Seven Degrees of BS

I found this article on a Facebook group that I follow and it was so bad that it was bad. This was one of those articles that didn’t just ask for a takedown, it was begging for one. Again, if this isn’t your thing, I wouldn’t recommend hitting below the jump. Also, this is an article from Vice; I didn’t link to it because I didn’t want them to get any more clicks. But the entire article–sans the shameless plug for some dude’s book–is here. So you don’t have to go looking for it. With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Not believing in God has always seemed perfectly sensible to me, but also a bit of a tedious thing to discuss. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—and their annoyingly fanatical online acolytes—banging on about exactly what they don’t believe in all the time.

Oh noez! Teh atheists won’t be quiet about being teh atheists! Whatever shall we do?!

Already, this article is on shaky ground, because if you can’t deal with someone saying, “Here are the reasons why I don’t believe in god…” you’re not being sensible. At all. There are reasons why atheists don’t believe. If you don’t like hearing them, tough.

John Gray, the renowned English philosopher, is tired of the new atheists and considers their thinking “shallow.” The author is not a religious believer, but he insists that nonbelief is a far more strange and subtle business.

So this guy is a philosopher. Basically, he is a guy who thinks about thinking. I get a mental image of this guy, just like the philosopher ancestor of Peter Griffin, sitting on a stool being asked to get an actual job and him dramatically saying, “Why?”

Gray has written a new book called Seven Types of Atheism, revealing the surprising variety of perspectives among irreligionists. It also explores some of the odd assumptions we make about ourselves and the world once we’ve decided to throw the idea God in the garbage. I spoke to Gray about the wide range of ways in which to ponder your place in a cold and unfathomable universe.


VICE: You’re quite hard on the new atheism of Richard Dawkins and others. What frustrates you about their way of thinking?

John Gray: It’s their idea of religion as a failed scientific theory of everything, a primitive science. When it comes to the genesis myth, even the early Christian scholars said, “You mustn’t read this as a literal rendition of fact.” It’s a mistake to confuse religious fundamentalists with the vast, rich tradition of religious life. Religion is not an explanatory theory of the world; it’s a way of making sense of living in the world.

Okay, first problem: There are plenty of religious leaders who are claiming that the bible is the literal truth. If that wasn’t a thing, we wouldn’t have kids writing on their science quizzes that dinosaurs didn’t exist because the bible or we wouldn’t have people claiming that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Answers in Genesis would not fucking exist. But it does.

That’s not taking into account just how many people try using the “sincerely held religious beliefs” as a way to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Try convincing these people that their ideas do not deserve protection but actual living people do. Good luck with that. Because they believe that every single word in the bible is the absolute truth. These people do not see the bible as a bunch of old stories that were cobbled together to make sense of things. No, these old stories are the absolute literal truth.

The other really widespread way of doing atheism these days is secular humanism. Why is it you think the humanists are misguided and are actually just repeating religious ideas?

The whole idea of progress comes from monotheistic religion, from Christianity in particular, and from the post-millennialism that says Christ will return one day, but only after we improve the world. The secular humanists have replaced the idea of God with the idea of humanity—an agent with a common set of goals that is gradually realized over time. Humanity is part of a story with redemptive meaning. So the secular humanists haven’t shed a way of thinking that comes from monotheism. In the pre-Christian world, they never assumed progress would occur. History has no redemptive significance.

an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Tell me exactly where religion comes in to play with this? Because I do not see it.

Humanism makes a lot more sense than religion, because all we have is each other. There is no magical man in the sky, sitting on a throne, who is ready and willing to help us. If there were, we wouldn’t have starving people in Africa or babies dying of cancer because that magical guy in the sky could snap his fingers and take care of all that. But it’s up to us to take care of each other.

I don’t see how something based in rational thought has anything to do with religion so I’m confused as to how Gray would make that connection. Maybe he just sucks at philosophy.

There’s a third kind of atheism you identify—faith in science. Isn’t science something noble to believe in?

Science has always been—and always will be—used by all sorts of people with different values. Many people have used scientism—the attempt to turn a bundle of scientific methods into a kind of gospel—to justify racism, imperialism, or even genocide. It tends to embrace the dominant values of the time. People can’t explain why science should embrace liberal values, though the assumption is often there nowadays. There’s nothing in science that tells you to be kind or help the poor. Science is a set of methods—it tries to explain practical things. But it can’t dictate values.

Science is a tool to help us understand the universe. That’s pretty much it. Yes, there are those who try to use it as a religious system. That doesn’t make them good skeptics or good atheists.

The fourth kind of atheist is the kind who turn politics into a kind of religion. Does this kind of zealotry help explain things like the French revolution, the rise of Bolshevism and Nazism?

The millenarian religious movements of the late Middle Ages expected a new world to emerge after a period of catastrophic conflict. For modern revolutionaries, it’s humanity that brings in a society different from any in history. But both share the myth that history ends with a far better world. Curiously, a version of this belief gripped liberals after the fall of communism; they failed to recognize that what has been gained can always be lost because of the flawed nature of the human animal. The thinkers of the ancient world understood you always have these cycles of improvement and barbarism.

What is this I don’t even. I don’t even know where to begin with this.

And the idea that atheists are turning politics into a sort of religion is outright laughable. Because plenty of religious people will not vote for certain candidates because of abortion. Or gay rights. Or transgender rights.

Let’s move on to the “God-haters.” These atheists seem to be so obsessed with evil that they actually still have some sort of belief in God.

The existence of evil in the world is a mystery. Christians have come up with fancy arguments for evil, about free will for humankind and so on, while others just accept the mystery. If you’re an atheist and you’re interested in evil, it’s a short step then to say there must be some element of evil in God, or the very idea of God is evil. The God-hater is one who can’t accept God because of all the evil in the world and then comes to hate that God. But it’s actually another iteration of monotheistic thought.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. — Isaiah 45:7

Yes, god himself said that he creates evil. In his own book. Now, of course, Gray will try and claim that this isn’t literal so we should just ignore it. But it sure sounds like god is an evil asshole to me.

Now, let me go ahead and say this, because it needs to be said: I do not hate god. How can I hate something that doesn’t exist? However, I hate the evil that is done in god’s name. When a gay teacher is run out of town because “the f*gs will burn”, I get upset. When a transgender child steps in front of an oncoming truck to end her life because her very religious parents can’t accept that she is transgender, I get fucking pissed. When people shrug off man-made climate change because “god will make us a shiny new world”, I get angry. There is a shit-ton of crap that people do in the name of god that is absolutely shitty and no, I am not going to sit by and let people do that garbage. So if that makes me “angry at god”, so be it. But it also means that you’re full of shit, Gray.

Let’s talk about the sixth strain of atheism you look at—atheism without any faith in progress. Is it fair to say this is the most vigorous kind of atheism?

Yes, I would say so. I use the example of the novelist Joseph Conrad—his atheism completely rejects the idea of progress, and yet he still admires human self-assertion in the face of a kind of bleak situation that cannot be overcome. The thinker, George Santayana, is someone who was impressed by the beauty of religion, but didn’t want it or need it for himself. They rejected the idea of the cosmos being rational.

Oh yes, because things have always been bad and will forever be bad. We haven’t had any real progress so let’s not even try. Yeah, that sounds a lot like nihilism, which isn’t really atheism. Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t nihilistic atheists, but the way I understand it, nihilism is a separate idea from atheism. I’m thinking that Gray doesn’t have a good handle on what atheism truly is and is just using different ideas to pad out this interview and his book.

About the idea of the cosmos being rational:

Just saying.

Now, as for the idea that religion is beautiful, I give that a hard pass. For obvious reasons, like the WBC.

You finish with the mystical kind of atheism. It sounds almost like people who have a big drug experience and talk about the oneness of everything.

Well, it’s a radical kind of atheism that asserts that the nature of reality is ineffable—it can’t be embodied in words. Schopenhauer thought the ultimate reality of things was spiritual, but we couldn’t really grasp it with our reasoning. He didn’t have any need for a creator God, but actually, he isn’t so far from certain traditions in mysticism and different religions. Some types of mystical religion come close to atheism in their understanding of God as unimaginable.

This sounds way more like agnosticism or spiritualism rather than actual atheism. Agnostics and spiritualists aren’t sure whether or not god or gods exist while atheists have no belief in god. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t atheists who believe in woo. Trust me, they exist. But that also doesn’t make them great skeptics, either.

So these last two are the kinds of atheism you most admire?

Yes, they’re the ones I like the best in that they’re the most rigorous in stepping outside of a monotheistic way of thinking. There are many kinds of atheism. I think you’re an atheist if you don’t need the idea of a creator God. But if you really want to step outside of monotheism, I think these sorts of ideas are where you’ll get to.

/ āTHēˌizəm/
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

That is the definition of atheism. It is a lack of belief in any gods. It’s not that difficult an idea to grasp but Gray apparently doesn’t fucking get it. Instead, he cobbles together multiple ideas and tries to claim that they are all atheism, when they aren’t. I have to say that if this is the idea behind his book, then it’s not a good book and trees died for nothing when this was printed.

That’s it. That’s the entire article. Save for a plug for Gray’s book, this is how it ends. This wasn’t simply bad, it was facepalmingly bad. All I can say is this: if the interview was that bad, the book is probably a hell of a lot worse. At least Vice gave us that head’s up, so this wasn’t a complete waste of time. Put this book–whatever it may be–on your “avoid at all costs” list.


About Silverwynde

I'm a Transformers fan, Pokémon player, Brewers fan and all-out general nerd. I rescue abandoned Golett, collect as many Bumblebee decoys and figures as I can find and I've attended every BotCon since 1999. I'm also happily married to a fellow Transfan named Prime and we were both owned by a very intelligent half-Siamese cat, who crossed the Rainbow Bridge on June 16, 2018. We miss him every day.
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