February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
March 6, 2008
Michel Onfray’s is a beautifully written yet patronizing book in which he touts the now oft-heard message that religious believers are trapped in “the comforting fairy tales of children” while the atheistic “freethinkers” have cast off the shackles of tradition and superstition to rest assuredly in the bosom of rationality and science.
Onfray is also under the impression that religious people are victims of “indoctrination and deception”1 as if the faithful have very little choice or agency in the matter. The book should fit comfortably on your shelves beside Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.
Onfray is, like many other religious and spiritual individuals, particularly annoyed with the judgement and air of superiority that some religious individuals maintain. As he states, “The traffic in afterlives benefits the men who engage in it by providing them the means to bolster their faith, for they find in it the material essential for reinforcing their own need for mental help.”2 In other words, when a Muslim looks down at a Christian for not praying as much as him/her or when a Christian similarly believes him/herself to be much more peace-loving than a Muslim, it allows them, according to Onfray, to feel better about themselves.
For Onfray, religion is a pathology that can be overcome through philosophical reflection. “Well-conducted introspection dispels the dreams and delirium on which gods feed. Atheism is not therapy but restored mental health.”3 This statement is, of course, one of those unfalsifiable assertions often made by fundamentalist religious and atheist individuals alike: if the introspection is “well-conducted” then you will no longer be religious but if you do engage in introspection and remain religious, then your introspection was not “well-conducted.” Since the outcome of the well-conducted introspection is already determined, it is only by also reaching that conclusion that your introspection will be deemed well-conducted.
Onfray, borrowing from Georges Bataille, states that his purpose is to kick-start a deconstruction of theology, which he calls atheology.4 “I am proposing the concept of atheology as a countercurrent to theology, a channel to carry us past discourse on God and flow upstream to the source, where we may examine the mechanisms of theology up close.”5 Chapter 1, arrogantly titled “Odyssey of the Freethinkers” (a fair amount of atheists like to think of themselves as freethinkers—perhaps because it brings them the same feeling of comfort and superiority that they find in religious people), attempts a genealogy of atheism. Onfray rightly notes that historically, atheists were routinely deemed to be wicked and misguided and were viewed as a threat to the status quo. The word itself—a-theist—is exclusionary and hints at a lack of some kind. Onfray notes that there is no positive word that describes atheism, nothing “that conveys the solar, affirmative, positive, free, and healthy aspects of the individual standing beyond magical thinking and fables.”6 Chapter 1, like parts of The God Delusion, laments the many atheists who have fallen at the hands of the religious for daring to question—either philosophically in texts or politically through action—the accepted beliefs of the religious elite. The “new atheists” tend to begin their books in similar ways: first, they showcase the historical dangers that atheists faced. Secondly, they observe that the Enlightenment and secularism has made it safe for them to engage in some “freethinking.” Thirdly, they present a call to action against what they perceive to be a theocratic undercurrent in contemporary geopolitics.
In Chapter 2, Onfray initiates a search for the world’s first true atheist, someone who is a “radical atheist, outspoken, widely known! Even proud.”7 He finds what he is looking for in three figures: Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, and Ludwig Feuerbach. All three wrote scathing attacks on God and religion. Onfray laments that all three have, for the most part, been forgotten by contemporary philosophers. No large commentaries are written on them and no semester-long classes are conducted to explore their ideas. Enter Nietzsche. “At last the dominant thinking—idealist, spiritualist, Judeo-Christian, dualist— had good reason to be worried.”8 But Onfray states that stopping at Nietzsche is insufficient—we must go beyond him towards an atheology. Onfray notes that there are similarities between the past transformation from paganism to Christianity and the present shift from a Christian to a post-Christian age. We are, according to Onfray, currently undergoing this transformation and such change naturally instills anxiety in individuals. I suspect that Onfray would argue that the contemporary resurgence of religion is largely due to this anxiety.
In Chapter 3, Onfray begins by humbly noting that the Judeo-Christian influence on the Western world is, quite simply, enormous. Our laws, our customs, and our preoccupations all dance to the tune set by the Judeo-Christian heritage regardless of how loud this tune is at any given moment. It is a song ‘stuck in our heads.’ Our legal codes are squarely based on the beginning scenes from the book of Genesis: “the story of a man who is free, and therefore responsible for his acts, and therefore potentially guilty.”9 The notion that individuals have such free will is at the base of Western understandings of crime and punishment. According to Onfray, there have indeed been fruitful debates in the history of religions. But, he notes, the vast majority of the religious are more concerned with exercising memory than intellect— Jews stand at the Wailing Wall bobbing their heads in repetition, not in critical thought. The value of repetition and oral history for the survival of tradition and custom does not penetrate Onfray’s fortified ignorance.
Onfray states that the purpose of his book is to deconstruct three elements of our contemporary world: the three monotheisms, Christianity in particular, and theocracy. Thus, in Part Two of his book he argues that although the three monotheistic religions have different histories and geographies, they have more in common: violence, hatred of intelligence, hatred of life, hatred of the here and now, hatred of the corruptible body, and hatred of women.10 In the first chapter of Part Two, Onfray repeats the old theory that religion proceeds from humanity’s fear of death and then goes on to criticize the monotheistic religions’ obsession with purity, taboos, and the filthiness of the body. Onfray also notes that the “People of the Book” do not follow one book but actually read three books that dismiss or revise the other books in the Abrahamic trilogy. This obsession with the truth of one book also “means that there is no recourse to nonreligious (which is not to say atheistic) books, such as scientific works.”11
Onfray also argues against the monotheistic faiths in their “negation of matter.”12 With all the advances in science, Onfray states, “the church to this day persists in its idealist, spiritualist, antimaterialist position—that a reality irreducible to matter somehow exists in the human soul.”13 The church has always been against science, Onfray argues, and has never allowed for the adequate hearing of geological, evolutionary, medical, or astronomical findings. Onfray declares it with no subtlety: “monotheisms have no love for intelligence, books, knowledge, science.”14 In line with their hatred of the material world, the monotheistic religions have created an afterlife. This afterlife is a paradise filled with angels. “The angel functions as a prototype of anti-man. Paradise functions as anti-world, inciting humans to detest their condition and despise their reality in order to aspire to another essence and then to another existence.”15 This section of the book also contains a gruesome yet convincing treatment of circumcision and genital mutilation. As Onfray argues, “In Australia, the rite of passage for young male Aborigines is subincision, which entails cutting the underside of the penis along its full length from meatus to scrotum.”16 Before the reader can finish cringing, Onfray states, “But we have no right to shudder. . . we tend to judge as barbaric whatever is not our own custom. But how can we accept and justify our own surgical mutilations while castigating those of others?”17 Touché.
Part Three of the book deals with Christianity and in it, Onfray argues that the uniqueness of Jesus must be set aside. As he states, the time of Jesus “teemed with individuals of his kind, fire-breathing prophets, exalted madmen, hysterics convinced of the rightness of their grotesque truths, heralds of apocalypse.”18 This section of the book is difficult to pin down. The reader finds it hard to decipher what it is that Onfray wants us to do with the information he presents. It is certainly not new. For example, he presents the idea that the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD and that the evangelist probably never knew Jesus personally, though this information has already been known for a long time. Nothing new is learned from this section of the book that was not already introduced to students in the first week of any introductory course on the New Testament. Onfray’s fundamental objective seems to be to attack any argument professing the uniqueness of Jesus. As he writes, “Does the man destined to die on the cross teach his disciples, converting them with his oratorical talent and rhetoric? All the philosophers of antiquity, from Cynics to Epicureans, deploy a similar talent.”19 This section also contains a short history of how Christians came to power within the Roman Empire. Catholicism was made the official religion of the empire in 380 and was followed by a banning of pagan worship, the burning of books, and the closing of libraries.
Onfray also delights in pointing out that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are products of Man. As he writes, “If we go upstream and take the most ancient Old Testament dating (twelfth century BCE) and then voyage downstream to the final establishment of the New Testament corpus at the Council of Trent (sixteenth century), the construction sites of the monotheisms were constantly at work for twenty centuries of action-filled history. For books directly dictated by God to his people, the opportunities for human intervention are numberless.”20 Such a statement reveals something crucial about Onfray and several other “new atheist” writers: they are only really speaking to literalists. Most of what they present has been known to religious studies scholars for decades. Some of this scholarship is even known to scriptural literalists. It is strange that what is deemed to be ‘objective’ higher criticism for one group (religious studies scholars) is thought to be ammunition by the new atheists.
Onfray’s is a frustrating and scrambled-together book pointing out basic, yet horrifying, facts that most of us have come to accept as unfortunate parts of human history. However, he presents many of these basic facts with a wink, as if he is the first to point them out to the masses of ignorant religious folk. If the reader wants an original and revelatory critique of religion, s/he will not find it in Onfray’s book, which is nothing more than a recycling of age-old criticisms and truisms (for example, everybody already knows that individuals have killed in the name of God). If the reader wants an intelligent sampling of “new atheist” literature, one is, I am sorry to say, better off picking up Sam Harris’ The End of Faith or one of Richard Dawkins’ many books.
1. p 1
2. Ibid., 2-3.
3. Ibid., 4.
4. Ibid., 6.
5. Ibid., 7.
6. Ibid., 16.
7. Ibid., 27.
8. Ibid., 33.
9. Ibid., 49.
10. Ibid., 59.
11. Ibid., 81.
12. Ibid., 83.
13. Ibid., 84.
14. Ibid., 95.
15. Ibid., 96-97.
16. Ibid., 108.
17. Ibid., 108.
18. Ibid., 118.
19. Ibid., 123.
20. Ibid., 158-159.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include religion and science; social theory and religion, as well as religion and modernity.