John Gray’s Straw Dogs occupies a hallowed place in my library. As stark and bleak as its overview may be, it remains one of the books striking closest to anything that I personally might describe as a ‘fundamental reality to existence’. Anyone who has read the book will be aware that said reality is anything but concretely finite, nevertheless Gray has a way of cutting directly to the heart of matters (no Hegelian or Sartre-ian ramblings here) in his discussions on the nature of human nature, without flighty language. Straw Dogs published in 2002, Gray expands his worldview to include the nature of “non-belief” in 2019 with Seven Types of Atheism. (Do not, whatever you do, confuse this John Gray with John Gray, writer of Men Are From Mars, Women from Venus—or any of these other John Grays.)
While I can appreciate Gray was giving a nod to William Empson and Seven Types of Ambiguity, the book’s title Seven Types of Atheism is sure to put off a few readers who are unaware of the link. Not a dry, scientific breakdown of atheism’s taxonomy, the book is instead an erudite, dynamic presentation of the manifestations of atheism, from ancient times until now, and the consistencies and inconsistencies they purport. Everyone from Plato to Joseph Conrad are brought forth for discussion. Thus while the book is broken into seven basic types of atheism, the sections feed back and forth among one another toward making and defining the points on Gray’s agenda.
If there was an overall agenda to Seven Types of Ahteism, it would have to be to drive home the perspective that atheism, in its variety of forms, is most often no more a path toward humanity’s evolution or redemption than any religion, traditional or niche. Gray working with the conception that human nature remains fixed while technology, the environment, etc. evolves around it, the advancement of one does not automatically translate to the other. Getting into the grill of neoliberalists and pro-science thinkers, Gray posits that for all of the advances in medicine, industry, infrastructure, technology, etc., there remains zero connection to the idea these advances are feeding any similar improvements in human nature. Cavemen did not have guns, but that did not stop them from behaving any more or less like animals than does the present lot. Perhaps more specifically, Gray seems to want to promote the premise that, the current hope surrounding science or any other epistemological advances can deliver humanity from its ills is, in fact, the same hope many religions have for humanity’s redemption, only with a different name over the door.
Conjuring Dostoyevsky, Stuart Mill, Ayn Rand, Plato, Schopenhauer, Buddhism, Santayana, Nietzsche, Empson, and numerous others, Gray draws a line between atheism which asserts itself as offering mankind’s improvement (communism, the uberman, etc.), and atheism which approaches human nature as fixed, or fixed around a point (Buddhism, Daoism, rationalism, etc.). The former believing in transcendence and the other adhering to ‘this is as good as it gets’, it’s a striking dichotomy of non-belief that gives pause to ponder.
As with Straw Dogs, Seven Types of Atheism does not give the impression Gray is attempting to be a Negative Nelly simply for the sake of nihilism. Rather, one gets the impression that Gray is bent on preventing contemporary humanity from chasing the latest idea that humanity will be able to overcome its foibles if only A, B, C... Whether it be the halo of science or just ‘Let’s make America great again’, Gray would ask the reader to question, based on the millennia of recorded history, whether that is feasible, or whether those ideas are in turn simply allowing someone else to achieve their own ends, as well intentioned as they may be. From another point of view, if religion and atheism most often produce the same result, what’s next? It’s impossible for Seven Types of Atheism to be as personally relevant as Straw Dogs given the subject matter, but that does not make it any less important or engaging of a read, particularly as of 2019 as the toehold of religion in human culture starts to wane.