I Don’t Believe In Atheists

I Don't Believe In Atheists

Author: Chris Hedges

Publisher: Free Press

Date Published: 2008

Pages: 212

The battle between new atheists and the religious fundamentalists engages two bizarre subsets of American culture. One distorts the scientific theory of evolution, applying it to complex social, economic and political systems it was never designed to explain. The other insists that the six day story of creation in Genesis is fact and Jesus will descend from the sky to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Neither God nor science, however, will protect us from the destructive forces within human history and human nature.

The battle underway in the United States is not between religion and science. It is a battle between two utopian forms of faith. These antagonists trade absurdity for absurdity. They show that the danger is not religion or science. The danger is the fundamentalist mindset itself.

Chris Hedges began writing ‘I Don’t Believe In Atheists’ following a debate with Sam Harris, author of ‘The End of Faith’ and ‘Letter To A Christian Nation’. The debate*, titled ‘Religion, Politics and the End of the World’, was hosted by Truthdig. Hedges has also written his fair share of books (including ‘American Fascists’ and ‘War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning’), as well as covering an epic amount of international conflict for around twenty years, but hadn’t paid close attention to the atheist movement before the debate.

I have read Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, which I found to be quite vomit inducingly stupid (with an occassional good point). I have also read Harris’s ‘Letter To A Christian Nation’, which came across as a simplistic affair of pseudo-intellectualism. These books made me feel alienated from my fellow atheists, though I couldn’t quite put a finger on why they bothered me so much. I was already intrigued by Hedges, who writes against Dominionist Christians and atheists, but he drew me in mainly because I hadn’t seen anyone without a fundamentalist agenda responding to the claims of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens.

This may surprise people given the title but Hedges, although a Christian, does not attack the concept of atheism itself, let alone atheists personally. This is not an entertainment book written for Christians to release some psychological steam. Hedges has no problem with a lack of belief in God:  

“An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority, who rejects the violent imperial projects under way in the Middle East, is intellectually honest. These atheists might not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.”

Hedges is attacking New Atheists, particularly those who subscribe to the views of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and (to a lesser extent) Richard Dawkins. More importantly, he is attacking a fundamentalist mind set, regardless of whom it comes from. Hedges highlights some of the very intriguing (and sometimes alarming) similarities between religious fundamentalists featured in ‘American Fascists’ and the New Atheists. This includes their own form of dogma (scientism), their blind faith in rationalism, their sneering dislike of religious moderates and agnostics and their constant effort to paint the world in black and white terms. He delivers these observations in seven chapters:

  • The God Debate
  • Science and Religion
  • The New Fundamentalism
  • Self-Delusion
  • The Myth of Moral Progress
  • Humiliation and Revenge
  • The Illusive Self

For example, he highlights their absurd logic, which sometimes quite incredibly stretches to advocating torture and genocidal folly. He quotes such pearls of wisdom as Sam Harris advocating genocide in ‘The End of Faith’:

“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.

(As a side note, I have read Harris’s defense of this quote, which only served to prove the depths of his self-delusion. Also, where is the criticism of this from other atheists? I would have thrown the book in the bin and rejected any claim to his intellectual credibility the moment I read that! We seem all too willing, if not desperate, to gobble up these flawed and insulting arguments.) 

The most important element of ‘I Don’t Believe In Atheists’ is Hedges battle to bring new atheists, and other atheists who find their arguments compelling, heads out of the clouds and realise the fundamentally flawed nature of humanity. The utopian concept peddled by Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins – that a removal of religion would banish the dark, vicious side of our nature (or even lessen it) – is illogical at best, and deranged at worst. It cannot be realised in reality. Hedges argues that the The Enlightenment and the twentieth century has shown that science has simultaneously broadened out knowledge, brought our living standards higher and unleashed a level of destruction previously unknown to humanity (WWI, WWII, Auschwitz and Hiroshima for example).

Hedges has moments of great profoundness, in his understanding of human nature and the meaning of spirituality, and he caused me to examine some of the aspects of religion I had dismissed, such as the concept of Sin, in completely new light. However, he also tends to repeat himself and at times slips into a ranting tone. His rapid fire intensity of delivery, which is well suited to short articles, becomes overpowering in this longer medium.

This is one of the most important books for atheists. This is a call to honest self-examination. There is a serious need for self-reflection and criticism amongst the community considering the likes of Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins – with their tacky, immature deconstruction of religion and spirituality, simplification and blatant disrespect for non-western cultures, particularly Islam, and their occasional genocidal leanings – have become so prevalent amongst a group that supposedly values intelligence, freethinking and humanism. Although Hedges doesn’t consider the New Atheist movement to be a danger at the moment, he has brought attention to some of the traits this branch of atheism shares with many other fallacious utopian movements, as well as distinguishing how even under the guise of seemingly incorruptible rationalism a false agenda of prejudice can lurk.

♥♥♥♥ – 4/5

* My opinion of the actual debate:

The debate was very messy, due to the extremely poor (though quite humorous) moderation of Robert Sheer. I got the feeling that both debators didn’t get the chance to truly articulate their positions. Harris has some good points that deserve further discussion, however his knowledge of politics and history seems inadequate to comment publicly on such issues. (Also, his reliance on ‘Nazi’ examples and other such strawmen is just intellectually insulting). Chris Hedges on the other hand does not seem comfortable with speaking publicly and many of his concepts, which he elaborates brilliantly in his books, come across as vague and unexplained when thrown into the mix.

In the end there was no clear winner, however Harris’ pattern seems to be based on simplifying extremely complex matters to suit his points (never a good idea), where as Hedges seems to relish the ambiguity of reality.

Other links regarding the debate:

Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe In Atheists

Sam Harris Fights Back

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8 Responses to I Don’t Believe In Atheists

  1. “The utopian concept peddled by Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins – that a removal of religion would banish the dark, vicious side of our nature (or even lessen it) – is illogical at best, and deranged at worst.”

    This seems like a strawman. None of the three think that the world will be a utopia without religion. Dawkins has been quite explicit that he doesn’t think a world without religion would be a utopia, just that it would be much better.

    “There is a serious need for self-reflection and criticism amongst the community considering the likes of Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins – with their tacky, immature deconstruction of religion and spirituality, simplification and blatant disrespect for non-western cultures, particularly Islam, and their occasional genocidal leanings – have become so prevalent amongst a group that supposedly values intelligence, freethinking and humanism.”
    Most of this comment seems again to be about Harris. I’d be very curious as to what evidence you have that Dawkins have ever expressed “genocidal leanings.” I saw don’t think that any of the three (even Hitchens) shows any less respect for non-Western cultures including Islam than they show for aspects of Western culture they find bad. Moreover, religions and cultures don’t innately deserve respect. The fact that certain cultures terribly oppress their women or condone rape or honor killings is simply not something that needs “respect” any more than if one went back to the 1500s one would feel a need to respect the culture that lead to the inquisition.

  2. goldnsilver says:

    This seems like a strawman. None of the three think that the world will be a utopia without religion. Dawkins has been quite explicit that he doesn’t think a world without religion would be a utopia, just that it would be much better.

    There is a definite sense, if not a blatant admittance, amongst the authors of New Atheist books that the removal of religion would make us ‘better’. This faith in humanity changing for the better overall is rooted in utopian feelings.

    Hitchens ‘God Is Not Great’ book has the title ‘how religion poisons everything’ – he’s already invoking the language of sickness, death and disease in relation to religion. By association, a lack of religion, therefore New Atheism by comparison is healthy and virtuous. This is a technique many pre-genocidal movements have used – for instance in Germany before the WWII there were many publications from intellectuals referring to Jews as ‘gangrenous limbs’ that must be removed. I am not saying that New Atheists are cult like (in an outright mad wish for utopia) or currently genocidal, however a lot of strange, almost subconscious, meanings are creeping into their dialogue.

    As far as I know Dawkins is quite explicit about his disbelief in Utopia (Hitchens and Harris are quite different though and ‘I Don’t Believe In Atheists’ is more concerned with them), however they all mouth one thing (for instance that they don’t believe in utopia), yet they use the language of people who do. This is what Hedges is trying to bring attention to.

    Either way, what makes you, or these authors, think that the end of religion would makes things better at all, let alone much better? There are nations that are extremely peaceful and atheistic – the Scandinavians for example (particularly Sweden). However Communist China and North Korea have attempted to replace religion with nationalism – it certainly doesn’t seem any better. The scientific community, which is mostly atheistic, has produced the most disgusting and inhumane weapons known throughout history. Shouldn’t their rationalism have prevented them from creating such death and destruction?

    I think the overall point is that we will never escape our nature. Someone who peddles this myth by trying to blame the institution of religion, rather than us, is a charlatan.

    Most of this comment seems again to be about Harris. I’d be very curious as to what evidence you have that Dawkins have ever expressed “genocidal leanings.”

    Most of the comments of my own and from Hedges book were about Harris, as ‘I Don’t Believe in Atheists’ book mainly focuses on New Atheists that are American rather than British. I have no knowledge of Dawkins spouting genocidal talk – that should be clarified. But the fact that he hasn’t immediately pounced on those he is publicly associated with is worrying.

    I don’t think that any of the three (even Hitchens) shows any less respect for non-Western cultures including Islam than they show for aspects of Western culture they find bad.

    It’s true that these three authors criticize western religions a great deal (I never said they didn’t). But there is a definite bias and vehemency against Muslims, particularly Arabs, in all of their books, but mostly Sam Harris’s writings.

    I will post some quotes by Mr Harris soon.

    On the flip side of this, Harris attempts to make saintly figures out of those who practise Jainism. He ignores the greys of culture. If you are a Jain, you can do no wrong. A Muslim – by default you’re bent.

    Moreover, religions and cultures don’t innately deserve respect. The fact that certain cultures terribly oppress their women or condone rape or honor killings is simply not something that needs “respect” any more than if one went back to the 1500s one would feel a need to respect the culture that lead to the inquisition.

    I completely agree with you here and I think anything inhumane deserves full criticism. However, the New Atheists seem to go above and beyond criticism, to include not only the entire religion itself, but then onto all religion.

  3. goldnsilver says:

    Here are some quotes by Sam Harris:

    Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 123

    Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 151-152

    In the next chapter we will see that in our opposition to the world view of Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 107

    “Who are those improbable creatures scurrying about in shrouds and being regularly beaten for showing an exposed ankle? Those were the dignified (and illiterate) women of the House of Islam.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 131

    I suspect that Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their world view is problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies. If Muslim orthodoxy were as economically and technologically viable as Western liberalism, we would probably be doomed to witness the Islamification of the earth.
    ”
    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 133

    Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye-deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pp. 145-146

    We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pp.109-110

    Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and of innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 53

    “It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives. We cannot wait for weapons of mass destruction to dribble out of the former Soviet Union – to pick only one horrible possibility – and into the hands of fanatics.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 151

    “What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of men, women, and children? Rather, it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers. Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury; while the collaterally damaged are, almost by definition, crippled or killed. The ethical divide that seems to be opening up here suggests that those who are willing to drop bombs might want to abduct the nearest and dearest of suspected terrorists – their wives, mothers, and daughters – and torture them as well, assuming anything profitable to our side might come of it.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 194

    “Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p.199

    “Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply. Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.”

    —Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 202

    Is this really what we should expect from a free thinking, atheistic, humanist? This is vulgar.

  4. Pingback: American Fascists « The Written Word

  5. You make a compelling case for Harris (although some of your quotes
    seem not really relevant. I find the comments about torture for
    example extremely problematic but they aren’t innately connected to
    the issues at hand). I consider Hitchens to be a bit an ass anyways.

    I don’t think that saying something is terribly bad makes for an inherently utopian view about what will happen at its removal. To use an analogy, if someone said “HIV is damaging everything” we wouldn’t think that they are imagining that it would be a utopia without it. It seems that Hitchens at least is making a similar argument.

    And again, Dennet and Dawkins clearly don’t act this way or have these opinions. Indeed, Dawkins by all descriptions enjoys holidays and spends time singing Christmas carols.

    On the flip side of this, Harris attempts to make saintly figures out of those who practise Jainism. He ignores the greys of culture. If you are a Jain, you can do no wrong. A Muslim – by default you’re bent.

    I suspect that Harris could make a decent argument for this simply by pointing to the differences in historic and current rates of violence in both religions. This is incidentally related to why many of the so called new atheists (such as PZ Myers) don’t consider Harris to be one of their own. He’s really pushing for some sort of mystical syncrenistic atheism rather than the new atheism.

    At some level Hitchens and Harris have some valid points about Islam (although many of Harris’s more extreme statements need to become comparatives rather than superlatives while others are simply outright false even with such modication) and yet miss the real issue: The same statements they make about Islam today could have applied to Christianity 400 or 500 years ago. Something in Christianity changed. The question that therefore needs to be addressed is how to make Islam go through the same changes.

    I have no knowledge of Dawkins spouting genocidal talk – that should be clarified. But the fact that he hasn’t immediately pounced on those he is publicly associated with is worrying.

    That seems like a much more valid point than the rest.

    I think you may want to review Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell.” I’m very curious as to what you think of that.

  6. goldnsilver says:

    I consider Hitchens to be a bit an ass anyways.

    Yeah, he seems like the Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh of the atheist world. Hitchens is a clever man, he knows how to push people’s buttons and be entertaining – however I’m not a fan of reading people who are good making money this way.

    I don’t think that saying something is terribly bad makes for an inherently utopian view about what will happen at its removal. To use an analogy, if someone said “HIV is damaging everything” we wouldn’t think that they are imagining that it would be a utopia without it.

    I don’t think that if someone criticizes religion or religious people that they are by default hoping for utopia with its removal.

    However, there is something off about someone if they believe that religion is a purely bad force – to use your example (but not to slander you), if someone thought that a comparison of religion to something as malevolent as AIDS was appropriate. Religion is bad and good (whether it is mostly one or the other is an interesting debate), but I notice that the New Atheist writers are trying to remove the shades of grey in religion. They are trying to define it as intrinsically evil – a cancer that can be cut out – rather than a force that can be used by bad people for bad things (just like capitalism, nationalism and communism can be).

    I suspect that Harris could make a decent argument for this simply by pointing to the differences in historic and current rates of violence in both religions.

    This is an interesting point. (If you don’t mind me using Wiki):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religions_by_country

    Based on this info (which must be taken with an extremely large grain of salt, mind you) there could be some very intriguing comparisons brought up.

    This is incidentally related to why many of the so called new atheists (such as PZ Myers) don’t consider Harris to be one of their own. He’s really pushing for some sort of mystical syncrenistic atheism rather than the new atheism.

    That interesting, I wasn’t aware of that little schism.

    At some level Hitchens and Harris have some valid points about Islam (although many of Harris’s more extreme statements need to become comparatives rather than superlatives while others are simply outright false even with such modication) and yet miss the real issue: The same statements they make about Islam today could have applied to Christianity 400 or 500 years ago. Something in Christianity changed. The question that therefore needs to be addressed is how to make Islam go through the same changes.

    That’s true. And what a big question! I think that economic prosperity amongst the masses tends to lead people toward secularism. However, it will have to ‘evolve’ naturally amongst each Muslim nation, certainly not be imposed on them.

    I think you may want to review Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell.” I’m very curious as to what you think of that.

    I’ll have a read. I’m not familiar with Dennett’s work, however I have heard his name. Thank you for the suggestion.

  7. jefferyjohn says:

    I recently saw Chris Hedges on CBC’s “The Hour”, on a show with Richard Dawkins, and William P. Young (author of The Shack). Chris Hedges nailed it, in my opinion, and your review has prompted me to put this book on my reading list. Appreciate your opinion!
    Cheers,
    Jeff

    • goldnsilver says:

      I’ll have to check out that CBC interview online, thanks for letting me know. It’ll be interesting to see Dawkins vs Hedges, since Dawkins is a lot more sophisticated than Harris.

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