Recently, I finally read Seven Types of Atheism by English philosopher John Gray and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am not going to provide a proper review of the book but rather some of my thoughts and impressions about it. For a proper review, I suggest one by Andrew Wilson who first brought the book on my radar which you can read here.
What Gray incisively does is by exploring the history of ideas he demonstrates how modern atheism is not a monolith and in many popular forms still remains heavily indebted to Judaeo-Christian monotheism. As a Christian I must admit there was a certain pleasure in reading Gray, who is himself a committed atheist, absolutely take to task popular atheism for thinking itself intellectually and morally superior to monotheistic faith. For example his critique of new atheism is is quick and delightfully devastating.
Another thing I really appreciated about Gray’s work is that as an atheist he fairly and knowledgeably represented what Christianity is about. For example, he rightly points out that the fundamental claims of Christianity are rooted in history therefore the real challenge to Christianity is not from science but history. In fact, I was very impressed by his knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. For example, he was up to date on the history of the emergence of ancient Jewish monotheism and his understanding of how religion differed in the ancient world is reminiscent of New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods. Gray’s account of the Christian heresy of Gnosticism and its influence is very similar to prominent theologian N.T. Wright. I found that particularly interesting since it is highly unusual for an atheist to have such a deep knowledge of Christian theology. He even talks about Eastern Christianity and negative theology. I still think his reasons for dismissing Christianity are wrong but it was refreshing to see the faith being attacked for what it is and not some popular atheist caricature.
Even though most of what Gray said was new to me, it was not totally unfamiliar. For example, before I read his book I was well aware that there were different types of atheism but Gray helped parse out forms that I had not realised were distinct in their own right. I learned this from various Christian thinkers and commentators who over the years have hinted at and pointed out many features of the basic ideas that Gray talks about.
Christians have observed that many types of atheism such as secular humanism and scientism have a God surrogate. They have pointed out that atheists tend to borrow and adapt Christian morals and ethics. They have also noted the eschatological strands in liberalism and other atheistic political religions like communism. In general Christian intellectuals have been cognizant of how much modern secular society owes Christian religion. What Gray expertly does is bring these various thoughts and observations together into a coherent thesis which allows him to do a more thorough and illuminating analysis of modern atheism in its various forms.