Introduction: How to Be an Atheist
Contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world. Life without any power that can secure order or some kind of ultimate justice is a frightening and for many an intolerable prospect. In the absence of such a power, human events could be finally chaotic, and no story could be told that satisfied the need for meaning. Struggling to escape this vision, atheists have looked for surrogates of the God they have cast aside. The progress of humanity has replaced belief in divine providence. But this faith in humanity makes sense only if it continues ways of thinking that have been inherited from monotheism. The idea that the human species realizes common goals throughout history is a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption.
Atheism has not always been like this. Along with many who have searched for a surrogate Deity to fill the hole left by the God that has departed, there have been some who stepped out of monotheism altogether and in doing so found freedom and fulfilment. Not looking for cosmic meaning, they were content with the world as they found it.
By no means have all atheists wanted to convert others to their view of things. Some have been friendly to traditional faiths, preferring the worship of a God they think fictitious to a religion of humanity. Most atheists today are liberals who believe the species is slowly making its way towards a better world; but modern liberalism is a late flower of Jewish and Christian religion, and in the past most atheists have not been liberals. Some atheists have gloried in the majesty of the cosmos. Others have delighted in the small worlds human beings make for themselves.
While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought. That may be its chief attraction. When you explore older atheisms, you will find that some of your firmest convictions – secular or religious – are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for may be freedom from thinking. But if you are ready to leave behind the needs and hopes that many atheists have carried over from monotheism, you may find that a burden has been lifted from you. Some older atheisms are oppressive and claustrophobic, like much of atheism at the present time. Others can be refreshing and liberating for anyone who wants a new perspective on the world. Paradoxically, some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion.
Defining atheism is like trying to capture the diversity of religions in a formula. Following the poet, critic and impassioned atheist William Empson, I will suggest it is an essential part of terms like ‘religion’ and ‘atheism’ that they can have multiple meanings. Neither religion nor atheism has anything like an essence. Borrowing an analogy from the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, they are more like extended families, which display recognizable similarities without having any single feature in common. This view inspired the American pragmatist William James to write The Varieties of Religious Experience, the best book ever written on religion by a philosopher and one that Wittgenstein much admired.
A provisional definition of atheism might still be useful, if only to indicate the drift of the book that follows. So I suggest that an atheist is anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world. In this sense atheism does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.
There is precedent for thinking of atheism in these terms. In the ancient European world atheism meant the refusal to participate in traditional practices honouring the gods of the polytheistic pantheon. Christians were described as ‘atheists’ (in Greek atheos, meaning ‘without gods’) because they worshipped only one god. Then as now, atheism and monotheism were sides of the same coin.
If you think of atheism in this way, you will see that it is not the same as the rejection of religion. For most human beings religion has always consisted of practices more than beliefs. When Christians in the Roman Empire were required to follow the Roman religion (religio in Latin), this meant observing Roman ceremonies. These included acts of worship to pagan gods, but nothing was demanded in terms of belief. The word ‘pagan’ (pagani) is a Christian invention applied in the early fourth century to those who followed these practices.1 ‘Paganism’ was not a creed – the people described as pagans had no concept of heresy, for one thing – but a jumble of observances.
A provisional definition of religion may also be useful. Many of the practices that are recognized as religious express a need to make sense of the human passage through the world. ‘Birth, and copulation, and death’ may be all there is in the end. As Sweeney says in T. S. Eliot’s “Fragment of an Agon,” ‘That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.’ But human beings have been reluctant to accept this, and struggle to bestow some more-than-human significance on their lives. Tribal animists and practitioners of world faiths, devotees of flying-saucer cults and the armies of zealots that have killed and died for modern secular faiths attest to this need for meaning. With its reverent invocation of the progress of the species, the evangelical unbelief of recent times obeys the same impulse. Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.
Rather than atheism being a worldview that recurs throughout history, there have been many atheisms with conflicting views of the world. In ancient Greece and Rome, India and China, there were schools of thought that, without denying that gods existed, were convinced they were not concerned with humans. Some of these schools developed early versions of the philosophy which holds that everything in the world is composed of matter. Others held back from speculating about the nature of things. The Roman poet Lucretius thought the universe was composed of ‘atoms and the void’, whereas the Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu followed the (possibly mythical) Taoist sage Lao Tzu in thinking the world had a way of working that could not be grasped by human reason. Since their view of things did not contain a divine mind that created the universe, both were atheists. But neither of them fussed about ‘the existence of God’, since they had no conception of a creator-god to question or reject.
Religion is universal, whereas monotheism is a local cult. Many ‘primitive’ cultures contain elaborate creation myths – stories of how the world came into being. Some tell of it emerging from a primordial chaos, others of it springing from a cosmic egg, still others of it arising from the dismembered parts of a dead god. But few of these stories feature a god that fashioned the universe. There may be gods or spirits, but they are not supernatural. In animism, the original religion of all humankind, the natural world is thick with spirits.
Just as not all religions contain the idea of a creator-god, there have been many without any idea of an immortal soul. In some religions – such as those that produced Norse mythology – the gods themselves are mortal. Greek polytheists expected an afterlife but believed it would be populated by the shades of people who had once existed, not these people in a posthumous form. Biblical Judaism conceived of an underworld (Sheol) in much the same way. Jesus promised his disciples salvation from death, but through the resurrection of their fleshly bodies, divinely perfected. There have been atheists who believed human personality continues after bodily death. In Victorian and Edwardian times, some psychical researchers thought an afterlife meant passing into another part of the natural world.
If there are many different religions, there are also many different atheisms. Twenty-first-century atheism is nearly always a type of materialism. But that is only one of many views of the world that atheists have held. Some atheists – such as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – have thought that matter is an illusion and reality spiritual. There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview’. Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions.
WHAT RELIGION IS NOT
The idea that religion is a matter of belief is parochial. What did Homer ‘believe’? Or the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita? The web of traditions that western scholars have described as ‘Hinduism’ comes with no prescribed creed, no more than does the mixture of folk religion with mysticism that western scholars call ‘Taoism’.
The notion that religions are creeds – lists of propositions or doctrines that everyone must accept or reject – emerged only with Christianity. Belief was never as important as observance in Jewish religion. In its earliest biblical forms, the religion practised by the Jewish people was a type not of monotheism – the assertion that there is only one God – but of henotheism, the exclusive worship of their own God. Worshipping foreign gods was condemned as disloyalty, not as unbelief. It was only sometime around the sixth century BC, during the period when the Israelites returned from exile to Jerusalem, that the idea that there is only one God emerged in Jewish religion. Even then the heart of Judaism continued to be practice, not belief.
Christianity has been a religion of belief from the time it was invented. But there have been Christian traditions in which belief is not central. Eastern Orthodoxy holds that God is beyond any human conception – a view fleshed out in what is known as negative or apophatic theology. Even in western Christianity, ‘believing in God’ has not always meant asserting the existence of a supernatural being. The thirteenth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) was explicit that God does not exist in the same way that any particular thing exists.
In most religions, debates about belief are unimportant. Belief was irrelevant in pagan religion and continues to be unimportant in the religions of India and China. When they declare themselves unbelievers, atheists are invoking an understanding of religion that has been unthinkingly inherited from monotheism.
Many religions that feature a creator-god have imagined it very differently from the God that has been worshipped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Since the rise of Christianity, the divine mind that is supposed to have created the world has often been conceived as being perfectly good. However, Gnostic traditions have envisioned a supreme God that created the universe and then withdrew into itself, leaving the world to be ruled by a lesser god, or Demiurge, which might be indifferent or hostile to humankind. Such Gnostic ideas may seem to us far-fetched. But they have some advantages over more traditional conceptions of a Supreme Being. For one thing, they resolve the ‘problem of evil’. If God is all powerful and all good, why is there evil in the world? A familiar response has it that evil is required by free will, without which there can be no true goodness. This is the central claim of Christian theodicy (in Greek, ‘justifying God’) – the attempt to explain evil as part of a divine design. An entire tradition of atheism has developed against theodicy, memorably articulated by Ivan Karamazov, who in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov declares that if a tortured child is the price of goodness then he will hand back to God his entry ticket to the world. I consider this type of atheism – sometimes called misotheism, or God-hatred – in Chapter 5.
Taking monotheism as a model for religion is misleading. It is not only animism and polytheism that are left out of the picture. Non-theist religions are ignored as well. Buddhism says nothing of any divine mind and rejects any idea of the soul. The world consists of processes and events. The human sense of self is an illusion; freedom is found in ridding oneself of this illusion. Popular Buddhism has retained ideas of the transmigration of souls that were current in India at the time when the Buddha lived, along with the belief that merits accumulated in one life can be passed on to another. But the idea of karma, which underpins these beliefs, denotes an impersonal process of cause and effect rather than reward or punishment by a Supreme Being. Nowhere does Buddhism speak of such a Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion. The smears and fulminations of the ‘new atheists’ make sense only in a specifically Christian context, and even then only within a few subsets of the Christian religion.
SEVEN TYPES OF ATHEISM
In his book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Empson – whose own version of atheism I discuss in Chapter 5 – showed how language could be open-ended without being misleading. Ambiguity, he suggested, is not a defect but part of the richness of language. Rather than signifying equivocation or confusion, ambiguous expressions allow us to describe a fluid and paradoxical world.
Empson applied this account of ambiguity chiefly to poetry, but it is also illuminating when applied to religion and atheism. Describing ambiguity as ‘any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language’, he observed that ‘any prose statement could be called ambiguous’. There could be no such thing as ultimate clarity. ‘One can do a great deal to make poetry intelligible’, Empson wrote, ‘by discussing the resultant variety of meanings.’2 It was the nuances of meaning that made poetry possible. In a later book, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), Empson showed how the most straightforward-looking terms were ‘compacted with doctrines’ that left their meaning equivocal. There is no hidden simplicity concealed by complex words. Inherently plural in meaning, words enable different ways of seeing the world.
Applying Empson’s method, I will examine seven kinds of atheism. The first of them – the so-called ‘new atheism’ – contains little that is novel or interesting. After the first chapter, I will not refer to it again. The second type is secular humanism, a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history. Third, there is the kind of atheism that makes a religion from science, a category that includes evolutionary humanism, Mesmerism, dialectical materialism and contemporary transhumanism. Fourth, there are modern political religions, from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism. Fifth, there is the atheism of God-haters such as the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky’s fictional character Ivan Karamazov and William Empson himself. Sixth, I will consider the atheisms of George Santayana and Joseph Conrad, which reject the idea of a creator-god without having any piety towards ‘humanity’. Seventh and last, there are the mystical atheism of Arthur Schopenhauer and the negative theologies of Benedict Spinoza and the early twentieth-century Russian-Jewish fideist Leo Shestov, all of which in different ways point to a God that transcends any human conception.
I have no interest in converting anyone to or from any of these types of atheism. But my own preferences will be clear. Repelled by the first five varieties, I am drawn to the last two, atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnameable God.
Copyright © 2018 by John Gray