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on 11 October 2009
Michel Onfray's book, In Defence of Atheism, sets out to deconstruct the three major monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Early in the book Onfray tells us that he is going to adopt George Bataille's concept Atheology as a: "Countercurrent (sic) to theology." In other words, Onfray is creating a perspective from which to launch his critique. He begins with a preface in which he shows how holy books, the Koran in particular, lead people to contradictory beliefs and actions.

In order to defend atheism, Onfray's tactic is to attack the three religions he rails against. He does so from a huge array of perspectives: torture, ignorance, purity, the body, hatred of science, etc. He is broadly right but nonetheless his rant has the aura of a sleight of hand.

One of the problems with books that rail against religion is that they use hyperbole to shock in order to make their case. For example, this is how Onfray begins section 1 of chapter 3 in part 2 of the book: "Monotheisms have no love of intelligence, books, knowledge, science." This is not a quirk of the translation because overstated claims like this are consistent throughout the book. Surely it is somewhat far fetched to make such a claim. It makes me want to shout out against atheists and say there is no need for hyperbole your case against religion is strong enough without them.

There is some astute analysis here as Onfray makes his defence of atheism. I am always taken aback by how the majority of believers are cowed by the dogma of religious doctrine. Yet on the other hand the well educated and elite take a more sober and reasoned approach to belief in a religion. Onfray believes that the basis of this distinction is rooted in intellectuals, for example philosophers, who proceed to argue for a belief in religion from "intelligence, reason, deduction and argument" and religious prophets such as "Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad" who propose "dogma, revelation and obedience."

Unlike Dawkins, that most celebrated of British atheist, Onfray does not set out to claim or garner any great scientists or philosophers as fellow atheists in order to strengthen his case. No, to his credit, Onfray's position is one based on reasoned argument and experience. This stance must be applauded. On the contrary some big names such as Kant and Nietzsche come in for criticism for their approach to religion.

He brilliantly coins a concept Christian atheism. For Onfray Christian atheism is a "Christianity without God." Those whom the concept capture wants to deny God but at the same time sees good in Christian values and evangelical morality." Onfray would have none of this he says: "good has no need of God, of heaven, or of any unintelligible anchorage." The evangelical aspect of the concept Christian atheism should be an approach for those atheist who behave in that way to avoid.

No book that rails against religion could fail to mention its atrocities. In Defence of Atheism does so but without bashing us into believing the atrocities outlined. Of equal interest in the chapter that deals with these issues, chapter three, is Onfray's use of Michel Foucault's concept of epistemology as a discourse device to reveal the world from a particular perspective. Onfray shows us how religion has penetrated many aspects of our lives. He concludes that: "It is almost as if religion needs innocence, lack of education, and ignorance in order to thrive." For me this is an almost self evident truth. Just look at the divide in approach to religious believe between the so called first and third worlds or the colonizers and the colonized. The later out of poor education and ignorance take religious tenets literally without any questioning.

As one reads this book, especially part four, one gets a sense that Onfray is ironically evangelical in his approach. It's as if he wants to equip us with the critical and analytical skills needed to read the holy books he rails against. I welcome this as I take the view that one should not read such texts passively. He asks: "should we read more closely, more subtly, leaving the beaten paths habitually taken in approaching this subject?"

Onfray's book is a long polemical tirade against Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A little one sided but nonetheless a devastating critique of the three major religions.
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