Author: Chris Hedges
Publisher: Free Press
Date Published: 2008
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
- 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: