Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto is the bestselling atheist book in Europe. It defends an atheism very different from that of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Dawkins and Hitchens are English, and their atheism is of the British variety. Harris seems to have adopted this Anglo-Saxon atheism as his own. It is scientific atheism, based on the idea that science in general and Darwin in particular have made God irrelevant. What religion previously explained, science now explains better. Using this proven scientific technique, we find no empirical evidence for God, heaven or immortal souls.
Onfray hates religion and specifically Christianity with the same venom as Dawkins and company. He too appeals to the Enlightenment. But Onfray is rooted on the French and German Enlightenment. His is the atheism of the Baron d’Holbach and especially of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is Nietzsche’s radical ideas, Onfray writes, that “make it possible to envisage an exit from Christianity.”
Onfray begins by disagreeing with Nietzsche’s famous proposition that God is dead. “Clearly the announcement of God’s death was as world-shaking as it was false,” Onfray writes. “Our era staggers under the weight of revelations solemnly hailed as the authorized utterances of new oracles.” In other words, religion is booming worldwide. God seems very much alive, while Nietzsche is dead.
Even in Europe, Onfray sees troubling signs. He notes “the waning of religious practice, the apparent autonomy of ethics in relation to religion, the perceived public indifference at the prospect of a papal visit, churches empty on Sundays.” Still, he warns, “Let us remain on our guard. Never before, perhaps, has this apparent eclipse so effectively hidden the strong, powerful, and decisive presence of Judeo-Christianity.” Judaism and Christianity continue to govern a “conceptual and mental empire pervading every component of civilization and culture.”
This is straight out of Nietzsche. The great German philosopher wrote that even if the West gets rid of the Christian God, that is only the beginning. The reason, he said, is that Christian assumptions continue to pervade Western society. Even values held by secular people are the product of Christianity. If Christianity goes, Nietzsche predicted, these values must also erode. It is foolish to cling to the values while removing their foundation.
Onfray gives two examples. Christianity introduced a new value that wasn’t present in ancient Greece and Rome: the respect for every human life. That’s why abortion and infanticide remain controversial in the West, while they are routinely practiced in other cultures without a hint of moral qualm. Onfray recognizes that an atheist West must abandon its reverence for human life, and he for one is ready to do it.
A second example Onfray gives is the Christian idea of free will. Onfray writes that because of the story of the Garden of Eden, Western man presumes that humans have the ability to choose between good and evil. Even secular courts that have taken down their religious symbols “operate in accordance with this biblical metaphysics.” For example, Onfray writes, “The child rapist is free…In his soul and conscience, endowed with a free will permitting him to prefer one option over another, he chooses violence—when he could have decided otherwise.”
For Onfray, this is ridiculous. “Who would even countenance a hospital locking up a man or a woman diagnosed with a brain tumor—no more of a free choice than a pedophilic fixation.” Onfray seems to believe that child rapists and serial killers are all sick and unable to control their impulses. By getting rid of the Christian idea of free will, he believes the law can stop punishing such people and give them the treatment they clearly need.
It is easy to dispute Onfray’s social judgments about this and other matters. But there’s something deeper going on here. Like Nietzsche, Onfray doesn’t disbelieve in God so much as he doesn’t want God to exist. If God exists, then we get the Ten Commandments and other examples of God-given morality. That morality places constraints on us.
British atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens are eager to assure us that while they reject the Judeo-Christian God, they do not reject the values of compassion, human dignity, and equality that were introduced by Christianity and are widely shared in Western society. Dawkins and Hitchens insist that we can be moral without God. But Onfray, like Nietzsche, insists that this is an illusion.
Onfray describes the Dawkins-Hitchens position as “atheist Christianity,” which he describes as an attempt to preserve Christian values while eliminating the Christian God. Onfray wants to move beyond this to what he calls “atheistic atheism,” which requires the wholesale invention of new values that have never existed before.
What these values will look like, Onfray does not specify. He merely says that utilitarianism and hedonism should be our guides. His startling conclusion is that “atheism is not an end in itself.” Rather, atheism exists in order to get rid of Judeo-Christian values that constrict our lifestyle. This is an atheism more honest, more darkly appealing, and ultimately more destructive than that of Dawkins and Hitchens.