Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Book Review: Frank Brennan answers atheist manifestos


God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, New York, 305pp

The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Michel Onfray, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2007, 219pp

Against Religion, Tamas Pataki, Scribe, Melbourne, 2007, 136pp

These anti-religious tomes arrived at my bedside when I was hospitalised with acute renal failure. Being in a state hospital, I had no idea of the religious affiliations, if any, of my doctors or nurses. I did not inquire, though I noted one wearing a hijab and some others wearing crosses or religious medals. Each day a different church volunteer came to my four bed ward offering me the Eucharist. We would pray together briefly. One night a priest came and anointed me. I received cards and greetings from people offering their prayers. None of this disrupted the hospital routine and it helped me in my hour of need. As the media had reported my hospitalisation, the hospital authorities had to place strict limits on visitors. One evening a charge sister asked if two women at my bedside were on the approved list. I told her that we did not mess with Aboriginal matriarchs. These two women had discovered my presence in the hospital and came to pray over me, telling me that I still had much work to do.

Prior to the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006), I had presumed that in western intellectual circles the atheists were ahead on points and that they were little troubled by the doings of those they regarded as well meaning, slightly befuddled religious people. Like them, I had strong concerns about fundamentalists who used their simplistic religious beliefs to buttress their commitment to violent or undemocratic action. I now realise that Dawkins and his ilk are upset even by religious people like me, perhaps especially by religious people like me.

Dawkins claims that moderation in faith fosters fanaticism: “even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes”. Dawkins’ “take home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism – as though that were some kind of perversion of real, decent religion”. The same argument would not be put for scientific inquiry. Imagine a call to ban all scientific inquiry because those who engage in responsible scientific inquiry may be providing the opportunity for fanatics to harness science for their own purposes. Dawkins and his ilk think religious belief of any kind is meaningless, infantile and demeaning, so nothing is lost by agitating in the most illiberal way for the suppression of all religion and not just religious extremism which causes harm to others.

The successful marketing of The God Delusion has now unleashed a steady flow of anti-religious rantings from intelligent authors who have thrown respect for the other and careful argument to the wind, staking bold claims for the destruction of religion. Instead of proposing strategies for weeding out religious fundamentalists who pose a threat to the freedom, dignity and rights of others, these authors are proposing a scorched earth policy of killing off all religion.

Christopher Hitchens has visited most of the trouble spots of the world. He is an acute journalistic critic of warring parties in any dispute. But in God is Not Great he is not the bystander adjudicating between the fundamentalist Muslim suicide bombers and the conservative Christian backers of the Bush White House. He is a belligerent, unyielding disputant asserting that religion ought have no place at the table of public deliberation. While he, who is not Irish, thinks Mother Teresa had no right to express her opinion about divorce law reform in Ireland, he has no hesitation in telling Australians about what we should be doing in Iraq. Why not the same rule for political intervention by outsiders, whether or not they are religious?

Hitchens identifies four irreducible objections to any religious faith: “that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” He presumes that any believing Christian or Jew must subscribe to a literalist reading of Genesis as if it were a scientific text purporting to describe the origins of man and the cosmos. And yet, no scientific theory about the origin of man or the cosmos undermines or changes my reading of Genesis, any more than it undermines or changes my reading of Aboriginal creation myths.

In the wake of death threats for having offered shelter to his friend Salman Rushdie, he concludes with one of his many universal judgments against all religions and all religious persons: “The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee. Is it not obvious to all, say the pious, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognise it have forfeited their right to exist?” It is not obvious to me. He thinks organised religion should have a lot on its conscience being “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children”.

Hitchens has dedicated his book to the novelist Ian McEwan “whose body of fiction shows an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural”. Hitchens had never been religious but in his Marxist phase he “did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered” and he admired Trotsky who had a sense “of the unquenchable yearning of the poor and oppressed to rise above the strictly material world and to achieve something transcendent.

For a good part of my life, I had a share in this idea that I have not quite abandoned.” Now that he is neither poor nor oppressed he sees no need for transcendence beyond the strictly material world; he is content with an elucidation of the numinous in the written word as from the pen of McEwan. He does think “We have to transcend our prehistory” which includes “all postures of submission and surrender.”

He has no good word for any Christian or religious person except for Oscar Romero and qualified approval of Martin Luther King. However of King, he opines, “In no real as opposed to nominal sense was he a Christian”. He has no time for the argument that some religious people should be judged favourably because of their good humanitarian because the best relief workers he has met are secularists anyway.

He does concede that “religious faith is…. ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.” He does see a place for conscience, “whatever it is that makes us behave well when nobody is looking”. For him, “Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.”

Some of us do find that we can form and inform our conscience even better when we believe that a loving God is accompanying us in the lonely chambers of decision. Some of us stand tallest when we submit and surrender to death, darkness and the other with dignity, and in love – with a religious sensibility.

Michel Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto is one of those books you can judge by its back cover. It portrays him against a blank wall with a vacuum cleaner at his feet. His book is the result of a flurried, philosophical spring clean of history. He has swept up a potpourri of anti-religious content over the centuries and prefaced each collection of detritus with sweeping assertions such as: “all three monotheisms have a negative attitude toward the joy of life and even toward some of the basic human drives”; “monotheism loathes intelligence”; “in science, the church has always been wrong about everything: faced with epistemological truth it automatically persecutes the discoverer”; “monotheisms have no love for intelligence, books, knowledge, science”.

The Catholic Church “excels in the destruction of civilisations. It invented ethnocide”; and monotheism is fatally fixated on death”. The argument for the last assertion is supported by the outrageous claim that Pope John Paul II “actively defend(ed) the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi by the Catholic Hutu of Rwanda”. There is no evidence for such a claim. Consider the Pope’s homily at the opening of the African Synod on 10 April 1994 a few days after the killings commenced:

I wish to recall now in particular the people and the Church of Rwanda, who these days are being tried by an upsetting tragedy linked in particular to the dramatic assassination of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. With you, reunited in this African Synod, and in communion of spirit with the Bishops of Rwanda who could not be with us today, I feel the need to launch an appeal to stop that homicide of violence. Together with you, I raise my voice to tell all of you: stop these acts of violence! Stop these tragedies! Stop these fratricidal massacres!

Onfray begins the book with the stylistic flourish of a series of “mystical postcards” and assures the reader, “In none of those places did I feel superior to those who believed in spirits, in the immortal soul, in the breath of the gods, the presence of angels, the power of prayer, the effectiveness of ritual, the validity of incantations, communion with voodoo spirits, haemoglobin-based miracles, the Virgin’s tears, the resurrection of a crucified man……Never.”

By the book’s end, the reader realises that the answer was not “Never” but “Always”. Onfray writes with a haughty and dismissive arrogance towards any person who has a religious sentiment. He even denies equality of treatment in the public square to any religious believer. “Equality between the believing Jew and the philosopher who proceeds according to the hypothetico-deductive model? Equality between the believer and the thinker who deconstructs the manufacture of belief, the building of a myth, the creation of a fable? Equality between the Muslim and the scrupulous analyst? If we say yes to these questions, then let’s stop thinking.”

What are we to do – start fighting? Do we not need to accord equality to all these persons in the public square of the free and democratic society, applying the same rules to each of them whether or not they are religious? And is this not the real challenge for us in this post September 11 world? Onfray’s social and political philosophy is very thin. A pacifist, he has no time for just war theory. A simple utilitarian, he thinks “good and evil continue to matter…simply as factors in the struggle to ensure the greatest possible happiness of the greatest number”.

He claims the Church supported the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because Fr George Zabelka blessed the crew of the Enola Gay. No mention of Fr Pedro Arrupe, later the Superior General of the Jesuits, who ministered to the survivors at Hiroshima and then spent years travelling the globe speaking against nuclear war espousing his message of The Planet to Heal. No mention of the Second Vatican Council’s most authoritative and binding declaration: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”

Tamas Pataki has contributed an Australian home-grown polemic Against Religion. He is less shrill and more measured than his French and English colleagues, and adds local colour with attacks on Peter Costello whose “appearances at Hillsong received an unusual degree of attention from the Australian media”. The “mendacious John Howard” joins company with “the apocalyptic Tony Blair”.

He argues that religion captures the mind when reinforced and held in place by unconscious needs and phantasies. Religious people are narcissistic individuals who want to be loved and to feel special. They find it difficult to accept that “there is nothing higher than earthly human love because the love of ordinary men and women is so fragile and incestuously tainted for them. So they must seek something ‘higher’, something transcendent.”

All three authors find it inconceivable that a religious person could accord reason and science their due place, could live a balanced life without being sexually repressed, and could welcome the insights of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Bertrand Russell. Hitchens asserts, “Thanks to the telescope and microscope, (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important…It can now only impede or retard”. Regardless of the knowledge provided us by the telescope and microscope, every person, every generation and every culture has to make existential sense of the abyss which will always lie beyond the reach of the telescope and the microscope.

The thinking, self-critical religious person parts company with these three authors at the edge of what can be known about the self and about the world. For these authors, there is nothing beyond that edge because it is not knowable, though each of them occasionally lapses into a yearning for the transcendent or at least the numinous. The religious person embraces the mystery of what lies beyond the abyss of death, the dark, the unknown and the other.

The US liberal Ronald Dworkin has recently published Is Democracy Possible Here? (Princeton University Press, 2006) He posits the only realistic choice for the modern nation state as being. “A religious nation that tolerates non-belief? Or a secular nation that tolerates religion?” In our globalised world, there will always be a Mother Teresa or a Christopher Hitchens wanting to make their contribution to public debate about law and policy even in those countries where they do not enjoy citizenship. We need rules for engagement which apply equally to persons of religious faith and none. We need to distinguish the role of the individual citizen and the role of the person in a position of public trust whether in the executive, legislature or judiciary.

That public trust must be discharged faithfully whether or not the office holder be a religious person. Religious beliefs and philosophical standpoints may well help to inform the discharge of that public trust. It is now too simplistic to assert that engagement in the public square or in a position of public trust ought to be open only to those who have no religious beliefs or who leave their religious commitments at home.

Public intellectuals like the present three pamphleteers may relish the public expression of scorn and disdain for all religions. But they do nothing to assist the needed public discernment of the limits on personal opinions and preferences in the public square and in law and public policy.

One of the great Christian theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, in volume 22 of his Theological Investigations (Crossroad, 1989) asked two questions about dialogue and tolerance as the foundations of a humane society:

* Are you really willing to grant freedom to the other person, insofar as it can be done without harming others, even when you hold a different opinion and have the power to prevent others from doing what they want?
* Are you willing and patient enough, as far as possible, to find out and try to feel what others (or another group) want to be and how they want to understand themselves?

Sadly these three intelligent, gifted and illiberal authors have demonstrated that it is not only Islamic fundamentalists who fail to understand the rules for civil discourse and engagement in the post September 11 public square.

– Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His latest book is Acting on Conscience: How can we responsibly mix law, religion and politics? (University of Queensland Press, 2007). He appeared at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this month with Michel Onfray and Tamas Pataki. This review is an expanded version of the review first published in The Weekend Australian, 2-3 June 2007.



submit a comment

Existing comments

thank you for being able to put into print what so many of us think in private. I'm delighted that your recent hospitalisation hasn't take any edge off your mind!
Iain Radvan

Iain Radvan | 10 June 2007  

I think this was a necessary comment in those so publicized books. I have read favorable comments on them but I have the impression that they are superficial and inconsistents. I think it is necessary to go beyond what these authors say. and focus more in men and women that live lonely. Once theirs fanatysm it's exposed, it is important to talk about God´s love, and the way chosen by him to lived between us. We can explain evil deeply in our world that normaly denies its presence and also God´s loving strenght. I think it is important to write about this last subjects, keeping in mind that those books will dye soon. Thanks for giving me the opportunity of reading your comments.

Rodrigo Pablo | 10 July 2007  

I'm actually pleased that Dawkins, etc., are saying openly what many of us think in private: religion is not only the enemy of reason but, by and large, a force for evil with its origins in barbaric times; it's something that we'd be better off without.

I hope that more people will stand up in the public arena to say exactly that. Kudos to Dawkins, Hitchens, Onfray, Pataki, Dennett, Harris, and others for finally challenging the taboo against robust public criticism of religion in all its forms.

As for this review, you have demonstrated that you are part of the problem. You are a religionist who is, as you say, not prepared to leave his religious commitments at home when you take part in public debate. Fine ... but once you take that attitude, and decline to argue public policy on purely secular grounds, the epistemic content of your particular religion becomes fair game for debunking. Your opponents will, of course, have to reply by stripping away your religion's spurious claims to intellectual and moral authority. You can't have it both ways. Are you really unable to understand this?

Russell Blackford | 08 August 2007  

Frank, you have identified a key point of hypocrisy in the thinking of these authors: that discussion and debate is all right as long as it is based on one particular way of thinking - theirs. Our current approach to science and reason will not lead us to the complete truth, just as rigid and literal approaches to religion has inherent limits and problems.

Peter Houlahan | 06 February 2008  

I've yet to read the sources reviewed, but this article itself is certainly quite solid, and a good read.

I direct one comment however to Russell Blackford, and a final one to those who share Fr. Brennan's stance.

Firstly, your understanding of democracy is troubled if you believe religiousness ought be excluded from political debate. Consider the statement "I believe beliefs shouldn't enter politics"; this belief won't allow itself.

If you think those who put down religions (or belief) have knowledge (that is clearly true) as opposed to belief (that is achieved by faith), then you have confused assumptions with truths.

I welcome the atheist, I myself am extremely agnostic, but I think friendly debate most healthy. That's what democracy ought be, the representations of peoples views; how is it not right for a Catholic figurehead to vocally profess their feelings for certain bills? Democracy means the individual matters.

Secondly, I understand the Leap-of-Faith, but I can't make it. Any philosophical assertion troubles me. But Organized Religion is a Leap-of-Faith not just in a metaphysical God, but Human Revelation (via Holy Books, priests, their society's beliefs etc.). How do believers justify this as intellectually correct, dominance-free and necessary, unto themselves?

Cian O'Carroll | 15 December 2008  

A couple of things. First, my initial comment was unnecessarily aggressive. Father Brennan's own final paragraphs are rather aggressive, and I believe he is incorrect in characterising Dawkins and the others as illiberal and as failing to understand the rules for civil discourse and engagement. That is going much too far, and I do hope that he has since rethought that. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Onfray are forthright, but not illiberal.

I am annoyed when I see forthright critiques of religion treated as if they were illiberal attempts to have religion suppressed. There is a world of difference. Nonetheless, my own tone of annoyance didn't help the debate, so I now regret it.

Cian O'Carroll, there is no paradox. I did not say "I believe (and am putting this belief in public debate) that all beliefs ahould be excluded from public debate." I simply insist, without paradox, that the state should make its decisions on the basis of secular principles such as the Millian harm principle. I aim to persuade others of that view.

My more detailed exposition can be found in my submission the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, chaired by Father Brennan. The best version is that found here:


There is also a copy on the Committee's website, but the version I've provided here has various typographical and other corrections.

Russell Blackford | 17 May 2009  

Similar Articles

What’s wrong with Voting for Jesus?

  • Scott Stephens
  • 26 February 2007

I must confess to growing bored very quickly when I hear that our real problem today is the erosion of spirituality, of belief in a deeper dimension of life, and the consequent rampant materialism. From a properly Christian perspective, the problem today is not materialism, but religion itself.


Muslim at the heart of an Indonesian Christian office

  • Greg Soetomo
  • 26 February 2007

When I reflect on this conversation, I am also struck by how different what I see in daily life is from what I read and watch in the media about about Muslim militants, the clash between Christians and Muslims, fundamentalism, or terrorism. Every age has its own false ideas. In our time, it is the notion that identifies Islam with hostility and aggression.