Atheisms, New and Old


David Bosworth

  Human beings are metaphysical thinkers, willing or not. When our children ask us the ultimate why?, when friends fall ill, or parents die, we anxiously search for causes, proposing theories and weaving myths of origin. We wonder about the source of our suffering, whether it has been decreed by God or gods, or enacted instead by a vast and dispassionate material order. In times of widespread civic strife, when confusion begs for clarity, these bouts of speculation are bound to intensify. Hence, the last round in Britain and America’s periodic “god wars” in the early aughts, which included a hailstorm of books, blogs, podcasts, and Twitter blasts by the so-called New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Samuel Harris.
  The terribly ironic “shock and awe” of 9/11 created the climate that fed the controversy. That the killers were radical Islamists making war on secular modernity’s global ambitions quickly spurred a reactionary attack on Islam itself. The New Atheists went further, though. For polemical rationalists like Dawkins and Harris, the attack became an opportunity to assail religion in toto; in their view, churches and temples as well as mosques were the primary sources of violence in the world. There was, in fact, nothing really new in these New Atheists’ claims. Since the days of the French Revolution, a certain breed of rationalist has insisted that the superstitions of religion should (and soon would) be replaced by science, the baneful authority of a corrupt clerisy give way to the benign rulings of philosopher-statesmen. The reassertion of those claims in 2003, however, did require some selective amnesia, given the inconvenient fact that the appalling scale of political violence in the twentieth century was initiated principally by secular regimes, each of which was anticlerical in the extreme.
  Still, the historical amnesia of the New Atheists doesn’t in itself disqualify the metaphysical case for atheism. The human condition hasn’t changed; the ultimate questions of origin and purpose are always in play. And now that our seemingly endless War on Terror more simmers than boils, we might consider more calmly the deeper claims for a godless universe, as they have been made in two recent books.

The Atheist as Rational Optimist

  Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom proves to be two books in one: the first a detailed philosophical critique of traditional religious belief; the second a semi-utopian political tract arguing for the necessity of a Marxist form of “democratic socialism.” His arguments can be intricate, even laborious, but they’re also evangelically fierce, striving for nothing less than a complete conversion of his readership to the “secular faith” he is proselytizing. Note the following quote from his introduction, and you’ll quickly grasp the temper that prevails throughout. “Hence, our ecological crisis can be taken seriously only from the standpoint of secular faith. Only a secular faith can be committed to the flourishing of finite life … as an end in itself.” [Emphasis mine.] On Hägglund’s chalkboard of rationalist pr oofs, there are many onlys and imperative musts; opposing points of views are dutifully cited, but once his analysis is made, the door to ambiguity is firmly shut. Though his tactics and training (in comparative literature) differ from the New Atheists preceding him, Hägglund’s primary contention, then, is largely the same: atheism is not only metaphysically true but politically necessary to shape a better world.
  Rather than commit to the atheist’s usual mission of disproving the existence of a divine creator, Hägglund takes aim at what he presumes to be the Achilles heel of all religions: a belief in some form of eternal life. Remove that foundational illusion and, in his view, all the baneful theological and ritual architecture built around it will come tumbling down. Because, as the thinking species, we alone can anticipate, and duly dread, our eventual deaths, religion has arisen from the mists of superstition to ease those fears by asserting the fantasy of an afterlife. “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.” On the other side of the life-death divide, in the Christian’s Heaven, the Viking’s Valhalla, the Lakota’s Happy Hunting Ground, “death shall be no more,” death itself shall die. Again, Hägglund refuses to take the usual atheist approach to dismiss the claims for such a timeless place: that wishes aren’t facts, that there are no tangible signs an afterlife exists, that consciousness itself is an epiphenomenon of material processes that will rot with our flesh. Rather than focus on the implausibility of eternal life, he cleverly emphasizes its undesirability. Without the chastening sense that time is running out for each of us, our decision-making loses both its urgency and its cogency. By eliminating consequences, an eternal paradise would be, Hägglund insists, essentially meaningless, tedious at best.
  He isn’t first to point this out. In 1960, sixteen years before Hägglund’s birth, a Twilight Zone episode wittily dramatized the same conclusion. When Rocky—"a scared, angry little man who never got a break"—finds himself rewarded, post-mortem, with luxurious digs, beautiful women, endless money, and access to a casino where he wins every bet, he simply presumes that, despite his criminal past, he’s been sent to Heaven. Soon enough, though, bored beyond belief, Rocky complains that “if [he] has to stay [there] another day, [he’s] gonna go nuts,” and so begs his guide Pip to send him to “the other place"—that is, to Hell. The drama ends with Pip’s punchline reply that Rocky is already in that "other place,” followed by a voice-over that concludes: “Now he has everything he’s ever wanted, and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity.” As commonly conceived, Heaven might be “a nice place to visit” (the episode’s ironic title), but to live there forever would be a hellish fate.
  Oddly, for someone whose argument is tied so closely to debunking belief in an afterlife, Hägglund never mentions that other place: the eternity of hellish punishment that is supposed to counterbalance the endlessness of heavenly pleasure. By failing to do so, he doesn’t address a second and, I would argue, equally powerful motive for imagining an afterlife. From our perspective, after all, human life is not only terrifyingly short; it’s also often terribly unfair. In every age and place, it is too frequently the case that “the race is not to the swift, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent,” and, too, that “the sentence against evil is not executed speedily,” if at all. Belief in an afterlife does serve to assuage the fear we feel in the face of our extinction, but it also promises to redress the many injustices of life on earth by rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked at last and for good. Hägglund presumes, but never bothers to argue in any detail, that our faith in the moral redress of an afterlife prevents us from pursuing justice in “thislife,” his title and topic, with the zeal that we should.
  Instead, exhibiting his training as a literary deconstructionist, he goes about the business of “interrogating” the writings of the faithful, aiming to prove that the religious don’t really believe what they think they believe, that their passions and purposes are actually secular. After reading the derisive attacks by Dawkins and crew, one might have presumed that Osama bin Laden and the Rev. Franklin Graham were the arch-exemplars of religious thought and practice. But here Hägglund, to his credit, chooses to take on truly significant believers. Augustine, Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Taylor are quoted and analyzed at length. (You’ll note that these are all Christian authors, for though Hägglund insists that his argument applies to every religion, he barely mentions Judaism, which doesn’t emphasize an afterlife—Ecclesiastes, for example, seems to endorse both the dominion of God and the finality of death; and his critiques of the major non-Abrahamic faiths are cursory at best.)
  Given his focus on the folly of an afterlife, Hägglund directs our attention to the passages by those religious thinkers that address the subject of death, either as a personal crisis (for Lewis, when he lost his beloved wife; Augustine, his “sweet” friend; Martin Luther, his young daughter) or as a moral problem under study (Kierkegaard’s defense of Abraham’s willingness, at God’s command, to slay his son Isaac.) In each case, he’s eager to show that the anguish confessed by the loved one left behind logically undermines his spiritual belief: namely, the Christian doctrine that one shouldn’t mourn the death of the righteous, for their souls are now at peace in a better place. There is a kind of disingenuous arrogance to Hägglund’s “interventions” here, the deconstructionist imagining that he has discovered a truth unacknowledged by the authors themselves. He seems to forget that Christianity is self-consciously centered on the paradox that a bloody crucifixion supplies the route to salvation, and that even the son of God might cry out in anguish on his cross, fearing that he has been forsaken.
  As Hägglund repeatedly finds the image of himself, his key ideas and tropes, unknowingly disguised in the mirror of those authors’ prose, it becomes clear that, despite his professorship in comparative literature, he doesn’t possess a literary sensibility. For this rational reductionist, a “text” doesn’t exist to reflect who we are in the fullest sense, our often conflicting mix of motives and reasons; nor to explore, in Seamus Heaney’s words, “how consciousness can be alive to two different and contradictory dimensions of reality, and still find a way of negotiating between them.” No, “texts” exist instead to prove philosophical points, ones that their own authors have missed, and that only the critic, in his acute objectivity, can rescue for us.
  To James Richardson’s savvy observation that “there are two kinds of people in this world … and who is not both of them,” Hägglund would answer, on the subject of religion, that he isn’t, and that we shouldn’t be. That Augustine, Lewis, and Luther might bitterly grieve the death of their loved ones and still sincerely strive to believe in the Christian afterlife isn’t, for him, a classic example of the dilemma that defines a species born, in the words of Ecclesiastes, with “eternity in its mind”; it’s a logical fallacy, which, in a series of aha! moments, he diligently labors to expose and correct.
  Still, if you are one of those adults who, awash in the mundane busyness of maturity, misses the old late-night, dorm-room debates on the grandest of issues, Part I of This Life can be an engaging read, inviting marginalia and serious disputation. But then, alas, we come to the book’s second half. Wielding my reviewer’s machete to hack away at the abrasive thistles and strangling vines of the author’s abstruse political theorizing, I’ll be mercifully brief here. The salvational argument in Part II— and, yes, a St. Paul of secularism, Hägglund, too, is out to save us—goes something like this.
  Because we can’t really love life and love God, we must invest all our faith and effort in this life, in the secular not the religious. Secularism, rightly pursued, is a political stance that requires a radical transformation of our political economy. While capitalism does generate potentially liberating technological progress, its system of wage labor entraps and demeans its workers, preventing them from exercising the “spiritual freedom” that is rightfully theirs. (That term, taken from Hegel, doesn’t mean spiritual in the traditional sense, but something more like existentialfreedom.) Insomuch as they only aim to reform capitalism, even the proposals of well-known leftists like Naomi Klein are insufficient. Instead, we must undertake a complete “revaluation of value” (Nietzsche’s phrase) to arrive at the best system of self-governance, which is, without question, a form of “democratic socialism” purged of all religious rituals and references. Only then, with a godless and egalitarian socialism in place, we will be able to exploit the freedom from mundane labor that our technologies provide, each of us empowered at last to become the master of his or her own life.
  How do we know all this is true? Both the analysis of capitalism’s flaws and the path to a democratic socialism cleansed of God can be found in the intricacies of Marxist theory, as they’ve been rescued from misinterpretation by Hägglund himself.
  As the author of two recent books that critiqued the metaphysical fantasies and moral bankruptcy of contemporary capitalism, I don’t need to be convinced that our political economy is failing us. But Hägglund’s solution to the crises we now face suffers from a number of doubtful assumptions and dubious conclusions. Accepting Marx’s well-known accusation that religion is the “opium of the people,” his analysis simply presumes that faith in an afterlife prevents or restricts our full engagement in the work of restoring social justice here on earth. That belief is the logical hinge that connects his metaphysical critique in Part I to his political solution in Part II, and it supplies the justification for purging all religion from his ideal society.
  But are atheists, as a group, really more committed to achieving democratic equity than religious believers? Some Christians, choosing prayer over politics, do withdraw from the civic square, but so do some cynics. For every Michael Novak, the Catholic intellectual who made a career of rationalizing the excesses of capitalism as Christian virtue, there is a Dorothy Day, the Catholic nun who devoted her life to assisting the poor. You’d scarcely know fromHägglund’s account that Christianity has had a long history of serving the disenfranchised, including, for example, sheltering today’s undocumented immigrants. In the real world, separate from dorm-room debates, it’s clear that some people can love God and earthly life. But that a belief in Heaven might be both an opiate in the evening to help those people sleep and a goad to good works in the morning to make this world a slightly better place proves to be a conceptual ambiguity beyond the reach of the reductive rationalist, who has to graph the world into either-or categories.
  Instead, Hägglund indulges in a kind of counterfactual solipsism. Because he believes he has “proven” that all true acts of faith, love, and moral responsibility are secular at their core, any believer who practices good works must be, “therefore,” a crypto-secularist without knowing it. The reductio ad absurdum of this approach occurs near the end of Part II when the author finally descends from the realm of theoretical abstractions to provide an actual example of secular faith in action, and names Martin Luther King … yes, that King, the Baptist minister, with a doctorate in theology, who was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  Here, the arrogance of the deconstructionist approach is on full display. Demonstrating again his antiliterary sensibility, Hägglund dismisses the importance of King’s relentlessly religious “rhetoric,” as if it were merely a deceptive decoration and not a moral force that changed his nation for the better. Playing again the vainglorious role of the Great Revealer, he treats King’s later emphasis on the plight of the poor as if it were something of a secret (it’s not and never has been); and then, ignoring the fact that economic issues have always been part of the social gospel, he points to King’s campaign against poverty as evidence that the man was in the midst of becoming a secularist when his conversion was cut short by a bullet. (Now that does qualify as a well-kept secret.) As further proof, he then breathlessly reveals that King once privately admitted to admiring Hegel, one of Hägglund’s own intellectual heroes.
  The sudden death of leaders in their prime invariably invites some fantastic projections of what-might-have-been if that leader had survived—how J.F.K. surely would’ve bailed on the Vietnam War, how brother Bobby would’ve healed our racial divide. Still, Hägglund’s suggestion that one of the tragic elements of King’s assassination was that it prevented him from coming out of the closet as a Hegelian secularist seems especially ludicrous. It does reveal, though, how antihistorical, as well as antiliterary, Hägglund’s argument is—how estranged from the practical realities of political change. As any effective activist knows, to make the world a better place depends far less on academic theorizing than on-the-ground organizing. And you don’t have to be a believer in Christ as savior to acknowledge the obvious fact that the most crucial organizations in the Civil Rights movement were tied to the black church. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a third-generation Baptist minister just that: a person whose admirable actions were motivated, in part, by his belief in God.
  Those aren’t the only flaws in Hägglund’s political argument. His resurrection of Marx’s claim that technological advances, once freed of capitalism, will be inherently liberating is naïve at best, and ironically rhymes with the disingenuous utopianism routinely touted by Silicon Valley. As ought to be obvious by now—aswim as we are in a virtual world deviled by hackers, hate groups, pedophiles, drug dealers, cyber-bullies, and spies—major new technologies, when rapidly introduced, can undermine any form of civic order. They provide new vectors of as yet unregulated power, and, human beings behaving as human being always have, those powers will be abused. The expectation that a vaguely defined “democratic socialism” will automatically tame those dragons born from our own imaginations only demonstrates how out of touch Hägglund is with some of the key sources of our current predicament.
  The author’s Pollyanna views about technology highlight a further irony. Here we have a very young scholar claiming to point the way to saving the citizenry of our twenty-first century, whose reasoning, however, is shackled to and confined by nineteenth-century theories and concepts: the writings of Marx and Hegel, with (inevitably) a little Nietzsche tossed in, like saffron, to spice the otherwise dry and tasteless prose. His idealization of Marx is particularly problematic. Here and there, he admits that we shouldn’t “excuse” the totalitarian Marxist regimes of the past. But while Hägglund “interrogates” in detail the flaws of religious thinkers, these are brief and bland asides that fail to enumerate those regimes’ actual and inexcusable crimes.
  Sorry, but that won’t do. And so, by way of a quick review: Russian Marxists murdered at least 20 million of their own citizens and Chinese Marxists up to 40 million. Under the Khmer Rouge, a tiny Cambodia couldn’t match those appalling numbers but still managed to beat them by another measure, slaughtering anywhere from 18 to 30 percent of their entire population. The extermination of real people “for the People” was a common characteristic of the Marxist regimes of the last century. The assumption that all it will take is a correct rereading of Marx’s theories to produce at last the secular heaven of a worker’s paradise, rather than the hellish oppression of the gulags and killing fields that prevailed in the past, seems, well, optimistic.
  When, near the end of Part II, Hägglund begins to rhapsodize about what “we” will do under his democratic socialism, and how all religious rituals and references to God will disappear from our lives, we might remember this lesson from our not so distant past. Governments that aim to eliminate heretical beliefs tend to incarcerate, and even exterminate, the very real people who hold those beliefs. Witness today how the People’s Republic of China is treating their Muslim Uighurs. I doubt it will matter much to the traumatized survivors whether the self-righteous executioners of their sons and fathers justified their crimes by claiming they had God or History on their side.

The Atheist as Stoic Pessimist

  “There is no redemption from being human.”

—John Gray, The Silence of the Animals

  John Gray, the British philosopher, public intellectual, and prolific author of over twenty books, is also an atheist, but one who is eager to differentiate his views from the pinched opinions (pitched as proven facts) of Dawkins and crew. Animated by his prophetic opposition to the Iraq invasion, which Hitchens and Harris supported as part of a righteous war on Islam, he has authored since then a series of short books, including The Silence of the Animals,Heresies, and now Seven Types of Atheism. Similar in voice and theme, these works, along with a host of book reviews and posted interviews, articulate a grim take on the human condition and, especially, on our prospects of improving it, as those prospects have been touted in the West since the Enlightenment.
  If, as Pascal wrote, “reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it,” Gray has taken that final step and then some, embracing a philosophy rooted in acknowledging our mind’s inability to supply us with final, or even provisional, answers. “The symbolic world that humans have made is not a hermetic text, which rightly interpreted gives a secret knowledge of things,” he insists, dismissing not just the deconstructionist readings of Hägglund and his kin: all “human symbols are a scattering of dust over a world that is beyond understanding.” (If you hear echoes of Ecclesiastes here, you’re not mistaken; the choral backdrop to Gray’s typically fast-paced and stoic analyses could easily be the Preacher’s rhythmic refrain “all is vanity.”) For Gray, even the concept of humanity as a unifying category “is a fiction composed from billions of individuals, for each of whom life is singular and final.” And human freedom is perceived as largely an illusion, an opinion tartly captured in the title of his book The Soul of a Marionette.
  To understand the sources of such deeply pessimistic views, it’s helpful to recall the political context of the nineties, the upbeat forces in Britain and America that Gray began to oppose. High still from the fall of the Wall and giddy with the promises of a new digital economy that had yet to show its darker side, the neo-liberal leaders of the West were pursuing policies then that presumed the global triumph of the Anglo-American way of life. Soon, they felt sure, enemies would give way to trading partners, communist regimes to liberal democracies. Following the inevitable arc of human progress, the archaic remnants of religious fanaticism would be doubly tamed: by the crisp discipline of rationalized reason and the sweet dopamine of consumerism, as brought to backward regions of the world by Western science and capitalist commerce.
  In 1998’s False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Gray attacked these glibly optimistic views when they were at their height, reminding his readers that history was cyclical, and that all civilizations eventually collapse. Although its philosophically grounded voice was uniquely his, Gray wasn’t alone in expressing anti-utopian cautions then. And those critics, it must be said, were right. Material gains may be linear, but human governance tends to spiral in the manner of Yeats’s spinning gyres; what goes around does come around, with some ugly return stops along the way.
  A few of those stops are now in view. As trade wars erode the ties of treaties, Britain flees the European Union, and regional groups (the Scots, the Catalans) struggle to break free from the governments ruling them; as other nation-states fail and factions feud, rancorous fission, not peaceful fusion, characterizes our postmillennial world. Rather than a stalking horse for liberal democracy, capitalism has proven to be quite at home, thank you, in a scarily authoritarian China, even as its plutocratic self-dealing has undermined democracy at home. Meanwhile, our invasion of the Islamic East—preaching peace and plenty but packing drones and seeking oil—has sparked “asymmetrical” revolts by an endless series of whack-a-mole groups bent on terror.
  As it turns out, the human craving for meaning can’t be fully satisfied by a series of TED talks, nor by a slew of smartphones and dishwashers, no matter how quickly they are shipped by Amazon’s dubiously named Fulfillment Centers. Instead, consumerism’s moral and spiritual vacuum has helped to spur a reactionary return to tribal identities too often characterized by xenophobia, racism, and sectarian violence. And as autocratic demagogues degrade even our oldest democracies, as Buddhists in Myanmar, Hindus in India, Muslims in Syria, and atheists in China attack and oppress their minority populations, the near future looks a lot less like the paradise promised by Clinton, Blair, and Bush than the ticking timebomb of the 1930s.
  The trend of this demise, if not its every detail, didn’t surprise Gray. Of most relevance here, the dearth of deeper meaning in Western life proves central to his nuanced views on the subject of religion. For while this atheist has no faith in the ultimate truth of “human symbols” of any sort, he recognizes our undying need to find meaning in the midst of the most trying circumstances, and sees religion as serving that vital purpose. Because “life without myth is impossible” … “there is no more reason to think that we will cease to be religious animals than there is to think we will some day be asexual.” And because religion isn’t just a phase in an ever-progressing human story but a natural response to our enduring condition, Hägglund’s plan for a purely secular state is little more than a rationalist pipedream—though the pursuit of that dream, as the Khmer Rouge proved, can have disastrous consequences.
  Gray’s endorsement of religion is hardly blanket. He’s careful to distinguish “true myth,” which is “corrective of fantasy,” from the vainglorious sort that projects a sacred power to serve our own interests, inventing a god that is always on our side, slaying our enemies and answering our prayers with posthaste deliveries from divinity’s own invisible, but still biddable, Fulfillment Center. His evaluation of Christianity is, therefore, mixed, his muted praise cast in relative terms. He regrets the “harmful aspects” of its anthropomorphism (God assuming a human form to save humankind). But “in insisting that human nature is incorrigibly flawed, [its moral tradition] is far more realistic than the secular doctrines that followed it.” In Genesis, Gray spies a pessimism that rhymes with his own—namely, the belief that “in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature.” The “true myth” that Gray respects, in other words, is that of the Fall.
  Because, in his view, our religious impulses are ineradicable, the dominant secular doctrines of our day have merely recapitulated, in a rationalist guise, the same religious concepts they thought they’d left behind. Framed in this way, the Cold War becomes a duel between reified descendants from the same old theology: Marx’s “workers’ paradise” is just the Christian hope for heaven recast on earth; the neo-liberal’s “end of history,” a secular version of the evangelical’s End Times. And from Gray’s perspective, that of an atheist who favors moral realism, Christianity’s strategy of deferring paradise to, in his view, a fictitious afterlife proves preferable to attempting instead to build that paradise here on earth. The numbers, those sixty million killed “for the People,” would seem to back him up on this. Ditto for the current chaos in the Middle East, which was spurred, in part at least, by our delusional expectation that liberal democracy would, abracadabra, materialize on the banks of the Tigris—that our way was the chosen way, the final way, amen, amen …
  In our god wars, then, Gray has often found himself in the peculiar position of defending religion against the denunciations of other atheists like Dawkins and Harris, whose contributions he scorns as “a media phenomenon and best appreciated as a type of entertainment.” Eager to broaden our understanding of what nonbelief has been and still might be, he has recently published an historical overview, Seven Types of Atheism, that aims to classify and summarize those past varieties of godlessness. In contrast to Hägglund, Gray doesn’t pound his pages here with italicized assertions that aim to convert us. But he does have his preferences, and presents them in the form of a milder invitation.“Some older atheisms are oppressive and claustrophobic, like much of atheism at the present time. Others can be refreshing and liberating for anyone who wants a new perspective on the world.”
  It isn’t possible in an essay of this scope to assess in any detail Gray’s analysis of each of the many major thinkers and movements included in this book. His seven types, however, can be divided fairly into two groups: the five kinds of atheism that were, in Gray’s view, as “oppressive and claustrophobic” as today’s, and the two that he finds, in retrospect, “refreshing and liberating.” Those first five are as follows.
  1) The New Atheists, so-called, whose ideas are actually old, and who mistakenly believe, in the manner of the nineteenth century’s Positivists, that they can disprove the tenets of religion. Hägglund’s book clearly falls in this category.
  2) A secular humanism that unknowingly mimics the Christian belief that history is salvational. Here Gray includes John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, and the rationalist cult of Ayn Rand, each of whom, in his view, sought some form of secular redemption from the human condition.
  3) Various versions of the pretense that science can assume the mission of religion. The relevant movements in this section are: evolutionary humanism (the misapplication of Darwin’s theory which presumes that Nature has a progressive and positive direction, that it and we will get better and better); dialectical materialism (the Marxist interpretation of Hegelian philosophy that presumes the same for History); and transhumanism (the fantasy that we’ll soon invent out way into immortality by preserving our bodies or converting our “selves” into software programs).
  4) Political movements of the past—Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism—that have tried to usurp the role of religion. The evangelical claims of neo-liberalism, as evidenced in George W. Bush’s “faith-based” foreign policy, are included here.
  5) A small group of God-haters, including the Marquis de Sade and William Empson, who, by embracing evil and spurning the good, merely inverted the poles of Christian belief, and so remained trapped in the dualism of its conceptual framework.
  More than a few readers are likely to balk at a taxonomic scheme that links a complex thinker like Mill to a philosophical hack like Rand, or asserts a commonality between humanism and Nazism. But Gray insists that, despite their obvious differences, each of the thinkers and movements in these five groups shares an underlying flaw as atheists or atheisms—that each is “a continuation of monotheism by other means,” supplying us with an “unending succession of God-surrogates.”
  What does Gray prefer instead? Pluralism over universalism. Monism over dualism. A stoic acceptance of the human condition over utopian claims that we can escape or even improve it. And religions (since they must exist) that are free of anthropomorphism. The two types of atheism that he considers liberating are an “atheism without progress” and an “atheism of silence.” The former he finds in the fiction and letters of Joseph Conrad and the philosophical musings of George Santayana, each of whom, though very different in temper and tone, rejected a creator god without substituting a faith in humanity. The latter can be found in philosophies that make peace with the limits of our intellects, as in the “mystical atheism” of Arthur Schopenhauer, or the “negative theologies” of Benedict Spinoza and Lev Shestov, which, while entertaining the possibility of a divine creator, admit that such a god is fully beyond our comprehension.
  Although we can be grateful for Gray’s eloquent resistance to the happy-talk delusions of our recent leaders, his own ideas, removed from the status of minority opposition and considered instead as a practical prescription, raise some real concerns. His denial that “human symbols” have anything accurate to say about our world and his uncompromising rejection of progress as a goal not only resist the vain claims of omniscience and omnipotence that lead to folly; they also can invite a full retreat from rational thought and discourage the pursuit of even modest reforms. Contrary to Gray’s assertion, our lives are not just “singular and final” (we die, as we dream, alone); they’re collective as well (we laugh and weep and think together.) The stoicism he commends can seem, at times, like a complete withdrawal from the mutual obligations of the social compact.
  Believing he has rationally solved the metaphysical problem of the afterlife, Hägglund reduces all our proper thoughts and actions to the political sphere, blithely ignoring the disastrous consequences of the mid-twentieth century, when fascism and Marxism did just that. As his near opposite, Gray tends to reduce our options to a passive acceptance of conditions we can’t change, discounting the basis for any political or even charitable action. Though I find Gray the much subtler thinker, neither approach describes the human predicament as I experience it, with my eyes on the horizon and my feet on the ground, bound to wonder but obliged to help.
  And what do I believe? After all these pronouncements, that’s a fair question, but one I can only answer with a confession first voiced by Cicero: “I’m not ashamed to say that I do not know what I do not know.”