Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Atheist Manifesto

I used to think that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett all had a bit of a grudge against religion.  Then I read Michel Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto and changed my mind.  Dawkins and Harris are mere pussycats compared to Onfray.

Michel Onfray is a French philosopher, and I have to admit he's a random pick on my journeys in atheism.  His book has been staring at me from my library shelf since it reopened in May, so finally I brought it home and read it.  I'm not sure how our better known Anglo-American atheists view him.  He shares with them a negative, jaundiced view of religion, especially the major monotheistic religions which are the focus of this book.  On the other hand, whereas the core of their critique is scientific, grounded in the works of Charles Darwin, his is almost wholly philosophical, grounded particularly in the works of Neitzsche and Freud.

Onfray claims to have made a close study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  If so, he has studied them in a peculiar way because what he presents is even more of a caricature than Dawkins' or Harris's.  He has failed to see any good elements of religion, while he has magnified the bad, invented extra bad things where the real ones were not bad enough, and presented a huge, very ugly paper tiger to attack with the sword of his caustic wit.

Like Dennett, he makes no attempt to refute or disprove religion.  He assumes that anyone with an ounce of intelligence can see its falsehood.  Why, then, are there so many believers?

Human credulity is beyond imagining.  Man's refusal to see the obvious, his longing for a better deal even if it is based on pure fiction, his determination to remain blind have no limits.  Far better to swallow fables, fictions, myths or fairy tales than to see reality in all its naked cruelty, forcing him to accept the obvious tragedy of existence.  Homo Sapiens wards off death by abolishing it.

Having thus disposed of religion in a few words, he can get on with what really interests him - his critique of the behaviour of organised religion.  While he takes aim at all three major monotheisms, his main target is Roman Catholic Christianity.  Over two hundred pages he circles around two main critiques, restating them again and again in slightly different clothing.

Firstly, he sees religion as the enemy of the intellect.  Since religion is obviously nonsense, its leaders can only maintain it by suppressing intellectual inquiry.  He gleefully cites example after example of the church's persecution of scientists, its anathemising of new scientific insights, its habit of proscribing or, better still, burning books which are contrary to its teachings, its destruction of great works of art in the name of religious dogma.

Secondly, he sees religion as the enemy of democracy and freedom.  He sees monotheisms as intrinsically theocratic, as always siding with tyrants and dictators.  He cites examples across the sweep of history, from the Torah's injunction to destroy the surrounding nations, through the smooth transition of the Roman Empire from persecutor of Christians to persecutor of pagans and heretics, to the Vatican's condoning of Nazi atrocities and the totalitarianism of extreme Islam. 

His bile is entertaining for a while, his pithy, bitter gallic prose and agressive certainty sweeping the reader along, seducing us into his world view.  However, by the end of this book, short though it is, it becomes wearying.  After hearing the critique of religion I wanted to know what he would offer in its place.

He is pretty clear what he doesn't offer.  The enlightenment philosopers, and particularly Kant, earn his scorn for their deism, their failure to jettison the idea of God and instead to simply remove him to a greater distance.  He is also highly critical of the tendency of atheists to mimic religion by setting up their own quasi-religious structures to promote free thought.  Dawkins take note.  And despite living in the world's most secular country he he has little time for modern secularism, which he sees as mere nihilism rather than what he regards as "true" atheism.

So what is this true atheism?  He makes a promising beginning, outlining his project for developing what he calls "atheology", mobilising disciplines as diverse as phychology, metaphysics, archaeology, history, aesthetics and of course philosophy to the task of building a truly atheist worldview.  However, he gets no further than this.  At the end of his seemingly interminable harangue he is still where he started.

Today's and tomorrow's battles require new weapons, better forged, more efficient, weapons suited to present needs.  We need yet another effort to de-Christianise the ethic, politics, and the rest.  But also to de-Christianise secularism....

I wished he would get on with the forging, but was left with the suspicion that he lacks both the fire and the iron for the task. 

So why would a Christian read such a book?  Well, I suppose for two reasons.  The first is that we are asked - in fact commanded - to love our enemies.  How can we love them if we refuse to listen to them, if we refuse to take them seriously, if we block our ears to their voices?

The second reason follows from the first.  Much of what he says is true, despite not being the whole truth or even nothing but the truth.  Christianity and Christendom, as well as Islam and Judaism, have crimes to answer for.  We have amends to make.  We have truths to face.  We need understand why people hate us.  It is too easy for us to try to sweep these things under the carpet, but God calls on us to repent, and Onfray, for all his bitterness, can help us to do so.

No comments: