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John Gray, atheisms and the truth about Christianity

John Gray, atheisms and the truth about Christianity

Nick Spencer reviews John Gray’s new book ‘Seven Types of Atheism’.

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If I didn’t believe, I would not believe like John Gray.

For nearly twenty years – or at least since he published Straw Dogs in 2002, which signalled a shift in focus from political philosophy to wider concerns – Gray has written about, and written off, conventional wisdom on God and human nature. Eschewing the anti–religious rhetoric of the New Atheists, while outdoing them for disdain, he has given voice to a bleaker and more honest atheism than these popular polemics have advanced.

The result is paradoxical. On the one hand, Gray’s books are an exercise in systematic debunking. The Sunday Times lead book critic, John Carey, recently called Gray’s latest, Seven Types of Atheism, “one of the most depressing books I have read”, and he is not alone in his assessment. On the other hand, Gray, with his vigorous denial of human uniqueness or purpose, can sometimes sound like he is channelling Pope John Paul II.

Here he is in Seven Types of Atheism:

“‘humanity’ does not exist. All that can actually be observed is the multifarious human animal, with its intractable enemies and divisions.” (68)

And here is John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical on the value and inviolability of human life, Evangelium Vitae:

“when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (EV 21)

The only thing that appears to separate these two views is the tone: a sigh of liberation in the first; a sigh of desperation in the second.

For Gray, there is no coherent concept of humanity, let alone unique human dignity, if you stray beyond the teaching and worldview of the monotheisms. Humanity, he writes in his Conclusion, “is work of the imagination.” Many Christians, not least John Paul II, would agree.

What seems to infuriate Gray, as it did Nietzsche before him, is the inability of those who dispose of the divine to follow their logic through. Judging by the reaction he sometimes elicits among secular humanists, he clearly touches a nerve. Or rather, he repeatedly and vigorously hammers away at it.

Many of the arguments in Seven Types of Atheism will be familiar, and to those who have followed Gray closely over the last twenty years, very familiar. His essential argument is that much modern Western thought is a bastardized and degenerated version of Christianity, cherry picking the anthropological and ethical fruit while hacking away at its metaphysical roots. “The God of monotheism did not die, it only left the scene for a while in order to reappear as humanity – the human species dressed up as a collective agent, pursuing its self–realisation in history.” (157)

This applies to atheism as much – perhaps more – as it does other ideas. Beginning with the predictable hook of the New Atheists, Gray shows how most of modern atheisms are debased versions of the Christianity from which they emerged.

Gray is flamboyantly dismissive of the New Atheists themselves. “A remark made by Wittgenstein about Frazer applies equally to Richard Dawkins and his followers,” he notes: “‘Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages… His explanations of primitive practices are much cruder than the meaning of these practices themselves’.” (11) Not only do the “smears and fulminations” of the New Atheists make sense “only in a specifically Christian context,” but they only do so within “a few subsets of the Christian religion”. They are, in effect, a kind of mirror Protestant fundamentalism, a fact that we at Theos noted repeatedly during our 2009 Darwin project, when it became painfully clear that Young Earth Creationists and New Atheists were in lock–step about the incompatibility of Darwin and God.

Gray claims that the New Atheists are little more than a sideshow – albeit a noisy one – and his opening chapter on them is one of his briefest. The rest of Seven Types of Atheism parses his six other types, namely, (2) secular humanism, “the hollowed out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history”; (3) scientific atheism, the replacement of God with science (or pseudo–science) such as evolution, Mesmerism, dialectical materialism, or transhumanism; (4) political atheism, the replacement of a divine superstructure with a political creed and programme, such as Jacobinism, communism, Nazism, or “evangelical liberalism”; (5) anti–theism or misotheism, the replacement God–worship with God–hatred; (6) a progress–free atheism, such as Gray finds in the life and work of George Santayana and Joseph Conrad; finally (7) the “mystical atheism” that Gray sees in Arthur Schopenhauer, Baruch Spinoza, and the Russian–Jewish fideist Lev Shestov.

As noted, aficionados of Gray’s work will be familiar with much of this analysis. He wrote about Conrad “our contemporary” in Heresies. He wrote about the brutalities of political atheisms in Black Mass. He wrote about transhumanism in The Immortalisation Commission. He writes about, or rather against, progress in pretty much every book and I suspect he may be contractually obliged to mention Auguste Comte, the original sinner when it comes to secular Progress, whenever he puts pen to paper.

Nevertheless, there is new material in Seven Types of Atheism – for example on Bertrand Russell, William Empson, a misotheist from whom Gray borrows the book’s title, on the Marquis de Sade, on Shestov and Spinoza, and on the terrifyingly hardcore and vaguely insane libertarian Ayn Rand. Moreover, even the familiar stuff is engaging, Gray’s prose being never anything less than bracing and witty.

I am personally well disposed towards the idea that we need to distinguish different kinds of atheism. In the introduction to my own 2013 history of the subject, Atheists: the Origin of the Species (a book for which, for full disclosure, Gray provided a commendation) I argued that, “we should…talk about atheisms rather than atheism.”

The reasoning behind this was that modern atheism, at least as we are familiar with it in the West, emerged from a deeply Christian culture. Atheism was nourished by the Christian soil in which it grew, in which everything – from personal morality and destiny, through communal habits and practices, to the shape of shared time and space, and the basis of social, legal and political order – was informed by Christian belief. In John Redwood’s words, in Christian Europe, “whenever a man took up his pen and attempted to write about the weather, the seasons, the structure of the earth, the constitution of the heavens, the nature of political society, the organization of the Church, social morality or ethics he was by definition taking up his pen to write about God.”

The result of this was that while it was parasitic on and destructive of that which it opposed, atheism also had to be a creative phenomenon. The statement “God does not exist…” was fundamentally untenable in the public arena, unless it became “God does not exist and so…” Anarchy appealed to no–one.

The different ways in which different unbelievers completed that sentence generated ‘creeds’ that were different enough to be seen as a cluster of positions, rather than a single one. “We do better to speak of a family of atheisms,” I wrote, “rather that one single, holy, catholic, and apostolic atheism.”

In Atheists I touched on five. There were those who said “there is no God so we must build our heaven on earth”, utopian and socialist atheists of various stripes. There were those who said “there is no God so we must endeavour to maximise happiness”, essentially utilitarian atheists. There were those who said “there is no God so we should seek to maximise pleasure,” hedonistic atheists. There were those who said “there is no God so we can, nay must, live as we see fit”, libertine atheists. And there were those who said “there is no God and so there is no point to life”, nihilist atheists.

This was not a widely–recognised position in the historical literature – with the honourable exception of Susan Budd’s unjustly neglected study of Varieties of Unbelief in Britain in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, but it was the direction in which the emerging discipline of the sociology of atheism was heading. A 2010 article in the History of Human Sciences charted the differing “scientific” and “humanistic” courses within “the evolution of atheism”. The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion dedicated its 2013 conference to “Atheisms”. A sociological study published by the University of Tennessee outlined six distinct types of atheist: intellectual atheists, anti–theists, activists, seeker–agnostics, non–theists, and ritual atheists.

Matching history with sociology invites questions. Which great atheists of the past fit into which contemporary categories? Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, Bruno Bauer, and Richard Dawkins among the anti–theists perhaps? Karl Marx among the non–theists? Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Charles Bradlaugh among the activists? Denis Diderot, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Feuerbach among the intellectual atheists? David Hume and Baruch Spinoza among the seeker–agnostics? Saint–Simon, Auguste Comte and Stanton Coit among the ritual atheists? And so forth.

Gray’s book travels in this retinue, and echoes a number of similar ideas. “There have been many atheist moralities” (20), he writes at one point, remarking later on that “modern atheists can be individualists like [Ayn] Rand, socialists like Karl Marx, liberals like John Stuart Mill, or fascists like Charles Maurras. They can revere altruism as the embodiment of all that is truly human with Auguste Comte, or revile altruists as thoroughly anti–human with Ayn Rand.” (51). He hoovers up many of these kinds of atheism and goes two better (than me) by supplementing the atheisms of thinkers who, in effect, “[were] not looking for cosmic meaning [but] were content with the world as they found it”. These atheisms had done far more than most to emerge from the shadow of Christianity and become something truly different; atheisms to which, it is clear, Gray himself is attracted.

It is hard to argue with Gray’s view on atheisms, certainly the first five types of which is he critical. From the silliness of certain kinds of secular humanism to the vast bloodletting of political religions, the idea that atheism has been emancipatory has rather more to do with the triumph of faith that with the reality of history.

Atheist apologists in particular, like to replace the incarnation with the Enlightenment. By this logic, the history of the world embarked on a new course circa 1750, an era of truth and freedom that mopped up the blood of religious centuries and reseeded confessional battlefields with the flowers of reason and toleration. Gray is particularly good at dismantling this slightly naïve and faith–filled idolisation. Nestling amid the “Enlightenment values” that secularists champion with as much vigour and piety as the US Religious Right does the Bible and the Constitution, we read the humane sceptic, David Hume, on national character:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes…to be naturally inferior to the whites… there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity…In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

And then there is the sophisticated and subtle Immanuel Kant, picking up “Mr Hume[’s] challenge”:

“So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature….The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

One can make the same point about Voltaire. In Gray’s words:

“Like Hume and Kant, [Voltaire] gave racism intellectual authority by asserting that it was grounded in reason. In a letter he mocked the biblical account of a common human ancestry, asking whether Africans were descended from monkeys or monkeys from Africans.” (61)

It won’t do to say that these were just the standard views of the time. So was Christian orthodoxy and neither Hume nor Kant nor Voltaire parroted that.

Gray does overplay his hand a little. Having reviewed and debated with Steven Pinker earlier this year, I am far more supportive of the idea that there has been real and tangible (if not necessarily irreversible) progress over the last 200 years. In the light of Pinker’s army of graphs, Gray’s claim that “if you look at the historical record without modern prejudices you will find it hard to detect any continuing strand of improvement” (26) cannot be sustained. Tell that to someone suffering from cancer in 1818. Similarly, although it is probably right to say that “human beings are not more reasonable than they have ever been,” (27) it is a gross exaggeration to claim that “torture has been renormalized”. Reused, perhaps, but not renormalised.

For all its erudition and wit, and for all he is right to pursue the idea of different typologies, Gray’s categorisations don’t really work, too many of them bleeding into others.

Many of his New Atheists would happily qualify as misotheists, Dawkins hating God no less than de Sade or William Empson, despite being less wicked than one and less literary than the other. Nietzsche finds himself under Gray’s second type of atheism (secular humanism) but could also do a turn as a misotheist, being “an implacable enemy of Christianity”.

Henri de Saint–Simon and August Comte stand at the head of Gray’s first (New) atheist category but are no less important for the secular humanists or even the scientific atheists. Some off the modern political religions, most obviously those that slaughtered millions in Russia and China, were thoroughly scientific in their atheism, while seeking to remake humanity like the secular humanists, albeit on a larger and more brutal scale.

As my history, and the developing sociology, of atheism testify, categorising atheists is no easier than it is believers, and indeed may be harder, with so many atheisms being marked by the Christianity against which they reacted. When five of Gray’s seven types are post–Christian ones, their post (or pseudo–) Christianity drawn out deliberately by Gray, it is not surprising that they bear more than a passing family resemblance. If they are different types of atheism, they are very similar different types.

All this might be right but it does tend to stretch the definition of Christian (or monotheistic or religious) to the extent that it becomes baggy and rather loose. Christian things are Christian. But, then, so are the things that replace them, and the things that undermine them, and the things that attack them, and the things that bury them.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that Carey, in his Sunday Times review, saw Gray as heaping the blame on Christianity. “Christians might reasonably protest,” he wrote, “that unloading the blame for these hideous regimes [of “Jacobinism in the French Revolution, Bolshevism, Hitler’s fascism”] onto Christianity’s back is a bit thick. They might point out that Christian doctrine nowhere supports the idea that humanity can achieve perfection in this world, as Gray alleges.”

I don’t feel so outraged. Gray believes Christianity is untrue, and sees its impact on the ancient world as mixed. (As an aside, one of his perennially strongest and most appealing themes is that history and morality are various and messy and convoluted, and only very rarely univocal or uncomplicated. Very few developments in this fallen world are an unmixed blessing). Moreover, he is also clear (although more so in other books) that Christianity’s resolute insistence of the Fall and on human sinfulness saves it from the worst sins, so to speak, of its modern imitators. It is corrupt and degraded forms of Christianity, usually those that ignore the religion’s critical attitude to human nature, that are most problematic.

That said, Carey is on to something in Gray’s treatment of Christianity. For all this he is right about atheisms, he is wrong about the Christianity from which so many descend.

Much of what Gray has to say about ‘religion’ is right. Few scholars working in this area seriously think there is any one thing called ‘religion’ that can be satisfactorily identified or defined, with most preferring instead to talk about religions, just as we have been talking about atheisms. Like most abstract nouns, it looks reasonably clear and concrete from a distance only to dissolve is fuzziness and perspectives when you get closer to it. No–one knows what religion actually is, but talking about it in the singular, in a book of this nature, is probably a rhetorical necessity. Gray’s definition – “an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory to explain the universe” (3) – can no doubt be picked at and qualified, but it is as good as any you’ll get in half a sentence.

By this definition, Gray’s Christianity was not really a religion, or at least a somewhat aberrant version of one, as, by Gray’s light, Christianity was far more belief focused than anything else in the ancient world, let alone the Eastern one. The reason for this, he claims, is, more or less, St Paul.

Whereas, we are told, “the faith that Jesus asked from his disciples did not mean accepting a creed. It meant trusting in him” (17), it was his early follower Paul, who turned belief in into belief about Jesus, and, worse, turned a Jewish movement into a universal one. Jesus’ gospel “contain[ed] little of nothing of theology, [but] was concerned with deeds, not words” (17) He was a “prophet”, but he was turned into “God on earth”. It was St Paul who, to coin a phrase, invented Christianity.

For someone who has spent many years critiquing intellectuals for being wedded to outdated orthodoxies without realising it, there is some irony in the fact that when it comes to the origins of Christianity, Gray is wedded to an outdated orthodoxy without realising it. The deeds–not–words, movement–not–a–religion, local–not–universal line is hard to sustain.

Take the ‘deeds–not–words’ line. The idea that Jesus’ gospel “contain[ed] little or nothing of theology” is hard to comprehend, unless you favour a very attenuated, ‘seminar room’ understanding of what theology is. When Jesus assembles twelve followers around him to conduct his mission, he is doing theology. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, he is doing theology. When Jesus retells the story of Israel with parables, he is doing theology. When Jesus appropriates the words of the prophets for himself, he is doing theology. When Jesus refines the words of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, he is doing theology. When Jesus offers to forgive sins, or heals on a Sabbath, or tells a story about a Samaritan, or lays down the law about paying taxes to Caesar, he is doing theology. Or, less elliptically, he is inviting people to understand God, and himself, and creation, and authority, and his mission and message in a certain way. The fact that he does not clarify the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures does not mean he was not doing theology.

Or take the ‘movement–not–a–religion’, ‘local–not–universal’ line. Jesus, Gray tells us, “had no idea of founding a universal religion”. Well, of course he didn’t. Indeed, the statement is so anachronistic as to be almost incomprehensible. Jesus would have had no idea what ‘a religion’, let alone ‘a universal religion’, was, and no idea of what founding one would have meant.

He did, however, ‘have the idea’ that the father of Israel, Abraham was destined to be “the father of many nations” (Gen 17.4–5) and that “all peoples on earth” and “all nations on earth” were to be “blessed through him”. (Gen 12.3; Gen 22.18) And he did have the idea all the nations would gawp in wonder and envy at the wisdom of God’s law and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Dt 4.6) And he did have the idea, as did every Second Temple Jew did that “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it”. (Ps 24.1) And he did know that Zechariah had prophesied that “many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.” (Zechariah 8:20–23) And he did know that Micah had prophesied that “in the last days…many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths’.” (Micah 4:1–5) And he did know that Isaiah prophesied that on mountain of the Lord, God “will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples… [and] will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples… [and] swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:6–10) And he did know that Isaiah recorded God saying of his chosen servant, “I will keep you and will make you/ to be a covenant for the people/ and a light for the Gentiles,/ to open eyes that are blind,/ to free captives from prison/ and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42.6) And he did know that Isaiah also prophesied that God had said “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,/ that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Is. 49.6) And he did – finally – know that he himself came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand and claiming that Isaiah’s words were “today…fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words, if we try to sidestep anachronistic language, Jesus expected the day when God’s blessing would flow through his people to the whole of creation and understood himself as playing a pivotal role in that. That might not be directly translatable into founding a new or universal religion – and indeed the smart money says that Jesus might have been a bit disappointed with much of what followed in his name – but it most certainly isn’t the raw ingredients of a localised, revival movement.

Lest we labour it, the corresponding point – that if the ‘Jewish’ Jesus wasn’t interested in a universal movement, the ‘universalist’ Paul wasn’t interested in the Jewishness of Jesus’s message – is no more tenable. The fact that Gray can write about “Paul severed the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teaching by turning it into a universal creed” (46) suggests he hasn’t read too deeply in the undisputed Pauline corpus. The book of Romans is quite a Jewish book.

Second–Temple Judaism was a complex and variegated beast. To continue a theme, we do better to talk of Second–Temple Judaisms, ranging from the separatist Essenes, through puritanical Pharisees, and more accommodationist Sadducees, to the Hellenistic Philo of Alexandria, and the outright quisling Josephus.

Paul was, despite various attempts to drag him to the Hellenistic end of the spectrum, indisputably a Pharisee, boastful to the point of arrogance about his Jewish credentials, his mind, worldview, and reasoning ineradicably formed by Israel’s scriptures. However, he caught the eschatological profundity of the Jesus moment, understanding the ‘universal’ implications of Jesus’ kingdom announcement, and determined remove what he thought were any unnecessary barriers to participation.

Thus, Gray appears to make the (common) mistake of confusing the removal of ceremonial, religious and cultural boundary markers like circumcision with a radical change in the message itself. In reality, the message – ‘the kingdom of God (through which all people will be blessed) is here’ – remained the same. It was simply the thorny question of what was required of those who heard and responded to it that was changed (and only then after a somewhat bitter dispute between Paul, Peter, James and other leading followers). Again the Paul vs. Jesus line doesn’t work.

There are other, less significant problems with Gray’s reading of early Christianity. “The belief that the world can be transformed in an historical process… was inherited from Christianity” (71) is rather debateable. Similarly “the belief that human salvation was achieved through an historical process of divine self–realisation” is open to question. The Dead Sea scrolls were not a threat to Christianity, in some Dan Brownish way; on the contrary, they serve as a potent illustration of how broad and complex Second Temple Judaism was. That “Augustine’s Christian Platonism was only the first of many…attempts to join Athens with Jerusalem” would have surprised a number of the Church Fathers, and even, to an extent, Paul himself, whose sermon on the Areopagus was Christianity’s first real Jerusalem–meets–Athens moment.

These, however, come close to nit–picking. The key point is that for all Gray is forensic in his demolition of ‘non’ belief systems, his critique of the religion from which they emerged rests on ideas that are themselves outdated.

This is relevant because it affects the conclusion Gray draws. “Repelled by the first five varieties [of atheism]”, he writes in the Introduction, “I am drawn to the last two atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnameable God”. Living “without belief or unbelief” is preferably to living with some bastardised version of a belief that was untrue in the first place. Believing in God might be more cogent than believing in a humanity rendered nonsensical by the absence of God, but going beyond the question of belief (and its sub–questions of humanity, morality, progress, etc.) is more cogent still.

But if the coherence of the original belief system is stronger than Gray gives it credit for, and if the matter of belief in and belief about is not an either/or kind of choice, as Gray’s Paul/ Jesus dichotomy would have it, the options we face are richer and more positive.

Gray quotes with apparent approval the opening line of Book Two of Lucretius’ On the nature of things. Lucretius was an atheist (at least in the sense that he believed that the gods had no interest in human life and so might as well not exist) and, living when he did, thought his thoughts unburdened by the influence of Christianity.

In his great poem, the poet writes of how it is a “joy… to watch from the shore the troubles of another [in a storm]”, not in the sense of it being an active “pleasure” in some sadistic way (though some atheists, like de Sade, might say it were) but of it being a relief “to see the ills from which you are spared.” Is it? I cannot for a second imagine John Gray watches the horrors of Syria with anything like joy or pleasure at seeing the pains of which he is spared. Nor can I imagine he thinks those who might see them and shrug them off as anything but grotesquely callous.

Much more humane – and much truer, surely? – is John Donne’s 17th meditation, in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”. Of course, Gray would retort: but Donne was not simply a poet; he was a Christian poet and a minister. You can say that the bells “tolls for thee” because, if you believe in the God of Christianity, it does. Christianity offers you are a creator, a creation, a humanity, and a recognisable (if disputable) ethical framework. Beyond those factors, it is meaningless and untenable.

But – and here is the rub – those sentiments resonate, and not only with those who are Christians or live in the shadow of Christianity. They resonate with the kind of species we are, evolved to grasp the goodness and even rightness of reciprocity and responsibility, over and above straightforward kinship. Put another way, Christian teaching about God, humanity, morality and the like took root in a species that was and is capable of grasping it – certainly not comprehensively and certainly not inerrantly – but grasping something of it nonetheless. They took root in a species that had been brought to the point of understanding the foundational notions of gift, sacrifice, and love, in a species that had not only evolved ears, but had evolved ears to hear.

Gray might argue that this is all simply an accident of evolution, of no more cosmic significance than the fact we also evolved a coccyx or ten digits. Therein lies another debate. But accident or no, we are that species. We do “look for cosmic meaning”. We are not “content with the world as [we] found it”. Gray’s work reminds us that there are many more ways of responding to the question of belief that get it wrong than get it right. But we should not give up on the question altogether.

Nick Spencer

Seven Types of Atheism is published by Allen Lane

Atheists: the Origin of the Species is published by Bloomsbury


 Image from wikimedia available in the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 4 May 2018

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