A rallying cry to atheists

2008-11-10 00:00

Move over, Richard Dawkins. Here comes a more urbane and widely read critic of religion from across the Channel.

Is religion dead? No, says Michel Onfray. To paraphrase Nietzsche, whom Onfray admires, God may be dead but his ghost lingers on. We must now slay the ghost.

The book has been beautifully translated from the original French, making it, despite what many will think are its outrageous claims, a delight to read for the elegance of its prose. Yet it remains French for all that. Onfray is well read, but many of the French philosophers and writers he refers to were unknown to me, so I sometimes felt like an outsider to his oration.

It is really an oration. Does he make his point in debunking the three major monotheisms? That is a matter of opinion. In an oration you make memorable sound bites rather than detailed analyses.

In a nutshell, he thinks that all theistic religion is nonsense, although he wages war against Judaism, Christianity and Islam specifically. These are all based on myths. Many of the creators of the myths were probably sincere in mistaking myth and magic for reality. But their myths were used by unscrupulous successors to serve their own purposes of power and control.

He agrees that we could select out of the monotheisms some admirable principles such as peace, love and tolerance, then it might be claimed that although religious belief is based on falsehood, at least it serves a useful purpose. But, in fact, the representatives of the three faiths have done the opposite; “they have historically supported war leaders, sabre rattlers, soldiers, warriors, rapists, pillagers, torturers, patrons of genocide, dictators — the very dregs of the Earth”. Religion has brought harm and not healing. From this you get a feel for the oratory.

Is Onfray fair in his criticisms? Of course he is, to a point. It is very easy to detect the shortcomings of the followers of religion, although often Onfray takes as historical fact allegations that are far from having been established. For example, that Pope Pius XII admired and supported Adolf Hitler. He is only looking for the failures. A more sympathetic observer would detect the simple goodness and the occasional breathtaking nobility that believers sometimes also demonstrate.

The fact that religious followers have failed to live up to the best of their respective faiths does not in itself disprove the validity of their beliefs. Onfray’s charge is that there is no such validity. Does he say anything new? Not really. For example, serious scholars of religion have always known that the canon of the Jewish Bible was only finalised after the time of Jesus Christ. Perhaps (rather like Dawkins) some of Onfray’s attacks may surprise those less exposed to religious debate, but for the most part they follow what has been debated (and many would say, satisfactorily answered) for years.

His real point is to his fellow atheists (he has no time for agnostics who sit on the fence. He is a firm atheist who knows religious claims are falsifiable and false) which is that many of them are still living with the ghost of Christianity. Instead of rejecting all that monotheism stands for, they seem contaminated by the enemy’s ideology. They have been moulded by 2 000 years of Christianity. They may no longer believe in a literal God, but they act as if they do. Onfray says our legal systems, our medical and sexual ethics, our attitudes to abortion, euthanasia and divorce all reflect the ghost of the Christian God in whose shadow we still walk. Taught to turn the other cheek, post-Christian secular liberals espouse everybody’s right to follow their own religion or no religion, as if the claims of all are equal. Secular humanism is still too Christian. To the contrary, the claims of myth and magic are not the equal of claims based on reason and evidence. We must slay the ghost of Christianity past.

What would Onfray put in its place? What guiding system for morality? Ah, but the book ends there! It is easier to attack than to reconstruct.

• In defence of Atheism: the case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Michel Onfray is published by Serpent’s Tail.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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