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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, June 02, 2007

More on Michel Onfray

Here's an interesting Onfray-inspired article by Pamela Bone. I think that Bone is too wishy-washy in wanting to call herself "an agnostic". It's pretty clear that she has no belief in any deity, and the term "agnostic" often just strikes me as a euphemism used by people who are concerned not to cause offence. But sometimes causing offence is unavoidable, and no one has a right to go through life without ever being offended.

It's a pity I couldn't make it to Michel Onfray's interview with Phillip Adams on Tuesday night, after I'd encountered Onfray at his signing on Monday. Last night, I was talking to Rob Gerrand - Rob had made it along to the interview with Adams, and it sounded like he'd had an interesting evening.

I'm currently almost finished The Atheist Manifesto, which is a passionate, breathless, yet immensely erudite rant against the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is supremely readable, if sometimes a bit exclamatory for my taste.

Despite Onfray's obvious erudition, the book is not backed up by the kind of apparatus that I am used to in philosophical works, i.e. an index and - much more importantly - a bibliography and notes. Occasionally, the precise citation for a passage from, say, Mein Kampf is given in the text to try to nail down a point (such as Hitler's attitude to religion). However, much that Onfray asserts has to be taken on trust.

I spotted a couple of errors, which are fairly trivial, to be sure. One looks like a transcription error at some point in the writing/editing/translating process: Onfray records the fiery execution of Giordano Bruno as taking place in 1660, rather than in 1600. The other error is, I guess, just a bit of absent-minded carelessness - a reference to the world being imagined by Bible literalists as being 4000 years old, when they actually think it is about 6000 years old (having been created in approximately 4000 BC). Neither of these is fatal, but when the book hides its scholarship so much, with no real scholarly apparatus, they worry me. It makes me wonder how much I can trust Onfray to be getting all his facts right, or whether there are other examples of carelessness that I'm not smart enough to have picked up, however much erudition the author carries around in his head or has compiled in his research notes somewhere.

The other thing that I do find a weakness, even although it helps make the book so readable, is its sheer passion. Onfray isn't really interested in examining what can be said in favour of monotheistic religion. As I always tell students, I find it much more intellectually impressive to read something that acknowledges the strengths of the other side's position, even if these can be met, or contextualised, in some way. There's certainly not much of that in Onfray's book. It's all so one-sided ... and sometimes the attacks are quite speculative, as when Onfray more-or-less psychoanalyses St. Paul, with little to go on. This is really much like the highly speculative interpretations of the sacred texts that tend to emanate from theologians, and always stand in need of scrutiny.

All that said, I don't actually want to sound negative. It's important that books like this be written and published, challenging traditional ideas, and especially challenging the claims of religious institutions and leaders to wield moral authority. I especially admire Onfray's round rejection of the self-denial, false "purity", cruelty, wilful ignorance, and authoritarianism that the monotheistic religions have exhibited and supported all too often.

In fact, as I hope I made clear above, I'm greatly enjoying The Atheist Manifesto. In this translation, at least, Onfray's writing is pleasurable and witty, lucid, often elegant, always page-turning. The book is crammed with fascinating information, much of it arcane but all seemingly relevant to getting a true historical picture of the religions Onfray dislikes so much. But I do wish that I had a bit more confidence that it is all entirely accurate. I'd want to check some other sources before relying too much on The Atheist Manifesto.


drjon said...

I think that Bone is too wishy-washy in wanting to call herself "an agnostic". It's pretty clear that she has no belief in any deity, and the term "agnostic" often just strikes me as a euphemism used by people who are concerned not to cause offence.

Actually, the point we Agnostics try and make is that we neither believe nor disbelieve in any deity.

And, although I have the desire not to cause offense, it's not from my Agnostic viewpoint, but from politeness and civility. Otherwise I'd possibly say something nasty about Atheists at this point. ;})>

Blake Stacey said...

Hm. I actually disbelieve in damn near all of the specific gods and goddesses people on this planet have actually worshiped. The evidence that they exist just isn't there, and plenty of evidence does exist which gives alternate explanations for all the phenomena which prompted people to think of gods. If I try hard enough, though, I could think of something with respect to which I am agnostic, in that I have no definite belief either way. The existence of Homer as an individual, blind, male person is one such item.

With respect to certain inventions of theology, I have to say I'm an ignostic, since I find those constructions logically incoherent.

At some point, the hair-splitting over "agnostic" and "atheist" comes to resemble an argument between people who want two different words for health, one reflecting the lack of any illness or injury and the other indicating a presence of wellness.

Still, ignostic, agnostic or atheist, we're all gonna be against the same wall when the authoritarian revolution comes, aren't we?

As to the main subject of your post:

I had a similar experience reading Hector Avalos's Fighting Words (2005). While it is much more thoroughly footnoted than the book you describe, it does not appear to have been comprehensively proofread. Most of the glitches I caught were punctuational in nature (footnotes interacting with quotation marks and parentheses, etc.). Two errors of word choice caught my eye, one of which just made the sentence awkward and the other of which introduced an error of fact (Captain Dreyfus was imprisoned but not executed).

Russell Blackford said...

Well, guys, for me it's like this.

I actually call myself a "philosophical naturalist" or a "metaphysical naturalist" (the terms are interchangeable). I have a fairly austere picture of what things exist, though I don't consider it (as some people would) to be a bleak one. There's ultimately, just the stuff found by the natural sciences: it looks to me like there are no supernatural beings, no ectoplasm, no ontology of objective norms and so on (moral and legal norms, norms of etiquette, etc., are all man-made things, not things Out There that we "discover").

That still leaves plenty of room for the beauty and majesty of the Universe, though I happily concede that our perception of certain things as "beautiful" or "majestic" is an emotional reaction that human beings have; "majesty" is not an objective property of those things, independent of us and the way that we are inclined to respond to certain kinds of phenomena.

To me, the questions of "Are you an atheist?" "Are you an agnostic?", etc., aren't that meaningful. I don't particularly apply such terms to myself. However, I do live my life on the basis of certain beliefs about what sorts of things actually exist. For example, I don't reserve judgment, as it were, on whether there are invisible, intangible, elusive fairies at the bottom of my garden. I operate on the basis that there aren't any, and I imagine that Pamela Bone does likewise.

Of course, there are lots of specific things on which I do reserve judgment. For example, I just don't know whether Queen Zenobia was beheaded by the Romans after the fall of Palmyra or whether she was eventually pardoned for her rebellion. The historical sources differ, and I see no way to resolve the situation unless some new evidence turns up.

None of the above detracts from my general liking of Pamela Bone's journalism. I've been a fan of it for as long as I care to remember.

Blake Stacey said...

Ah, but what about the invisible, pink, unicorn-shaped fairies at the bottom of the garden? (-;

I've noticed people in the ScienceBlogs comment threads and elsewhere on the Blagnet waxing long-winded on the distinction between philosophical or metaphysical naturalism and the methodological kind. At the risk of sounding snowclonish, it's almost the NOMA of our time.