Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: In Defence Of Atheism- The case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Michel Onfray

I was just waiting for my daughter who had stepped into a craft shop, and on impulse decided to go in myself, though I had no reason to do so other than avoid the boredom of sitting in the car waiting. To one side of the entrance were some shelves devoted to second hand books. It was here that I found the book that is the subject of this review. No offence to Michel Onfray but I feel I paid an entirely appropriate price for this almost perfect copy, well preserved in its hard binding and plastic wrap. At $3 no one is going to accuse me of financially supporting the opposition!

The Elephant In The Room

I had heard a little of Michel Onfray but not a lot. Within the first few pages of the book I was aware that this was going to be a bumpy ride. In his preface he gives a quick survey of the religions of the world, exotic places that he has been to that are made personal by his observations and experiences with the various devotees. This is no armchair critic. Although he is quick to point out that “In none of those places did I feel superior to those who believed in spirits…”, his vehement opposition to any thing of the supernatural belies the superior vantage point that he immediately and confidently assumes.
  “Everywhere I saw how readily men construct fables in order to avoid looking reality in the face. The invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at such a high price…”
With fighting words like the above he throws down the gauntlet such that any theist worth his mettle should feel compelled to give an answer for the reason of his hope.

In his introduction the tone that he sets in the preface is consistent:
“I do not despise believers. I find them neither ridiculous nor pathetic, but I lose all hope when I see that they prefer the comforting fairy tales of children to the cruel hard facts of adults. Better the faith that brings peace of mind than the rationality that brings worry- even at the price of perpetual infantilism.”
Cruel? Perpetual infantilism?

Don’t get me wrong, of course I agree that life is- for untold millions over unsung eons- harsh and yes, even cruel. I merely highlight this word to point out Onfray’s immediate assumption of a moral Universe. He clearly proposes a dichotomy between faith and rationality and sets up the cruelty of reality as an argument against the existence of God. Which straight away led me to think of C.S. Lewis and how he unravelled his own arguments against the existence of God as an avowed atheist until the age of 32 when he converted:
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning."C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Harper San Francisco, Zondervan Publishing House, 2001, pp. 38-39.
With words such as “infantilism” Michel Onfray derides the Christian faith and yet, it seems that, unlike Onfray, C.S. Lewis did not stop, like a child, at the face of cruelty but pushed on as an adult and took that argument to its ultimate conclusion. Now that to my mind, is both maturity and rationality. For further explanation see this post (How Can You Posit The Existence Of God In The Presence Of All This Evil?) which includes a video clip by Ravi Zacharias explaining just how it is that an atheist cannot legitimately use evil as an argument against the existence of God, because hidden in the assumption of a moral Universe is that there must therefore be a moral lawgiver.

Michel Onfray: “How ironic that other people’s credulity should bring a smile to the face of the man who sits supremely unaware of his own!”
As I read this, I wonder if there is not more irony in his own statement than even he realizes. It is a double edged sword. Statements like that can turn on one and bite them on the backside. That sort of confidence immediately brought to mind the assertion that White Star Line Vice President P.A.S. Franklin announced of the ill fated “Titanic” - when news broke that it was in trouble:
By the time Franklin had spoken those words Titanic was already at the bottom of the ocean.

God Is Not Dead

When we reach the first chapter Onfray has invoked the sentiments of the famous God-hater Neitzsche, (God is Dead) but in fact goes one better:
“...God is neither dead nor dying because he is not mortal. A fiction does not die, an illusion never passes away, a fairy tale does not refute itself….The oppressed creature’s sigh will endure for as long as the creature itself, in other words forever.”
Perhaps this is as close as he will get to admitting that God is immortal. At least he is immortal in the minds of those who believe. But this admission of a leading atheist at least frankly concedes that the atheist project of ridding the world of the notion of God is- right at the outset- a doomed endeavour. Perhaps the healthiest thing at this point would be to ask: Could there possibly be another reason that the idea of a supreme being has universally been the subject of veneration since the dawn of mankind and continues to be, and has every sign of enduring the future? In his own mind there can only be one reason for God’s continued good health: Weak minds need him.

To my mind- at the very least- a rational person should consider that if there is such a preponderance and insistent universal clamour from bygone ages to the present to worship something- that there may just be something to it...

Onfray proceeds to build a mental scaffold by invoking the father of psychology Freud and his theory of the Oedipal urge. It must be noted here that Freud’s disconnect with religion was not based on conclusions from his observations, but his observations were interpreted through a prior commitment to atheism. He did in fact commit the unforgivable psychological sin of confirmation bias and has thus widely discredited his own views on religion.  I am somewhat surprised that Onfray would appeal to Freud as an ally in today's world when his views are largely seen as irrelevant everywhere- except perhaps in France. For a closer look at the failure of Freud to offer any serious threat to belief in God see this post:  "No God"- A Wish Fulfillment?"

Alistair McGrath quotes Freud's own confession of prejudice against the existence of God:
The honest reader cannot but feel that Freud’s historical work is rather tenuous and that he has ‘shoe-horned’ his history to fit his Oedipal theory. This feeling is only strengthened when we read his [Freud's] comments on his historical research:
“I am reading books without really being interested in them, since I already know the results; my instinct tells me that” McGrath, A. (1993) Bridge Building (Leicester: IVP)

Killing The Illusion

Onfray’s whole thrust thus far to discredit the idea of the existence of God is by persuading people that this “figment of the imagination” can be sourced to a psychological motive.
“As long as men are obliged to die, some of them, unable to endure the prospect , will concoct fond illusions. We cannot assassinate or kill an illusion. In fact, illusion is more likely to kill us- for God puts to death everything that stands up to him, beginning with reason, intelligence, and the critical mind.”
Here Onfray conflates the idea of God, with God himself, and thus commits the sin of genetic fallacy. “The genetic fallacy is said to be committed when the source or origin of a proposition is taken to be relevant to its evaluation.” Because the fact that God can be represented (re-presented) in the mind it does not therefore follow necessarily that God is only in the mind or that he is therefore merely a human construct.  Eduard von Hartmann said nearly a century ago:
“it is perfectly true that nothing exists merely because we wish it, but it is not true that something cannot exist if we wish it.”
So using psycho-speak to propose a motive for conjuring up the existence of God as merely an idea, bears no relation to the truth or not of God’s existence, something of which Michel Onfray as a philosopher would know only too well. Simone De Beauvoir exemplified the genetic fallacy in her work "The Second Sex"
In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defence is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity.
Fear of death may indeed prompt a hunger for God and the eternal, but that fact alone has no bearing on whether God exists. Could it be that we were indeed designed for eternity and thus have this natural repugnance towards our own finitude?  Again I refer to C.S. Lewis who turns Onfray's argument on its head in his "argument from desire" .The very fact that we hunger- which is after all a desire we all experience- is good evidence that food exists. Would it not be a sensible thing to evaluate the common and universal desires that humans experience, and from the pattern that emerges, extrapolate the reality that for most- if not all- of those desires there exists some provision to see those desires fulfilled? Is that not a pattern of human existence and experience? Why then is it deemed infantile to posit that this universal desire to worship something throughout human history as evidence of the reality that this desire also has its fitting object?
"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

God Puts To Death Reason, Intelligence And The Critical Mind 

"God puts to death everything that stands up to him, beginning with reason, intelligence, and the critical mind."
This colourful prose appeals to God haters everywhere. But it is immediately apparent that here Onfray is even inconsistent with himself, being at odds with his own appraisal. Not more than a few pages hence he extolled the idea of "rekindling the Enlightenment". He refers to Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant and d'Alembert and then laments that "the revered figures mentioned above were united in deism." But if the age of Enlightenment was the dawning of the golden age of thought, and science, why is it that consistently these thinkers believed in God if God was the malevolent "reason killing" being Onfray makes him out to be? But this glaring inconsistency is at odds not only with his own appraisal, it is at odds with most historians of science. A thorough going theistic worldview pervading the thought life of the cultural period we know as the Enlightenment was the seedbed in which the young discipline known as natural philosophy was nurtured. Now known under the broad head "Science", far from being a science stopper, theism provided the cultural climate in the West for advances in knowledge that were without precedent in any other continent of the world.

John Lennox, who ardently defends the existence of God and rescues Science from the danger of being made the pawn of materialistic worldviews has quoted an highly esteemed scientist- not a theist- who provides for us a nuanced and balanced perspective:
'Paul Davis, a brilliant physicist at ASU says "that the right scientific attitude" now listen to this, Paul Davis is not a theist- "the right scientific attitude is essentially theological, science can only proceed if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is, at least in part, comprehensible to us." Einstein said " I cannot imagine the scientist without that profound faith"- note the word"
This law-like order that we easily and confidently assume in nature is so completely and unreservedly part of today's cultural milieu such that it is hard for the average person to realize that this was not always a given. It only became such a widely accepted part of the Western paradigm through the Enlightenment that Onfray is so fond of reminiscing over. The point being that the very advent of this recognition was brought about through the study of theology, which was once the "queen" of the intellectual disciplines. It was first through the discipline of theology that drew all the threads together of an apparently disparate set of narratives and literary genres throughout the sixty six books of the Bible that the faculty of reason was sharpened to the extent that this same scalpel-like accuracy and perceptiveness could also be applied to discover the patterns, the law-like realities that were also inherent in our Universe. It required a certain discipline of mind to search out and summarize the various books with authors of quite different backgrounds and stations in life and literary styles that we now know as the Biblical canon; through which the unitary, cohesive, coherent and consistent doctrines of God overseeing it all could be observed. Having had their minds thus sharpened these thinkers delighted not only in the word of God, but his works also.

One of the most celebrated pieces of early scientific literature is Isaac Newton's "Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica". Otherwise known as the "Principia" in which Newton 'states the laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics, also Newton's law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler's laws of planetary motion ... the Principia is "justly regarded as one of the most important works in the history of science" ' (Wikipedia).

Newton was not only a scientist but contributed theological works as well. Here is something of his dedication to God from the Principia:
"This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being....This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God"pantokrator," or Universal Ruler...." Sir Isaac Newton.
And it has always been accepted since, that we too, being part of that creation are also a reflection of God's own nature. At which point I would like to add, that the faculty of reason that Onfray is so fond of celebrating found its deepest and earliest joy in theology. That faculty which cut its teeth on theology. and which then went on to explore God's world is what makes humanity unique in the world of organisms and so special in God's sight.