Interview: Michel Onfray
The author of the best-selling book In Defence of Atheism speaks to Bedeutung


Alexandros Stavrakas: What is religion for you? What do you think its function is and why, in your opinion, has religion or its sisters (magic, superstition etc.) existed always and in every society?

Michel Onfray: A religion is a conception of the world that supposes that this world is explainable by reference to another world, free from the constraints of time, space and physical laws. Nietzsche called this other world Hinterwelt (world behind the world). Religion derives from man’s inability to live with this evidence: that he will die, that his life is short, that it appears between two oblivions and that we are rushing towards this oblivion at great speed, and for all eternity. All religion is founded on the denial of mortality and, following on from that, it offers a narrative to explain what is real, a code of conduct, a fantastical eschatology that can give assurance of the possibility of immortality and assuage existential angst. This inability to live with a skeleton explains people’s turn to magic that, once crystallized into a world vision, gives birth to a religion. Religions will exist for as long as mankind does.

A.S.: In your opinion, does science not require a certain degree or some instances of faith, namely an act that goes beyond empirical testing and verification?

M.O.: Faith and reason exist in two universes, each sealed off from the other. Faith emerges from a fragile mind, from a denial of the power of nothingness, oblivion, from the inability to imagine oneself to be the creature of a day, stuck between two nothings. Reason comes later, to justify what is deep-rooted, instinctive, the things against which one has no power. Great minds, persons of extreme culture, highly reputed scientists, eminent philosophers—they are all capable of believing stories made for children with a credulity that is truly amazing. They call on all the means their culture gives them to justify the unjustifiable, which is where theological discourse originate—only and just because in their heart of hearts they do not accept their mortal state.

A.S.: Do you not consider that the explicit claim that millions of people are idiots who have fallen for a ridiculous fraud called religion is slightly patronising, if not simply an arrogant oversimplification of the complex conditions, social and personal, that lead to faith-oriented (as opposed to rational) understanding of one’s world? Is this ‘prophetic’ and ‘enlightened’ style of writing one’s polemic not indicative of moralistic intoxication instead of what you seem to be proposing: sober and rational intellectualism?

M.O.: There are people who believe that a God can part the sea in two, in order to let his people pass over, that it is possible to be crucified and die and yet rise up on the third day, that an illiterate goatherd is able to copy down the words dictated to him by an angel, that after we die we could live in purgatory or in hell, that by killing an infidel one will gain entry into paradise—zip, just like that—. To explain to those people that, maybe, this is pure nonsense or, at least, that they’re moving within a register where reason has no right of domain: is that being ‘patronising’, ‘arrogant’, displaying a ‘moralistic intoxication’? Perhaps I’m imagining things—I find it hard to imagine that you’re thinking of my In Defence of Atheism when you talk of a supposedly ‘prophetic and enlightened style of writing’.

A.S.: The veracity of religious propositions is inexorably bound with the practice of faith; whereas the veracity of a scientific proposition depends on empirical evidence. Is it not, therefore, a category mistake to hold that a scientific proposition is able to affect the truth or falsehood of a religious claim? What do you think of the logical fallacy in countering something that is clearly, and admittedly, articulated in metaphors (religious writings), by reference to ‘scientific’ and empirical evidence?

M.O.: I, for one, have never believed science was able to prove the inexistence of God or the falseness of any religion—please at least credit me with affirming that. My book does not set out to say that at all. Nor am I saying God doesn’t exist; I state that God does exist, of course, but as a fiction, and I endeavour to show what the laws are that are used to concoct this fiction. My atheism is not that of a scientist—it is philosophical. I am not an heir of the positivists—I am a careful reader of Feuerbach.

A.S.: Religion may have been the ideological furnishing of many condemnable and destructive acts throughout the Western, and not only, history. But so have politics and one only needs to look into the last century to see that history’s most vicious period was secular. What is your comment on that, in view of your claim, which seems to be that religion has a monopoly (or at least the largest share) in fostering hatred and causing destruction?

M.O.: I have never said that religion has a monopoly in fostering hatred. But I will comment that your separation of religions from politics does not hold up for one second. One doesn’t have religions on one side and politics on the other, with politics being just as, if not more, responsible for exacerbating hatred in the world. And this is because religion has not stopped being a political matter. Since Constantine converted, at the start of the 4th century A.D., it has not been possible to separate Christianity and political power artificially, as you are doing. The reason is that political power did not cease being Christian until, at least, the French revolution, and even afterwards…

A.S.: In your book, you make an elaborate distinction between man and animal. From a Darwinian perspective, man’s cognitive faculties are designed for his survival, not necessarily the attainment of truth. As such the distinction between man and animal, emphasizing the ability of the former to attain truth and progress in history, based on a fundamentally Christian distinction between man and animal? How do you comment on the fact that your critique on Christianity begins with an essentially Christian idea?

M.O.: I have never placed my thesis within a Darwinian tradition of thought. It, rather, belongs to a materialist tradition, which, since Democritus, has stated that there is no difference of nature between man and animal, simply a difference of degree. Christianity states that man and animal have nothing to do with each other, that one is endowed with a soul, and the other not, that the former is the pinnacle of creation, while the others are inferior to it, which is why one can justify exploiting their labour, mistreating them, making them suffer and die, raising them to be killed and eaten. I’m not a part of that logic, meaning the logic of Christianity, but of the opposed logic, which is effectively where Darwin is as well, although that still doesn’t make me a Darwinian. In other words, my critique does not begin with an essentially Christian idea, as you seem to imagine.

A.S.: As realists, we should reject any teleological view of history. The belief that humanity is moving towards a particular condition is a Utopianism as potent as any Christian promise of salvation. More to the point, it is no more than a myth that can be neither proven nor refuted rationally. How would you respond to that?

M.O.:I would be happy to follow you down this metaphysical path, but with reservations since, in this world, which is essentially chaotic and apparently lacking in all sense, there does however exist some progress: in Europe, for example, no-one now believes that children should be down coal mines like in the 19th century, which, I might remind you, was an era when the bosses of the ironworks fought against those, like Owen, who wanted to get children away from work and into schools. Their argument was that this would lessen economic competitiveness with other countries. In 2008, even the bosses accept the cause of education, schooling for children, and do not think they should be at work from early childhood. I think one can work towards this sort of progress without at the same time imagining any more complex teleology.

A.S.: Can we really blame religion for the retardation of scientific and social progress? Aren’t there many examples whereby explicitly religious considerations have led to progress in these fields – for example, the early history of Islam sees a flourishing of science; Christianity played a vital part in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. You write: “25 centuries of wasted opportunities for humankind accumulate” (DoA p.83) because of Christianity’s impediment of science. Again, not only the theoretical claim is largely refutable but its practical opposite is just as much the case: religion, as much as other political and ideological constructions, has obstructed as much as promoted, funded and supported research and knowledge – even if it is to serve its own theories. Many scientific advances have been made from within the gulfs of superstition; this has not made them any less important or useful. What do you respond to that?

M.O.: I would respond that the Christian religion became opposed to the heliocentric view; it preferred a geocentric view, even if it was incorrect. And to achieve this view, it burned Giordano Bruno at the stake and condemned Galileo. It opposed the dissection of humans, thus setting back progress in medicine by several centuries. It opposed atomist physics, which contradicted the fable of the Eucharist whereas, nowadays, all schoolchildren are taught the existence of atoms and the logic of Mendeleyev’s table. It opposed geological discoveries because they would contradict the fables of Genesis. It rejects Darwin’s conclusions and, even now, it still defends the idea of a world created ex nihilo by God. Right this moment, religion’s rejection of genetic engineering is keeping Western medicine trapped in the mediaeval era. And so on. Of course you may regard Christianity as having ‘promoted, funded and supported research and knowledge’, but it would be difficult for you to quote me a single name in support of your thesis. For my part, I could quote you a book of George Minois, a thousand pages long, entitled L’Eglise et la Science (The Church and Science), which details what you call ‘Christianity’s impediment of science’. This extremely well-documented tome is subtitled -perhaps appropriately- Histoire d’un Malentendu (History of a Misunderstanding). I would be interested to see the refutation you say you can make of this.

A.S.: To quote an old cliché: “Secularism is a kind of contradiction: it is defined by what it excludes.” What is your view on that?

M.O.: Secularism affirms perfectly the phrase from the Gospels where it says “Render what is Caesar’s to Caesar and what is God’s to God”. You think Matthew teaches ‘a kind of contradiction in terms’? I don’t.

A.S.: In Heidegger, you see the idea that mankind’s fatal error began with Socrates in ancient Greece, the arrogant and deluded faith in the powers of human reason. What today many people term the ‘tyranny of technology over life’. How do you stand towards this criticism?

M.O.: I’m very pro-technology and nothing could be more foreign to me than technophobia. I have even written an entire book, Féeries Anatomiques, which is in praise of all technology can achieve.

A.S.: In line with the thought of John Gray, the Jacobins offered what was, essentially, a Christian promise of salvation, although articulated in different terms. Modern revolutionary movements, by and large, renew the apocalyptic myths of early Christianity. How do you respond to that?

M.O.:It is true that Christianity has had its effects, including even such things as revolutionary millenarianism. But I’m not interested in whether you’re defending the Christian fable or the socialist fable or the communist one; I don’t believe in a human race pacified; I believe only in some pockets of resistance to barbarism in a brutal world. I abhor the Jacobins as much as I loathe the Bishops; my libertarian temperament means I don’t go looking for masters to defend.

A.S.: Do you think there is some wisdom in Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, whereby the current political order is only a contingent measure that is not identified with an explicit human flourishing? Isn’t all political totalitarianism – religious or secular – rooted in the desire to close this gap, and to explicitly identify the political order with human flourishing?

M.O.:I don’t aspire to totalitarianism, to the One, to a reconciled Whole; I am a thinker concentrated on what is diverse, multiple, fragmentary, splintered, on the pieces, the pockets of resistance, on mini-resistances to mini-fascisms. There is nothing Hegelian about me.

A.S.: The Religion of Humanity is an idea of a faith invoked by many positivist thinkers, in which human beings would be worshipped as the Supreme being. How is this faith different from others?

M.O.: This faith cannot be distinguished from any other faith. There’s no good faith and bad faith where bad faith in the religion of the City of God is the opposite of the good faith in the City of Man. Faith is not my way of thinking. I prefer reason, philosophy, and the patient work philosophy achieves.

A.S.: In one of the constitutional texts of Capitalism, Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’, we read of the invisible hand, an obscure regulatory power that allows and facilitates the harmonious function of the rational economic system and ensures its eventual equilibrium. Are we not encountering here, again, the need for an un-accountable and inexplicable force? Why is reason always in need of a ‘helping hand’?

M.O.: You’re right, and this is why I’m opposed, in politics, to the liberalism that reinstates God after he had been partially deposed through the patient work done by a number of philosophers. The way liberalism has functioned for the last two centuries demonstrates that the market is not solving any of the problems, and that, in fact, it more probably is itself the problem. This invisible hand is so invisible that one cannot even see its work, its effects, its movement. One more proof, one could say light-heartedly, of the non-existence of God!

A.S.: Do you believe it is faith of any kind or monotheistic religions in particular that are condemnable? If it is the former, how do you imagine a world functioning without faith? If it is faith in the supernatural that you are against, what do you imagine can replace the supernatural object of people’s faith that would offer the same social, psychological and ideological functions?

M.O.: In Defence of Atheism restricted its scope to the three monotheistic religions because my knowledge is not broad enough to discuss other religions in detail. That would take someone an entire lifetime. Even so, in the first few pages of this book, I did criticise religious feeling from a Feuerbachian perspective, and that is valid for all religions: religion as the creation of a ‘world behind the world’ that makes this world bearable. For as long as this world here is unbearable – and it is like that for most people due to the simple fact that one day we must all die – there will be religions. And it is in the nature of reality to be unbearable when one has done nothing, made no effort to make it bearable. Religion is the remedy offered to people who have no time to invent one for themselves, according to their own capabilities. Personally, I prefer to work at this task through philosophy. Something I have been doing for the last fifty years.

Translated from French by David Gerard

  • About

    Alexandros Stavrakas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied politics, philosophy and economy, followed by graduate studies in philosophy at the LSE and anthropology at UCL. He has written articles, translated, lectured and worked as contributing editor. He is the Editor of Bedeutung Magazine.

    David Anthony Gerard is Australian by birth and schooling. Since graduating from the University of Oxford with an M.A. in Modern Languages and an M.Phil in Mediaeval Arabic Thought, David Gerard has worked as a career translator for 20 years. He has contributed to the English edition of Kluwer's Encyclopaedia of Laws, as well as a number of published translations of contemporary Russian poetry and prose.

    The Interview with Michel Onfray appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.