Book Review: An Atheist Manifesto

Apologies that this didn’t go up on the weekend – I was a bit busy, and didn’t get a chance to post.

There were a few things to choose from to post on this week. On CD, Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, sung by Victoria de los Angeles for one, and, at the movies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Both of them were very enjoyable, which is probably enough of a review.

This book, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. I decided to tackle this book, as part of my recent exploration into the world of Christianity vs Atheism. I was unable to get hold of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion when I went to the library, but Michel Onfray’s book was there, so that seemed as good a place as any to start.

I guess one of the reasons I’m reading this book is that I suddenly realised in the last couple of months, that I didn’t have answers to a lot of my own questions about the truth (or otherwise) of Christianity, and certainly not enough to answer other people’s questions. I also found that some of what passes for apologetic (ie regarding the defense of the faith) literature in Christian circles is often directed more at telling Christians why they should believe rather than directly answering non-Christians.

So I figured the far scarier path (but the more intellectually honest path) is to actually see what the queries are that the atheists have themselves. Are they really worried about whether Jesus is a liar, lunatic or lord? What weight do they give to the fact that there are more copies of the New Testament floating around than books on the life of Caesar?

Well, they’re not that concerned, actually.

Onfray, a French philosopher, doesn’t have much time for arguments based around Bible verses, because he has no respect for the Bible (or any other book in a monotheistic religion for that matter).

I should say, from the start, that the most interesting thing about this book is the use of the word “manifesto”, in its title. I always understood a manifesto as being a public declaration of principles or a putting forth of an idea. However, in this book, there are only about three pages of ideas put forward. The rest of the book consists of tearing apart religious ideas. Are all atheists like this? Is it really a belief system that you can build a view of the world on or is it just simply a belief that any kind of theistic system is incorrect?

What I mean by this is, let’s assume that atheism is correct, and all monotheistic religions are done away with. But what are they being replaced with? In the book, Onfray calls for us to get rid of all hints of Judeo-Christian morality and head for a society built around utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But there’s a couple of problems with this: how does not believing in a God give you utilitarianism? Surely, you could just as easily get anarchy from that sort of belief system? Surely you could justify life revolving around a few elite individuals, as much as revolving around the majority?

And the majority of whom? All people on earth? If the majority of people on earth decided that they wanted to get rid of the other minorities and set out on a brutal warpath, does this still hold? For instance, if the majority of Germans wanted Nazism as their national system of belief, or the majority of the Middle East wants militant Islam as their dominant religion, isn’t this a case of the majority getting what they want anyway? Or, if we look at them against the backdrop of the global population, are they now a minority? But what if the world became a majority militant Islamic population? Would that then make Islam the new utilitarianism?

The reason I ask this is that Onfray spends a great deal of time pulling apart Christianity because of its approach to war, capital punishment and sexuality. But these examples that he pulls out and refers to as intolerance, bloodlust and repression of sexuality – on what grounds does atheism give us standards of right and wrong on this thing? I can understand that in today’s Western world, the idea of capital punishment, no sex outside of marriage, etc are all quite anathema. And certainly, on a utilitarian basis, the majority of people don’t want these things. But what if the majority swing back at some time in the future? What makes us right?

So, with that intro, these are the issues he covers:

  • First, Onfray begins with a call to rationalism and atheism to pull themselves together and really hit back at Christianity. What was most interesting about this section of the book is the way Onfray views the world. As a Christian, I often look around and wonder where God is, because the modern world seems to have successfully chucked him out of everything. But, to Onfray, he looks around and sees the Judeo-Christian God everywhere. Undergirding the justice system, our medical system, our public morals. All coming from Judeo-Christian ideas. (For instance, he gives the example of a pedophile. We will convict a pedophile of doing wrong and throw him in gaol because we believe that he had “free will” and could choose not to commit the acts he did. But, argues Onfray, this idea of “free will” comes from the myth of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Even “chose” to fall into sin. He kind of hints that maybe we should treat a pedophile as having a medical condition rather than being bad, but he doesn’t go into much detail. Again, I’d be curious to see on what basis you have any personal responsibility at all, if everything is a medical condition.) He calls on us to overthrow all of these and begin from scratch to work out what is right and wrong.
  • The next big gripe with Christianity is one that I think actually has a bit of merit. Onfray complains (and so does Nietzsche, who he refers back to) that the idea of God was created because man couldn’t cope with death. And because he couldn’t cope with death, he invented a God who would give him an afterlife. But (and here’s the interesting point), in his haste to enter this afterlife, man submits himself to all manner of rules that God lays down that completely strip all incentive to being involved in the life that we live here on earth. The reason I think this is an important issue is because I think one of the issues that the Christian church is constantly struggling with is this idea of whether Christianity is mainly a religion of the heart (and thus only refers to a few spiritual matters such as prayer, Bible reading, church, conversion, evangelism, getting to heaven, etc) or whether, in fact, it is a much more life-affirming religion which has something to say to all of life and, in fact, very much involves us in the everyday things of life. I, for one, believe Christianity is the latter, but there is a trend to keep it firmly in the realm of the spiritual, which I think is dangerous and unBiblical. It was somewhat surprising to me that an atheist would be the one to point this out.
  • Onfray then begins a chapter by chapter debunking of Christianity. It is here that I’m unable really to offer much comment because I haven’t read enough Christian material on the other side to know what the satisfactory answers are to these points. But the main ideas that Onfray raises are:
  • God was invented so that we wouldn’t have to deal with death.
  • Wherever there is a God (or in the monotheisms, as he refers to Judaism, Christianity and Islam), there is also an infallible book which is invented which trumps all other thinking. Clash between the Bible/Koran and science? Bible/Koran wins. Clash between the holy book and psychology? The holy book wins. Etc.
  • Monothemisms cause lots of bloodshed, and a closer look at the Bible/Koran reveals that it is a fairly bloodthirsty book.
  • Monotheisms raise ridiculously high standards regarding sexual freedom, which it then enforces on everyone to make their lives miserable.
  • Then, he gets stuck into Christianity in particular – 1) the myth of Jesus, who may have existed, but certainly wouldn’t have done all the stuff we see in the Gospels 2) the mad, crazy Paul of Tarsus, who hated women, sex and was a gleeful masochist, who taught everyone to just suffer and enjoy suffering, all in the name of Jesus Christ and 3) the domineering Constantine, who used Christianity as a good excuse to take the reigns of power, something which religion and the church have been doing ever since.

Now, I’m not sure how to answer all of these points (and I’ve given a very broad-brush over the contents of the book), but it’s certainly got me thinking about the kinds of questions I need to be able to answer. The biggest question, at this stage, and really the one that I’m looking to find an answer for is:

Where do you start, if you’re trying to prove/disprove Christianity?

The atheist/rationalist starts by assuming there is no God, and that because we can’t prove that God exists with modern science, therefore it’s all a myth.

This sounds quite reasonable on the surface, but why assume that there is no God? Why isn’t it equally as valid to assume that there is a God, and try and see how convincing the proofs are that he doesn’t exist?

But what would you accept as evidence either way? Does the slant you begin with make a difference? I think it does, witness the fact that one scientist can see a complex organism and find intelligent design, and another can look at it and see nothing like it. What’s going on? It seems to me that the evidence is pointing towards a starting point already predetermined beforehand.

And what makes the one that assumes no god any more honourable? People have believed in some variation of God for centuries. Yes, we could all be deluded, as Onfray asserts – all offshoots of the same Big Fib we made up in the caveman days to explain death. But might it also be possible that there is a God, and all religions are some offshoot of that (albeit with corruptions along the way).

Points to ponder – but not after 10.30. For now, I’m off to bed, folks.

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Follow up to Wagner

Hi all,

Just wanted to say that, as a follow-up to my last post, I did send Tony Palmer an email to ask him about the making of Wagner.  Apparently, the poor bloke is in a bit of a fight over the rights to the film, so he hasn’t been able to get control of it, and the versions coming out are sub-par.  Actually, he referred to the one that I bought as being a bootleg, so what does that say about the distributors in Perth who made it?

Anyway, he very kindly sent me a chapter from his (as yet) unpublished memoirs that was 18 pages of background to the filming of Wagner.  It was amazing reading, containing details of how they talked the various actors to being into the picture, to the fights that used to break out between Richard Burton and the “Big Three” English actors (John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier) who starred in the film, through to the involvement of the Wagner family in the making.

I won’t post any excerpts from it here out of courtesy to Tony, but if you want the inside dirt on this miniseries, come and talk to me . . .

DVD Review: Wagner

Amazingly, I hit 3.30 this Saturday afternoon, and I’d knocked over all the urgent jobs I had to do. So I’ve been spending the afternoon doing relaxing things that I enjoy doing. It’s been a remarkably nice afternoon.

The point of all that is that I gave some thought to blogging and thought that maybe if I made an attempt to just review one thing a week, the task wouldn’t be so overwhelming. That way, I could give some thought to what was the most remarkable piece of culture I consumed in a week, and could give it some thought, rather than trying to review everything. I mean, after all, if you really want to know what else I’ve been watching or listening to, you could always ask, couldn’t you?

So I thought I’d kick this vague attempt at jump-starting my blog back to life again with a review of possibly one of the more bizarre programs created for TV – the 1983 miniseries “Wagner”.

1983 was the 100th anniversary of the death of the composer, Richard Wagner, so this documentary was timely when it came out. The original version (or “the complete epic”, as you can see in this picture) was about 9 hour longs.

However, I just put up this picture, because there’s actually no image on the net that matches the version I watched, which is a cut-down DVD (now out of print) that runs for a rather more modest 5 1/2 hours instead. (That’s far more likely to make you watch it, isn’t it?) So maybe part of the bizarreness is the fact that I’m missing 2-3 hours worth of material. It could well be, because having seen it twice (the first time was several years ago on video), I still shake my head at how obscure and difficult to follow some moments are. I know a little bit about the life of Richard Wagner, which helps, but woe betide anybody watching this thing cold.

Why is this show so bizarre?

For starters, nobody seems to want to take ownership over it. With most old TV shows, directors, cameramen, etc are all keen to crawl out of the woodwork to mumble commentaries and tell inane stories on extra features whenever a show is released on DVD. Not so Wagner. It’s quite clear that my cut-down version has just been copied straight onto DVD from the video tape version I watched. (And I understand the American version pictured here is no better.) So effectively, we’re left with sound and video that date from the VHS era. Which studio owns the rights to this? Does no one have the original negative? Where’s the director?

Well, actually, I know he’s around. You can visit his website. But it seems the studios haven’t bothered to call upon him to help out in bringing this thing to DVD. Hmm . . . Maybe I should send him an email. I might just do that when I’ve finished this.

Anyway, Wagner. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is and don’t even care, skip the whole review. It’s not going to get any more interesting from here on in.

Richard Wagner was one of the most radical music composers to come out of the 19th century. He composed several major operas over his lifetime, including the amazing Ring of the Nibelungs, which consists of four operas that are meant to be performed across the space of a week. In total, there’s about 15-16 hours worth of opera in the Ring.

Wagner continues to be one of the most unusual composers that ever lived, because his personality and music were so extreme. The man himself was a complete egotist, who believed that the world revolved around him, and that as a great artist, he should be denied nothing that he needed. So, it comes as no surprise that he cheated heavily on his first wife, stole his second wife from another man (who, in a bizarre twist, still continued to be devoted to the composer) and generally left a trail of debts and scandals in his wake. In the second half of his life, things took an even more dramatic turn, when King Ludwig of Bavaria (barely out of his teens) became so enamoured of Wagner and his music, that he poured large amounts of the country’s money into funding Wagner’s operas. This caused no small upset in the nation.

But, at the same time, standing alongside these massive character flaws, the music Wagner composed has an extraordinary power and emotion to it. (I say it in the present tense, because to this day, Wagner’s music still stirs audiences in a way that most composers do not. Wagner fans will think nothing of traveling the world to see a performance of the Ring live. They will do this for no other opera.) While Wagner does have a tendency to drag on in some parts, when he hits his high points, they are among the most spine-tingling moments of theatre you will ever see or hear.

But, at the same time, there’s a disturbing trend towards immorality that bypasses us in the music. The epic Tristan & Isolde, which tells of a knight who falls in love with a princess betrothed to someone else. To an audience in the late 1800s, this was as good as committing adultery, but Wagner’s music makes us buy into the romance straight away. In the Ring, he was to feature all sorts of incest and philandering, but his music convinces us that love is much more important than law.

Some might say, we should throw out his music on that basis – and also on the far more disturbing basis that his music became a favourite of the Nazis several decades after his death. But his music, on its own, is so majestic and beautiful, that it has become part of our culture. Even if you don’t know Wagner, you know movie soundtracks, and we wouldn’t have things like the Star Wars theme if it wasn’t for Wagner.

So back to the miniseries. How do you portray a man like this? As a hero? A ratbag? Tony Palmer does the film in the only way I think you can do it – as the man was. We watch Wagner’s life unfold, portrayed by the extremely watchable and eccentric Richard Burton. Burton was in the last few years of his life when he made this, so he looks a wee bit old to be playing the young revolutionary Wagner in Dresden, but by the time we get to the familiar mutton-chopped figure we’re familiar with from the pictures, he’s completely convincing.

The next bizarre thing is the dialogue. You don’t realise until you see something like Wagner what a complete joke most “period costume drama” films are. As a general rule, in most of these films, we’re watching thoroughly modern people wearing old clothes. Not so Wagner. I would say the dialogue comes largely from Wagner’s writing, because I couldn’t see such complex and lengthy monologues being made up by a screenwriter . . . again, maybe I should email Tony Palmer and ask him.

Every five minutes or so, we seem to see Wagner ranting about something. How brilliant he is. How music needs to change. The fact that he wants a united Germany. How much he hates Jews. The point is made quite clear that the roots of Nazism were alive and well in this man. Every now and again, a moment will occur when you think, “Oh, he’s not so bad,” and then another jaw-dropping piece of anti-Semitism will come out, and you’ll change your mind again.

So why would anyone want to watch this guy for six hours? . . . For exactly the same reason that we go to his operas. . . the music. Ranging from the quiet and sublime to raging and ominous through to majestic and soaring, there’s just something in Wagner’s music that catches our ears. Certainly, there were scenes in this series that just had me transfixed, just because of the power of the music.

Very well conducted by the famous Georg Solti, the music blasts through most of the scenes. Combine that the with the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (of Apocalypse Now fame), and you have a morally disturbing, striking looking and gorgeously sounding piece of art.

In the end, it’s hard to say what I think of it. I don’t love Wagner any better than before. I don’t actually think I’m meant to. But, at the same time, if you told me that you were going to burn all his music and any recordings of it, I’d be pretty heartbroken. What does this mean? I can’t explain it beyond the fact that there is a certain transcendent power to music that can cross all sorts of barriers.

4 out of 5.