Different kinds of atheists

John Gray, author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, is a different kind of atheist.  He is friendly to religion, thinks progress is a myth, and is skeptical of humanist ideals like freedom and knowledge.

This should remind us that just as there are different religions and different theologies within a religion, there are different sects of atheists:  libertarian atheists, Marxist atheists, scientific determinist atheists, existentialist atheists, humanist atheists, Nietzschean atheists, etc., etc.

So when we meet an atheist, we should ask, “what kind of atheist are you?”  Or, “what god do you not believe in?”  We Christians might not believe in that kind of god either.  In fact, the Romans persecuted Christians on the grounds that they were “atheists”; that is, they did not believe in the gods of the cultural pantheon.

An interview with John Gray by J. P. O’Malley:

In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.

What is your own relationship with religion?

I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.

You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this. But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

Would you call yourself an existentialist?

No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.

via Interview with a writer: John Gray » Spectator Blogs.

MORE THOUGHTS:  So what kind of atheist is John Gray?  He is a positivist, a linguistic analysis philosopher, a position that contends that since the only reality is matter, all words about non-material entities, from abstract ideas to God, are meaningless.  This branch of academic philosophy, which has been quite popular in American and English departments of philosophy, examines traditional philosophical concepts, such as freedom and knowledge (as we see here), showing how they are objectively meaningless, mere linguistic constructions (as we see here).  Gray can praise religion because it has resulted in tangible material things that are good (such as beautiful cathedrals, advanced civilization, etc.), even though he insists that God and all of the theology about Him are just words.

HT:  Bror Erickson

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  • I agree with Gray about freedom. I’d even go farther to say that people have a proclivity toward controlling government. Free societies are artificial breaks in history, breaks that require lots of education and indoctrination in the value and use of liberty. This takes generations. This is why I’m skeptical about building free democracies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why I fear that the people of the United States and much of the West, are freely deciding to leave freedom.
    Some atheists are nicer than others. I’m a regular listener to John Derbeshire over at Taki’s web sight.

  • Within this context, I wonder what the difference is between atheism and paganism?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Interesting interview. I have often said that there is quite a difference between atheism and anti-theism. I have run into this same positive atheistic view of religion before – the eminent sociologist, Robert N Bellah, expresses the same sentiment in his seminal work ” The role of religion in human evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial age.”

    Rev Paul, it depends on what you mean by paganism. Using the wikipedia definition

    Paganism (from Late Latin paganus, meaning “country dweller”, “rustic”, “civilian”, “non-combatant”)[1] is a broad term typically pertaining to indigenous and historical polytheistic religious traditions, primarily those of cultures known to the classical world.
    In a wider sense, it has been used as a label for any non-Abrahamic folk/ethnic religion. It was historically used as one of several pejorative Christian counterparts to “gentile” (גוי / נכרי) as used in the Hebrew Bible — comparable to “infidel” or “heretic”. Modern ethnologists often avoid this broad usage in favour of more specific and less potentially offensive terms such as “polytheism”, “shamanism”, “pantheism”, or “animism” when referring to referring to traditional or historical faiths.
    Since the 20th century, “Paganism” (or “Neopaganism”) has become the identifier for various new religious movements attempting to continue, revive, or reconstruct historical pre-Christian religion.[2]

    The term, when used in a non-perjorative way, indicates pre-Christian polytheism, especially in the classical world. Thus very much not atheism.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The other interesting is that there are not that many “hard” atheists, ie atheists that make a positive claim for the non-existence of a deity/deities.

    Dawkins himself said that he is a 6 on the “Dawkins’ Scale”: On that scale 1 would be fully-fledged, absolute theism, and 7 would be hard atheism. He makes this point again in a very interesting debate/discussion at Oxford that included the previous archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; the agnostic philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, and Dawkins. Recommended listening: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/nature-human-beings-and-question-their-ultimate-origin-audio

  • Great post.

    Everyone puts trust in something…or someone.

    There are no unbelievers.

  • Nils

    Interesting interview, especially the last question. Interesting to see that an atheist finds increased knowledge is dangerous and leads to a greater ability to cause error–just what Adam and Eve learned in the Garden.

    Oh, Rev. McCain, since you’re here–any specific reason why Cyberbretheren reroutes me to the Book of Concord website? Not that I’m complaining, but I noticed it started doing it the other day.

  • Oh, Rev. McCain, since you’re here–any specific reason why Cyberbretheren reroutes me to the Book of Concord website? Not that I’m complaining, but I noticed it started doing it the other day.

    Yes, same thing happens to me on my home computer. However I can get to cyberbrethren at my church.

  • John C

    Christians reaching out to atheists seems like creeping syncretism to me.
    Apart from atheism, most Christians on this blog would have a lot in common with libertarian atheists.

  • Apocryphon

    So you’re saying that a lot of Christians on this blog are libertarians?

  • John C

    Are you saying a lot of Christians on this blog are Libertarians?

    Yes, but libertarians are usually a godless lot, although the contributors to this blog can be probably defined as libertarian Christian rather than Christian libertarians. Christian libertarians rely on the bible to support their argument and they identify primarily as Christian first and libertarian second.
    On the other hand, I don’t know of any libertarian atheists: atheists can be libertarian but they are not defined by their lack of faith in government regulation.
    To Veith’s question,” What God do you believe in or not believe in?” the atheist would have to answer, “No God.” On the existence of God there can be no agreement between Christians and atheists….. unless you are a Christian atheist.
    However there could be some common ground on the question.” What makes a good society?”

  • Nils

    @ John C @ 8
    Why is reaching out to atheists akin to syncretism? Syncretism would imply the appropriation of part of another system of belief into one’s own religious obligations/beliefs. We’re called to evangelize to the nations–that includes atheists, too.
    (Forgive me if I’ve grossly misread your comment.)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Apocryphon @9 – a fair number here self-identify (to varying degrees) as libertarians.

  • Daniel Lafave

    Being an atheist means not believing in the existence of ANY gods. That’s definitional, so I’m not sure whether the premise of this article is meant to be taken seriously or not.

  • Theodore Seeber

    There is something brilliant in this. I have no doubt New Atheists will reject it.

    Especially that quote in the first question. YES, to accept that freedom from is the highest value attained by humanity, you basically have to reject 2 million years worth of history in favor of 300 years.

    And there is a ton of proof that even those 300 years, other considerations often overpowered the need for freedom in various cultures around the world.

    AND to top it off, human happiness clearly doesn’t require freedom.

  • John C

    I don’t have any problem with reaching out to people with other faiths but most others on this site do. I was being a little abstruse and sarcastic when I used the term ‘creeping syncretism’ because I was alluding to ‘creeping socialism’ – a political cliché that can still be heard now and then and another ‘ism’ not held in high regard on this blog.

    ‘Freedom’ and ‘freedom loving’ seem to be American preoccupations. I think people in different cultures accept there are necessary constraints on an individual’s freedom when living with others.