Atheism à la mode
What is the outspoken French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray really saying? Caspar Melville meets him and canvasses some expert opinion.
If you have read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – and if not, why not? – then you will have encountered a crisp, authoritative and unmistakeably English account of the scientific case against assuming the existence of a god. If you have read Christopher Hitchens’ new God Is Not Great you will have been rewarded by a wonderfully erudite, distinctly transatlantic version of the political and logical case against organised religion. Now comes the third part of what we might (though probably shouldn’t) call the atheist trinity, the philosophical case against monotheism. This one comes, bien sûr, from France. It is Michel Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism, just published in the UK.
While Dawkins makes a strong case for why one doesn’t require a thorough grounding in theology to refute religious certainties (you don’t need to be an expert in fairyology to dispute the existence of fairies), and Hitchens draws on his acute observational skills and tireless globetrotting to report on the way “religion poisons everything” – from “Belfast to Beirut to Baghdad, and that’s without leaving the B’s”– Onfray takes another tack entirely. As befits his role as “France’s most popular philosopher” (is there another country in the world where these two words go together?), Onfray delves deep into the internal logic of the three monotheisms, performing what he calls “a pitiless historical reading of the three so-called holy books”. Nor is he alone in his battle: he enters the field backed by a gang of thinkers as bizarrely incongruous as the Dirty Dozen – Epicurus, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille and Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach and Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham and Freud.
His aim is threefold: to renew and reinvigorate atheism, to expose the inherent totalitarian, misogynistic, anti-intellectual and anti-human core of monotheistic thinking (he’s not shy about clear statements: “Monotheism loathes intelligence”, “Islam in its essence rejects equality”, “ The Jews invented holy war”) and to clear the ground for a new “Post-Monotheistic” way of life, what he calls a “philosophic hedonism”.
Consistent with the fact that he has turned his back on academic philosophy and instead opened a free University that aspires to bring philosophy to the masses, Onfray’s method is both literary and populist, spurning footnotes and long sentences in favour of punchy headlines and attention-grabbing statements. Twelve short chapters are crammed into a book of barely 200 pages, with snazzy titles such as “Bakeshop ontology” (on the ridiculousness of the idea of eating Jesus at communion), “Down with the foreskin!” (circumcision and other mutilations), “Hitler, Saint John’s disciple” (on the mutual admiration between fascism and religion) and “Muslim thirst for blood” (which speaks for itself). Throughout, the book is peppered with quotable nuggets and original (though perhaps also somewhat self-consciously “controversial”) argument: Paul of Tarsus was an impotent hysteric – “unable to lead a sex life worthy of the name, [he] declares null and void all forms of sexuality for the rest of the world”; “religion proceeds from the death-wish”; “the evangelists despise history”.
His denunciation of religion and its peddlers (“those who profit from human anguish”) is book-ended by a strong defence of atheism and the “western rationalist method” ( “we must fight obscurantism, that fertile loam of all religions,” “atheism is not therapy but restored mental health”), a convincing sense of the contemporary stakes of the battle (“monotheistic regions are waging a war with Jews and Christians on one side and Muslims, postmodern Saracens, on the other. Must we choose a side?”), and a call to arms on behalf of philosophic hedonism. Such hedonism, he pointed out to me when we talked via a translator, does not mean fast cars and faster women, but an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else. “This”, he declared, with characteristic pithiness, “is all of morality.”
Before we leap to judgement on Onfray’s work we need to remember that In Defence of Atheism is the first of his books to be translated into English and only a very small part of his oeuvre. Athough just 48 (and a very young-looking 48 at that) he has published more than 30 books. His notion of philosophic hedonism, for example, and its implications for ethics, aesthetics and politics, is developed at much greater length in this other writing. He has even drawn attention to the idiosyncratic nature of In Defence of Atheism. It is, he insists, uncharacteristically destructive, written in a fit of anger. He received a death threat for criticising Islam so felt that he might as well earn his fatwa properly!
So what value do others place upon this strange almost unclassifiable work? I sought the opinions of a group of philosophers and a long-time student of Onfray.
Richard Norman, Professor of Philosophy, University of Kent
Onfray certainly writes well; he has a vigorous turn of phrase and a literary flourish. Still, it’s not totally philosophically convincing. Like so much writing about religion there is over-generalisation.
I’m uncertain about the idea that we are still trapped in explicitly Christian values. Onfray is too dismissive of shared values. His ideas are undeveloped and rather too negative and he hasn’t done justice to the oppositional trends within monotheism.
After criticising religions’ selective reading he embarks on his own selective reading. His references look very impressive, but I checked some references to the Koran and he hasn’t got it totally right.
Politically, it seems to me not useful to damn the whole of Islam. But this book was tantalising and I’d be interested to read more.
Julian Baggini, Editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine
I only know him from an interview I did with him and from one book translated into English, so my view is partial. What struck me was that he is if anything more strident than Dawkins et al, and usually I find that tiresome. But because he directs his criticisms very precisely at particular aspects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, I think he hits the target more often. Instead of a general diatribe against this generalisation called “religion” he asks tough questions about particular religions.
However, he still neglects the moderate “dogma-lite” versions of religion that most people actually follow, claiming that these are no more than pick-and-mix dilutions of the true faith. That is, I think, a weakness he shares with many atheists. In a way, we have a more fundamentalist view of religion than most believers, because we insist to truly be a believer, you have to swallow a whole lot of doctrine, and that anyone who doesn’t is just following a “wishy-washy”, not entirely bona fide religion.
However he is prepared to make analytic and strong criticisms of Islam. These tough questions have to be asked, and most are too afraid to ask them.
Jonathan Rée, Professor of Philosophy, Roehampton University
It’s good that at least one of the recent spate of books of militant atheism is written with some awareness of the history of philosophy. But I must say I find his take unsatisfactory.
It’s so Manichean – as if atheists and believers had nothing in common and all monotheists were completely stupid and evil, and atheists the opposite.
It’s also indiscriminate: the three monotheisms really are different. One of the interesting peculiarities of Christianity, for example, is a certain openness to other cultures, achieved most notably by their willingness to translate their holy books from the original holy language into Latin, and then to elaborate their theoretical outlook through commentaries on Aristotle.
Neither am I impressed by the idea that we should go back to classical atomism, with its supposed links to materialism, determinism and hedonism.
It also seems odd that Onfray has nothing to say about Darwin. Darwin is not an atomist, but his account of how life could evolve more and more complex and well-adapted forms really did remove one the very good reasons that our ancestors had for postulating some kind of intelligent designer.
Onfray is the kind of philosopher who is impressed by how much human beings can know with certainty, and he assumes that believers claim certainty too. I’m much more interested in the amount we have to take on trust, and in that respect I think everyone has a lot to learn from a certain kind of believer: not the dreadful dogmatist, but the shy doubter (eg Kierkegaard).
Doug Ireland, radical journalist and blogger
Michel Onfray is the public intellectual par excellence. Few can match his wide-ranging erudition and perspicacious inquiring spirit.
It’s just silly for English-speaking philosophers to criticise him for not having elaborated on his philosophical project simply because they are incapable of reading him or simply haven’t bothered. Among his 31 books, Onfray has published no less than seven in which he specifically unfolds in great and inventive detail his theory and philosophy of hedonism.
His most recent in this area, La puissance d’exister: Manifeste hédoniste (Grasset, 2006; soon to be translated into English by University of Melbourne Press), is a brilliant summing up of his unique philosophical approach and the constructs which flow from it.
I suspect that a great deal of the disdain directed towards him comes partly from the fact that he writes so very well – he is an acknowledged stylist – and partly because he shatters so many academic totems and shibboleths.
The great body of Michel’s work is inspiringly positive, and his books a series of signposts toward a more hopeful and rational future. Moreover, he has put his philosophy into concrete and positive practice with the creation of the Universite Populaire. The UP’s successes, both the original UP at Caen and its six offspring throughout France, are proof of the unambiguous affirmativeness at the heart of his philosophical project. ■