Last month I shared a critical Amazon reader review of John Gray's book, Seven Types of Atheism, in a blog post: "Great review of 'Seven Types of Atheism' by someone who hasn't read the book."
I said in the post that I wasn't going to buy the book. Then I changed my mind. Not sure why. Maybe I wanted to see if the book was as bad as I thought it would be.
Now that I've read Seven Types of Atheism, I'm glad I did. Here's my own review.
The most glaring irritating thing I found in the book was that Gray defines atheism on page 2, then forgets his own definition on the following pages. Here's the early-on definition.
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.
OK, as an atheist I generally agree with this. There could be other types of gods than a creator god, but the major world religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism -- all teach that the world was created by a divine mind, or being.
So I figured that in the rest of his book, Gray would view atheism as how he defined it: the absence of the idea of a creator god. This fits with how I view my atheism. It also fits with how every atheist I know views atheism. Again, as the absence of a belief in god.
But in many places in Seven Types of Atheism, Gray speaks of a "religion of humanity," a "self-deifying humanity," "secular religion," and such. How could this be if atheism is the absence of the idea of a creator god? Wouldn't religion then be the presence of the idea of a creator god?
No, not according to Gray's twisted logic.
Because on page 3 of his book, Gray offers up a decidedly strange definition of religion. It isn't a belief in god, creator-variety or otherwise. Nor is it an attempt to understand reality in terms of supernatural or divine phenomena. Rather, Gray says:
A provisional definition of religion may also be useful... Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.
Wow. What a weird definition of religion. The Amazon reviewer who hadn't read the book nailed Gray on this, since he'd heard Gray speak in the same fashion in an interview. Here's part of what that reviewer said.
Gray said: If you asked an anthropologist or a sociologist or even a cultural historian about religion, not one of them nowadays, or very few of them, would think of religion as bodies of theories or beliefs or propositions which try to explain the world.
For starters, if we're talking about the three Abrahamic religions, they absolutely assert theories, beliefs and propositions for the purpose of explaining the world.
In a feeble attempt to support this claim, Gray uses a straw man. He says, "The myth about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden was never meant as an early theory of how life came about on this planet." Even if that is true, it doesn't change the fact that the Abrahamic religions assert that God had a hand (direct or indirect) in the creation of the universe, which ultimately led to the creation of humans, with whom God has a special relationship.
Moreover, the Abrahamic religions assert that God has a hand in laying down morals. Clearly, these assertions are intended as theories, beliefs and propositions.
Thus what Gray does at the beginning of his book is intellectually dishonest. He defines atheism as the absence of the idea of a creator god. But he doesn't define religion as the presence of the idea of a creator god. Rather, Gray defines religion extremely broadly as "an attempt to find meaning in events."
The day I got married was deeply meaningful to me. So apparently I make a religion out of marriage. The results of last Tuesday's midterm elections were deeply meaningful to me. So apparently I make a religion out of politics.
But obviously every attempt by us humans to find meaning in events isn't religious in nature. But this obviousness isn't apparent to John Gray, because the bulk of his book is an attempt to paint atheism with the brush of religion, since atheists find meaning in events, history, humanity, and other non-godly entities.
Wait! Aren't atheists defined by Gray as lacking a belief in a creator god? Yes, but Gray says atheists are religious because they find meaning in events. Thus every person on Earth who finds meaning in events is religious by Gray's absurd logic.
Here's some passages from Seven Types of Atheism that reflect this absurdity.
But it was Saint-Simon who first presented the religion of humanity in systematic form. In future, scientists would replace priests as the spiritual leaders of society. Government would be an easy matter of 'the administration of things.' Religion would become the self-worship of humankind.
...Having renounced the idea of any divine power outside the human world, human beings could not avoid claiming divine powers for themselves.
...A free-thinking atheist would begin by questioning the prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom.
...Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology, and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism.
Gray doesn't believe that "humanity" exists. Only individual humans do.
Fine, he's entitled to that belief. I don't agree with him, because our species, Homo sapiens, does have common characteristics, and the modern world has erased many of the borders that used to separate humans by geography, culture, and such.
John Gray doesn't believe that our species advances. This is highly debatable. Witness how slavery, the subjugation of women, and world wars have faded away (though still existent, or possible) in the past several hundred years.
But since Gray holds that belief, and he wanted to bash atheism in his book, he needed to define religion in such a way that anyone who finds meaning in human events or history is "religious." Hence, humanists are religious, and any atheist who finds meaning in a hope that humanity is progressing is also "religious."
I'm an atheist. I'm a progressive. I'm not religious. I don't believe in a creator god.
So Gray ignored the reality that the vast majority of atheists simply don't believe in god. But this fact doesn't fit with Gray's desire to make atheism into a secular "religion," so he ignored it.