Saturday, May 7, 2011

Michel Onfray's "Atheist Manifesto": Book Review

French philosopher Michel Onfray argues that God won’t go away soon given our wish-fulfillment fantasies. But monotheism, based on denial of the material and flight to the spiritual should erode: lest we increase ignorance and blood sacrifice. Onfray contrasts how monotheisms born from desert sands conjure lush paradises. Celestial visions rouse crusaders, raise or raze walls, seduce suicide bombers. “By aiming for paradise, we lose sight of earth. Hope of a beyond and aspiration to an afterlife engender a sense of futility in the present. If the prospect of getting taken up to paradise generates joy, it is the mindless joy of a baby picked up from his crib”.

This brisk study encompasses vast learning, marshaled with much wit, considerable venom, and steady argument, doled out in differing amounts. Onfray rapidly reviews the failure of prominent Enlightenment thinkers to sufficiently replace theology with “atheology”, a system based not on a slavish replacement of secular pieties and rational practices imitating Judeo-Christian habits of thought and action, but an anti-philosophy that rejects these embedded patterns imprinted deeply upon personal and political life.

While he spends far more energy dismantling this system’s ramshackle foundations in myth, fear, and incoherence than he does constructing a post-secular replacement based on irreverence, atheism, and the material world, Onfray succeeds in his relentless deconstruction of the facades of “the theological scenery” built “on a world stage saturated with monotheism”. He proposes atheology as “a countercurrent to theology, a channel to carry us past discourse on God and flow upstream to the source”, to scrutinize “the mechanisms of theology up close”.

The atheological quest beckons us forward, not backwards as does religion or even the dominant tendencies of Enlightenment reformers, Onfray opines. He admits that God cannot be exterminated, “for we cannot assassinate or kill an illusion”, but this illusory deity may kill off the best in humanity. God’s irrational, ignorant, and petulant reactions to whomever opposes him mean that theocracy threatens anyone who opposes, by democratic principles, the reign of One who withers the one life we possess into a preparation for death, a triumph in this life only of the nihilistic powers of extinction.

Michel Foucault’s attempt at epistemological innovations which examine how we sort out our patterns of thought to organize our worldviews support Onfray’s project. He seeks to dissect “frozen postures” which lock people into how they respond, in a secularized society, to Judeo-Christian concepts of our body images and our legal logic. These brief sections reveal Onfray’s potentially revolutionary contribution (perhaps hinting at a future work?), in examining this theological construction of mentalities and concepts pervading daily life, by tinkering more with its atheological dismantling.

For now, in a brief book that combines density with levity, Onfray prefers to scatter hints of his ambitions. This may frustrate a reader wishing for a solid alternative to emerge, but Onfray’s atheological attacks accentuate the negative, not the positive. He shifts after an historical overview of atheists (however hesitantly proclaimed, given the usual suppression of dissent) to confront three challenges as the bulk of his study.

First, he analyzes (I recall its Greek derivation in “dissolve”) the three dominant monotheisms to show their similarities. They all set up violent “waves of hatred” against their foes. They reject reason, the here and now, the body, women, sexuality, and life itself.  They deny lasting joy gained from earthly delights. They reward soulful fulfillment as delayed into an eternal afterlife.

Next, Onfray dismantles Christianity to reveal its mythical framework, forged by Paul as a “hysteric” on the ghosted teachings from an “ectoplasm”, an ahistorical Jesus. Pauline Christianity adapted by “dictator” Constantine expands. This new Roman Empire mingled the temporal with the spiritual. Eradicating pagan opposition, its Christian heirs then crushed global foes. Against this bloody “totalitarian” imposition, Onfray attempts to counter “a guiding principle less obsessed with the death wish than with love of life”. Intelligence, pleasure, women, sex, life: morality could be based on affirming these, not as fearing these as divine punishments or traps hidden for sinners.

The second half of this study moves vigorously, if given the daunting purview of his task rather erratically, along a dizzying path. Onfray sifts the ruins left by varieties of the three monotheisms, as they erase persistent opponents, pagan or gentile, Marxist or atheist, tribal or polytheist, infidel or Christian, Jewish or Muslim. The God of the Hebrews, “a tribal war leader promoted to cosmic rank”, resembles Muhammed’s Allah, whereas the Christian version proves no less terrible. The blood sacrifice demanded by this figure, as Onfray steadily documents, tallies up body counts in the millions, and the verses in the Bible or in the Koran which promote peace over war, he finds, remain few. The trouble, as he notes with anti-semitic verses in the suras, is that the pervasive calls to exterminate or enslave one’s opponents embed themselves in sacred scripture as ineradicably as the lines advocating lamblike rather than leonine stances taken in the defense of Yahweh, Christ, or Allah against his irrepressible enemies, who continue to be many, for each religion finds no shortage of righteous, often now monotheistic, foes.

Escalating mayhem, Onfray skillfully explains regarding the Fifth Commandment (“thou shalt not kill”), deploys sophistry against a firm prohibition transmitted down to Moses. Competing admonitions in the Torah justify genocide against not only rival tribes, but I may add by eliminating Hebrews who defy the divinity’s countless rules. This warps Jewish logic, as it must support murder, while nearby an injunction by the divine commander prohibits it. Onfray muses how this irreconcilable irrationality resembles Leon Trotsky’s “morality of combat”: one ethic for one’s own side, another for one’s enemies. Instead of a universal ban on killing, the Fifth Commandment endures as a hypothetical imperative for one’s own “local, sectarian, and communal recommendation”: don’t kill a fellow Jew (unless the Torah, I add again, sanctions a miscreant’s execution).

Mayhem Must First Be Blessed by Holy Books

This preferential treatment, followed by Christians and Muslims in turn against their foes, monotheistic, denominational, or otherwise, worsens strife. Mayhem must be blessed by holy books. Scriptural incoherency—as forgeries, back-dating, tall tales—stretches the Hebrew canon over a thousand years of composition, the Christian testament over 20 centuries, and the Islamic message “theoretically dictated to an illiterate camel herdsman” by the Angel Gabriel". These provide abundant amounts of irrational claims via irrefutable impositions claimed from on high, but via fallible human authors.

Onfray weaves through this treacherous terrain with verve. Jeremy Leggatt’s translation conveys the vibrancy of Onfray’s arguments clearly: this reads as if transparent. While an annotated bibliography relies mainly on French-language sources, English-speaking audiences may find guidance for their own resolute forays into rational counterpoint.

This professor finds fresh insights. He compares how Jesus earned promotional publicity in the Gospels with rhetorical tropes employed for classical sages by biographer Diogenes Laërtius. He reminds us how Hitler’s Mein Kampf approved of particular Christian interpretations. He collates fascist with Islamic ideologies. He compiles Catholic complicity in defending Rwanda’s Tutsi murderers against Hutu justice.

Regarding certain cultural displays of religious admonitions, Onfray’s tone turns shrill. While his condemnation of male as well as female circumcision remains unsurprising, he sounds too strident. He argues repeatedly for a menstrual period as one allowing uninhibited license by libidinous if infertile females; this appears to contrast with the constrained condition commonly endured by many women, at least of my acquaintance.

He denigrates keeping kosher or halal as illogical, yet he never considers that some self-identified (however illogically for Onfray) liberal or secular Jews or Muslims nonetheless adapt such practices for self-discipline or solidarity, without adhering to these choices as divinely imposed. In passing, he relegates Buddhism to his heap of irrational claptrap, yet some of its practitioners articulate an agnostic or atheistic approach, which they argue may define a philosophy stripped of its theistic overlay, for contemporary seekers of an alternative to monotheism. Onfray overlooks attempts to culturally sustain a post-Christian culture which respects religious contributions as its legacy. He may regard this approach as pointless, compared to resolute denial. However, he confronts the impossibility of a feminist or secular Islam, as these revisions represent their own irrationality.

I’m not sure that those of us who are heirs of a Judeo-Christian ethos can jettison its attitudes so quickly. After all, Onfrey began his book acknowledging God’s durability as long as humans survived. “You cannot kill a breeze, a wind, a fragrance, you cannot kill a dream or an ambition”. Onfrey’s radical ambitions to eliminate any vestiges of religious practice as reinvented or reconstructed by unbelieving dissenters led me to wonder if men and women can survive without manufacturing God. Perhaps as a transition, they may perpetuate a humanistic integration of traditions from their believing ancestors (and billions of pious or sinning neighbors who persist in prayer) into a secularized society.

All this philosophy professor leaves us with as an alternative comprises two pages. Yet, he ends this book by exemplifying his perspective and his command of his own rhetoric at its best. He fears that the Enlightenment’s victories “against magical prepositions” have been lost; a post-Christian secularism must rally around a third choice. That is, neither Islamic nor Judeo-Christian adversaries, but philosophy. He champions “the laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuinely deadly sin”.

As a guided tour in the ruins of theology rather than as an intricate blueprint for an atheological community, Onfray deserves acclaim. He dismantles three thousand years of monotheistic incoherence and sorts the fragments into neat piles, brisk chapters under provocative titles that invite the bold thinker today to contemplate Onfray’s challenging exposé. He lacks enough evidence for a systematic philosophy that will replace monotheism. As with many books by fellow atheists, a short shelf admittedly, compared with the burgeoning “theological” and even more “inspirational” titles crowding any bookstore, Onfray succeeds in taking the system he opposes apart rather than rebuilding one not from theological fragments (warped by contact with religion’s pressure) but from scratch.

Perhaps, as Onfray admits at the start of his demolition, people are too imprinted with theology after three millennia to evolve yet into a post-Christian, secular humanism. But this title points in that direction.

[P.S. PopMatters Re:Print feature 4-28-11. See also my edited and slightly simplified review at and at Amazon US of Onfray the same day. Compare 4-4-11 at Amazon US  or 5-9-11 on my blog my take on NYT science writer Nicholas Wade's complementary if calmer work, "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures."]

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