By Michel Onfray, hardcover 219 pages.
French writer Michael Onfray wants a return to the good old Enlightenment values of reason-based anti-religion. Onfray cannot imagine how reason can co-exist with a religious viewpoint. Religion is for the nutty and the stupid who must, to be religious, reject an intelligent life.
No higher, alternative, or spiritual thinking occurs in our brain. “Thus, no learning occurs while standing at the Wailing Wall or while the Muslim is performing his five daily prayers. He prays, he recites the responses, he exercises his memory but not his intelligence.” The long and rich Christian spiritual tradition, including that of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, holds no intellectual value for the author.
In fact, given the elegance of this Catholic tradition, his rejection of religion is, echoing many of his ilk, rather crude: “The community is marked rather by the triumph of parrotlike repetition and the recycling of fables, with the help of well-oiled machinery that repeats but never innovates, which solicits not the intelligence but the memory.” His discussion is really a series of sweeping generalizations, one after the other, without any documentary or even anecdotal or case study evidence besides cheat-notes-based references to the various movers and shakers of monotheism.
The evidence that he does offer is often skewed, half-true, or just plain incorrect (but always incendiary): “The partnership of the church and Nazism likewise aimed at extermination of a race reconfigured for the purposes of the cause into a people of God-killers.” Only ignorant dimwits believe such nonsense.
He skews the evidence by jumping from one sweeping generalization or supposedly God-inspired historical outrage to another in the matter of a couple of paragraphs. His five paragraphs examining the Catholic church's involvement in the Rwanda massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus, naturally highlights the murderous actions of priests and nuns, followed by the supposed Catholic cover-up and use of church property to protect murderers.
No doubt, many thousands of Catholics behaved badly during this massacre, but why not mention the thousands of people who gave their lives or otherwise tried to stop the violence precisely because of their faith? And why not highlight the racial tensions and the Belgian-French involvement as causes for the violence?
Stacking up a series of events, and condemning the Catholic church or individual believers as responsible, seems more like propaganda than a serious discussion on the merits of establishing an atheistic theology. If such a theology must be established only by condemning with half-truths the age-old monotheistic religions, then perhaps such an undertaking is unworthy of our attention. Onfray seems to prove that atheism cannot stand on its own, but must forever be a juvenile reaction against its parent religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Atheism's whole identity is a childish, reactionary, negative, and blaming identity.
Thus when the author does try to stand his atheism on its own two feet, he quickly lapses back into his old ways: The work of “restored mental health ... requires philosophy. Not faith, belief, fables, but reason and properly directed thought. We must fight against obscurantism, that fertile loam of all religions, with the weapons of the Western rationalist tradition.”
And again: “The God of philosophers often enters into conflict with the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed. First because the former proceeds from intelligence, reason, deduction, argument, and second because the latter proposes instead dogma, revelation, and obedience.”
Onfray's mediocrity parallels the mediocrity of atheism in general (sorry for my own sweeping generalization). Like many such thinkers, he sounds like a recycled Nietzschean, without, of course, the panache and unparalleled Sturm und Drang of the great nihilist. Onfray-as-Nietzsche sounds forced and childish:
“God was not content with that one prohibition on the forbidden fruit. Ever since, he has revealed himself to us only through taboos. The monotheist religions live exclusively by prescriptions and constraints.”
Who can argue with that?