Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

John Gray & Einstein’s Library

A witty new book by an atheist, criticizing most kinds of atheism
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I love this Peter Hitchens review of the philosopher John Gray’s new book, Seven Types Of Atheism. A few years back, I was on a John Gray kick around here. His 2008 book Black Mass , which is a critique of the Enlightenment as a secularization of the Christian apocalypse and utopia, is must reading. Gray is an atheist who has zero tolerance for pop atheism. His political views have been fluid over the years, having gone from left to right to his current position, which seems to be skeptical of just about everything.

Gray’s new book criticizes atheism from an atheist perspective. Peter Hitchens, a former atheist turned Christian, likes the book, with reservations. Excerpts:

From this approach springs Gray’s opening paradox that “contemporary atheism is a flight from a godless world.” Unlike so many modern scoffers at religion, he grasps that while the idea of a just God is terrifying, so is the suspicion or the conviction that there is no just God. The idea of a universe where there is no power that stands for order and justice is, or ought to be, very frightening. So men who can no longer believe in God have instead invented various more or less fatuous concepts to provide such a power, especially a belief in human progress. The trouble with such ideas is that, without God, they are so much whistling in the dark. The godless believer in “progress” is in reality like the victim of an avalanche tumbled deep in snow. He has no idea which way is up because he has no means by which to measure anything of the kind. Ultimately he must use religious categories to orient himself.

Gray keeps on saying much the same thing in many different ways, such as his contention that “secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.” This is all so obviously correct that, like so many other blindingly obvious things that we prefer to ignore, nobody likes to discuss it. Perhaps most definitive of all is his observation that godless searches for a universal law are futile. “Without a law giver, what can a universal moral law mean?” he asks. “If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as part of what it means to be human.” Well, exactly. No God: no law. No law: no morals, just situational, alterable ethics. I am amazed that so few seem to realize the implications of atheism for the rule of law over power, the one thing that really sustains human civilization.

I was delighted to discover in Hitchens’s review this 1930 quote from Einstein, in response to a question about his religious beliefs:

Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvellously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.

Read the whole Hitchens review.

Einstein’s library parable tells a poetic truth, or rather, tells a truth poetically. I can understand how someone could not believe in the God of the Bible, or of the Koran, or of any particular religion. I don’t understand how someone could confidently assert that some sort of God does not exist. To do so amounts to walking through the library thinking that over the course of time, the books managed to assemble themselves.

(I should emphasize that “Einstein’s library” is not necessarily something Gray endorses, but an idea that came to Hitchens’s mind as he read Gray’s book.)

Let me also point you to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s discussion of Gray’s book. In this excerpt, MBD brings up Peter Hitchens’s late brother:

[Christopher] Hitchens isn’t even mentioned in Gray’s book. I can’t decide whether that is a slight on Hitchens or a mercy from Gray. But, Hitchens’s type of atheist, the God-hater, is represented in the figures of the Marquis de Sade and William Empson.

Like Sade, Hitchens in protesting that he hated God come across far more credibly than did his attestations of disbelieving in Him. Like Empson, he claims to find the entire Christian economy of salvation totalitarian. Hitchens’s mostly rhetorical attack on God really has the force of drama only because it is a reenactment of Satan’s rebellion, Non serviam. The frisson is in his implicit promise to carry on the argument even if the Almighty himself turns up at the opposing lectern. This was entertaining as performance, but occasionally ugly in effect. Hitchens would allow his atheism to make him cheer the murderous despoliation of the Russian Orthodox Church. He clearly could reconcile with totalitarianism, when it attacked what he hated.

Hitchens’s main argument that religion poisons everything was his assertion that only religion can make good people do evil things. That is, a person who normally acts with kindness can be cowed by divine authority to do what he would otherwise never do to others: torture, rape, murder, you name it. And indeed, you don’t have to go far back in the news archives to find some previously harmless boys throughout Europe who gave themselves over to jihad after a brief religious awakening they experienced in the course of torturing, raping, and murdering in Syria and Iraq.

Hitchens’s attempt to escape the obvious rejoinder to his argument — that political and social creeds inspire to do just that — is lame. He just reclassifies any political murders he finds too fanatical as religious ones. In fact, in this rhetorical sleight of hand, he does precisely the thing he claims to find so repugnant about Christianity: He creates a scapegoat on which to load all the sins in the world.





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