Books

A misanthrope takes on his fellow atheists

Joseph Conrad: The 'good' atheist?

Seven Types of Atheism
by John Gray, Allen Lane, 170pp, £17.99

In his best-known book, Straw Dogs, the political philosopher and career misanthrope John Gray whittled away at our most cherished liberal beliefs as he sought to undermine almost 2,500 years of Western thought. By the book’s end, little was left standing: man is brutal; life is terrible; the idea of human progress is mere pernicious optimism.

It is true that much of the 20th century was an unpleasant surprise. Not only Auschwitz, but also the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin’s Russia, showed how far man could go in his misuse of technology.

Even HG Wells, with his uncanny gift of scientific foresight, could not have predicted the Islamist attack on America on September 11, 2001. The assault only confirmed Gray in his anti-humanist, anti-liberal argument that man is not moving forward at all through the centuries. “We may well look back on the 20th century as a time of peace,” he wrote with characteristic dark relish.

Gray’s new book, Seven Types of Atheism, upbraids Richard Dawkins and other “unthinking liberals” for their pretence of atheist omniscience. The world is not necessarily as the neo-Darwinists insist it is, Gray argues, because science is not and never has been about certainty. Much of what passes for scientific knowledge today is as open to doubt as the miraculous events described in the Book of Genesis.

However, that is not what the organised atheism of our present moment would have us believe. In Gray’s formulation, an atheist is one who rejects the idea that a divine mind fashioned the world but who, at the same time, substitutes humanity for God. Put that way, atheism hardly amounts to much: “It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.”

Though a self-declared atheist himself, Gray rejects the idea that science has all the answers. The search for knowledge is not nourished by conviction; it is nourished by a willingness to be proved wrong and by a distrust of conviction.

Among the seven types of atheism under Gray’s fierce scrutiny are the pseudo-Nietzschean vapourings of Ayn Rand, and the utilitarian empiricism of John Stuart Mill. The mid-19th century positivism of Auguste Comte – Gray’s real pet hate – merely supplanted a Christian version of religion in terms of salvation and destiny. Followers of Comte saw themselves as “pontiffs” of secular humanism.

Cesare Lombroso, the Italian anthropologist and follower of Comte, promoted pseudo-Darwinist notions to improve society. He and his fellow atheists called themselves “positivists” not because they were certain (though they most certainly were certain), but in reference to what they saw as their objective and empirical methods. With the aid of callipers and craniometry charts they sought to define the existence of a “delinquent” type according to racial and physical characteristics. As Gray points out: “The maddest ideas are quite often the most influential”. Thus Lombroso was summoned to give “expert” medical advice at criminal trials, where jug ears, low foreheads and other perceived atavistic throwbacks were reckoned to betray a criminal tendency. “Lombroso is an ass,” scoffs a character in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

Conrad is clearly Gray’s ideal of the “good” atheist. Belief in human progress, for Conrad, was as “incredible as any religion”. In his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, set in Belgium’s ivory-rich Congo Free State, the berserk European trader Mr Kurtz exclaims: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Small wonder that meliorism – the idea that human life can be gradually improved – was anathema to Conrad. For the sake of elephant tusks and rubber for inflatable bicycle tires, the Congolese were herded into swamps, flogged and murdered.

As the Catholic son of minor Polish nobility, Conrad inevitably despised the Kurtz-like arrivistes who plundered Central Africa in the name of rational human “progress”. Conrad’s gloomy outlook reflected the dark times in which he lived. The racist ideology which saw the Congolese as little better than metamorphosed orangutans derived in part (says Gray) from the secular “Enlightenment project” of Comte as propagated by his positivist high priests.

In spite of his expressed hostility to Christianity, Conrad was given a Catholic funeral. It may not be long before we see Gray in church, too – dead or alive.