n + 1 Types: Atheism and Historical Awareness

by Jeroen Bouterse

It is simultaneously awkward and exciting to read about your own consciously and responsibly adopted beliefs as something to be anatomized. It is also something atheists are not always much disposed to. On the contrary, perhaps: many forms of atheism present themselves as a consequence of free thought, of emancipation from tradition. The internal logic of their arguments prescribes that while religious beliefs, being non-rational, are in need of cultural or psychological explanation, atheism is really just what you will gravitate towards once you finally start thinking. One question here will be whether this is necessarily the case.

Most Atheists Just Don’t Get It

To the extent that what I just said is a recognizable self-description, we deserve the injustice that John Gray does to us in his Seven Types of Atheism (2018). Of the seven types Gray distinguishes, only two – its more withdrawn, Epicurean or mystical manifestations – get a positive review. One other version (‘God-haters’) is interesting but also confused, hardly atheistic, and of course evil. The remaining four types are primarily variations upon the theme of the naive progressivist: people who think they have left behind monotheistic religion, but who have in fact replaced it with a new God: humanity, or some proxy to humanity – science, or progress, or Enlightenment, or secular political utopia.

Idolizing or deifying something while claiming to be an atheist requires some self-delusion, according to Gray, and he readily psychologizes this phenomenon. Atheists’ understanding of religion has been “unthinkingly” inherited from monotheism (5); new atheists are “unwitting disciplines” of Comte’s positivism (11); twenty-first-century atheists are “unthinking liberals” (20); secular thinkers have continued to try to harmonize Jewish and Greek views of the world “without knowing what they are doing” (29).

A charitable reading of this is that Gray is not pointing out lack of cognitive capacity, but lack of historical awareness.

He regrets the lack of cultural perspective of modern-day atheism, and wishes it would take into account its religious roots rather than presenting itself as transcending history through reason. It is regrettable that he has phrased an important point so carelessly, saying literally that Comte was “more intelligent than the secular thinkers who followed him” (10), and that contemporary transhumanists are “less intelligent than their ancient precursors” (68).

The point is clear, anyway: when you don’t see the extent to which you are indebted to previous thinkers or actors, then you are guilty of avoidable self-deception. The interesting question then becomes why some ideologies encourage this kind of self-deception. As a matter of individual psychology, you can be an ‘unthinking’ Epicurean or mystic just as easily as an ‘unthinking’ secular humanist; but some types of atheism (like some types of theism) seem to require the unexamined assumption that they are part of a wave of progress. There is no reason to look back, for behind us is only the rubble of monotheism. We used to have faith, now we have reason, and that’s all that needs to be said.

Thinking Secular Humanists

Just by naming his book ‘n types of atheism’ (where n is an integer greater than one), Gray helps us to recognize that atheism isn’t necessarily allied to one specific kind of liberalism or progressivism. (That n happens to be seven is an echo of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity.) That said, there is some sleight of hand involved in implying that all genuinely self-aware and intellectually serious versions of atheism have to be cognizant of the fact that Enlightenment is a mistake and progress an illusion. Gray may have good reasons for his unrelenting pessimism, but surely not enough to rule out the possibility that anyone who knows their history could sympathize with socially optimistic versions of atheism.

This is the question I want to pose: is or is it not possible for new atheism, or secular humanism, or any consciously irreligious but socially and politically engaged movement or ideology, to be intellectually honest about its historical roots in, and resemblance to religious ideas?

This question consists of two parts. First: to the extent that we draw our guiding notions from a monotheistic past, do these notions themselves survive the criticism that there is no God? Gray admits that to say categorically that they don’t would be a genetic fallacy (the idea that beliefs that historically depend on false beliefs must be false); but he still thinks notions such as the idea of a universal moral law will wither away under the light of atheism – unless you ‘unthinkingly’ continue employing them, presumably.

I am not so sure that without religious concepts there isn’t any language left in which we can phrase socially optimistic beliefs, or that universalistic moral concepts such as human dignity can only survive if they are strictly philosophically grounded – or that we even need the notion of ‘universal morality’ in order to formulate socially progressive secular ideals. For now, in any case, I am more interested in the second part of the question: can ‘we’ atheists see our own beliefs as rational and simultaneously as on a par with other beliefs – that is to say: can we see our atheism as something in history, as continuous with religious and monotheistic beliefs?

The Symmetry Principle

I believe that the answer to this is ‘yes’. However, many forms of atheistic discourse seem to demand a negative answer: no, they say, there actually is some absolute difference in outlook, in mentality, between those who believe in truths and those who believe in falsehoods. Reason leads you to the conclusion that there is no God, so alternative conclusions need to be the result of a contamination of reason by something else, such as faith or emotion or bias.

Nor, of course, is atheism alone in this: the problem of how to square the sincerity of one’s beliefs with the recognition that reasonable people could hold different beliefs is even greater for believers in divine providence. Atheists and monotheists have a very similar problem here.

In science studies, a contested and ambiguous principle says that we have to look at successful and discarded theories in the history of science “symmetrically”. That is: we shouldn’t reserve one type of explanation for theories we think are true, and a wholly different type for theories we think are false – where, for instance, true theories are the result of a proper application of the appropriate scientific methods, but false theories are the result of ideological bias. Rather, we should assume that the same types of factors are at play every time, albeit in different constellations and resulting in different outcomes.

The symmetry principle is controversial because it smacks of relativism: it looks like it flattens out the important distinction between true and false ideas. Can’t we say that Galileo was right about the motion of the earth and that Aristotle was wrong, and doesn’t that tell us something about the virtues of their scientific endeavors?

Well, yes, and no. The point is that, as historian of science Michael Bycroft puts it succinctly, “the truth-value of a belief is a poor guide to its rationality” (here, p. 24). Of course Aristotle was wrong and Galileo right or at least less wrong; but that is different from saying that as soon as the heliocentric theory was launched, there were no good arguments to believe in the motionlessness of the earth. It is also different from saying that heliocentrists only had good arguments for their position. In Setting Aside All Authority, Christopher Graney presents reasonable and thoughtful 17th-century Jesuits who carefully weigh the scientific evidence, while still of course having to conclude in the end that the earth stands still; and, on the other hand, Copernicans who got their idea about the moving earth right, for reasons completely alien to our scientific reasoning.

At its best, the symmetry principle is not parochial, but ecumenical: it tells us, not that all opinions are myth and everything is just a matter of power or of choosing sides, but that all beliefs, including the ones we ourselves have inherited or opted into, are an inextricable mix of mythos and logos; of good reasons, powerful arguments, powerful metaphors, appeals to common sense, social commitments, class interests, of the idols of the tribe and the marketplace. This is true about my true beliefs as well as about your false beliefs.

Another Type of Atheism?

In a similar vein, I think we can be quite ‘symmetrical’ in our psychological, sociological or ideological explanations of secular and religious movements. The recognition that atheism didn’t fall from the skies does not lead to a repugnant kind of epistemic relativism. It is perfectly well possible for modern atheists or secularists to see ourselves as playing on the same field as theists. It is harmless, even, to see our own beliefs as partly continuous with monotheistic beliefs, and to see theistic ideas as possible sources of wisdom, with which it is possible to have meaningful conversations. Atheism’s raison d’être is not to be the purest-possible opposite to theism; it is to try to rethink our place in the world, and our existential, social and political hopes and expectations, from the assumption that there are no gods – not one.

That assumption is literal: that is what matters. Even if ‘on some level’, in some types of atheism, new notions have attained a similarly exalted status as has the Creator in most types of monotheism, a world in which we are on our own is fundamentally different from one in which we can enter in some relation to supernatural beings that actually exist.

If Gray has managed to define some all-too-sanguine types of atheism as necessarily historically naive, we should immediately add another one to the list, which has all the virtues and vices of the first types, but is historically aware. Gray is right to deplore what he sees as “a willed ignorance of the history of ideas” in some new atheists (22). I believe he is also right in suggesting that this ignorance is not a mere accident, but that it serves an exaggerated idea of the discontinuity between monotheism(s) and atheism(s). He is wrong, however, in believing that a progressive kind of atheism would fall apart if it stopped kidding itself; that it could not survive an honest and modest assessment of its place in intellectual history. It can, and it should.


John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism. Allen Lane: 2018.