Martin E. Marty
Sighting “unbelief” is a never-ending task of historians of religion in the Western world. Unbelief, or at least how it’s discussed and debated among intellectuals, is episodic. I’ve been tracking debates over its many forms since the mid-1950s, and I still find the controversy over it a profitable and sometimes urgent subject in the United States. I opened my first book on the subject with this observation by Goethe, which is still helpful for framing the discussion:
The deepest, nay the unique, theme of the history of the world, to which all other themes are subordinate, is the conflict of faith and unbelief. All epochs in which faith prevails—whatever its form may be—are noble, soul-elevating, and fruitful for the present and for after times. All epochs in which unbelief, be it under what form it may, wins n unhappy victory … vanish and are forgotten by posterity, because no one willingly wastes his pains on what is barren and unfruitful. (pp. 3-4)
Needless to say, one finds equally eloquent and dramatic arguments for “epochs in which unbelief wins a happy victory,” a fact which contributes to excitements over the classic conflict and debate. Rather than revisit the long and complex history of the arguments, let’s instead turn to what is perhaps currently the most promising discussion, and one which is receiving intelligent treatment in the journals. Much of the current discussion focuses on the work of the British academic philosopher John Gray, whose new book, Seven Types of Atheism, does some mapping of the scene. A provocative sentence in a review of the book by Christopher Beha, titled “The Myth of Progress,” in The New York Review of Books, points to some notable cultural definers and then argues that they “all advance the same essential argument—that our ostensibly secular post-Enlightenment age has failed to face up to the full implications of its materialistic worldview, that we are haunted by the ghosts of Western Christianity, chief among them the belief in moral progress, universal values, and human exceptionalism.” So what?
Gray has written that “unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith.” He claims that the “New Atheists” of the recent past (and also of the present) have Judaism and Christianity all wrong. When “science” undercut Scriptural truths, he contends, religious leaders proposed “various allegorical readings in an attempt to salvage something from the rubble.”
Hold on, urges Beha: “The truth is closer to the opposite. … In the fourth century, Saint Augustine, the man most responsible after Saint Paul and Jesus himself for the intellectual form of Christianity,” wrote a treatise “in which he argued that the biblical text need not be understood literally if it goes against what we know to be true from other sources.” The heart of Gray’s book probes the various ways in which contemporary atheists have “looked for surrogates of the God they have cast aside” in the form of “secular humanism," the second form of atheism he treats after the New Atheists. Gray then considers a third type, “scientific rationalism,” and fourth, “various evangelical political creeds from Marxism to globalist neoliberalism.”
These four differ in many ways, but they share “a belief in the possibility of moral progress and an understanding of humans as fundamentally reasonable,” something which Gray questions. He looks at the United States in particular, where life expectancy has declined in recent years. Despite all the impressive medical and technical knowledge, “history’s richest society has become so unbearable for so many people that they are killing themselves in unprecedented numbers, whether by intentional or unintentional overdoses of opiates.” On the other end of the spectrum from the U.S., “the greatest increases in material wealth the world has ever seen have made the Chinese population less happy than it was before.” To the point: “When wrenched from monotheistic religions,” the idea of progress “is not so much false as meaningless.”
Gray notes three more types of atheism. The fifth is “misotheism,” that is, God-hatred, as pursued by De Sade and his intellectual kin. Then, sixth, which Gray describes a bit more favorably, are those who give up any hope of human progress. He sees this attitude in philosopher George Santayana, who pursued “equanimity,” a kind of philosophical quietism. Gray does not ask us to give up on politics per se, but rather urges us to regard it as a modest sphere. And then he offers us a final type, Grayism: “The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”
Those who are not quite satisfied with Gray’s seventh type of atheism can seek and maybe find refreshment elsewhere. For example, Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, sees Gray as:
[B]elongingto that group of contemporary thinkers, of whom George Steiner is the doyen, who disdain the secular but can’t quite drag themselves to the church or synagogue. They turn, instead, to a kind of transcendence without content, of which there is no finer example than what one might call Hollywood spirituality. Those celebrities who dabble in Kabbalah or Scientology do so as a refuge from a material world crammed with too many chauffeurs. … The spiritual for them is the opposite of the material. … This is not the view of Judeo-Christianity. When Jesus speaks of salvation in terms of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, he speaks as a devout Jew, for whom the spiritual is in the first place a matter of how one behaves toward others.
Yet, however one comes down on Gray, one thing is for certain: he reminds those “sighters” of religion among us that perhaps just as important as belief is unbelief, in all its many forms.
|Author, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.|