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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10 thoughts on “Book Review: An Atheist Manifesto

  1. First, let me start with providing my understanding of Atheism. Atheism is not a belief towards anything. It is precisely the opposite — the absence of belief.

    I don’t want to get into the details of utilitarianism or rationalism as I think it’s not as relevant to the matter at hand as the topic of atheism itself. Onfray has made a mistake by making his case about utilitarianism. The reason I say this is because from your post, it appears as though Onfray is trying to shift our weight to utilitarianism by using Christianity as his scapegoat. This is never the right method to approve of anything.

    If you look at religion as a guideline to live your life, then it’s perfect for you to ask the question on what you would replace in its place once you discard religion.

    Another version of the same question is, “by what standard would you decide something is right or wrong?”

    This is the heart of the matter. And the answer is simple — though in the form of another question: what purpose will this new founded code of life serve? Is your answer, “it will serve to help sustain and enhance life?”

    If this is the answer, then we know where to start with. We want to create a code of life that will help us sustain and enhance life. Before we do that, we must also understand how can life be sustained in the first place. For this, we need to understand this earth and the nature of things around us. The questions are, “is the nature of things around us consistent?” “are things in nature the way the seem?” “do objects change identity out of no reason or is there a firm law of causality in place that governs all entities?”

    After we have studied this, we must then look at the next topic — man’s consciousness. It is our faculty of perceiving that reality which we just studied. This consciousness helps us to take our perceptions and create concepts out of them. Therefore, we understand how man behave in accordance to the nature of things.

    Therefore, now we have the understanding of nature, and the understanding of man’s relationship to this nature. Therefore, we can discern what kind of actions will help sustain life, and what kind of actions will threaten it.

    Based on this knowledge, we can start writing down the rules of conduct.

    Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Fortunately, this entire process has been done to a considerable extent. Based on these ideas, the concepts of life, liberty, and property were defined.

    To quote one of my favorite sayings, “the freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”. This is a perfect corollary to the definition of individual rights.

    The only obligation one man has to another is make sure never to infringe on anyone’s life, liberty or property. Of course, a discussion on the limitations of these rights will take on a different course of its own. However, for the most part we can settle down at this: you may live the way you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone physically or mentally directly by your actions.

    The reason I say “directly by your actions” is because let’s say if I were to kill myself because a woman refused to marry me, my death would not be the woman’s fault. She didn’t cause my death, I wasn’t strong enough to handle a shock, which is my psychological weakness.
    However tragic it may be, the woman has no obligation to worry about it. The only thing she has to make sure is that she doesn’t fool me into believing something that isn’t true. That would be directly affecting me mentally or physically.

    This respect for others’ rights is all that a man is obliged to offer to the society. All other contributions, be it charitable or otherwise, have to be purely voluntary. It may be great to help others, but it’s equally despicable if you did that by forcing someone else.

    Of course, there are a lot of questions about ideal conduct in public or in personal lives, but religion is not the place to seek answers. If we simply build up on this foundation we have before us, we’d be just fine.

    Some parts of this reply might leave much to be desired in terms of clarity. Perhaps we could continue this discussion over chat. I’m sure it will very helpful for both of us to toss ideas around 🙂

  2. oh, and btw, atheism doesn’t start at “god doesn’t exist”. It ends at this statement.

    It starts with the analysis of “god exists”, and when it analyzes all the reasons why people think God exists, it comes to the conclusion that these reasons aren’t good enough to state firmly that “god exists”

  3. Hey Matt,

    I haven’t read Onfray’s book, so I don’t know if this will address everything, but try John Blanchard’s book “Does God Believe in Atheists?”

    Blanchard starts with Plato/Aristotle etc and works his way through the different philosophies of the ages – Descartes, Rosbpierre and his mates, and Nietzsche to name a few. At the end he has a couple of chapters that take a very honest look at Onfray/Nietzsche’s questions about death; basically that’s the only remotely serious argument atheism has against Christianity.

    What Blanchard does very well is (a) show why it’s acceptable to go to the bible (or the Koran/hindu texts/buddhist texts) to see what a religion says about it’s own beliefs on God, (b) show clearly the weaknesses and the fact that an atheist position on many things is no more honourable/intellectually rigorous than a theist position, and (c) best of all he doesn’t actually mention Jesus until the end of the final chapter.

    Now obviously because I’m a Christian, I find his arguments compelling, but I appreciated the fact that he didn’t try to avoid tough questions. I disagreed on a few finer points here and there, but overall I found it really useful to understand the philosophies that feed atheist unbelief.

    One last point: if Onfray still insists that Jesus is a myth, then I find it difficult to take him seriously on anything. Fine if he wants to try and argue that Jesus was crazy or a con-man, but to deny his existence or the historicity of the gospels is weak and shows a lack of academic rigour.

    Dave

  4. In response to the comments left by Dave; the historicity of Christ is very much in question. Now, knowing that you’re a Christian, I shouldn’t have to go into detail regarding the authenticity of the gospels and when they were written. Most biblical scholars agree that the first gospel was Mark’s written some 70 years after Jesus supposedly died. The oldest physical copy that survived is some 100 years older than the original. Since the gospels were originally spoken orally, the legitimacy of them is always brought into question. No eye witness accounts of Jesus life exist. None of the gospel authors ever met Christ. They are working from oral stories that had been circulation for over half a century. The part of the story that makes one think Jesus did exist is a direct result of individuals trying to make a prophesy from the Old Testament come true. Getting Christ to be born in Bethlehem becomes a dubious trip in myth creation. But, the trouble that was undertaken to get Jesus there makes sense only if people at the time were trying to fill the prophecy from Micah 5:2.
    On a side note, Roman historians from the time didn’t mention the individual of Christ with the exceptions of Tactius. Of course, Onfray brings the credablity of that into question also.
    If you disagree I would love to hear from you. Thanks for being open minded.

  5. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for posting. One brief question on this one about the date of the Gospels, etc. Have you read Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ, at all? Chapter 1 of the book is dedicated to this particular question.

    I’d recommend you have a read of it, because most of the points you refer to are answered. The main point, though, might be your use of the figure 70 years after Jesus’ death.

    I think what most of the scholars say is that Mark was written around 70 AD, which is more like 40 years after Jesus’ death. And Mark was reportedly a friend of Peter’s. So if that’s the case, Mark would definitely have put it together from eyewitness evidence.

    And I don’t see that that’s much worse than, say, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film “Shoah”, where he was interviewing Holocaust survivors some 40 years after the events. I don’t think too many people questioned that story. If the occasion is momentous enough, people remember just fine.

    It is true that no one who was a witness wrote a biography themselves, but as long as those dates hold, there’s plenty of reason to think that Mark would have spoken to people who were there.

    Furthermore, I’m not really understanding why you’d make this stuff up. I can get why some religions would want to make things up. It gives a power trip to a leader, it provides a help to get through life, etc.

    But here comes a religion that says, “Be nice to everyone, even if they don’t treat you well.” “Be prepared to suffer in this life.” “Rile the government and established religion.” It only seemed to bring people beatings, prison and death (at least for the first couple of hundred years). Doesn’t seem like a very useful religion to adopt, unless you really thought it was true.

    Of course, I know you’ll say that probably holds true of all religions.

    What I’m more curious – and perhaps you can answer this for me, Rob – would atheists or agnostics really use this sort of approach if it was any other type of history? If someone questioned the Holocaust, would we assume that the survivors who’ve been telling us stories for the last three decades got things a bit mixed up because it’s all an aural history?

    Or is it more the case that the idea of a guy who died and rose again from the dead is so incredible, that we have to start looking for other reasons why it might not be true?

    I don’t know. I’m still looking into these things myself, but the idea that *something* happened back then that some people were pretty convinced about seems far more likely to me than that a bunch of people just made it up for the fun of it.

    But as soon as I start using phrases like “seems likely to me”, is when I think that this is not a useful way to debate, because then it just comes back to what you or I think is likely. So I think this is just a part of a much bigger series of questions.

    Anyway, thank you for contributing, and it’s always good to have something further to think about.

  6. Its not true that athiesm ends with ‘there is no god’ and merely ends with it. Agnosticism does that. Atheism starts with it. Atheism starts with the premise ‘if I can’t immediately see the Creator he is not there” and then searches for evidence to back that up. I was an atheist for a long time so please stop this nonesense Kushel –it sounds nice but its not true. As for evidence of Christ’s existence –serious scholars have never questioned that only pop writers who write silly books about jesus being related to egyptian myths. Atheism is and will remain a minor movement among humankind.

  7. correction” its not true that atheism ends with there is no god and does not begin with it. Atheism presupposes it before it begins. Its a faith statement and one I have for many years.

  8. I stopped being an atheist because I could not justify the belief that people are not anything more than a bag of water and molecules. We don’t really believe that we just say we do. No person believes that about herself or himself we say we do but then go and live our lives as if we have intrinsic self worth in and of ourselves. We say we don’t believe in a God or gods etc but then we go right on acting as if we do, that is we act as if we are something more than complex robots of protoplasm developed over time by chance for no reason. We act as if there is a reason and we are it. ‘ I think therefore I am ‘ does not mean ‘i think therefore i exist; it means i think therefore I have metaphysical self referential beingness.

  9. Hi V,

    Thanks for dropping by. Certainly, it is true that it’s hard to follow through atheism to its logical extent – that we have no meaning above an artificial one that we would have to manufacture. I’m rather glad that God created us with a purpose.

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