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Fighting the God delusion

Recent books fight back against religious abuses

IN DEFENCE OF ATHEISM. French academic Michel Onfray is punchy in his look at the mythological roots of the three Abrahamic religions.

The religious right has come to power in the United States, and increasingly in Canada, in part through one very convenient double standard.

When the fundamentalists decide to attack something — most notably homosexuality in all its manifestations — or force their beliefs on the rest of us, it’s an expression of religious freedom. If anyone dares to suggest that those attacks are ignorant or hateful, or that religion itself is a problem, it’s an attack on religious freedom that can’t be tolerated.

It’s a philosophy that’s left most of the media reluctant to point out the hypocrisies, bullying and outright lies that the religious right of all faiths has used to claw its way to political and social power all over the world. Fortunately, as the abuses inflicted on our supposedly secular society by religion have become impossible to ignore, a number of authors have begun to fill the vacuum and lead the fight.

As Richard Dawkins — the author of The God Delusion — and probably the best known of the group (thanks in part to his not altogether complimentary appearance on South Park), said after 9/11: “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

French author Michel Onfray has certainly taken Dawkins’ advice to heart in his new book In Defense Of Atheism: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism And Islam. His book — actually more of an extended diatribe — is less respectful of God than Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley combined.

Unlike other recent books, however, In Defense Of Atheism is far more of a look at the roots of the three Abrahamic religions and their historical problems than it is an examination of religion in today’s societies. Where The God Delusion uses Dawkins’ scientific background to logically confront religious belief, and books by Sam Harris and Garry Wills examine how religion affects today’s societies and politics, Onfray avoids those arguments.

In his 2005 book, Bush’s Fringe Government, for example, Wills looks at how religious conviction drove the president’s election.

“When the entire culture is corrupted, the country can only be morally governed in spite of itself. A collection of aggrieved minorities must seize the levers of power in every way possible. One must govern not from a broad consensual center but from activist fringes of morality.”

Onfray doesn’t once mention Bush. As such, while he does provide some valuable context for the debate, he also fails to make vital connections.

Onfray is useful in pointing out the historic framework in which religion dominates even the most determined attempts at secularism. He examines the way in which even the word “atheist” is indelibly linked to religion.

“It is dangerous in such circumstances to proclaim oneself an atheist… But others say it, and always from the deprecatory standpoint of an authority bent on condemnation. The word’s very structure makes this clear: a-theist. An exclusionary prefix, implying a negation, a lack, a void, an antagonistic stance. We possess no positive term to describe the man who does not worship phantoms of the imagination. All we have is this linguistic construction suggestive of amputation… ‘Atheism’ is thus the product of a verbal creation by the manufacturers of gods.”

But even here in outlining opposition to the religions he attacks, Onfray ignores developments in the modern world. He completely passes over, for example, the growth of the humanist movement — and its deliberately chosen name — in the West.

Onfray goes through a who’s who of philosophers both well-known and obscure and what he sees as both their cowardice and their persecution by religious authorities, especially Christian. He castigates the rituals of all three religions as foolish and harmful. He details how the actions of the emperors of the Roman Empire empowered Christianity, how legends — such as Jesus, in his opinion — were built into fact and how religion has been tied to war through the ages.

But there are several problems with the way he does this. Onfray prefers assertion and accusation to documentation or, in some cases, social context. He ridicules, for example, religious prohibitions on diet or requirements for circumcision. Certainly, today, they seem ridiculous, but Onfray makes no allowances for the arguments by many historians that at the time the requirements were created, bans on certain foods or being circumcised may have stemmed from valid health reasons.

I also have no reason to doubt Onfray’s historical assertions, but given his complete lack of attributions and footnotes, I have no reason to trust them either. Simply saying something happened is not proving it did. Why didn’t Onfray attribute his telling of historical events to legitimate historians?

Onfray accuses the Vatican and Hitler of being mutually supportive. And while there is ample evidence of the Vatican’s refusal to oppose Hitler, Onfray cites none of it. And when he says that Hitler drew inspiration for Kristallnacht from Jesus driving moneylenders from the temple and for the Final Solution itself from the Biblical call for “a tooth for a tooth,” without providing a shred of evidence, one wonders if he overreaches.

But the biggest problem with the book is certainly its failure to connect the historical structure Onfray constructs to today’s problems with religion. Where Onfray does mention events of today, it’s only in passing. Homosexuality, for example, receives one paragraph, where Onfray gives one example each of how the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran condemn it. But he provides no context, either historically or in modern times.

Onfray’s approach is in contrast to those other recent books, which examine how religious concepts of corruption — including views on homosexuality — are motivating the religious drive for power and discrimination against certain groups.

As Harris, the author of 2005’s The End Of Faith, wrote in Newsweek in 2006: “The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable and incompatible with genuine morality. One of the worst things about religion is that it tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems — such as gay marriage — where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.”