paradoxically, the book may require a chapter on religious practice that frees us for what Gray has called the “willing surrender to never-returning moments,” the contemplation of only facts that we recognize as groundless.
Yet, of course, many readers will recognize this ecstatic love as imperfect, even if there is something undeniably and enduringly beautiful in Buddhism and the “holy indifference” and “passivity” and even “dereliction” prescribed by the ecstatic tradition in Christianity. Specifically, de Lubac worried about the need for “respect for the personality in others.”
Is there instead a self that possesses a lasting weight and solidity as it is directed, with its nature and desires, toward communion with God? As Rousselot would ask, does the soul regain itself in God or must the soul lose itself in God? My answer is the former; it’s the worth of John Gray’s book that it makes his Christian readers ask the question in the first place.