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The case against Christianity

In Defence of Atheism: The case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Michel Onfray. Serpents Tail, 2007.

This new century has seen a rise of religious awareness.  Terror attacks around the world by people motivated by a faith of some sort have brought home to us how important faith is for many.  The extremists have brought this to our attention but this is not the whole story.  At home, the government is grappling with faith issues and Labour has just appointed its first Vice Chair with responsibility for engaging with faith groups.  This is a good idea, since most people believe in God and only sixteen percent (in a recent YouGov survey) describe themselves as atheists.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we have seen what some would term an ‘atheist backlash’.  Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are amongst the most prominent but this book belongs in the same category.  I should state that I read it as a practising Christian, but one who wants to engage in rational and respectful debate about matters of faith.

Michel Onfray is a French philosopher who argues in favour of hedonism and the exercise of reason.  The book is translated from French and its style makes sense when that is appreciated.  It reads like a gentle rant but Onfray does not hector his readers.  If the reader imagines he or she is sitting with the author, glass of wine or cup of coffee near at hand while he presents his case, it all seems quite congenial and it is possible to ignore the weaknesses in his arguments.  That is not to say that he does not have a clear central theme.  This theme is that religion is to be deplored because it prevents people enjoying life here and now – which Onfray believes is the only life – by promising a subsequent eternal future.  Therefore much hardship is endured by religious people and all for nothing.  This he regards as ‘a really deadly sin’.

Onfray starts by noting that while he wishes to promote atheism, the term itself was invented by believers in God.  So already the atheist is on the back foot, he argues.  He wants to get past this to an atheism that is not always responding to faith but is separate from it.  So the book begins, but by the end we are at the same place.  Onfray does have a faith it transpires, but this is really a faith in philosophy.

In between, Onfray tackles the Judaism, Islam and particularly Christianity.  I would agree with Onfray that the Church has behaved horrendously over time (he misses the positive contributions) but I would not call such behaviour Christian.  He is most disappointing when he examines the Bible because he is not rigorous.  He criticises the early Church for editing out inconsistencies but delights in finding minor differences in the Gospels; differences many argue are characteristic of authentic eyewitness accounts.  Onfray would help himself if he actually read carefully the passages to which he refers – for example he states that Luke’s gospel describes a wooden tablet displaying Jesus’ sentence being hung around the neck so apparently contradicting John’s gospel, yet both describe it being nailed to the cross.  He also struggles because he lumps the faiths together, even while acknowledging they are different.  Indeed, he is against relativism, or the equalising of worldviews, because this puts atheism on a level with religious faith.

Onfray would have been more intellectually rigorous if he had attempted to compare worldviews rationally with the reality we measure and experience.  The Christian worldview could have been examined in this way, as could Onfray’s atheism and the presuppositions of the other faiths.  Which worldview provides the best (or the accurate) explanation for love, personality, universal morality, suffering, certainty, and answers our desires for meaning and fulfilment?  I began this book expecting to be challenged by rigorous argument on such themes.  I finished it disappointed.

This review previously appeared in Tribune magazine.
Stephen Beer

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