'Atheist Manifesto' Combines Density with Levity

by John L. Murphy

27 April 2011


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—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.

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