The Atheist Manifesto
by Michel Onfray
Born to a family of Norman farmers, Michel Onfray was abandoned by his parents to a Catholic institution from age 10 to 14. Overcoming these early hardships, Onfray graduated with a PhD in philosophy. He has written over 80 books and teaches philosophy at a French university.
A friend gave me The Atheist Manifesto not long after he had finished reading Whatever Happened To Ishtar? which I had written in 2010, a book spawned of seventeen years of an indoctrinated childhood spent in various Catholic institutions. ‘I know you will enjoy this book’, he told me, ‘but it’s a little too intellectual for me.’ He was right; I have since read it twice.
Was Monotheism born of the sand? Two paragraphs in Manifesto’s preface attempt to partly answer this question:
Desert Memory: After a few hours on the trail in the Mauritanian desert, I saw an old herdsman traveling with his family. His young wife and his mother-in-law rode camels; his sons and daughters were on donkeys. The group carried with them everything essential to survival-and therefore to life. The sight of them gave me the impression that I had encountered a contemporary of Muhammad. Burning white sky, scattered, scorched trees, uprooted thorn bushes blown by the desert wind across unending vistas of orange sand…the spectacle evoked the geographical and psychological background of the Koran, in the turbulent period of camel caravans, nomad encampments, and clashing desert tribes.
I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea, and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where the food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counter world invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat. Monotheism was born of the sand.
Michel Onfray analyses the fanatical belief in the afterlife by followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The lives of these early followers of one God were, every single day, a struggle for survival in a harsh and unforgiving climate, where death inflicted different kinds of terror in the living. Was the promise of an afterlife meant to alleviate that terror? For instance the Koran’s fantastic description of paradise: rivers of milk and wine, beautiful virgins, beds of luxurious cloth, celestial music and magnificent gardens? Why wouldn’t a man want to die and leave this endless struggle?
What better way to avoid looking at reality and inevitable death in the face, than to construct fantastical tales that the three religions are built on. And I love this from Onfray, so relevant to our 21st Century concerns over human-made Climate Change: The invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so high a price: disregard of the real, hence wilful neglect of the only world there is. While religion is often at variance with immanence, with man’s inherent nature, atheism is in harmony with the earth – life’s other name. For those of us who have given up on believing in the existence of God, saving planet earth is our passion, science our saviour.
The author tells us about the first tentative atheists, who weren’t really fully fledged atheists for one reason or another, which he outlines with some humour and sarcasm. And then along came Nietzsche! Onfray uses the sub-heading Philosophical Earthquake to describe this period which is a perfect description of the upheaval this one man caused. But so much made sense to intelligent, thinking people!
Onfray goes on to ‘teach’ the case for atheism. He writes: Talmud and Torah, Bible and New Testament, Koran and the Hadith offer insufficient grounds for the philosopher to choose between Jewish, Christian or Muslim misogyny. Or to opt against pork and alcohol but in favour of the veil or the burka, to attend the synagogue, the temple, the church, or the mosque, all places where intelligence is ailing and where, for centuries, the faithful have practiced obedience to dogma and submission to the Law-and therefore obedience and submission to those who claim to be the elect, the envoys and the word of God. He suggests that instead of teaching monotheistic religions in schools we should be teaching atheism. He prefers the teachings of The Genealogy of Morals (1887) rather than the epistles to the Corinthians. I happen to agree with him. Along with world conservation, less exploitation of this wonderful planet we live on!
In the chapter Towards an Atheology: Thirty centuries from the earliest texts of the Old Testament to the present day, teach us that the assertion of one God, violent , jealous, quarrelsome, intolerant and bellicose, has generated more hate, bloodshed, deaths, and brutality than it has peace…[for example] There is the Jewish fantasy of a chosen people, which vindicates colonialism, expropriation, hatred, animosity between peoples, and finally an authoritarian and armed theocracy.
The author pleads for the world to have an end to the linkage of the world’s woes to atheism: God’s existence it seems to me, has historically generated in his name more battles, massacres, conflicts and wars than peace, serenity, brotherly love, forgiveness of sins, and tolerance. To my knowledge, no popes, princes, kings, caliphs, or emirs have excelled in the practice of virtue, so outstandingly did Moses, Paul, and Muhammad excel in murder, torture, and orgies of plunder-I call the biographies to witness. So many variations on the theme of loving one’s neighbour.
Onfray suggests that the times we live in are no longer atheist. We instead are in the midst of the era of nihilism, which stems from the ‘turbulence of the transit zone between still very present Judeo-Christianity and timidly blooming post-Christianity…Jews, Christians and Muslims, construct for themselves, a made-to-measure morality. This implies selective borrowings (tailored to fit their needs) from their holy books in order to establish rules of play and participation by the community.’
Christians, particularly Catholics, know all too well, religious concepts of ‘purity’, and how it relates to sex, and we can mostly thank Paul of Tarsus/St Paul for that! The dichotomy of the female, whore/virgin, is still constantly preached as Canon Law by an ancient and all-male Vatican. The author delves into this topic with relish, and coming from a background of a childhood in Catholic institutions, I could relate to these chapters intimately.
Onfray explains that Muslims share many of their fixations on purity with Jews; all food must be ritually prepared. Why the absolute prohibition of the consumption of pork, but not camel meat? Even on that matter, there is much disagreement. Some suggest the pig was emblematic of certain unpleasant memories of Roman legions, others believe it was the pig’s omnivorous diet, its consummation of public refuse. I have also read of another theory: the squeals of the pig as it was led to slaughter, was too reminiscent of the darkest days of sacrificial slaughtering of children in attempts to appease more ancient gods. The rituals connected to the cleansing of the body are rational, especially for life in the desert. The author explains in detail the similar ritualistic rules for respect of one’s body and bodily hygiene.
I found the chapter entitled Bonfires of the Intelligence; producing the holy books, particularly interesting. Onfray: The three monotheisms are seen as the religions of the book-but their three books are far from mutually supportive… Naturally they all preach brotherly love. Thus from the very start it seems to appear beyond reproach to our brethren of the Abrahamic religions. None of these books is a work of revelation. Who would have done the revealing? Their pages no more descend from heaven than those of Persian fables or Icelandic sagas.
The Torah is not as old as tradition claims; Moses is improbable. Yahweh dictated nothing-and in any case, Moses could not have written what Yahweh said unless he wrote in hieroglyphics, since the Hebrew script did not exist in the time of Moses. None of the evangelists personally knew Jesus. The testamental canon arose from later political decisions, particularly those reached when Eusebius of Caesarea, mandated by the emperor Constantine, assembled a corpus stitched together from twenty-seven versions of the New Testament in the first half of the fourth century. The apocryphal writings are more numerous than those that constitute the New Testament proper.
Muhammad did not write the Koran. Indeed, that book did not exist until twenty-five years after his death. The second source for Muslim authority, the Hadith, saw the light of day in the ninth century, two centuries after the Prophet’s death. Hence we must infer the very active presence of men in the shadows of these three Gods.
Science does not sit well within the three monotheistic religions, and the author discusses this at length and in detail. If they do embrace science, it is usually to enhance their dogma and this instrumentalisation of science ‘subjects reason to domestic and theocratic uses’. For example, one Hadith indeed celebrates the quest for scientific knowledge as far afield as China, but always in the logic of its instrumentalisation via religion, never for the human ideal of social progress. The Catholic religion impeded the forward march of Western civilisation, inflicting on it, incalculable damage.
Then there is the female problem that the religions of the book have in common. Only mothers and wives are venerated. Judeo-Christianity promotes the idea that Eve was an afterthought, made from Adam’s rib; ‘an inferior cut off the prime beef, a humble spare rib‘. She appears in the Koran as Adam’s wife but the fact that she is never named is revealing, because, as Onfray says, ‘the unnamed is unnameable.’
The ridiculous tenets of these three religions engender the worst kind of hypocrisy because we are all too human. The possibility of sex divorced from conception, and thus of sex alone, of pure sexuality-that is absolute evil. For the monotheist there can be no more hideous oxymoron than a barren, sterile woman! In the name of this same principle the three monotheisms condemn homosexuals to death…For his part, Paul of Tarsus saw in the solitary male the perils of lust, adultery and free sexuality. Hence given the impossibility of chastity, his endorsement of marriage –the least objectionable justification for the libido.
Onfray discusses at length the barbaric mutilation of female and male genitalia, practiced by monotheistic religions and their literature abounds in references to the extinction of libido and the destruction of desire. Onfray refers to them as ‘variations on the theme of castration’. From what I’ve read and seen on world news every day, none of these religions is achieving the total sexual control over their adherents that they initially set out to achieve. Catholic paedophile priests, Muslim child marriages, polygamy, Jewish paedophilia, to name a few.
All three religions have burnt books, whole libraries, whole towns, citizens, mosques, temples, churches, synagogues, slaughtered millions, and all for what or who? What God? There is no archaeological proof Jesus existed. The author covers this period in Christianity’s history in depth, with all of its subterfuges.
In the chapter headed Selective Exploitation of the Texts, Onfray writes:
Everyone knows of monotheism’s three books, but very few know their dates of origin, their authors, or the ups and downs attendant on establishing the three texts-the absolutely final, immutable texts. For the Torah, Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran took an unthinkably long time to emerge from history and claim that their texts issued from God alone, that they had no need to explain themselves to those who entered their prayer temples armed only with faith, unburdened of reason and intelligence. Considering Muhammad was illiterate it is ridiculous to believe that he wrote the Koran as God dictated it. And let’s be clear, there were several Korans from different periods which were merged into one, hundreds of years after Muhammad’s death!
We do not possess an official date of birth for the worship of one God…Jean Soler insists on the neighbourhood of the fourth and third century BCE-in other words very late…but the family line is very clear: the Jews invented it to ensure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people. The mythology they fashioned engendered belief in a warrior God, a fighter, blood thirsty, aggressive, a war leader highly effective at mobilising a people without a land. The myth of a chosen people thereafter blessed with a destiny.
Of that labour of invention, several thousand pages of canonical text survive-very few considering their worldwide influence over the course of more than twenty centuries. The Old Testament boasts a total of 3,500 pages, the New Testament 900 pages, the Koran 750, that is, little more than 5000 pages in which everything and its opposite is said once and for all. In each of these three founding texts, contradictions abound and Onfray gives us many examples of these.
Love of one’s neighbour as espoused by all three religions, was non-existent, and still does not exist in the 21st century! The Pauline texts, so useful in justifying submission to de facto authority, triggered results that went far beyond the legitimisation of wars and persecution. In the field of slavery, for example, which Christianity did no more than the other two monotheisms to deter. Indeed, in later centuries the small-scale slavery resulting from tribal raids evolved into the slave trade pure and simple, the sale and deportation of whole populations for use as chattels and beasts of burden.’
More than twenty centuries later has anything changed? Onfray: ‘The commandments do not advocate any particular respect for one’s neighbour if he looks different, if he is not branded in the flesh by the rabbi’s knife. The non-Jew did not enjoy the same rights as members of the covenant. So that outside the confines of the book, the Other may be called on to account for himself, to be treated like an object, a thing: the goy by the Jew, the polytheist or animist by the Christian, the Christian by the Muslim, and the atheist, needless to say, by everyone.’ [My emphasis]
Onfray likens the three monotheisms to death cults. He asks ‘How can we escape the domination of [the death instinct] after so effectively killing off the life urge both within and outside of ourselves?’ Are we so terrified by the horror and void of death, that we believe in the ‘consoling fables and fictions that incite us to deny the use of our full powers?’ He posits that this ‘false world’ forces us to live in the here and now ‘buttressed by the hopes of a tinsel afterlife.’ Finally, he suggests that we are in the flux of a ‘post-Christian’ era, but that we must beware ‘religious secularism’ in which ‘the essential remains Judeo-Christian.’ He believes that the 21st Century has opened on a merciless war. On one side is a Judeo-Christian West, on the other side, a Muslim world. Monotheist religions are waging this war, and Onfray asks: Must we choose a side? There is much more to read in these chapters, but I will leave you to buy the book.
In the final chapter of MANIFESTO Onfray sums up where we are at in the fight for a genuine post-Christian secularism:
At this hour when the final battle –already lost-looms for the defence of the Enlightenment’s values against magical propositions, we must fight for a post-Christian secularism, that is to say, atheistic, militant and radically opposed to choosing between Western Judeo-Christianity and its Islamic adversary-neither Bible nor Koran. I persist in preferring philosophers to priests, imams, ayatollahs and mullahs. Rather than trust their theological hocus-pocus, I prefer to draw on alternatives to the dominant philosophical historiography: the laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. 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 genuinely mortal sin.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 18 August 2016