Among the Disbelievers | The Nation


Among the Disbelievers

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It would be nice to believe that anachronistic thinking like this halted at Calais, but Michel Onfray's Traité de athéologie, which has been given the hotter title of Atheist Manifesto for the American market, is not reassuring. Onfray is more philosophically sophisticated than Dawkins and Hitchens, and he is entirely commendable in his determination to hold Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the same rigorous standard. Whereas Sam Harris singles out Islam as "a religion of conquest," for instance, Onfray points out that it was the Israelites who invented holy war, that the Israelite god Yahweh "sanctioned crimes, murders, assassination...kill[ing] animals like men and men like animals," and that the Vatican has distinguished itself more recently as "a fellow traveler with every brand of twentieth-century fascism--Mussolini, Pétain, Franco, Hitler, Pinochet, the Greek colonels, South American dictators, etc." Islam's division of the world into a land of Islam and a land of infidels is "not too distant from Hitler's," Onfray adds. But Harris should know better than to call it "unique."

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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This may seem fairly obvious. But with everyone from atheists to neocons jumping on board the anti-Islamic crusade, it bears repeating. Still, Onfray goes astray in the left-Nietzschean twist that he gives to his antireligious critique. Nietzsche's influence is evident throughout Atheist Manifesto--in its high-wattage prose style, in its tendency toward aphorism, but mostly in its treatment of things like Judaism and Christianity as intellectual categories removed from their historical contexts. Onfray, to cite just one example, is extremely hard on St. Paul, whom he describes as a hysteric "driven by a host of psychological problems," a loser who "converted his self-loathing into hatred of the world" and someone whose "impotence and resentment took the form of revenge: the revenge of the weakling." None of this is surprising, given Paul's views on such subjects as celibacy (strongly in favor), marriage (only for those unable to forgo sex), slavery (accepting) and women (condescending, to say the least). But anyone who reads Paul in the context of the entire Bible--which Onfray says elsewhere is the only way the Bible can be properly understood--will likely come away with a different impression. His hysteria, such as it is, doesn't begin to compare with that of Hosea, Jeremiah and other Hebrew prophets, whose rages were truly volcanic. His political quietism is more explicable if one bears in mind that he believed that an impending apocalypse would soon put an end to all forms of injustice. His views on gender are more benign than is commonly realized, which may be why even pagans reported that women were among the first to convert.

Indeed, Paul was something new as far as the biblical tradition was concerned, a thinker, polemicist and organizer who was sober, practical and all but tireless. This is undoubtedly why Engels was so notably friendly toward him in one of his last essays. Not only did he describe Pauline Christianity as the socialism of its day but, referring to an epistle in which Paul reminds parishioners of the need to provide the new movement with financial support (which he describes as the "grace of giving"), he even commiserated with him across the centuries over the difficulty of squeezing party dues out of local members. ("So it was like that with you too!") Context for Engels was all. It was obvious from his perspective that someone like Paul could not be held exclusively to a modern standard but had to be judged on the basis of his historical role. So what has happened in the century or so since Engels wrote that essay that has caused otherwise admirable leftists like Onfray to lose their historical bearings? Could the baleful influence of Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of overwrought 16-year-olds, have something to do with it?

Terry Eagleton shows a firmer grasp of the issues in The Meaning of Life--far firmer, in fact, than he did in the verbal hurricane that he unleashed on Dawkins in The London Review of Books last October. That article, which earned Eagleton a warm note of congratulations from Peter Steinfels in his "Beliefs" column in the New York Times--an indication of just how bad it actually was--was filled with ex cathedra comments and unsupported assertions that Eagleton, a left-wing Catholic back in the 1960s, somehow thought he could intimidate his readers into accepting. Thus: Dawkins "does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide." Or: "Because the universe is God's, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible." Dawkins is a boor, in other words, because he is unable to grasp such ineffable truths. Yet both statements were nothing more than silly. Judaism concerns itself not with the life of the individual but the life of the nation, while Christianity saw the life we know as merely a prelude to the real life that will occur after the Resurrection. If the universe worked all by itself, similarly, God would have no need to intervene in it miraculously from time to time, as He does in both the Old Testament and the New.

With The Meaning of Life, however, Eagleton, the author of such works as Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory and The Illusions of Postmodernism, goes back to channeling his inner materialist. When he mentions God, it is in the sense of an abstract principle that he identifies by the Greek term agape, or love. Needless to say, this is not love in the erotic sense of the word but as a cosmic force that is an expression of the deity's free choice in creating a material universe in which human beings can exist. Since Eagleton is coy as to whether he is speaking literally or figuratively, most readers will assume the latter. As a rhetorical device, it therefore allows him to make the point that the alternative to divine creation is not an empty and meaningless universe, as some moderns would have it. Rather, we can still see the universe as an intelligible whole, one whose "underlying laws," he writes, "reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy which are capable of moving scientists to tears" (a rare point of agreement with Dawkins). If believers, according to Bishop Berkeley, believe that God invested the universe with meaning through the act of creating it, then nonbelievers can believe that people can invest life with meaning through a similar act of creating a mode of living that allows people to realize their full potential.

This supposes that meaning is not something that one discovers "out there," by, say, sitting on a lonely mountaintop and contemplating the heavens. Rather, it supposes that one discovers it "in here," that is, in society and through it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins notes that people might fill the gap left by religious belief in any number of ways but adds that "my way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world." The words "my way" are a giveaway, since they suggest that meaning is something we arrive at individually. Eagleton, by contrast, contends that individual meaning is a solipsism, because any statement about oneself--such as "I am handsomer than Adonis" or "I am the greatest composer since Beethoven"--is meaningful only to the degree it is recognized by others. Hence, "my life is meaningful" is itself meaningful only to the degree that other people view it as such and see their own lives the same way. Hence, meaning can be achieved only via a collective act of self-creation in which humanity creates new conditions for itself so that humanity as a whole can flourish. As a corollary, Eagleton adds that "since there can be no true reciprocity except among equals, oppression and inequality are in the long run self-thwarting as well." Freedom and equality are necessary for humanity to create a meaningful existence for itself.

In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence. Odd, isn't it, that atheists can be right about God but wrong about religion and much else about the modern condition, while a believer can be wrong about God but at least on the right track concerning the current spiritual malaise?

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