Religion is linked to genocide and jihad and is at odds with the Enlightenment, says Michel Onfray, but he still engages with believers, he tells Julian Baggini
In recent years, it has somehow become perfectly acceptable to claim that committed atheists such as Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling are as extreme and fundamentalist as the religious believers they attack. The absurdity of this equation has just been made manifest by the UK publication of philosopher Michel Onfray's In Defence of Atheism , which has sold an incredible 300,000 copies in his native France. Onfray is more strident and damning of religion than Dawkins or Grayling, yet at the same time he makes it absolutely clear that not even he deserves to be compared with religious extremists.
Onfray's polemic is filled with no-holds barred claims such as "Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the societies that arose from the Enlightenment". Not that the other monotheistic faiths come off any better. "The Christian passion for mass extermination endures," he writes. "A recent example was the genocide of Tutsis by the Hutu of Rwanda, supported, defended and covered up by the Catholic establishment on the spot and by the supreme pontiff himself."
When I met Onfray in London, however, I found not a raging Gaul but a youthful, casual 48-year-old who spoke confidently and calmly, with an intense seriousness. "I don't see myself as particularly polemical or aggressive," he told me, neither polemically nor aggressively. His accusations against Christianity, Judaism and Islam may sound outrageous when presented as stark conclusions, but his arguments for them are measured and based more on facts than prejudices. For instance, when he argues for the violent nature of Islam, he notes forensically: "Nearly 250 verses - of the 6,234 of the book (the Koran) - justify and legitimise holy war, jihad."
Unsurprisingly, such claims raise hackles, but of the criticisms he has received in France he says: "None of them dealt critically with my arguments on how religion is constructed, on the connections between Christianity and Nazism, the relationship between (Pope) John Paul II and Rwanda, the compatibility between Islam and the French Republic. They've never argued with the factual claims that I made in my book. But when you bring up the question of religion you're obviously dealing with very fundamental and primitive layers of people's psyches. Reason no longer rules, passion takes over."
Onfray has personal experience of these passions, in the form of death threats, which only make his claims seem more credible. "I'm quite surprised that today if someone says that Islam is intolerant the person who says this can be threatened with death, which shows the intolerance of Islam."
Onfray is dismayed by how criticising Islam directly has become almost taboo in the European Left. "The Left and the extreme Left are pro-Islam, and this has roots in Third-Worldism and also the hatred of Western capitalism. On the one hand there is capitalism, the bourgeoisie, the US, George Bush, the state of Israel; on the other there is Palestine, Islam, the Third World, liberation movements. To choose Islam is to go against Bush and Western capitalism, but I reject this dichotomy. I don't want to take sides with either Bush or Bin Laden."
Not that Islam is singled out in his book, which focuses exclusively on the three Abrahamic faiths. One of the most striking claims is that the Catholic Church was complicit in the Rwandan genocide, right up to Pope John Paul II.
"He let things happen, knowing that the communities were arming one another, knowing that the Christians were supporting the exterminating communities. He let the genocide happen and afterwards he intervened to make sure that those who had committed genocide got off or were freed, that clemency and magnanimity were expressed towards them. The Vatican was active in making sure that the priests who had supported the genocide were taken back to Europe, and in particular to Belgium."
In case it is thought this is a reckless charge, in the book Onfray catalogues at least some of the evidence, including a letter written to the President of Rwanda on April 23, 1998, in which John Paul II "requested a stay of execution for Hutus found guilty of genocide. Not a single word for the victims."
Despite the fierceness of his criticisms of religions, Onfray doesn't simplistically blame them for all the world's ills. Francois Mitterrand, the former French President, for example, is criticised too for ignoring the Rwandan genocide. Onfray is also more than prepared to engage with believers. "The more dialogue the better. The more people talk to each other and meet, the less violence between them is possible. I agree with (President Nicolas) Sarkozy when he says that you have to talk with the leaders of the Muslim community and bring them over to Republican values. I'm not in favour of any policy of exclusion, hostility or reprimand. We need to see what a Republican French Islam would be like. One has to distinguish between what texts such as the Koran say and the everyday practice of Muslims in France."
Onfray's passion for a more discursive society is proven by his founding of the extraordinary Université Populaire de Caen in 2002. It has no entry requirements, its teachers don't get paid, nor do students pay fees. Yet Onfray has persuaded 19 other colleagues to teach there, and he himself has 900 students a week.
"It is pleasure that will make you come here," he says. "The pleasure is to see how past philosophical thought can help us live today." The initiative has led to nine or ten other French towns doing the same thing. "They're going to set one up in South America soon," Onfray says.
There is no contradiction between the commitment to harsh critique and intense dialogue. Indeed, living peacefully in a diverse country requires the ability to discuss deep differences and accept offensive criticism. "The fact that people can question the whole thing of the cartoons (cartoonists at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were threatened in 2005 by Muslim extremists for publishing cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad, one showing a bomb in his turban) is a very worrying development," he says. "The freedom to mock and make fun is fundamental to the freedom of expression."
Where Onfray's attack on religion seems blunt is that it appears to have nothing to do with the bulk of religious moderates who don't subscribe to orthodox dogma, lead quiet lives, raise money for Africa and so on.
"I understand that individuals won't see themselves in what I am describing, but the fundamentals of the religions are what I describe," he insists. "People have an a la carte concept of religion, they take what they want. So some Christians don't believe in Hell, and I have a Muslim friend, for example, who doesn't drink alcohol during Ramadan but he does at other times. Theologians are also ducking, dipping and taking a la carte whatever interests them and they think is important."
Although the book is supposedly a defence of atheism, it is more of an attack on religion than a positive programme. But it is not Onfray's fault that of the 30-odd books he has written, many of which do outline a more constructive agenda, this is the first to be published in English. In those other books, Onfray advocates a form of hedonistic atheism.
"It's an ascetic hedonism, not a hedonism of consumption," Onfray explains. "It's a hedonism where you develop your autonomous freedom, free from power, money, honours and so on. It's a return to the ideals of Diogenes, Epicurus and Socrates. The hedonism I propose is to render every minute dense."
Critics of atheism often argue that it leads to a shallow materialist individualism but this, Onfray argues, is a mistake.
"It's materialist in the philosophical sense of the word: there's no God and no heaven. But it's an anti-materialism in the sense of materialism as a love for possessions in this world. It's an individualism, because it's an invitation for each to build their individuality. But individualism is not egoism. An individualist like me says there are only individuals; the egoist says there's only me. An individualist can construct an ethic, an egoist can't. My individualism is an antidote to egoism."
I put it to him that from this side of the Channel, France looks like a pretty hedonistic culture, with its long lunches and 35-hour weeks. "It's an English point of view," he replies, pausing, before adding, "and it's true." But he believes it is under threat from Sarkozy's presidency, of which he says: "It's going to be tough on the weak and weak on the tough."
Such is Onfray's fame in his home country that, despite his well-known antipathy towards Sarkozy, he was able to interview him for the French magazine Philosophie during Sarkozy's presidential campaign.
At the end of it, he gave Sarkozy four books as presents: Freud's Totem and Taboo , Nietzsche's The Antichrist , Foucault's Discipline and Punish , and Proudhon's What Is Property? That is not only a vivid example of l'exception française , it is also a reminder that, like many allegedly extremist atheists, Onfray's commitment is to dialogue and the pen, not to dogma and the sword. Vive la differénce .
Julian Baggini is a writer and co-founder and editor of The Philosophers' Magazine .
In Defence of Atheism: The Case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Michel Onfray is published by Serpent's Tail, £17.99.