Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto

Book review written 20 March, 6 April, 7 April 2007. Originally written in 4 installments on my Freethought Forum blog. Comments attached to these installments are mostly off-track. Of my responses, the most directly relevant are appended below.

Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub., distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.


Is there anything new to be said in favor of atheism, some argument that hasn’t been presented thousands of times before? There is probably little new to say, but aside from the perennial need to break through the defense mechanisms of an intractably irrational humanity, there is always a social subtext underlying the recurrent rounds of atheist assertion. In the USA and across the English-speaking world, we have a pretty good feel for what that is now. But when literature is translated from one language to another, can we be sure we know what is behind the ostensible argument of the text? While it is good to see Michel Onfray’s work now rendered into English, its underlying motive has not been translated, and so we must do some sleuthing to suss out its tacit presuppositions and motives.

It is almost impossible to be a French intellectual without having some highly valued cultural capital behind you. An argument is not just an argument; it enters intellectual space competing for attention not only in ways familiar to us, based primarily on good P.R., but competing for social status based on traditional European intellectual hierarchies. Onfray’s book is prefaced by a quote from Nietzsche, which, we can guess, is not only a quote from Nietzsche, but an announcement to his French audience that Onfray is playing with the big boys. Nietzsche, god of the postmodernists, has been a dominant figure in au courant French philosophy at least since the beginning of the ‘60s.

In his preface Onfray evocatively recounts his encounter with a devout Muslim in the Mauritainian desert. Onfray notes the capacity of this pious and good man to deny the evils of his religion and to see only what he wants to see in a belief system he is in fact much better than. This sets the stage for the book. In the introduction Onfray states his compassion for the victims of religion, reflecting the eternal human inability to face reality. He refuses to feel superior in any way to deluded believers, reserving his contempt for priestcraft, i.e. for the exploiters of the devout. Onfray is more pro-Enlightenment than the original Enlighteners. The mainstream of French deism opposed its more radical wing. In Germany Kant wimped out when it came to religion and morality.

Onfray decides to exploit the term ATHEOLOGY, coined by Georges Bataille in 1950 in a communication to Raymond Queneau. This might not mean a great deal to the uninitiated American reader, but this is a serious marshaling of cultural capital, as Bataille of the famous College of Sociology in the 1930s is a great hero of the postmodernist crowd, and Queneau is known as an associate of the surrealists and a co-founder of Oulipo. Onfray forgets to mention, though, the crypto-fascist undertones of Bataille’s obsession with primitive rituals and secret societies.

Chapter 1 begins with the claim that the death of God has been greatly exaggerated. Even the term “atheism,” a negative term, reveals how its history has been skimped on. Onfray delves into the etymology (15). The recorded history of “atheism” is largely a history of libellous theist propaganda. This has affected the history of philosophy as a whole, as anti-Christian philosophers have been eclipsed. Many celebrated heretics were not in fact atheists though condemned as such. Spinoza, for example, though excommunicated was no atheist and never declared himself such.

Chapter 2 begins with the question, who was the first outspoken atheist? Cristóvão Ferreira, A Jesuit who renounced Christianity (The Deception Revealed, 1636) was a great forerunner. But the honors go to Jean Meslier (1729), a primary object of Onfray’s scholarship. Other French Enlighteners are mentioned, but the atheist heritage of even the famous names is slighted in the history of philosophy: La Mettrie, Nicolas Deschamps, Baron d’Holbach, Helvetius, Sylvain Marechal, and the Ideologues.

The next major leap is instituted by Ludwig Feuerbach, who has also been largely forgotten, except as a precursor to Marx. Feuerbach was exploited by Louis Althusser who used him to bolster his thesis for Marx’s “epistemological break.”

The final milestone is . . . voila: Friedrich Nietzsche.

Onfray claims that religion has now been smuggled back into [French] intellectual/public life, but we are experiencing the birth pangs of a post-Christian era.

The third chapter sets up Onfray’s agenda. We have not advanced beyond the stage outlined by Nietzsche. We don’t live in a non-religious age, but we do live in an age of nihilism, announced by 19th-century writers, including Dostoevsky. Regardless of the loss of traditional religions, people still believe in the need for “something” more. This is what Onfray attacks: “Atheism implies the banishing of transcendence. With no exceptions.” (46)

Citing Foucault’s notion of invisible epistemology, Onfray asserts that the West is still dominated by Christian discourse. (47) French jurisprudence, for instance, is ostensibly secular, but implicitly it is still Catholic. (49) The same obsolete notion of free will and the moralistic torture of humanity prevail.

Religious institutions encourage memory and rote behavior but not learning or critical reflection. (52) Las Casas defended Indians but not their books against obliteration, nor did he defend Africans as fully human in his lifetime. (54) Religionists have a selective memory.

At most we have a tradition of clerical freethinking. We need what Deleuze calls “quiet atheism”. We must confront the final obstacle, “atheist Christianity,” which retains Christian morality. We need a really “atheistic atheism”, that is post-Christian and post-nihilist, beyond both nonbelieving churchiness and anticlericalism. (57) The English philosophers Bentham and Mill should be revisited. (58)

This book aims at the deconstruction of (1) the three main monotheisms, (2) Christianity, (3) theocracy. Despite the conflicts among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they share fundamentals—priestcraft and a hatred of intelligence and life. (59) Paul, the founder of Christianity, was a masochist sadistically inflicting his belief system upon the world. (60)

Such is the book’s agenda. Note also the mustering of the darlings of the postmodern dispensation, Foucault and Deleuze. Clearly, this approach has a meaning in the original French context which is not fully transparent to the average American and other anglophone reader. If what Onfray says about the slights in the history of philosophy and the prevalence of Catholic morality in his neck of the woods holds water, it is certainly worth analyzing and addressing. Still, his agenda, to this American reader, seems very French in another way—pretentious, overblown, and at the end of the day, trite. The French radical intellectual’s preoccupation with grand metaphysical antimetaphysical interventions may be an effective way of muscling into the intense competitiveness in the domain of French cultural capital, but really, is there a whole lot to these portentous generalizations? The Atheist Manifesto is not just an atheist manifesto, as it would be for us in the English-speaking world; it is an intervention in French intellectual life by a pretender to the throne, yet it seems to me to be saying something rather old and unimportant and ultimately no more sophisticated than Dawkins’s banalities. As for the truly affirmative, post-Christian, post-nihilist age, this pretense of standing on Nietzsche’s shoulders to declare a brand new epoch just does not impress me at all.


In the first part of my review I suggested that Onfray was exhibiting the pretentious puffery characteristic of French philosophy. But anything objectionable of that sort was over with by the end of the first part of the book, i.e. the first sixty pages. While the balance of the book does not say anything strikingly new or different from the usual anti-religious fare—what does?—it is nonetheless a searing indictment of just about everything that is wrong with the three major monotheistic religions.

A survey of this sort should not have stopped with the evil that came out of the Middle East nor with monotheism. Certainly there is no more despicable religious system than Hinduism, which embodies every bit of superstitious belief, ritual, taboo, violence, viciousness, exploitation, and racism of any creed known to man. Except for its penetration into New Age thought, which has an historical connection with fascism, Hinduism presents no palpable menace outside of South Asia, so perhaps it is no surprise that Onfray by and large limits himself to the three monotheisms that have the greatest impact on the world political stage. Still, it is potentially dangerous to limit one’s scope to the three monotheisms without at least a caveat. Occasionally Onfray deals with the more general background of religion and superstition, but it is left to us to fill in the blanks as to how and why religion and magical thinking have evolved as they have.

In part two, on monotheisms, Onfray does in fact begin with generalities.

I. The Tyranny of Afterlives

The preoccupation with the afterlife is a way of cheating death, paradoxically accelerating death by incorporating it into life. Religion is a manifestation of a death wish. Monotheism incorporates a hatred of freedom, reason, intelligence, desire, sexuality, and women. It extols obedience and submission. (67) The tree of knowledge is forbidden, i.e. to gaze upon the naked truth (pun intended). There are taboos and an obsession with purity. But does purification of the body entail respect for the body? No, for purification rituals are not about hygiene. (75)

II. Bonfires of the Intelligence

The religions—here Christianity and Islam are mentioned—resorted to book-burning in order to establish the authority of the Book. They exhibited an implacable enmity towards science except for its religious appropriations. (81) Sacred texts monopolize and lay an exclusive claim to knowledge.

The Church has compaigned against all materialist philosophy from Democritus on. (83ff) Why is the Church so opposed to any hint of materialism? One reason is the need for transubtantiation. (86ff) The Church persecuted the philosophy of atomism and combatted the claims of all major scientific advances up through the discovery of DNA. (88–89)

III. Seeking the Opposite of the Real

Religion populates the cosmos with angels, but it is the fallen angels who are the harbingers of freedom. (98) “Paradise” is an anti-world, a clarion call for battle. Religion is the guardian of procreation, replete with misogyny, homophobia, anti-abortionism.

The story of Origen exemplifies the religious celebration of castration. Sexual regulations simulate this state. The countless circumcision rituals, scarification practices, foot-binding, neck-elongation—all forms of ritual initiation, body deformation, mutilation, and real castration—are manifestations of this impulse. Onfray concludes: “God loves the maimed.” (109)

This concluding section, as well as the opening statements of Part II, are the places where Onfray generalizes beyond the three monotheistic religions under examination. Clearly these practices reach back to the origins of humanity, and require more than these general psychological explanations, though they are a start and do indeed enumerate some of the essential issues behind the fear and violence of myth and ritual. None of this is unique to monotheism, but so far, Onfray is doing pretty well. It’s a shame he doesn’t mention Wilhelm Reich, who came to some pretty drastic general conclusions himself about the primal fear that engendered magical thinking, as he himself teetered on the edge of sanity and slipped over.

“Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.”
—Wilhelm Reich


Part III is devoted to Christianity.

I. The Construction of Jesus

The historical existence of Jesus has not been established. The history of Christianity is replete with forgery, destruction of libraries, book burning, interventions by scribes, persecutions. As Christianity’s history is a forgery, the historical record cannot be trusted. (117)

Jesus is a result of the hysteria induced by the Roman Empire. (119)

Onfray ventures into textual analysis, finds in the Christian scriptures borrowed themes and similar rhetorical strategies to prior works in the Mediterranean region. (120ff) “The miraculous turns its back on history.” (124) The Gospel genre is performative. (125) Historical truth does not matter; myth-making is self-deception. Even a redaction of the myth over centuries could not remove its contradictions and improbabilities. (126) “Jesus was thus a concept.” (129)

II. The Pauline Contamination

Paul was “a hysterical, fundamentalist Jew,”his character pathological, his ideology imbued with brutality, sadomasochism, and sexual morbidity. (131ff) He manifests the joy of submission, the adoration of suffering and misery (137), the hatred of learning and intelligence (138–139).

III. The Totalitarian Christian State

Constantine was a hysterical monster. He turned on the very magic, superstition, and paganism in which he was schooled, building a Christian empire, the first totalitarian state (145). He provided the model for all totalitarian regimes, which trod the path from victims to victimizers. (146ff) The tactics: torture, murder, destruction of libraries and cultural artifacts, propaganda, absolutism; monopolization of violence, communications, organization, private life.

Part IV is titled “Theocracy.”

I. Selective exploitation of texts

Onfray explicates the difficulty of establishing the origins of sacred texts, which were subject to clerical monitoring and control and limited availability outside the clergy. The canons of the three religions were established over centuries. Collectively, their time span adds up to 2700 years. The sum total is an incoherent hodgepodge full of contradicitons which enable cherry-picking of texts to prove anything at all.

The religious traditions are predicated on double standards. The Ten Commandments? “Thou shalt not kill” really means “thou shalt not kill other Jews.” The Gospels are both pacifist and warlike. (164–166) Hitler loved the story of Jesus chasing out the moneylenders. (166) There was a symbiosis between Hitler and Islam. (167ff) The Koran is riddled with contradiction on every page. (168–172) Is there a feminist Koran? A peaceable Koran? How can opposites be rationalized? (173)

II. In the Service of the Death Fixation

Historically, cherry-picking justified the worst, not the best options within these traditions. Monotheism is fixated on death. (176)

Judaism invented monotheism and holy war—the whole mess. (178) Priestcraft existed before, but it was adapted to new ends. Moses was an empire-builder who wrote a prescription for butchery.

Christianity from Paul on sanctioned temporal power as divine—”render under Caesar.” Anti-Semitism was sanctioned in the New Testament. The Vatican colloraborated with all anti-Semitism from the beginning up to and including Nazism. (182ff) The Vatican was linked with Hitler from first to last. Both targeted the same enemies: Jews and communists. (184ff) Was Hitler a pagan? An atheist? He loved the Vatican. (187) There are numerous points of similarity between Catholicism and Nazism. They are not fortuitous but a product of the whole history of Christianity. (188–189)

The Vatican sanctioned the atom bomb. (191)

Love of neighbor? Slavery was sanctioned from the Old Testament to the Middle Passage, and Islam practiced it too.

Zionism is not expansionist or internationalist. It seeks dominion over one territory alone. (195, but note criticisms elsewhere)

The Catholic Church invented ethnocide. (195) The Church Christianity has embraced mass extermination from the beginning to Rwanda. (196–197).

Onfray summarizes the death instinct of the three monotheisms. (197–198)

Before moving on to the final chapter, I want to note that this is all good stuff, but certain generalizations are not well supported. First, Onfray specifically targets monotheism but not priestcraft or class-based religion in general. He erroneously assumes that the Hebrews invented monotheism and that it is qualitatively different from what preceded. But if Judaism was truly an ideological innovation in empire-building, its novelty and relationship to other religious ideologies needs to be precisely delineated. As usual, Onfray leaves out of account the religions of South and East Asia, including the unspeakable barbarism of Hinduism. Outside of the scope of this book, but which we should also keep in mind, is a sociological, historical account of the development of religion which would supply a level of explanation that psychology-based generalizations cannot.


Chapter III of Part IV is its final chapter and the final chapter of the book. It is titled “Toward a Post-Christian Secular Order,” but, oddly, it is mostly about Islam.

Onfray traces Islamic blood-lust back to its very beginning. Islam is inherently hierarchical, discriminatory, and exclusionary, monstrous and retrograde. It is incompatible with the Enlightenment. (Later he says that Islam is structurally archaic; it is not liberalizing and cannot accommodate the Enlightenment: 209ff.) It is the patriarchy of herdsmen defying time. (202) Its discrimatory nature is codified in the concept of dhimma, a notion that institutionalizes the “yellow star” that the Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. (203–204) Islamic society is a closed society opposed to democracy. (204ff)

Onfray also delves into its contemporary fascist incarnation, particularly the hijacking of the Iranian revoluton of 1978 by fundamentalism. (206ff) Foucault, who was pro-Khomeini, was inexcusably ignorant about the true nature of this counter-revolution in the revolution. (207) (Note: Foucault is again mentioned on p. 214.) I will return to this point later.

Onfray summarizes the “mystical logic” of the fusion of fascism, populism, and Islam. (211ff)

The 21st century is shaping up as a monotheist holy war between the Judaeo-Christian USA and Islam. Must we choose between them? (214)

Onfray opposes “religious secularism.” Freethinkers are still too holy. Even their vitriol is reminiscent of their enemies. (215ff) In effect we see a secularization of Judaeo-Christian morality.

Moral handbooks in republican schools preach the excellence of the family, the virtue of work, the need to respect one’s parents and honor the old, the rightness of nationalism, patriotic obligations, mistrust of the body and passions, the beauty of manual labor, submission to political authority, duty to the poor. (216–217)

This obviously addresses French conditions, and I lack the background to evaluate these assertions. If they are correct, the middle class respectability that tends to accompany secular humanism is much worse in France than it is in the USA.

Another curious assertion:

While the epistemology remains Judaeo-Christian, secularism acts as if religion no longer impregnates and imbues consciences, bodies, and souls. (217)

My guess is that French secularism is quite different from what it is in the USA, and official society there simply sweeps the real psycho-cultural life of society under the rug.

Finally, Onfray broaches his perspective on a post-Christian secularism. (218–219) The notion of the equality of belief systems is wrong. There is a war on between Enlightenment and magic, between philosophy and priestcraft, between this-worldliness and otherworldliness. And the final words of the book:

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 genuine deadly sin. (219)

Now let us recall that the book is refreshingly free of French philosophical cant once the first part of the book is past. In this final chapter we find that Foucault’s misguided embrace of Islamic fundamentalism is a matter of some importance to Onfray, but curiously, he fails to account for Foucault’s lapse. Is it so mysterious, though, why the illiberal anti-humanism, the reactionary vitalist Nietzscheanism of French radical chic, the intellectual slumming and rhapsodizing over the body from the privileged sanctuaries of the academic elite, should finally stumble back to its natural home, fascism? In any case, Onfray’s silence on this matter is baffling, given the trouble he took to criticize Foucault at all. Then again, I may be baffled only because there is a French subtext to this intervention that eludes me.

To sum up, the book is very good for what it does. A few books attacking religion from various angles may add up to a formidable array. This is quite a different angle of attack from Stenger, who attacks theism and religion from the standpoint of science. Onfray condenses the miserable historical record of pathology of the three Abrahamic religions. His lacunae, as I have mentioned before, are that his account is abstractly psychological and that it unnaturally isolates monotheism as the culprit from other magical and religious belief systems without even providing a sociohistorical account of monotheism. Perhaps there is a deeper reason for these omissions than simply the need for focus. One would have to consult Onfray’s other works in French to make this determination. Now that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, limited as they are, have opened the doors to the best seller lists and the op-ed columns and the electronic media, perhaps more substantial fare can squeeze its way in as well. But the severe ideological limitations on public discourse in America, especially under conditions of political repression and media manipulation, may preclude more radical interventions on the religious question from getting through. This book, however, is a useful weapon in the arsenal.


  • Michel Onfray—Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Introductory Note to Onfray by Doug Ireland
  • Jean Meslier and “The Gentle Inclination of Nature” by Michel Onfray
  • Michel Onfray, philosophe, écrivain, université populaire (in French)
  • Jean Meslier—Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Superstition In All Ages (1732) by Jean Meslier
  • Meslier, a play by David Hall
  • The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Commentary
  • 1 comment:

    Ralph Dumain said...

    From my response to a commentator, 10 April 2007:

    (a)Regardless of where [Samuel] Huntington got his ideas, the basic notion has an ugly history with its origins in the concept of volksgeist stemming from German Romanticism, which ultimately mutated into fascism in the 20th century. The idea that cultures or civilizations bear essences that describe and explain their provenance and development is an entirely fascistic notion.

    (b) It is essential to distinguish historical materialism from economic determinism in order to properly understand what is at stake in matters of historical explanation. The history of Marxism as an interpretative discipline has seen dominant trends in which economic motives are exaggerated to the point of approaching a simple-minded economic determinism, but the Marxian viewpoint is rather different. People are not seen as rational economic calculators who possess a transparent grasp of social dynamics or their motives, but rather interpret their world through historically evolved ideological categories. In the pre-modern world there was no clear cognitive separation between different forms of explanation, and hence economic and political motives found expression on a number of levels including the theological. This dynamic continues, but in changed ways I will set aside for the moment.

    This means we can neither reduce social explanations to metaphysical cultural explanations (volksgeist, clash of civilizations, religious conflicts), nor simply see them as rational geopolitical economic affairs with with their accompanying ideologies stripped away from them. Social practice is cognitively grasped via ideology, and ideology is the ideology of social practice.

    These interpretive principles are paramount prior to a consideration of duplicity and dissimulation. Of course corporate moguls, oil sheiks, and others are duplicitous, but however much of their own propaganda they actually believe, you will find that they interpret their world and their own place in it via ideological categories. If they did not, that would mean that they step outside themselves and observe their own actions objectively and dispassionately while doing their dirty deeds. But ruling elites are trapped within their own subjective lust for power and the objective scrutiny of their own motives is what they don’t do. This is why when push comes to shove they are capable of incredibly short-sighted and irrational behavior.

    (c) ”Whether it is more reactionary, pre-modern and violent to try to impose an order based on ancient authoritarian and traditional values instead of ones based on AEI style corporate PR is to me an open question.”

    If it is an open question,and if you must formulate these as the two alternatives to choose from, you are tremendously confused. See below.

    (d) On Foucault and “leftist” support for Islamic fascism: there is no excuse of any kind, least of all amongst allegedly sophisticated French intellectuals. One has to be incredibly stupid, cynical, and in fact very privileged to look at things this way. The fact that you are so confused about this speaks volumes about you.