Gray’s Types of Atheism

In another attempt to classify atheists, Rod Dreher posted this on his now-defunct Crunchy Con blog on Beliefnet (“John Gray on types of atheism,” June 10, 2009):

Gray identified five strains of Atheism:

1. Science-Oriented Atheism. An atheism that grounds itself in scientific modes of understanding, and the discourse of science. My notes are unclear on this point, so I won’t say anything more.

2. Ultra-Protestant Atheism. This kind of atheism rests strongly on the idea of individual autonomy, and holds that one shouldn’t take anything on authority. Gray thinks this is rooted in Protestantism.

3. Non-Humanist Atheism. Arthur Schopenhauer, Gray says, is a good example of this orientation. Schopenhauer didn’t like Christianity or the churches, but he also believed that atheism is its own thing, and owes nothing to science. Science and atheism are, to use Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase, “non-overlapping magisteria.” One doesn’t have anything to do with the other. (It’s my sense from reading Gray’s work that this would describe his own position — this, combined with Naturalistic Atheism, see below.)

4. Anti-Liberal Atheism. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example. It as actively anti-liberal, and contemptuous of liberal values. In Gray’s view, this is completely logical. Liberal values – ideals of toleration – come straight out of Judaism and Christianity, says Gray. Nietzsche viciously attacked liberalism precisely because of its Christian values (it pitied the weak, for example, and was a slave religion that honored what was contemptible in man, in Nietzsche’s view).

5. Naturalistic Atheism. The idea that religion is a normal part of life, that if you try to eliminate the religious sense from life, you’re going to get repression of natural instincts. It’s a benign or favorable attitude toward religion as a natural expression of what it means to be human. It’s interesting to reflect, says Gray, on how atheist regimes — Revolutionary France, Soviet Russia, the Third Reich — have quickly adapted a secular sacerdotal gloss, becoming political religions with their own pantheons of saints and sacraments, to speak to the religious sense within man. This sort of atheist isn’t threatened by religion, and in fact sees religion as satisfying an important instinct within human beings — but it must be kept in its place.

Dreher’s main point, taken from Gray, is that it is a fallacy to believe that atheism is a positive good due to its supposed practical effect of inducing political liberalism.

There is no logical connection between atheism and liberalism — in the sense that all of us in the modern West are liberals — and in fact, the bedrock institutions of liberalism come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition….

Gray further said that the New Atheists cannot deal with the fact that atheism in power has been horrifically deadly, because it would deny the basic dogma of their faith: that atheism leads to liberation and redemption, and that their project of liberating people from their traditions and their history also severs them from their humanity.

This, for me, is central to a rational approach to atheism today. It is mostly self-deceptive idealism, a kind of millennialist, melioristic political ideology.

I understand that a lot of people just don’t have any religious sensibility that they can connect with any traditions, groups, people, books, buildings, history, music, poetry, art, culture, language, or any other mode of human thinking or feeling. So, for them, atheism is quite simply the absence of God from their lives. Why “believe” in something or someone who doesn’t even matter to you?

Along those lines, I think atheists resent being “classified” as if they were ideologues. Nevertheless, it can be done, based purely on observed characteristics.

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2 thoughts on “Gray’s Types of Atheism

  1. I think that allocating meliorism and/or a melioristic approach to a religous, liberal view is incorrect because it is not consequental or even necessary to do so. A melioristic approach does not have to be religious. It can stand alone, and its true value is the fact that is does stand alone. Moreover, it can be applied to the field of design because design is concerned with problem-solving. For example, the designer has a responsiblity to his/her clients to produce a workable solution to a problem, and one that contains an efficacy and authenticity. I would like you to please explain to me why you see meliorisma or a melioristic approach as strictly liberal and/or religous. I hope to hear back from you . Thank you kindly.

  2. My view of meliorism is mostly due to the way John Gray characterizes it in his book Enlightenment’s Wake.

    I think you have a mistaken idea of what meliorism is, perhaps due to translation error. It is not a method, but rather a sociological category roughly equivalent to utopianism.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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