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Faith and community
2 August 2013

Heresy of the week: Atheism has its heretics too

You might think that being an atheist is pretty straightforward – all you have to do is not believe in God (or gods) and you’re in the club. But as with theism, atheism comes in different forms where the central idea is bundled up with other essential ideas. If you dissent from these additional articles of faith then you are definitely not in the club, i.e. atheism has its heretics too.

In the English-speaking world, the dominant form of intellectual atheism is not only atheist in its essentials, but also neo-Darwinist and humanist. Thus when the distinguished American philosopher Thomas Nagel published an entirely secular critique of neo-Darwinism, he caused a bit of a stink. The Dawkins brigade were somewhat less than thrilled and it was named as the ‘Most Despised Science Book of the Year’ in the Guardian

In a book review for the New York Times, Nagel introduces us to the thoughts of a fellow heretic (albeit one he has his own disagreements with) – the British philosopher John Gray, who though an atheist is not a humanist:

  • “‘In the most general terms,’ he tells us, ‘humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world.’ ‘A related aspect of humanism is the idea that the human mind reflects the order of the cosmos.’ ‘A third aspect of humanism is the idea that history is a story of human advance, with rationality increasing over time.’
  • “Gray rejects all three of these beliefs, along with the pretension of humanism to offer a scientifically respectable replacement for religion: ‘...there is no hierarchy of value with humans somewhere near the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with its own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.’”

This is very naughty of Mr Gray, pursuing orthodox atheism to its logical conclusions is not something one does in polite society. And in any case, does he have anything to put in place of humanism?

As a matter of fact, he does. It’s set out in his book The Silence of Animals, a philosophy which Nagel summarises as follows:

  • “...an alternative of pure contemplation that just lets the world be. That is the meaning of the title: we are invited to become more like other animals, freed of the perpetual need for commentary, understanding and transcendence.”
  • “…Gray thinks the belief in progress is fueled by humanists’ worship of ‘a divinized version of themselves.’ To replace it he offers contemplation: ‘Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.’”

But this is where Gray’s own logic runs into the buffers. You see, if we are supposed to just let the world be, to accept nature as it is, then surely that means we must also accept human nature as it is (humanity being an entirely natural phenomenon according to Gray). Yet, it is very clearly not in our nature let the world be – or to free ourselves “of the perpetual need for commentary, understanding and transcendence”. 

We are not like the animals. Something within us is always looking for ultimate explanations. We can’t simply put it away, it is part of who we are. 

It’s almost as if it were there for a reason.


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