Gray belongs to that group of contemporary thinkers, of whom George Steiner is the doyen, who disdain the secular but can’t quite drag themselves to the church or synagogue. They turn, instead, to a kind of transcendence without content, of which there is no finer example than what one might call Hollywood spirituality. Those celebrities who dabble in Kabbalah or Scientology do so as a refuge from a material world crammed with too many chauffeurs, masseurs, bank accounts and swimming pools. The spiritual for them is the opposite of the material, a mistake that Gray also makes in his less luxury-laden way. This is not the view of Judaeo-Christianity. When Jesus speaks of salvation in terms of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, he speaks as a devout Jew, for whom the spiritual is in the first place a matter of how one behaves towards others. Those who seek some otherworldly comfort in religion are apparently deaf to Jesus’s warning to his followers that if they were true to his word they would meet with the same fate as himself.
Another aspect of Judaism is its iconoclasm. You are forbidden to make images of God, because the only image of God is human flesh and blood. But since the Jewish God is the God of the future, you are equally prohibited from making graven images of what is still to come. Besides, if you can represent the future here and now, then it can’t be the future. Gray, with his aversion to utopian blueprints, would surely agree. What he might be slower to concede is that the only image of the future is the failure of the present. The task of the Old Testament prophet is to remind his people that unless they change their ways here and now, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich and providing for the widows and the orphans, there won’t be any future worth having. Marx, a secular Jew who urged his wife to read the Hebrew scriptures, was true to this ban on visions of the future. In fact, his work is notorious for how little it has to say about the nature of communism. For a writer who began his career in fierce contention with utopian thought, this is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that the viscerally anti-Marxist Gray doesn’t see fit to mention it.
Seven Types of Atheism is an impressively erudite work, ranging from the Gnostics to Joseph Conrad, St Augustine to Bertrand Russell. In the end, it settles for a brand of atheism that finds enough mystery in the material world itself without needing to supplement it with a higher one. Yet this, too, is just as much a throwback to the Victorian age as Dawkins’s evangelical campaign against religious evangelism. Authors such as George Eliot, reeling from the death of God, took solace in the unfathomable intricacies of the universe. Gray condemns secular humanism as the continuation of religion by other means, but his own faith in some vague, inexplicable enigma beyond the material is open to exactly the same charge.
Read it all.