I Don't Believe in Atheists

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Chris Hedges

I Don’t Believe in Atheists is a 2008 book by Chris Hedges that strongly criticized new atheism, particularly authors Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. The book was primarily motivated by debates between these writers in May of that year.

"The agenda of the new atheists, however, is disturbing. These atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalism. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream [...] is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. [...] The prove blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil not for evil's sake but to make a better world."

Hedges also opposes religious fundamentalism, which was the subject of his previous book American Fascists but on different grounds than the new atheists. He is also critical of the hypocrisy in institutional religion and Liberal Christianity. Hedges claims there is little reason to believe humans are making moral progress. He distinguishes between religious values, which he says can be valuable, and religious institutions.

Hedges accuses some of the new atheists of imperialism, supporting preemptive wars and racism.

"They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge, and hose who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world [...] in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell."

He also criticizes the "truth" promoted by the new atheists, which despite claiming to be evidence based, is actually not so:

"They only see one truth: their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them and adopt their values, which that insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. [...] They urge us forward into a non-reality based world, one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods.[...] if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire [...] This book is a call to reject simplistic utopian visions."

Contents

Chapters

The God Debate

His main argument is that both new atheism and religious fundamentalism promotes ideas that are not grounded in reality because they fail to recognize our own limitations and capacity for evil. Because they are not based on reality, they are doomed to fail and require extreme actions and self delusion to maintain.

"The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists; it comes from those who, under guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can greet ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species. [...] Humans individuals can made moral advances, as can human societies, but they can also make moral reverses. [...] Whether it comes in secular or religious form, this belief [in moral progress] is magical thinking. [...] It is only by building an ethic based on reality, one that takes into account the dangers and limits of the human situation, that we can begin to adjust our behavior to cope with social, environmental and political problems. All such utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. The current "war on terror" by the United States is one such scheme. [...] Yet the belief persists that science an reason will save us [...] Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. [...] It is, at its core, the enticing delusion that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.[...] These utopian visions, often after a great deal of death and suffering, always fail. They will fail once again."

He refers the limitations of humans as sin, although his usage probably differs from mainstream Christian usage of the word. This is a distinctive variant of claiming "we live in a fallen world".

"Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed-though not equally flawed. [...] Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of the self-destructive."

He considers religion to be an attempt at addressing these non-rational impulses, which might be in agreement with Sam Harris and his view of spirituality. In contrast to Harris, he considers science to be useless in addressing philosophical questions about meaning.

"Myth is not a primitive scientific theory that can be discarded in an industrial age."

Hedges considers the different religions to be based on the same impulse to relate to transcendence. He traces the belief in moral progress to the Enlightenment which he says has both positive and negative effects.

"those who could not be educated and reformed, radical Enlightenment thinkers began to argue, should be eliminated so they could no longer poison human society. [...] Reigns of terror are thus the bastard children of the Enlightenment. [...] The Enlightenment may have encouraged an admirable humanism, but it also led to undreamt-of genocide and totalitarian repression."

He blames utopian schemes for colonial atrocities, as well as Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags. He then quotes Sam Harris, arguing that he makes a hasty generalization of the Muslim world:

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. [...] Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the read of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. [...] This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan [...]"

He then criticizes beliefs that are absolute, saying they are a type of faith. The idea of collective salvation is also utopian, by which Hedges probably means that human limitations cannot be overcome. He calls the philosophy of the new atheists a means for the powerful industrial world to dominate the rest of humanity. He quotes Hitchens:

"I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don't make any apology for it. And I think it's sickly and stupid and suicidal to say that we should love those who hate us and try to kill us and our children and burn our libraries and destroy our society. I have no patience with this nonsense."

Hedges calls for an alternative system of values:

"Only an ethic that faces the reality of the coming decade, one that has already seen us disrupt the geological and biological patterns of the planet, will save us. [...] An atheist who accepts and 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 underway in the Middle East, is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality."

He points out that the word God refers to a vast number of concepts that evolve with time. New atheist criticism of god is unclear as to which god concept they are addressing, which makes them a straw man attack, according to Hedges: "They attack a religious belief of the own creation." He argues that the details of a utopian vision, including heaven, are always "curiously vague" in both religious and secular fundamentalism.

"If we lived in a world ruled by human reason, what would it look like? Would it be a deathless life? Would we be eternally young? Would we live in monochromatic and stifling harmony? Would we all be alike in our desires an our needs? Would human suffering come to an end?"

Although not stated explicitly, he seems to imply that all religions are equally valid in attempting to address fundamental questions of value. He defends the value of religious knowledge as not something we should lightly discard. He quotes Hitchens who has the opposite view:

"Thanks to the telescope and the microscope [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important."

He distinguishes between progress in scientific knowledge and moral systems, saying only the first has progressed. Hedges considers the "prospects for the human race are bleak":

"We cannot stop the destructive forces we have unleashed. We can hope only to lessen the disasters looming before us. This will require a sober, dispassionate response, one that accepts the severe limitations of humanity and gives up utopian fantasies."

He accuses new atheists and religious fundamentalists of over simplification of the issues, because they are motived by the need to entertain.

"[...] the danger is not religion or science. The danger is fundamentalism itself."

"Men seek a universal standard of human good. After painful effort they define it. The painfulness of their effort convinces them that they have discovered a genuinely universal value. To their sorrow, some of their fellow men refuse to accept the standard. Since they know the standard to be universal the recalcitrance of their fellows is proof, in their minds, of some defect in humanity of the nonconformists. Thus a rationalistic age creates a new fanaticism. The nonconformists are figuratively expelled from the human community."

— Reinhold Niebuhr

He then questions Hitchens' views on the religious views of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bohoeffer, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. Hitchens attempts to to undermine any claim that good actions are motivated by religion, which ignores that many good actions really are motivated by religion.

"The new atheists, like all fundamentalists, flee from complexity. They can cope with religion in its most primitive and abusive form. They are helpless when confronted by a faith that challenges their caricatures."

Hedges points out the new atheists have a poor grasp of religious texts. Hedges seems to use an interpretation that avoids literalism and seeks to find "the underlying human truth and reality". He dismisses Biblical contradictions saying the Bible is not intended to be coherent in this way. He quotes an argument that unbelievers cannot understand religion.

Hedges goes on to criticize Harris's discussion of a preemptive nuclear strike on fundamentalists his book The End of Faith.

"He, like all utopians, has reduced millions of human beings and cultures he knows nothing about to primitive impediments to his vision of a better world. [...] Harris again reduces a fifth of the world;s population to a vast, primitive enemy. [...] His bigotry, and the bigotry of all who dehumanize others, is used to justify indiscriminate slaughter and atrocity. The people to be killed, we are told, are not distinct individuals. [...] Our enemies have no monopoly on sin, nor have we one on virtue. We all stand in need of self-correction."

He says the new atheists have become like their enemy because they cannot see their own limitations and capacity for evil. He argues, following Karl Popper (and Thomas Paine) that democratic systems should be constructed to limit the damage caused by bad leaders.

Hedges then criticizes Dawkins's view that civilization is progressing morally saying new evils, such as modern warfare, predatory capitalism and environmental disasters, undermine his argument. He argues the view of history as a progression towards perfection is largely due to the Enlightenment. He considers cultures with a cyclic view of history as to be more accurate.

Science and Religion

Hedges argues for nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion, in that science cannot answer moral questions. He states that biological evolution is sometimes misapplied to society or economics. He mentions that the Ten Commandments are not the basis of United States law.

"Darwinism sees our animal natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise. It infers the opposite.[...] Evolutionary science, however, swiftly became for many a surrogate religion. It was used to promote racism and pseudoscience, such as eugenics [...] It was Spencer, not Darwin, who argued that step by step we were progressing as a species and would end with the perfect human being."

He mentions Thomas Henry Huxley's rebuttal to the accusation of being related to an ape. Hedges points out Charles Darwin had some racist tendencies, by ranking different "races" of humans by their proximity of hereditary similarity to apes, among other things. At times, Darwin seems to regard social Darwinism as inevitable. At other times, he implies that compassion is an advantageous trait and will eventually replace the traits of "inferior" races. Hedges makes a comparison between the fundamentalism of social Darwinists and the new atheists. He discusses the influence of Darwin on Friedrich Nietzsche and argues Nietzsche did not accept the "survival of the fittest", as suggested by Herbert Spencer and other social Darwinists. In contrast, hedges criticizes E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins for believing humans are (or soon could be) able to direct evolution in humans:

"... genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life. ... The prospect of this 'volitional evolution' - a species deciding what to do about its own heredity - will present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced... humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate. It can, if it chooses, alter not just the anatomy and intelligence of the species but also the emotions and creative drive that compose the very core of human nature."

E.O. Wilson

"We are build as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Richard Dawkins

Based on the above quotes, Hedges accuses them of suggestion humans can be perfected. For now, human influence on their own evolution is probably minimal at most, since many other factors still dominate how genes propagate. He again argues that the belief in perfectibility of humans is always destructive.

"these atheists use science the way religious fundamentalists use religion, to arrogate to themselves moral authority over all creation, including those within their own species who are too dim to see the truth. They alone (they think) understand how to bring about collective salvation and redeem the human race. [...] In the name of the highest virtues they sink to moral depravity."

Hedges argues that Hitches changing from being a Trotskyite to a neo-con is actually a small change because both attempt to transform human life using science and social engineering.

"He has traded the hollow slogans of the left for the hollow slogans of the right."

He writes that Joseph Conrad recognized the evil that colonialism can do, as well as the impossibility of escaping human limitations. He notes that cults that depend on science often end up ironically suppressing it when it becomes inconvenient. Hedges observes that science also has a non-rational element in developing hypotheses, as well as discovering the boundaries of what is knowable, such as the uncertainty principle.

"Science, and especially quantum mechanics, far from telling us we can know everything, tells us there will always be things we cannot know. No on ultimately understands. Science affirms the complexity and mystery of the universe. Science, like the religious impulse, opens us u to a world where we face mystery. There are forces in the universe that will always lie beyond the capacity of the human mind."

He is critical of meme theory, saying it is a misapplication of biological evolution. He points to the fact that people within the same family disagree about some beliefs. Ideas are often spread by powerful elites rather than the best ideas self propagating. Engineering society using memes is essentially thought control. He compares the belief in perfecting humans by science to intelligent design in that both are myths and self-delusions.

The New Fundamentalism

Both religious and secular movements can be fundamentalist. Because they do not consider alternative views, they are "anti-thought".

"[Fundamentalism] is our right to right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopians. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey."

Hedges criticizes atheists for slogans against magic, superstition, an anthropmorphic God and young Earth creationism (That's not my God) as lazy over-simplifications. He particularly criticizes the notion that theologians have not addressed the question "who created the creator?", which suggests an infinite regress. It is probably true that many skeptics are not familiar with theology, but it is unclear if theology as advanced by Thomas Aquinas and others would qualify as an explanation in the eyes of critics. A significant amount (or all) of the theology of god is mere speculation. Theology may be useful in elucidating the many possibilities of God's nature, but it does not establish their reality. Skeptics do not deny that it is conceivable that God created the world, just that there is any evidence for that proposition. The skeptical position does not require an advanced understanding of theology because speculation is not evidence.

"[Fundamentalists claim] There is no need to read theology."

Hedges accuses Harris and Hitchens of making sweeping generalizations about cultures and topics they do not understand. He quotes part of a debate in which Harris claims he can rely on polling data over direct experience of a culture. Hedges laments that dialogue has been replaced with caricatures and slogans. He discusses philosophers who questioned the assumptions underpinning the Enlightenment: Barunch Spinoza observed that human action is not primarily motivated by rational thought, Sigmund Freud emphasized the power of the instincts. Technology has enabled a few people to kill millions.

"We are not saved by reason. We are not saved by religion. We are saved by turning away from projects that tempt us to become God, and by accepting our own contamination and the limitations of being human."

He then warns against corporatism and consumerism as yet another form of utopianism, and which is beginning to erode democracy. Western civilization is able to ignore the harms it causes, or justifies them with dogma. Quoting Pfaff and Stillman:

"The West does not like to admit this fact about itself; that it has been capable of violence on an appalling scale, and has justified that violence as indispensable to a heroic reform of society or of mankind [...] To be a man of the modern West is to belong to a culture of incomparable originality and power; it is also to be implicated in incomparable crimes.[1]"

He criticizes utopians for trying to become like Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch. He notes that Nietzsche also predicted "The Last Men", where a culture becomes a cynical, pathetic, middle-class farce. Hedges considers Harris and Hitchens to be similar to the Last Men. (This is slightly confusing because the Übermensch and the Last Men are considered by Nietzsche to be dissimilar.) Thanks to consumer culture, people prefer to be entertained than to know the atrocities committed on their behalf. Hedges calls Dawkins's list of updated commandments to be "hollow, liberal platitudes".

"Neither Christian fundamentalists nor the new atheists question the rape and pillage of the country by corporations and the dismantling of our democracy.[...] Dawkins, like Christian zealots, reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil. Religion is a froce of darkness. Reason and science are forces of light."

He criticizes Dawkins's for oversimplification of the conflict in Northern Ireland. He argues against the idea that science can answer moral questions and for something like nonoverlapping magisteria. He ends on an existential note:

"We live in a universe indifferent to our fate. We are seduced by myths that assure us that the world revolves around us, that fate or the gods or destiny have given us a unique and singular role in the cosmos. It is hard to reject these myths and face the bleakness of human existence. It is more comforting and reassuring to have faith in our collective moral advancement as a species, to believe that we are heading towards something gear and wondrous. The bitter reality of existence and the bondage of human nature, however, are real. These myths are not. All those who tempt us to play God turn us away from the real world to flirt with our own annihilation."

Self-Delusion

While he argues religious teachings should not be written down, he also considers religion to be the beginning of ethics.

"Where rigid, formal obedience to law allows the adherent to avoid ethical choice, the truly moral life grapples with the inscrutable call to do what is right, to reach out to those who are reviled, labeled outcasts or enemies, and to practice compassion and tolerance, even at the cost of self-annihilation. And all ethical action begins with an acknowledgment of our sin and moral ambiguity."

He criticizes efforts to portray Martin Luther King Jr. as a non-religious humanist or a fundamentalist.

"Those who silence Jesus represent the powerful in all human societies. When Jesus attacks the chief priests, scribes, lawyers, Pharisees, Sadducees and other "blind guides," he is attacking an authoritarianism as endemic to Christianity as to all institutions and ideologies.[...] The central doctrine of Christianity-something perhaps all great religious thinkers have believed-is, as the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe said, if you don't love you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you."

Hedges quotes Samuel Beckett and Søren Kierkegaard to argue he rejected the idea of human progress.

"We want to believe that human suffering and deprivation is meaningful, that it has a purpose and that our lives make sense. This yearning for telos creates imaginary narratives of moral and historical progress. [...] It is a way to ward off the awful fact that things do not get better, that they often get worse, and that the irrational urges of human nature will never be conquered."

New atheists are criticized for attempting to abolish or "cage" religion because they attack an over simplified view of religion and "[are] used to avoid confronting the core and most important issues taken up by religious thought." He calls the multiverse hypothesis a form of mysticism used by atheists. Hedges describes the siege of Sarajevo and observes:

"This human capacity for violence and the moral filth it empowers lurks below the surface of our ordered societies. We can all, given the right circumstances, embrace it. We can all become beasts."

He further illustrates this by quoting from Varlam Shalamov, Primo Levi, William Pfaff and Joseph Conrad.

"The founding myth of the United States tells its citizens that it is the duty of the nation to bring enlightenment to the rest of humanity. And an entire historical narrative has been created to perpetuate this myth.[...] The killing of Indians soon became demanded by God. [...] To read the Pequot's version of this history, if it existed, would be a window into our own savagery."

These ideas were again used to justify many other more recent military actions by the US. Hedges warns against these projects that are supported by both religious and secular fundamentalists.

The Myth of Moral Progress

Hedges argues that the first world war, combined with further massive conflicts in the 20th century, should have ended Western culture's faith in moral progress.

"Knowledge did not set us free. Knowledge, as the biblical myth about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden illustrated, is morally neutral. It empowers good and evil."

Various artists and philosophers, including Sigmund Freud, have recognized this trait in humans.

"This state of war [between individuals] can be tamed and restricted by social and political institutions. It can be transferred to the ballot box, the law court or the sporting arena, but the urges seek release."

He criticizes both totalitarian and pacifist movements for utopian beliefs. He accuses them of what Immanuel Kant calls "radial evil". He quotes Sam Harris in The End of Faith saying "We cannot wait for weapons of mass destruction [...to fall] into the hands of fanatics." Hedges says US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are utopian projects. "It was doomed from the start."

"No matter what happens, many, many Iraqis are going to die. And it is our fault.[...] What is terrifying is not that the architects and numerous apologists of the Iraq war have learned nothing, but that they may not yet be finished. [...] No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations."

Humiliation and Revenge

The Illusive Self

References

  1. William Pfaff and Edmund Stillman, The Politics of Hysteria, 1965
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