John Gray’s Criticism of the New Atheists, Part 1

In Seven Types of Atheism, political philosopher John Gray, who’s an atheist himself, takes the so-called new atheists to task for their “notion that religions are erroneous hypotheses.” Treating religion this way, as if it were a kind of “primitive science,” is a mistake, he says. Rather, we must understand it as allegory and myth, as a way of imparting truths about the human condition. “Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.” As evidence, he mentions St. Augustine’s fourth-century view that the Bible need not be taken literally, as well as Philo of Alexandria’s first-century description of Genesis as “an interweaving of symbolic imagery with imagined events.”

Religious apologists often say such things as well. But if that’s what religions are — if they are never meant to be taken at face value — how does that invalidate the new atheists’ criticisms of fundamentalists, who do interpret religion literally? If Genesis is supposed to be just a story, then those who believe the first man was fashioned out of dirt six thousand years ago are wrong in two ways: They are wrong about what their religion is actually saying, and they are wrong about precisely the sort of thing the new atheists criticize them for, namely, their belief that this story is factual. So what is there to complain about in the new atheists’ argument? On this view, Dawkins’ and Harris’ criticisms aren’t wrong, but at worst incomplete.

And in fact, they aren’t even that. Religion is not only (or even mainly) about what sophisticated believers hold. Rather, there are different beliefs, from the most fundamentalist to the most “advanced,” all of which qualify as religious.

Gray and company think the new atheists have a simplistic view of religion, as no more than what fundamentalists say it is. Yet the new atheists do discuss non-fundamentalist views, even if rather briefly. Those like Gray, on the other hand, completely ignore the fundamentalist side. In their attempt to appear more sophisticated than Dawkins and Harris, they imply that religious belief is never about worldly facts. And that’s just not true.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.