Friday, February 8, 2008

Book Selection of the Month: "Atheist Manifesto"

onfray.jpg Book Selection of the Month (First of Four), February 2008: Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto

Religious people have no evidence whatsoever to point to in support of their beliefs (the distinctly supernatural ones, that is, as opposed to some affiliated historical claims that are no different from the ones secular people would make). Often, then, their arguments for maintaining their beliefs come to resemble arguments for the position that “zero is still something.”

That is, they are reduced to barely-sustainable quasi-linguistic chicanery (such as the so-called ontological argument for God) roughly as powerful as the arguments of a small, scrawny, hunchbacked, elderly man with a cane who keeps insisting “I could take Mike Tyson right now in a fair fight” and who then insists that until you actually summon Mike Tyson to fight him, you’ve “done nothing” to show that he’s talking nonsense — even though you’ve pointed out that he has no basis for his claim, lacks muscles, displays no fighting skill, is poorly physically coordinated, etc. — and has a well-known habit of shooting his mouth off without being able to back it up with facts.

So, in religion and in no other area of life, you hear people continually falling back on comments like “Well, you can’t prove it isn’t the case” — or hypocritically claiming religious belief is very important right up until the moment they are challenged about it, at which point: it’s just a private matter and so “What do you care what I believe?” Some of us dislike lies and error on principle, though, and think there’s ample evidence that a general pattern of embracing them is likely unhealthy. So liars and fools deserve to be exposed.

At some point, in other words, the decent, rational person is allowed to get a little frustrated, even a little angry, with the stubborn old man who insists he can take Mike Tyson.


Michel Onfray is undeniably one of those angry, frustrated people. In fact, his book Atheist Manifesto — even better known in Continental Europe than the works of Dawkins and Hitchens are here, apparently — sounds exactly, almost parodically, like what you would expect from a fusion of Nietzsche and “snippy French guy.” Rather than taking the common American approach of treating criticisms of religion as cautious complaints brought to a faltering but beloved grandparent, Onfray is fairly vicious — almost always going for the negative interpretation not only of religion’s factual claims but its (more complex, to my mind) social effects whenever the option arises. If there is a case to be made that religion causes wars rather than ameliorating them, increases hatred rather than increasing love, or leads to the oppression of women rather than sweeping respect for individual dignity, rest assured Onfray will attempt to make that case, and often in a rather off-hand, dismissive, hyperbolic fashion.

Still, even that aggressive attitude is born of his awareness of what he’s up against in the form of cultural and psychological resistance (his greatest strength is his willingness to examine the rather obvious psychological reasons, rarely spoken of, that people might be inclined to believe in religion without it being true). Religious believers routinely insist on a level of gentleness and civility from atheists that they only think they hold themselves to, leading to the atheist knowing in advance that no matter how politely (by any normal standards) his criticisms are stated, he will almost inevitably be asked questions like “Is your life so devoid of meaning that you have to attack everything that’s beautiful?” and “What went wrong in your childhood to make you this way?” and “So you don’t think love exists?” and “Why are you so angry at God?”

This last question was put to Richard Dawkins by a particularly stupid and smug — but no doubt gainfully employed and well-liked (since society does so little to shun these people) — Christian at a speech I saw Dawkins give at the New York Academy of Sciences, and that question was only a slight improvement over “Who are you?” the Vorlon-like question that the man had initially kept repeating, a beatific smile on his face all the while, to the confusion of audience and Dawkins alike. The annoyed audience was quite ready to abandon the question — but Dawkins, with genuine compassion, was eager to get the poor idiot to rephrase his question in a clearer way, so that his point could be understood. Finally, he rephrased it as the question about anger, and it could be answered (correctly) by Dawkins with “One doesn’t get angry at a fictional character.”


Religious people typically have a very, very difficult time understanding that you really don’t believe there’s a God, and thus they have to hunt for ulterior motives in your atheist claims and conduct — and this, like countless other things religious people do, they do not consider rude.

Onfray’s anger is not directed at God — since there is none — but at the institution of religion that he sees as maiming the brains of most of his fellow human beings. As a philosophy professor, he wants to see them think as clearly and as well as possible and not be mired in illusions. He is trying, in short, to help, which a person with nothing but negative emotions (and angry gestures) would not bother to do.

And why should he not see religion as a problem? We can wrestle endlessly with the precise number of oppressive acts vs. charity hospitals caused by religion over the ages (and next week, I’ll review what I admit is a better book — Vox Day’s The Irrational Atheist — that takes a stab at doing just such calculations and finds they don’t look good for Onfray’s or atheism’s case [and tonight, incidentally, I promise my usual Friday Retro-Journal entry]). But Onfray would see the attempt to make such calculations as akin to toting up how many good deeds vs. bad deeds have been performed, say, by people using old-fashioned typesetting equipment when better systems are available.

Yes, much of human action, good and bad, has so far been motivated by or rationalized in terms of religion — Onfray would be the first to say that religious thinking “formats” our brains like computers. He is not interested in tweaking that program slightly or seeing whether it produces entertaining glitches vs. annoying glitches. He wants this formatting out of our heads so we can more readily adapt our thinking to the real universe — and history and personal experience suggest that accurate perceptions of external reality tend to be helpful.


Onfray sees the discarding of faith as a first step toward fully embracing and understanding the (potentially wonderful) world around us — but he recognizes how painful the first faltering steps toward negotiating the real world can be. Atheism is not a plunge into a dark void, but it is the removal of a blindfold in a world of harsh sunlight. And in that sunlit world, as he notes, there would be no need for people whose brains are possessed by religious formatting to do things like imprison a woman for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed, to take one recent example — and one not irrelevant to Onfray’s experience as a Frenchman, given Islam’s (sometimes violent) inroads into that unfortunate nation.

A commenter on a previous thread on this blog has in the past implied that religious belief is about as harmless as the fancies (recognized as such) of sci-fi fans, and I have a souvenir teddy bear produced by the Star Trek bar in Las Vegas, named J.T. after a certain starship captain — but I’m pleased to say that I don’t see Trekkies trying to imprison me for heresy or claiming that “the real” Kirk disapproves of the bear.

Atheists can do and have done terrible things (as Vox Day reminds us, you’ll learn next week), but there is in the long run the likelihood that atheist actions can be brought before the court of common sense, empirical observation, and real-world costs and benefits. Religion can — and yet may — set the entire world on fire while insisting that the resultant horrors are all outweighed by benefits in a magical afterlife we cannot see, or in the mind of an invisible being who has no discernible impact on the real world (other than as a belief in the minds of its followers). One can say with confidence that we have seen Communism fail, but of religion, the believer can always say, “Trust me, all these deaths — and all these petty oppressive rules — will have been worth it once we get to that magical land beyond death.”

That ineradicable imbalance in costs and benefits — treating all of the invisible realm’s ostensible claims as though they have infinite weight in the scales of justice — is why religion will always make sensible utilitarians (not just more-extreme avowed hedonists like Onfray) a bit nervous.

But even if religion’s effects were entirely benign, that would not mean there is a God. Onfray does not always treat the issues separately (since both are rooted in psychology from his perspective), but I am willing to do so and will endeavor whenever possible to do so as this blog’s “Month Without God” continues.


c said...

There’s something about the French and wholeheartedly embracing and even qausi-successfully promoting extreme ideological positions — Ayn Rand characters, indeed!

Onfrey reminds me of a friend I have who while raised almost entirely in Massachusettes, has a French father/spent a good deal of time there. He was once talking to a lesbian social worker at a house party…they were discussing the relative evil done by the Catholic Church. I left the discussion for about 15 minutes. When I returned, he had persuaded said social worker that the Vatican was indeed responsible for more damage than the US Military. Persuade may be too strong — beaten her down through sheer will and tenacity is probably more accurate.

Todd Seavey said...

Unless I’m missing something here, persuading a lesbian social worker that the Vatican is a menace doesn’t sound very difficult.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

Obviously, there is no God. But since belief in God or some kind of interventionist, omniscient supernatural power is nearly universal it’s awfully hard to distinguish certain human works as inspired by those beliefs. It would be like trying to tally up the good and bad works of people who breathe. There is no significant distinction between good and bad things humans have done in the name of God and good and bad things humans have done, period.

Michael Myers said...

>>”I don’t see Trekkies trying to imprison me for heresy or claiming that “the real” Kirk disapproves of the bear.

Of course not, why should he disapprove? Its not like you have some image of the coward false “Captain”. Those are the people who need some imprisonment time to rethink.

The rest of us know not to bother with stun setting or getting to know the redshirts.

Though I do envy the Disney religion. I mean they have cathedrals and parks, while Trekkies have to settle for revival/conventions. And they are some much more influential. I mean really, being able to change copyright law?

So no one can draw an image of Mickey? Before you know it people will be trying to make it illegal to draw Mohammed.

c said...

The convo did begin with the Catholic Church being the world’s largest charity and being praised by the and all the good they did and the related enchantment of the poorly funded social worker. So, it was amusing to see it turned on its head to being evil. Perhaps not shockingly difficult, but it was for her a shift from one extreme ideology to almost its reverse, through tenacious French monomaniacal argumentation, which was the only actual point. Onfrey surely has a harder task.