Materialism & Atheology, Stephen Greenblatt and Michael OnfrayPosted by Jim Newman on February 19th, 2013 – 8 Comments – Posted in atheists, religion
I lost the last three days reading (listening) to Stephen Greenblatt’s book “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern“, two, three times–carpentry and farming sometimes lend themselves to inattentive work, the opposite of mindfulness. It is basically about how finding “De Rerum Naturem” by Lucretius took humanism through the renaissance to modernism; more so that the materialism within is the foundation of reason and science.
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
In deciphering the rather vicious reviews of the book (though he won a Pulitzer prize for it) a time suck if there ever was one, I found that those who love-like-accept religion-theology, which were most people, thought the book stupid and polemic except for the actual story of discovery. Academics opined that others had been considering atomism or corpuscularism during medieval times and Greenblatt is pandering to populism. Still others insisted that medieval times were a rich intellectual period ignored because of the secular tenor of modernism. This led me to early sources, Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, and later Philodemus. Near everyone else from Plato to Aristotle to all of the medievalists and most of the early modernists hated the materialism and antitheological bent of the Atomists. History is told by the victors. I know of no other example more true than the tyranny of monotheism. Again and again, any time someone like Gassendi or Descartes or Newton, even Galileo’s theories, praised atomism they buried it in a wall of god as prime mover with materialism utterly wrong. There had to be a world under the world. No less facile than the Objibway’s Earth on a Turtle.
The vanquishment of paganism was complete in its wanton destruction of all materialist philosophy. god must be and must have a hand in our affairs. De facto, any deviance is by definition wrong and atheism. No wonder I have had such a hard time with history. It’s just simply so much bullshit. No wonder every time I read someone who was called an atheist there was still god there, under cover, deposing all that came before.
I remember eons ago when I startled at a prof who noted my incredulity at the underlying assumption of god in spite of rationality, reason, science, and empiricism and said “well, then, you are a materialist.” How could anyone not be? It had never even occurred to me that anyone would actually still believe that god-belief could avoid materialism–religious people were simply trying to prove a deeper materialism, kind of like homeopathy on steroids. If it weren’t for my like of intellectual puzzles I could have thrown the the philosophies of thousands into the trash bin as they all had a deus ex machina, come down from the sky to rescue their incredibly tight reasoning and observations, until then–an upside down pyramid. It wasn’t Plato versus Aristotle versus the preSocratics; they were all fools, but for the three mentioned above for which little text remains, dependent on godly activation with a hand in everyday life. I deserved most of my bad grades simply because I couldn’t stomach the world under the world as any kind of legitimate reasoning. Was I wrong to be critical?
This took me to Michael Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto; The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam which I had picked up at a convention but never read. The title put me off but looking it up I saw in Canada it was published as “Defense of Atheism” but its French title is Traité d’athéologie: Physique de la métaphysique is more like Atheology; Physics of the Metaphysical or Atheology, a Deconstruction of Theology or simply Atheology. In the US where atheism was equated to communism for several decades why on earth would one publish something that sounds like Marxist atheism? Why not use atheology even at its simplest as a study of atheism?
Michael Onfray has very little translated in English and yet is considered France’s most popular philosopher. Even Wikipedia makes him sound wicked: “… a contemporary French philosopher who adheres to hedonism, atheism and anarchism.“
In the US this is a death knell. What if it had said “…to well being, secularism, and libertarianism.” Enough. Here is the only Youtube lecture I have found of hum. It is quite long but refreshing.
Here is an interview with him. There are certain points that bear reinforcement. You don’t need Darwin to be an atheist, you don’t need science to be an atheist, western culture is utterly imbued with by monotheistic symptoms.
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’.
Jim Newman, bright and well