Seven Deadly Spins

D’après Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Portrait de Voltaire

Seven Deadly Spins

Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray, Allen Lane, 2018, hb, £17.99, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN

The well-known English philosopher and academic John Gray offers a tour d’horizon of the idea of atheism. For those who have trod this territory before, his book is an engaging review. For those who have not, it may provide a useful primer. Taking his title from William Empson’s famous Seven Types of Ambiguity, Gray tilts his first lance at what he dubs ‘the tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion’ which he sees at the core of ‘the God debate’ of recent decades. His adversaries presumably include such celebrated opponents of religion as Richard Dawkins, Anthony Grayling and Christopher Hitchens, though none is named. Gray himself is no proponent of Judaeo-Christian tradition.

He locates a ‘19th century orthodoxy of humanism’ in the work of Comte, Saint-Simon and John Stuart Mill and traces its descent to our times via Bertrand Russell. This doctrine he depicts as a substitute for a God who failed. For those whose faith in it is based on the nostrums of science, he points out: ‘science can only be a tool the human animal has invented to deal with a world it cannot fully understand.’ For those whose faith owes more to Platonic ideals, he reproves: ‘The human mind is programmed for survival, not truth.’ For those who, like Hegel and Marx, find in history a meliorative dynamic, he argues that in fact human progress constitutes no more than a cyclical or haphazard sequence of moral ups and downs.  

Gray is, in short, a sceptic before the altar of liberal secularism. At the same time, he is no reactionary brutalist in the mode of a Machiavelli or a Nietzsche, an Ayn Rand or even a Marquis de Sade, to whom he devotes an eye-opening section of a chapter entitled ‘God-Haters’. In sensibility, Gray shies away from such thinkers’ concepts of the ‘natural man’, red in cock or claw. He would probably rest happily in the company of an Epicurean like Lucretius were it not for the fear that he would find himself ‘watching calmly while others drown in misery’.

Dispensing with modern dogmatists of betterment, Gray naturally scolds their precursors of the Enlightenment. Voltaire earns his scorn for anti-Semitism and is linked forward to Jacobinism, Bolshevism and Fascism – movements also seen to involve a renascence of ‘medieval millenarianism’, resembling in Gray’s view the Anabaptists of Münster of the mid-16th century. From them Gray proceeds to cast his gimlet eye on contemporary futurologists’ projections about ‘transhumanism’ – a new version of the old faith in technology.

One might at this stage expect a graduate of Oxford to allude to the most famous of ‘atheists’ sent down from that institution, whose wife authored Frankenstein. Yet Shelley does not make it into his pantheon, but Dostoyevsky does, enabling Gray to spend pages adjusting our impression of late 19th century Nihilism. In succession among God-haters to Sade, Dostoyevsky precedes the figure from whom Gray derives his title, Empson, whose characterization of the God of Judaeo-Christian tradition varies between ‘a commandant of Belsen’ and ‘Uncle Joe Stalin’.

Empson, Gray tells us, ‘ended up embracing something like Gnosticism’ – i.e., a sense that whatever God may have engineered the Creation has disappeared, leaving it to the whims of a Demiurge whose conduct is more like that of the Devil. This antipathetic perception fades into a more placid attraction to Buddhism, which Gray sees as atheistic in a literal sense, distinguished by its facility for reconciling conflicting values. A cognate tendency may be found in George Santayana, for whose Epicurean ‘distance from the world’ Gray feels evident affinity. It is an apparently comforting irony that, despite his insistence on disbelief, Santayana spent the last dozen years of his long life in a modest apartment in a convent in Rome.

‘My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety to the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests,’ Gray quotes the aged Hispano-American expatriate as saying. Nature appeals to Santayana in all its forms; his own gentle nature finds little difficulty in rendering it benevolent. Joseph Conrad, on the other hand – another Gray subject – sees Nature as indifferent, its attitudes mirrored in ‘the impersonality of the sea… the godless ocean… the perfect wisdom of its grace’. This, Gray avers, ‘gave Conrad’s seamen all they needed… gave human beings their freedom.’

We draw close thus, through a penultimate chapter, towards what Gray himself believes – or if that word is too loaded, finds most serviceable against the ultimate, eternal unknown and unknowable. A last chapter devoted to ‘The Atheism of Silence’ features Schopenhauer and his ‘intimations of a realm beyond the human world’, into which heavy confusions of the will prevent us from entering. Via Schopenhauer, Gray moves on or back towards Spinoza’s perception that ‘eveything is as it must be’ and that ‘only one thing exists – God itself’ – i.e., Monism: the world as ‘a single system, infinite and eternal’. This delivers us beyond ‘the limits of human understanding’, and so to the condition of ‘living without belief or unbelief’ on which Gray concludes.

Gray’s tour is impressive if his choice of way-stations is sometimes capricious. At moments one detects an armchair traveller: notes reveal that many of his views come from secondary sources, thus are third-hand. In the case of Sade it is not hard to get a sense that our preceptor is akin to that sort of moralist who opines about LSD without ever having puffed marijuana or to those ‘high minded intellectuals’ who, as Dostoyevsky complains in a Gray paraphrase, ‘toy with revolution without knowing anything of what it means in practice’. Thus the professional deformity of thinkers dealing in ‘dangerous’ ideas of which they have little or no life experience.

One ponders in the end whether there is not a touch of something mean in the sensibility one has sojourned with. Save brief asides via Conrad etc., Gray rarely shows any groping for glory or aspiration to scale artistic heights. He does not treat with Nietzsche’s implicit riposte to the famous plaint about God being dead: henceforth a religion of the aesthetic might be born. This author, as his name suggests, is mainly neutral as to colour, a sceptic sans nostalgia or panache, pragmatic, practical – an unacknowledged apologist for the ordinary, a deconstructor of others’ philosophic projections but constructor of few of his own. Such may be the honest receptor’s job as Gray sees it: to absorb, analyse, find the flaw in and dismiss. Lurking behind it may also be a collective, instinctive English aversion to anything smacking of the Big Idea.

Stoddard Martin is a publisher and writer. He is the author of Art, Messianism & Crime, Macmillan, 1986, and Orthodox Heresy, St Martin’s, 1989

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1 Response to Seven Deadly Spins

  1. David Ashton says:

    Gray is always interesting, even when quite wrong. He has changed his opinions so much over past decades that he resembles less Keynes and Popper than the Vicar of – Gray. He has an uncanny facial resemblance to Barry Humphries, not that that refutes anything he has written.

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