During my formative intellectual years, atheists were my favorite people to talk to. Unlike Christians, the majority of whom had been raised in less polemical denominations than I had, atheists were fellow dogmatists, many of whom had arrived at their conclusions as a conscious act of will rather than by way of intellectual inheritance. Empowered by the ascendance of New Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris–who stocked the young atheists rhetorical arsenal with a bevy of state of the art weapons–many of these atheists were itching for a fight every bit as much as I was. Time and experience taught me early, however, that for every budding knight on a crusade against God, there was another atheist who read more of the Dalai Lama than of Daniel Dennett and who was a little disconcerted but mostly bored by the religious zeal of his irreligious fellow traveler. Atheism had all the intellectual diversity of Christianity even if it lacked the institutional structures and neat taxonomy that made Christians so much easier to classify.
So I was delighted to see that philosopher and outspoken atheist John Gray was publishing what appeared to be a clear articulation of the diversity of atheist thought and a taxonomy for navigating its various types. Seven Types of Atheism is a brisk and enjoyable read, under two hundred pages in print. Gray manages to squeeze an incredible demonstration of his breadth of knowledge into that short span so that I left the book feeling, if not better informed, than at least securer in my grasp of information already glancingly encountered elsewhere. To a certain extent it even achieves what it sets out to accomplish, though not in a way that is complete or entirely satisfying.
It may be best to begin with what Seven Types is not, namely a lengthy repudiation of New Atheism. In fairness, the book never claims to be this outright, but much of the marketing seems intent on presenting this as a broadside against the most popular form of contemporary atheism. The New Atheists get their mention in Gray’s text, but it is fleeting. He disposes of them quickly and cleanly, with all the attention he (and I) think they’re due, before moving on to spend most of the book talking about any number of other atheisms that deserve his attention. (To his credit, he states this up front: “[New Atheism] contains little that is novel or interesting. After the first chapter, I will not refer to it again.”) I confess, I had gone in hoping to find a secular counterpart to David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, but that was never the purpose of Seven Types.
This is not to say that Gray doesn’t have a bone to pick with what he considers flawed atheisms. Though he foreswears evangelism, he admits that his “own preferences will be clear” by the end of the book. Gray proves true to his word, taking on contemporary atheism in broad and uncompromising terms early on:
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.
We’ll set aside how clearly that last line smacks of proselytizing and allow that, while he spends much of the book criticizing the flaws of lesser atheisms, Gray stops short of advocating for his favorites outright. His diagnoses of the various atheisms popular in the present and recent past are clear, rigorous, and damning, but this doesn’t stop much of the book reading like a “No true Scotsman” style policing of the boundaries. The evident longing for an atheism cleansed of monotheism is a clear appeal to purity that strikes a sour note in a text calling on atheists to examine their unspoken, religion-dependent assumptions.
This does not, however, preclude Gray achieving his primary tasks: demonstrating the diversity within atheism (past and present) and proposing a system of categorization to bring order to that diversity. It is in this first task that Gray is on much stronger ground. Seven Types offers a clear picture of an intellectual world in which the absence of God does not require the absence of ideological difference. Particularly in the Christian West (the region and time period that Gray’s expertise seems to confine him to), the assertion of atheism almost always involves the repudiation of God rather than God’s mere absence. The result is that the repudiation of God takes on different significances for different thinkers, entails different consequences for society, for ethics, and for individual fulfillment. Seven Types assembles an impressive cast of characters to illustrate this diversity, rich with quotes, anecdotes, and character studies to who how atheism has real and consequential differences that are every bit as irresolvable as the differences between religious sects.
Classifying those differences, however, proves a much more daunting task for Gray. True to its name, Seven Types does suggest a seven part typology for considering atheist thinking: New Atheism, secular humanism, faith in science, faith in politics, misotheism, atheism without progress (a kind of affirmative nihilism), and mystical atheism. The titles Gray assigns are a little unwieldy at times, but had he defined them clearly and illustrated them succinctly, they would have been a very productive start to make sense of the chaotically diverse catchall of “atheism.”
But Gray has a principled disinterest in drawing clean borders for his categories. The name of his book, significantly, is modelled after William Empson’s 1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity.
Ambiguity, [Empson] 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.
Gray celebrates this ambiguity in his treatment of his own categories, bearing out his introductory observation that, for Empson, “there could be no such thing as ultimate clarity.” The seven types of atheism overlap and intermingle. They bleed together historically and theoretically. Most (five at least) suffer from a common defect of proposing God surrogates. “Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means.” It’s hard to pin this lack of clarity on Gray, since for him it is clearly not a defect but a feature of his method. It may excuse Seven Types, but it doesn’t make its chaotic taxonomy any more satisfying. Or useful.
A final quibble, already alluded to, relates to the narrow focus of Gray’s argument–a function probably of the narrow nature of his expertise. Though nods are made to the atheisms of religious systems like Buddhism, very little concentrated attention is given to atheism beyond the confines of Euro-American philosophy. Rich traditions of atheism exist beyond these spheres, particularly given Gray’s loose definition of the term “atheist” to mean anyone who has “no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.” This describes more than post-Christian philosophers in Parisian salons and American academies. Whether the rest of the world’s, the rest of history’s atheists fit into Gray’s taxonomy must be a task for a thinker with a different set of qualifications and skills.
As I await that project and a more detailed secular refutation of New Atheism, I am left to judge Seven Types on its own merits. What Gray offers is a critical consideration of the great variety of atheist thought as well as a trenchant critique of those who would mindlessly juxtapose religion and atheism. For these reasons alone, it is worth the brief amount of time necessary to read.