Three Types of Atheism

Although atheism is dead (at least to me!) there are still plenty of atheists out there, and there probably always will be. One of my favourite atheists is the philosopher John Gray, who has written a smart little book called Seven Types of Atheism. There are undoubtedly more than seven. As with any complex phenomenon, you can always find ways to slice the pie as thinly as you like. In this post I will cut it into three big slices: muggle atheism, muppet atheism and mystical atheism.

My mate Paul is a muggle atheist. He doesn’t believe in God because God isn’t on his radar. He isn’t particularly interested in religion or spiritual matters. He’s more into music and football. You could say he’s “apatheist” (an apathetic atheist). Richard Dawkins is a muppet atheist. He doesn’t believe in God because he thinks God is a pernicious delusion. God is very much on his radar, but only as a piece of malicious malware, a “bad meme”. He is not apathetic about the question of God, but is actively opposed to it. He is really an “anti-theist”.

If you find the terms “muggle” and “muppet” confusing and/or insulting, you are probably unfamiliar with how I use these (admittedly childish) terms. They stand for two different states of consciousness represented in the Bhavachakra, the Tibetan Wheel of Life, in the top left and top right segments of the diagram respectively. Muggles live in the “human realm”, getting on with their everyday lives, working, playing and making cups of tea. Muppets live in the “titan realm”, which is the realm of fighting spirits, whose life purpose is to fight against the “gods” in the Devaloka (the “deva realm”). They are always anti-something and have a fervent (even if unacknowledged) desire to destroy that thing. This fanatical drive usually leads to “ideological possession”, which is what makes them act like muppets.

So the second type of atheist, “miltant atheists” if you will, represented by celebrity atheists such as Dawkins, Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, are motivated by a “rage against God”, a hatred of God and religion (“miso-theism”), although they can temper this hatred with a patronising tolerance of the ignorant masses who clearly can’t live without these comforting God-blanket illusions. Not everyone is blessed with “Brightness” (intellectual arrogance is also a feature of muppetry).

The third type of atheists are “mystical atheists”, represented for example by John Gray and the philosopher of mind Susan Blackmore. Gray has just written a book about cats and the meaning of life. He seems to be drawn to the Zen nature of cats, which we might all benefit from emulating. Blackmore (best known for her book The Meme Machine), is in fact a Zen practitioner and meditates regularly. She does not consider herself a Buddhist, since she refuses to follow any religious dogma, but rather follows a “secular spirituality”. Sam Harris is another example of a convinced and outspoken atheist who nevertheless values spiritual practices such as meditation (and psychedelics as it happens).

This type of atheism has a natural affinity to Zen. It is radically skeptical of all our mental fabrications and confections. It regards the usual workings of the human mind as ultimately illusory, and intuits that if we could banish this mental fog of beliefs, assumptions and projections, we would wake up to the immediacy of the real world. This is why Harris wrote a book called Waking Up and has a podcast of the same name. Mystical atheists take the materialist claim that only the material world is real very seriously. If that is true, then the only authentic way to exist in the real world is to somehow see through everything that is not material, in other words, to see through everything mental. Blackmore goes one step further in believing that not only thoughts and emotions, but consciousness itself, is an illusion. She is an eliminativist materialist, like Daniel Dennett.

On the face of it, this is very Zen. It makes logical sense. It has a certain pristine purity and simplicity about it. I call it mystical atheism because it shares with religious mysticism the apophatic “negative way” of dismissing all objects of awareness as mere illusion. In Vedanta this practice is summarised neatly as neti, neti: “not this, not that”. I like this description from H.H. Shantanand Saraswati:

“If you begin to be what you are, you will realise everything, but to begin to be what you are, you must come out of what you are not. You are not those thoughts which are turning, turning in your mind; you are not those changing feelings; you are not the different decisions you make and the different wills you have; you are not that separate ego. Well then, what are you? You will find when you have come out of what you are not, that the ripple on the water is whispering to you ‘I am That’, the birds in the trees are singing to you ‘I am That’, the moon and the stars are shining beacons to you ‘I am That’. You are in everything in the world and everything in the world is reflected in you, and at the same time you are That – everything.”

This is the essence of mysticism: ‘I am That’. It is a sense of unity, even of identity, with the whole world in a seamless vision of nonduality. There is no more self and other, no more ego pitted against world, no more limiting thoughts and feelings breaking the pristine experience of pure beingness. This is what Zennists call Satori or enlightenment. Mystical atheists aspire to this condition of spiritual unity and simplicity. The difference is that they conceptualise this as a liberation from the illusion of the mind and an entry into the real world of exclusively material processes. Enlightenment for them is conceived as “waking up” experientially not just theoretically, to the truth that only the material world is ultimately real.

This may seem like a very ascetic, puritan attitude, because it is. You can’t really get more ascetic, except that this particular brand of asceticism is in a sense a mirror image of the traditional religious asceticism which denies the material world in favour of the spiritual. In atheistic asceticism, you deny the spiritual world in favour of the material. Both types of asceticism can lead to an experience of nonduality. Both are effective. However, they both also have obvious drawbacks. Although Susan Blackmore describes herself as a humanist, this type of “illusionist” asceticism is in fact anti-humanist, because it denies those very things (inner subjective experiences, thoughts and feelings) that make us human.

Mystical atheism has the virtue of offering a powerfully simple vision of reality that can facilitate mystical experiences of inner quiet and emptiness (mu-shin or no-mind), leading potentially to unitive experiences of Satori. The problem is, what do you do when your thoughts, feelings, decisions, wills and ego inevitably come back again? They will have to be banished over and over again. Like a persistent toddler tugging at your sleeve in the supermarket, they will be an incessant nuisance, a thorn in the side of your peaceful samadhi. All mentation, all thoughts and feelings, are nothing but annoying crowds of makyo, nothing but illusions. The hope is that one day, they will give up and you will be free of them forever in perfect enlightenment, but for some reason, they just keep on coming.

There is therefore an element of self-hatred built into mystical atheism, as there is in all forms of asceticism. There is also an ideological barrier stiffly erected against the possibility of further spiritual development. How so? Compare my rough-and-ready model of psycho-spiritual development indirectly derived from the Tibetan Wheel of Life. It consists of six archetypes: Mystic, Shaman, Warrior, Monk, Philosopher, King. And these archetypes are associated with six transcendent values: peace, love, goodness, beauty, truth, consciousness. The idea is that when you have come out of what you are not (through some version of neti, neti), you inhabit a place of peacefulness and embody the Mystic archetype. But this is just the beginning, not the end, of the process.

Bodily sensations (Shaman), will (Warrior), feelings (Monk), thoughts (Philosopher) and consciousness (King) inevitably arise out of the peaceful emptiness of the Mystical state, but they are considered to be real, not illusory. They are welcomed back, purified and refined in the crucible of meditation, and not simply dismissed as the latest manifestations of yet more insufferable makyo. The point of spiritual practice in this view is not about destroying our inner lives, or rejecting them as illusory. Rather, it is about transforming them.

The fundamental difference then between my brand of (traditional) mysticism and atheistic mysticism is that, while atheists like Blackmore are necessarily illusionists about mental experiences (in her case even about consciousness itself), I am a realist. In other words, I believe that our mental experiences are real and are directed towards real things. I am a moral realist, for example. I don’t think that morality is just a subjective elaboration of personal dispositions and preferences or a social construct or the product of a long process of evolution ultimately in the service of survival. I believe that there is such a thing as real goodness and its contrary, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I am similarly a realist about love, beauty, truth and consciousness. But since we can only ever move closer to the horizon of these transcendent ideals, and never seem to possess them completely, there is always wiggle-room, room for improvement, room for growth.

Our physical sensations, wills, feelings, thoughts and consciousness are not just illusory figments of our imagination. They are as real as the ripple of the water or the singing of the birds. But they can become polluted and corrupted, twisted and disfigured in all sorts of ways. So suspending their spontaneous activity temporarily in meditation (either sober or with the aid of psychedelics) is essential if we want to “cleanse the doors of perception” and purify our human-all-too-human faculties. How? By reconnecting them to their source in the bottomless mystery of the divine fountainhead of being, consciousness and bliss some people call God.