When we think of atheist anti-religious polemicists, we tend to think of the Big Four (or, as they have been labeled, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse): Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Their work is really not my cup of tea, but for those who do like that sort of thing, then you should check out Michel Onfray’s book Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was published in French in 2005 and in English in 2007. It’s fairly short, and is a lively read.
Onfray gets less attention than he should because he’s a French intellectual and most of his works are only accessible in French. When I say he isn’t getting enough attention, I don’t mean I agree with everything he says, or even that I like his work very much; I think it is important, however, that he offers a perspective on atheism and religion that is grounded in something besides scientism. Onfray was trained in philosophy, and it is this background that informs his attack on the three major monotheisms. The biggest strength of Atheist Manifesto, in my opinion, is Onfray’s awareness that atheism has a history — this is conspicuously lacking in the works of the Big Four. Onfray argues vehemently that the history of atheism has been neglected, which is certainly true in comparison with the history of religion; however, Onfray seems not to know about English-language scholarship on atheism, which deals with at least some atheist historical figures in detail. La Mettrie, for example, has received considerable attention from English-language scholars interested in Enlightenment materialism.
Atheist Manifesto is different from the better-known works of the Big Four in another respect as well. Onfray, a post-modernist, sets out to deconstruct religion and its truth-claims, not from a scientific perspective but by showing how much human intervention and mediation was involved in constructing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Not all of his interpretations are defensible: for instance, he argues that St. Paul’s negative attitude toward sexuality and women was caused by impotence, but he cites no sources (here or elsewhere in the book) and relies on psychological conjecture. Onfray’s historical analyses must be read with caution, and I would urge his readers to look elsewhere for reliable histories; however, his approach and arguments offer useful starting points for a more philosophical understanding of atheism.
The book is ultimately disappointing, because Onfray states several times that what’s needed now is a post-Christian, post-religious, atheist ethic, but fails to say what that might be. I agree with his argument against what he calls “religious secularism,” i.e. following religious morality and behaviour in everything except for believing in God. Religious secularism includes, for example, secular or even atheist congregations and clergy. For the most part, however, the section on a post-Christian secular order is an anti-Muslim rant, followed by almost no substantial arguments concerning the secular order that Onfray thinks we need. At the end of the book, the reader is no wiser than before about what Onfray’s ideal post-Christian secular order might look like.
Despite these reservations, Atheist Manifesto would be useful and interesting to atheists looking to broaden their reading horizons beyond the books of the Big Four. French intellectuals have published, and continue to publish, serious philosophical works on post-modern atheism; Onfray provides an accessible introduction to this field.