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Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”

I know not what a man is, I only how his price. – Bertolt Brecht

After reading and commenting on Michel Onfray’s literature for an English speaking audience in an attempt to fill the gap created by the lack of English translations of his work, I decided to also write a review of the book “On the Inhumanity of Religion” by the French-speaking Belgian author Raoul Vaneigem, which is also unavailable in English. Both books were adamantly recommended–and for a good reason!–by the Las Indias bloggers on their youtube channel on the occasion of the Día del Libro (the Day of the Book). Fortunately for me, Spanish is my first language and French is my third language–which I do not get to practice often–so I take a very particular pleasure in delving into provocative philosophical literature in Romance languages. It’s the kind of intellectual challenge that I live for!

There’s a reason why I took a particular interest in this book. In the past, in the piece Poverty: Secularism’s True Enemy, I’ve argued that we cannot create a REAL secular movement to defend the West from obscurantism and from the many evils of religion, unless and until we also fight the battle against poverty. This piece cites and relies heavily on research on how religiosity is statistically linked to poverty, high crime rates, low levels of educational achievement, and other societal dysfunctions. The most complete meta-study on this is by Paul Gregory. Please feel free to read that article and scan through its sources as a preamble to the intellectual feast that Vaneigem serves, and to help contextualize this discussion.

The Agricultural Enclosure as Religion’s Cradle

De l’inhumanité de la religion argues that there are material reasons for the rise of religion. Vaneigem describes how life changed for our precursors who lived at the dawn of the agricultural era in l’enclos agraire (the agricultural enclosure) and argues that the beginnings of organized religion can be traced there.

Prior to the agricultural revolution, human society was not nearly as stratified as it became later with agriculture, which created the need for the exploitation of human labor on a grand scale by more organized, and more dehumanized, societies. It is this problem of labor as dehumanization that Vaneigem focuses on, and on how religious conceptions–particularly those of sacrifice, including blood sacrifice and the Biblical “curse” of daily toil–became a prominent part of man’s worldview, reducing him to the state of a beast of burden.

Vaneigem argues that in the Neolithic Era, the man of desire and creation became separated from the man of production and market. Man turned libido into quantities of work and felt an “existential trouble”. While some thinkers have sought to solve this problem by advising revolutionary methods, the author notes that even Marx’s revolt alienates the individual and kills his joy because it keeps man in toil for the sake of the collective: man in socialism or communism still lives for the sake of others.

“The Spirit” as Enforcer of Labor

The celestial lie merely countersigns the truth of terrestrial exploitation and endorses the purchase of those who resign themselves.

Epicurus established the doctrine of the swerve to wage war against the tyranny of heaven and “heavenly destiny”. To accept one’s fate–one’s curse–when one is poor, or even middle-class, almost invariably means to toil and labor in submission. Let’s revisit one of the initial curses that the Bible casts upon man.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your lifeBy the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:17-19

Before man was “cast out” of the primal hunter gatherer paradise, not only was there abundance in a manner that had been sustaining humans for millennia, but also people had worked only two hours on average per day to get food.

The Supreme Being as enforcer of labor is not only found in the Bible. In the East, the four caste system is also believed to have been established for all eternity by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna himself, as related in the Gita.

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. – Shri Krishna, in Bhagavad Gita 4.13

Vaneigem does a good job of addressing the proverbial Platonic split between spirit and flesh in terms of how it affects man’s existential relationship to enforced labor. He talks about how “spirit dominates, matter is dominated“, how spirit “mutilates the body“, and how belief in spirit is alienation and objectifies real persons and bodies.

The author notes how desires, joy, and sex can usually only be entertained by night, and sometimes in shame, because they are “useless” (that is, they constitute leisure activities and do not lead to profit for the exploiters of man), and because by day we have to work. Therefore, the Platonic split has been experienced by man in terms of how we divide our night and day activities, with toil being experienced as violence perpetrated on the body and on nature by day, while at night dreams reveal “the secret scripture of the body“.

Among the other existential repercussions of enforced labor, the most prevalent one and the one easiest to quantify and observe in our society is in public health. It is sometimes claimed that around 75% of hospital visits have their origins in stress-related psychosomatic symptoms:

The pleasure of being was replaced with the anxious greed of having.

Raoul Vaneigem is quite direct and lucid in his French, and the best way to introduce key ideas in the book is by letting him speak in direct translation.

The divine power is born from the powerlessness to which the economy condemns man from the moment that it snatches him from life to reduce him to labor. The idea of God as creator …. master of man or arbiter of his fate is the sham of a system where the true specifically human power, creation, is dissolved by the need to work.

… Contrary to what has been … proclaimed throughout the centuries, the weakness of man is not inherent to his nature. It comes from his denaturalization, his renouncement of the only privilege that distinguishes him from the other kingdoms: the faculty to recreate the world with the goal of enjoying the creation of his own destiny.

The pillage of man’s creation for the benefit of the few, or the many, or for the benefit of some abstraction, was carried out according to the logic of sacrificial religiosity, but Vaneigem argues that it emerges from the predatory instinct on the part of those in power, and with the assistance of clergies.

It is here that the author elaborates an interesting claim that I also put forward years ago in a piece for Partially Examined Life titled Religion as Play. He argues that, prior to the agricultural revolution when most humans were hunter-gatherers, natural religion in its original form was a form of play. He thinks that initially, pre-ritual behavior was play, and was innocent and retained child-like elements. But then, when agriculture created the need for labor, those who attained power acquired the assistance of the priests who introduced the perversion of “sacred terror”, and ritualized play, slowly absorbing the playfulness, spontaneity and innocence into formal ritual. The conception of the sacred destroyed ritual as play, and terror inspired instead obedience, conformity, submission. We are reminded of the Biblical conception of the sacred, “kedosh”, which implies both separateness as well as that which is taboo, forbidden, which must not be named lest we disrespect it.

If Vaneigem is right, this greatly endorses Epicurus’ claim that the original goal of religion is to cultivate pure, unalloyed pleasure. We may be able to revisit the precursor of religion–play–and purge it from sacred terror in order to explore a natural spirituality inspired in Epicurean primitivism.

Nature Versus the Market

Where the market is everything, man is nothing.

In positing a “market denaturalization”, the author is also saying that there is a tension between nature and market.

One problem created by this tension has to do with how scarcity is profitable for some people, who have it among their interests to sometimes introduce scarcity in order to artificially increase profits. Not only is scarcity profitable, but frequently in consumerist society the values of exchange and of use do not match, yet the logic of the market, of profit, and of scarcity continues to operate even when it comes to items of first need. This breeds misery, but also violence.

In Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship, I argued that human behavior follows two patterns that have parallels in two ape societies: the abundance paradigm among the bonobo produces societies of cooperation and where “make love, not war” seems to be the law, whereas the chimpanzees are more hierarchical and much more violent. This has been explained by the fact that chimpanzees grew up isolated from bonobos, separated by a river, and the bonobos never had to fight over food and resources thanks to the abundance in their territory, while chimpanzees had faced scarcity throughout their evolutionary history, so they learned to compete and fight. Similar patterns of increased violence can be seen in human societies marked by scarcity versus those that enjoy abundance.

Corruption, with its antithetical spirit of purity and impurity, has no better guarantor than poverty. Its determination to destroy school, housing, transportation, natural agriculture, industry useful to society, returns with the old tradition of religious obscurantism which is so good for business.

The author argues that openness of the markets kills religion, and that historically there has been tension between the agricultural enclosure (l’enclos agraire)–which is isolated and favors religion–and the cosmopolitan openness of the market, which introduces foreign ideologies and encourages us to question our in-group doctrine. We can evaluate Trumpism, Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements–with their destruction of trade agreements and distrust of all things foreign–as religious/national provincialism of the sort that Vaneigem talks about, where people marginalized by neoliberal economic totalitarianism seek refuge in the familiar.

Another way in which nature and the market are in tension is by two problems caused by excessive consumption: 1. the environmental ills and 2. the impoverished and enslaved state brought about by massive debt. Consumerism and lucrative inutility–the frequent lack of relation between the use value and the monetary value of things–breed alienation, insatiable desires, as well as debt, which breeds wage slavery.

Vaneigem also mentions the separate issue of birth control as it relates to religion and poverty. Unable to produce more subjects by having children of their own, priests encourage people to over-breed irresponsibly, regardless of the prospects that these children will have of being able to live a pleasant life, get a good education, and escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the case of some very dysfunctional Catholic societies, like what we see in Mexico, this also produces problems like the ones I described in Unwanted Children at the Border and the Evil Legacy of Catholicism.


For millennia, people have woven their identity around labor and have not know real freedom. For this reason Vaneigem says that, even after they have abandoned wishful thinking, “the widows of their oppression turn back to religion, not knowing who they are without it“. He inspiringly concludes his book by offering solutions to this problem and calling for a life-affirming philosophy. This includes a call to heal the Platonic split: we must restore the unity of body and conscience.

The aborted desires engender the Gods, the engendered desires will abort them … God and his avatars are nothing more than the phantoms of a mutilated body.

Only the aspiration to live will allow the passing of religion.

Some of the quotes from the book sound like paraphrases of things Epicurus would have said. For instance, the paradigm created when we stop trying to exploit nature and other humans reminds us of Epicurus’ teaching that we should “not force nature”.

Nature is called to escape oppressive work which denaturalizes it. The land is no longer a territory for conquest, but the site of the creation of infinite joys.

Towards the end of the book, Vaneigem offers the image of the type of creative well that we must become for ourselves in the process of self-creation, which reminds me of Lucian’s Well of Laughter. The book does a great job of revisiting Epicurean primitivism and calling for a return to an alignment with nature. It also reminds me of the third principle of autarchy drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On Property Management, which states: “the philosopher does not toil”. As we are increasingly replaced with robots, our need to reinvent labor, and the Epicurean gospel of living lives of pleasure and freedom, will become more of a moral imperative: the kind that will ultimately decide whether we build a dystopia or a utopia.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll on the Art of Property Management


Rediscovering The Good and Meaningful Life Through Work

The Epicurean school of Hellenistic philosophy was the only missionary secular humanist tradition to come out of Greece. It set the foundation for Western civilization by teaching a theory and science of happiness, the social contract as the foundation for law and justice, atomist physics and naturalism as the ultimate reality, an early version of the theory of natural selection, a 2400-year-old doctrine of innumerable worlds that is now being vindicated by exoplanetary research, science as a means to overcome superstition and to formulate wholesome ethical standards and a stress on self-sufficiency as a requirement for the good life.

Autarchy (from αὐταρχία, “state of self rule”), understood as self-sufficiency, self-control, personal sovereignty and independence, is one of the ideals of ancient philosophy which we value highly in Epicureanism. The importance of self-sufficiency must be understood against the backdrop of a hedonistic view that life should be pleasant and that leisure is a requirement of the good life. Yet, this life of pleasure must balance productivity and leisure. If a man is to live a life of seeking pleasure for its own sake without balancing the pursuit of pleasure by prudence, he will become lazy, selfish, unreliable, and probably dependent on others.

Robert LeFevre, a self-proclaimed autarchist, has created a libertarian political theory which he has labeled autarchy and which is influenced by ancient philosophy. He frequently contrasts this autarchy with anarchy, which by comparison he sees as an impractical expression of immature rebelliousness. However, Epicurus advised his followers to “live unknown” and his teaching was apolitical. Political involvement, he believed, breeds intrigue, has a corrupting effect on the character and is detrimental to our serenity. Because his philosophy stressed tranquility, politics were generally shunned.

What this did throughout the centuries was protect Epicureanism from the corruption of the polis and from being misused by both the ruling classes (unlike Platonic philosophy, which was of great use to politicians) and by the mobs (unlike Marxism, which was manufactured specifically for the masses).

Epicurean discourse does not speak to power. It is a philosophy of the people and the discourse is horizontal; in fact one of the maxims found within our cultural memes is Occupy Your Soul. It falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers like Democritus, who mock traditional authority. Because Epicureans believe in evidence before the senses as the first of the criteria for truth, this emancipates philosophers from the views of the majority and of tradition and makes each person an independent agent fully equipped with the tools and faculties to discern reality. Autarchy is not just a fiscal ideal: it’s also a spiritual one.

Money: A Natural and Necessary Desire

Our tradition categorizes desires as necessary or unnecessary, as well as natural or not natural. When we apply to money the same criteria that we apply to all desires, we must conclude that money is a natural and necessary desire within our culture. It provides safety and security, and the fear of not having money is a legitimate one.

A Princeton University study of Gallup data on wealth versus happiness concluded that the emotional benefits of having wealth peak at $75,000, and then may deteriorate from there based on several factors, among them isolation and health. This means that any wealth that one may wish to acquire beyond that threshold is to be considered a vain desire that can be easily dismissed, and perhaps even constitute more of a burden than a boon. For instance, people who are extremely wealthy oftentimes can not know with certainty whether the loyalties of certain friends depend on the material benefits gained from the friendship.

Yet, in our society, the vain desire for excessive amounts of money and displays of wealth have created high levels of debt, as well as petty and violent crime. In addition to this, many people who live in poverty have to subject themselves to abusive and exploitative bosses, bad working conditions, and a general lifestyle of stress all week only to conclude the social Friday by inebriating the stress to oblivion, and then spend the weekend recovering and dreading the following Monday.

The problem of debt (and the consumerism it feeds on) leads to the problem of slavery. These two used to be one and the same. In ancient societies, a person who was unable to pay his debt had to work as a slave for the person to whom he was indebted until his debt was paid in full. There has always been a blurry boundary between debt and slavery. High levels of debt today translate into indented slavery where people work to pay the banks. It is for this reason that debt is a primary concern if we are to apply Epicurean teachings in our lives. There can be no autarchy, no self-sufficiency and freedom, until one is free from debt.

If we are wage slaves and must have two or three jobs and never have time to spend with friends, to engage in the analyzed life, and to do the things that give us pleasure, it’s unlikely that philosophy, the arts, and the most refined civilization will flourish in our midst. Wage slavery is not compatible with a dignified life of philosophy, which requires leisure.

Autarchy requires an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as an accurate understanding of the measure of our true needs versus wants so that we can live free from money worries. It requires both the autonomy to be ourselves and the ability to make a comfortable living. Walking daily into a work environment that kills our souls, or where we do not earn sufficiently, is depressing. Authenticity and affluence are part of the balancing act of the Autarch.

Epicurean Ethics of Labor

Philosophers and sages have always discussed the acceptable ways of making a living as a natural extension of conversations about virtue, duty and the good. Different schools offered various criteria for discerning between wholesome and unwholesome professions, and wove these concerns into their wisdom traditions.

Philodemus was one of the main Epicurean philosophers of the first century of Common Era. When we consider Philodemus’ choices of wholesome ways to make a living, several criteria emerge by which we may judge our contemporary paradigm of labor and our available options.

In his screed On Property Management, Philodemus discussed various ways in which it was acceptable for a philosopher to earn a living, to be productive while having time for leisure. His autarchy teachings can be distilled into seven generalizations.

Among the acceptable ways to be a self-sufficient philosopher and have a life of pleasure and leisure we find that we are encouraged to create jobs and to employ others in our enterprises. We can gain self-sufficiency through joint ventures, such as worker coops. We’re also encouraged to own means of production, to cultivate multiple streams of income, and to own real estate and accept rent from tenants, which seems to be a tried-and-true way to facilitate a life of leisure and self-sufficiency as feasible two millenia ago as it is today.

Another thing we notice in Philodemus is that physical exploitation and cruelty are deemed unpleasant and that we should not participate in any work environment that is harsh or hellish. Like military service, work in a slaughterhouse, for instance, is the type of work where one may be perturbed by constant day-to-day killing of sentient beings.

If we don’t love what we do, we should establish a strategy to shift careers. If we’re interested in self employment, we may want to minimize the risk of our entrepreneurial ventures by initially doing the work on a part time basis. We should know the right people and seek successful mentors who can show us the ropes.

On the Need to Reinvent Labor and Retirement

We are living in times where there is a severe need to reinvent labor. Not only are jobs going to other countries: machines are replacing humans. They are becoming the cashiers in our supermarkets, they are the cash dispensers at our banks, they are answering our phones when we call most major companies (if we are not using online self-service). Each one of the 24-hour automated machines that corporations employ replaces three full-time around-the-clock jobs. Can this be an opportunity? How can we use automation in our favor in a sustainable people’s economy?

Curiously, the original meaning of the word robot was slave. Automated machines were meant to perform slave labor and the original, altruistic idea of robotics was to emancipate humans and other animals from exploitative or monotonous labor.

When we employed cars, trucks and cranes to replace the oxen, horses and other animals that we had enslaved, this was seen as a major advancement in terms of ending cruelty against the other species. But now that machines are replacing people and the population is growing, and with it poverty and unemployment, this generates a serious problem of shortage of labor that affects our ability to live with dignity. As a society, we are not extending the same courtesy of emancipation from labor to other humans that we extended to animals.

The mechanization of labor, in an ideal world, should increase ordinary people’s ability and opportunities to become self-sufficient and to own multiple means of production. It should create the opportunity to reimagine an economy where traditional labor takes up less of our time, where less money is needed, and where ordinary people can easily procure what they need in order to survive. Mechanization should not be seen as a sign of instability but as a remedy against the tediousness of the old model of nine-to-five labor.

Louis Kelso, in his books “The Capitalist Manifesto” and “Two-Factor Theory,” presented a practical economic vision of a world where the physical means of production are broadly owned by ordinary people rather than being owned by either the government or the wealthy few, thus freeing millions for a life of constructive leisure.

Futurists, like Jacques Fresco, have already begun to imagine a future world economy of this sort. But one need not be a dreamer: there are practical reasons to reinvent labor. The failure to pragmatically address the shortage of labor in an increasingly mechanized world will inevitably produce social unrest.

Autarchy and Discipline

Epicureanism gives philosophers existential tasks to complete. Some are introspective, others social; some are short-term, others are long-term. The implementation of self-sufficiency is perhaps the most important long-term task that a good Epicurean must revisit frequently and it requires planning, hard work, and creativity.

As a spiritual ideal, autarchy requires a deep respect for our own authority and our own decrees. As part of our autarchy strategies, we may incorporate various schemes of self-employment or freelancing; we may be part of a worker coop; we may invest or own, buy or sell real estate; we may also save a portion of our income in order to plan for early semi-retirement cycles, which may also serve as insurance in case we lose our jobs unexpectedly.

Planning for early semi-retirement cycles serves an additional, pragmatic purpose: as a rehearsal for the real thing, and this is far more important than most people realize. We must know how we wish to retire so we can plan for it and enjoy it. If we build our entire identity and social life around our job and don’t know what we’ll do when we retire, like many unsuccessful retirees we will be depressed when we find ourselves without it. We will feel unproductive and useless rather than experience retirement as a time to reap the fruits of our labor.

We have to build an identity of leisure, an identity outside of our jobs: learn our likes, our hobbies, our passions, get better at doing the things that we are passionate about, and perhaps even learn to make money on the side while doing them. If we find pleasure in our streams of income, then leisure and productivity are one and the same.

Semi-retirement is a chance to be productive by earning a part-time wage doing what we love as part of our retirement. In other words, just as we should reinvent labor, so should we reinvent retirement.

Most philosophers say the unanalyzed life is not worth living, but we Epicureans add a second part to this adage: the unplanned life is not worth living. This is especially true in these times. Also, freedom requires self-sufficiency. A philosophy of freedom can not make sense without a firm insistence on autarchy. By weaving the autarchy discourse into our wisdom traditions, we keep long-term goals in sight and remain diligent with regards to them.


The above piece was originally written for Occupy.org under the title The Epicurean Way: Rediscovering The Good and Meaningful Life Through Work.

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