Beliefs on trial

August 10, 2007

Julian Baggini tells us that the French philosopher Michel Onfray is an "individualist" ("Sacre bleu", features, August 3), yet his views on religion seem utterly conformist, echoing those of other atheists such as Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling.

Like them, Onfray seeks to explain one universal (violence) by another (religion), believes that giving up the latter will free us from the former, and that this is the promise of the Enlightenment. Yet the French gave us that totem of rational modernity, the guillotine, that should have saved Onfray from such naivety.

It would seem that he could still do with learning from the religions about the human propensity for destruction and the practices of dispossession, forgiveness and reconciliation that they encourage in response. But such learning would require listening, and on Baggini's account, Onfray is less interested in conversing with the "bulk of religious moderates" and their intellectual traditions than with the "fundamentals" of those traditions as Onfray sees them.

He tells us that real believers - and especially theologians - are always "ducking, dipping and taking a la carte", refusing to believe what they ought to believe. So it would seem that dialogue, for Onfray, is talking with himself. But this he also shares with Dawkins and Grayling, who are noted for their ignorance when it comes to matters of religion and theological reflection.

Gerard Loughlin
Professor of theology
Durham University

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