John Gray wants to draw a line under ‘new atheism’, and plenty of readers will wish him well. Richard Dawkins and his fellow God-bashers claim that they have brought happiness to thousands by liberating them from theistic superstition. They may be right. But they have also caused enormous annoyance, and not only to people of faith: non-believers too have found their approach to religion absurdly indiscriminate. New atheists seem to think that religious folks all believe in an immortal soul and a supernatural god, that they adore him for having designed and built the world we live in, and respect him for making up rules of conduct enforced by a system of rewards and swingeing punishments. If you want to escape religion, they think, all you need to do is reject these beliefs.
But religion is not that simple. Some people who consider themselves religious do not subscribe to any of these claims, while many have serious doubts and most are content to participate in a community with shared values and rituals without setting any store by theological doctrine. The new atheists pride themselves on sticking to well-attested facts, but they come a cropper when confronted by what believers actually believe. They seem to have a hole in the head where they ought to have a sense of history.
Gray is among other things a historian, and in his engaging new book he demonstrates that there are lots of different ways of being an atheist. He divides them into seven, ranging from ‘new atheism’ and ‘secular humanism’, both of which he deplores, through scientism, political millenarianism and God-hatred,