Seven Types of Atheism: A Review by Isaac Barnes May

February 13, 2019

In early December of last year, the crowdfunding website Patreon banned two accounts for using racist speech. One account belonged to Carl Benjamin, a star of the self-proclaimed rationalist and skeptical community who created YouTube videos under the username “Sargon of Akkad.” (The other account belonged to Alt-Right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.) Benjamin had risen to prominence on YouTube by producing content mocking creationists, but he eventually allied himself with the Gamergate movement and targeted feminism as his central foe. At the time he was banned, Benjamin earned $12,000 a month from supporters on Patreon, and his YouTube channel boasted over 800,000 subscribers. Patreon’s ban sparked outrage from certain parts of the organized atheist community. Sam Harris quit Patreon in protest, arguing that it was wrongly engaged in censoring valid political speech. Chris Steadman, a former humanist chaplain at Harvard and Yale, expressed concern from a different angle, noting with alarm that a visible minority of American atheists now overlap with the extreme political right.

Philosopher John Grey’s book Seven Types of Atheism is not principally focused on contemporary organized atheism; it deals with the so-called “New Atheists” consisting of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a single chapter. Yet Grey’s book is an important work precisely because it offers a reminder that atheism does not fit a single political or philosophical mold. As Grey argues, “there are many atheisms with conflicting views of the world” (p. 3). Grey devotes each of his seven brief chapters to a different type of atheism as articulated through philosophers and writers, though he rightly does not intend his book to be a representative account of all kinds of atheism that exist. He takes clear sides, rejecting those views that elevate science and humanity to replace theism or express anger at an absent deity, but he personally embraces “atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnamable God” (p. 7).

Grey’s often critical analysis provides an important alternative to the largely triumphalist narratives of progressive atheists present in historical works, like Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism or R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s Godless Citizens in A Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life. Grey makes clear that “atheism has no specific political content, and many atheists have been virulently anti-liberal” (pp. 20-21). While he has no objection to observing that some atheists did back laudable policies, his brief contrarian account seems to particularly revel in exposing the most regressive side of atheism and its connections with irrationality and pseudoscience.

Grey includes accounts of many thinkers that will not surprise readers – expect to find Auguste Comte, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marquis de Sade. Almost all of the figures included are American or European men. The one exception to this is the special attention the book devotes to Ayn Rand, whom Grey persuasively argues is “one of the most popular atheist writers [of the twentieth century], and the only one who had a lasting impact on contemporary politics” (p. 47). Grey understands Rand as promoting an adulterated version of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and as the leader of a cult of personality that regulated almost every aspect of her followers’ lives. Rand’s influence as a political figure has been taken more seriously by academics in recent years in works like Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, but it is extremely rare to see her evaluated as an atheist thinker. Given that Rand still has prominent followers in positions of power in the United States, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Grey’s intervention is welcome. Yet even with the importance that he assigns her, Grey may actually have underrepresented the debt contemporary atheist thought owes to Rand. For example, one of her followers, George H. Smith, used her Objectivist epistemology in his book Atheism: The Case Against to develop many of the arguments for atheism that still circulate online.

A key argument of Seven Types of Atheism is that atheism is not some kind of moral opposite of religion, and indeed atheism often employs God-surrogates like a faith in the concept of humanity or the potential of science. Both religious and atheist worldviews can be moderate or lead to fanaticism. Grey compares Anabaptist-controlled Münster, Germany in the sixteenth century, an example of extreme brutality by a theocratic regime, with the Bolshevik repression of their own citizens, an atheist example of millennial enthusiasm leading to atrocities. This is a compelling point, but it risks seeming reductive because it brushes over the numerous historical discontinuities between these events. The lack of such qualifications is one minor downside of the book’s brevity. It would have been useful if Grey had more thoroughly acknowledged comprehensive scholarship on these events, such as Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, which arrive at similar conclusions.

The final two chapters reveal the kinds of atheism that Grey finds most appealing, which are united by the idea that human reason is too limited to envision God. It seems reasonable to question whether some of the thinkers he discusses, such as Baruch Spinoza, are really atheists at all. Grey anticipates this objection, making the point that “a clear line between atheism and negative theology is not easily drawn” (p. 147).  The inclusion of such boundary figures does a good job of conveying Grey’s point that theism and atheism are not always as antithetical as popularly understood.

Seven Types of Atheism is a provocative and short read that skillfully makes its point that atheism is not a uniform phenomenon. To know that someone does not believe in a god explains only the barest details of their atheism, just as knowing that someone believes in God conveys little about their religion. As atheism becomes more common in the United States, it will only become increasingly apparent that atheists are in all political parties, and on all sides in contemporary debates.

Isaac Barnes May is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.