18 January 2009

"I Don't Believe in Atheists"

The title of Chris Hedges's book is, at first glance, an absurdity. There are obviously people out there who don't believe in God or the supernatural, and Hedges himself promptly acknowledges the fact. He seems to mean something else, perhaps along the line of "I have no faith in atheists." Whoever designed the book jacket had an additional idea. Certain words are shaded so that, from a distance, the title might read as an imperative: Don't Believe Atheists. You're definitely supposed to come away from a reading convinced that atheists are wrong about something.

Hedges's book, however, isn't one of the volumes of apologias that have appeared following the success of such best-sellers as The End of Faith, God Is Not Great, and The God Delusion. Hedges is a journalist, not a theologian, though we learn that he was once a seminarian. He isn't out to prove the existence of the God of Abraham or the divinity of Jesus. Those issues don't really interest him. His relationship with Christianity is ambivalent at best. His last book was a critique of Christian fundamentalists called American Fascists. This book intends to demonstrate that the "fascists" and certain atheists (namely the popular ones) have a lot in common.

One thing that annoys Hedges is the literalism of both groups. Fundamentalists insist on the literal truth of scripture, while some atheists act as if they can refute religion itself by disproving the literal truth of myths. To Hedges, this is a simplistic, almost illiterate attitude toward religion. He joins John Gray, the British philosopher and author of the anti-atheist critique Black Mass, in defending myths as symbolic coping mechanisms that allow people to make sense of a world that, in their view, cannot be explained fully by scientific measurement or rational deduction. People who take myths literally, whether to defend their truth or debunk their meaning, are missing the main point, according to Hedges. Myth, he writes, "is not a primitive scientific theory that can be discredited in an industrialized age"(p.16).

Hedges has a particular problem with the Christian myth, inherited from Zoroastrianism and refined by Islam, of an end of history. Christians are often credited with introducing a progressive view of history in which conditions develop toward a pre-determined end point. According to believers, that end is the final triumph of God and the renewal of paradise. According to Hedges, the "new atheists," the militant best-sellers, have a similar viewpoint. He calls them Utopian and ascribes to them an almost religious faith in science as the means to human perfection. "The language of science and reason is now used by many atheists to express the ancient longings for human perfectibility. According to them, reason and science, rather than religion, will regulate human conflicts and bring about a paradise" (16).

John Gray had already noted an apparent similarity between the alleged Utopian ambition of atheists and the eschatological faith of Christians. His argument in Black Mass is that atheists could not imagine the purging of religion as the final perfection of man without the precedent of Christians' faith in the final defeat of the devil. His point was more ironic than Hedges's. Our present author despises all Utopianism, discerning in it the seed of totalitarianism. Utopianism assumes human omnipotence but is intolerant toward human difference. This explains the "new" atheists' bloodthirsty attitude toward Islam, which borders on the genocidal in some statements of Sam Harris.

Hedges has made a clever comparison to be outraged over, but he has actually made a straw man to attack. He presents precious little proof that atheists (other than old-school Marxist-Leninsts, who'd reject the label) are Utopians. He has very little evidence to back up his main charge: that atheists believe that religion is the only obstacle to human perfection. Some of the best-sellers have perhaps been irrationally exuberant over the potential of stem-cell research, if only to indict believers for opposing it, but that doesn't prove that they think science can perfect humanity or society. He has one quote from Richard Dawkins in which that author writes that "we have the power to turn against our creators," meaning our genes, but that doesn't prove that Dawkins imagines science to have an unlimited scope. He has less evidence yet to pin this charge on Christopher Hitchens, so he has to find Hitchens guilty by association. Hitchens used to be a Trotskyist, so Hedges digs up a Trotsky quote about infinite human potential under socialism (57-8) and represents it as Hitchens's viewpoint. But if anything, Hitchens has sided with George W. Bush in the war on terror because he is a completely disillusioned ex-Trotskyist, ex-leftist, ex-Utopian. Hitchens is less a Utopian than a libertarian. He opposes "Islamofascists" and all tyrants, not to mention laws against smoking in restaurants, because he's become convinced that no one has a right to tell him what to do.

Here's Hedges on science: "Science, when set up as a model for our moral and social existence, implicitly banishes compromise and tolerance ... But human relationships and social organizations interact and function effectively when they are not rigid, when they accept moral ambiguity, and when they take into account the irrational (54)....Science, like the religious impulse, opens us up to a world where we face mystery. There are forces in the universe that will always lie beyond the capacity of the human mind(63-4)....It is impossible to formulate a moral code out of reason and science....Neither science nor reason calls on us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, or to sacrifice for the weak, the infirm and the poor (88-9)."

Morality, Hedges implies, depends on some sense of the sacred. He stresses that this does not have to be a belief in God, but it does have to involve an admission that there is something beyond human power. He worries that atheists, in their wholesale rejection of religion, would jettison this essential sense of the sacred. Worse, and more provocatively, he condemns atheists for abandoning any sense of sin.

Hedges has a peculiar definition of sin. It is not a crime or a curse, but a fact, a state of being, specifically a state of limitation. Sin, for Hedges, is our inability to be perfect, our inability to master everything around us, our inability to be 100% rational.

Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed -- though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought....[It] prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in the species.(13-14).

Atheists may be excused for asking why Hedges must use the word sin. Most believers don't use the term the same way Hedges does. To the majority, I suspect, sin is a curse. Better, sin is a curse that can be lifted. The New Testament tells Christians how. Sin is not a permanent, intractable state. It's not just end-times obsessed fundamentalists who think that sin will cease to be someday. Hedges thinks he can use the word without endorsing the more popular definition, and blames atheists for rejecting that definition as if they were rejecting Hedges's more pessimistic worldview.

This confusion throws into question how well Hedges represents religion in general. He wants to defend it as a necessary coping mechanism, but as with sin, we can ask whether most believers actually apply religion to their lives that way. I don't think that they do. For most people, I think, religion is a quest for power. I don't mean that they're ambitious or greedy, but that they seek a power to which or to whom they can appeal or bargain for the lifting of the curse of sin, or exemption from the mortal state, or for other goods. Religion presumes the existence of a responsive power that may or may not have a "personal relationship" with each of us but could do what people ask if asked the right way. Religion is the collective effort to figure out the right way. But none of this interests Hedges.

Hedges is convinced that a mentality which he describes as religious is the only thing that reminds people that they are not gods, that they are not omnipotent or immortal. This so-called religious sensibility is the only thing that can reliably enforce what Hedges considers an essential modesty in people. Only so long as you believe in something outside yourself, something you cannot control but which in some way controls you (if maybe only by making your existence possible) will you not trample over other people or treat them as means to your ends.

On the other hand, if you really, honestly believe in nothing, that's okay. Hedges acknowledges the existence of what might be called good atheists as opposed to the nasty "new" atheists who write such awful books.

An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature...who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings...is intellectually honest. Those atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honest place in a pluralistic and diverse human community....The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation (24-5).

Despair seems to be Hedges's preferred mental state. Despairing people don't try to impose their will on others. It's Hedges's clear hope that despairing people are capable of the compassion toward one another that depends on a sense of the sacred and the limits its existence imposes on the self. But woe betide the atheist if he acts on his realization that God is irreconcilable with human suffering or other aspects of humanity. Once you cross that line from not believing in God anymore to believing that God is a lie, you only make more trouble as far as Hedges is concerned.

This is where most apologists blame atheism for the crimes of the Bolsheviks, or even the crimes of Hitler. Hedges doesn't go so far in that direction as some writers, since he blames all of that more on a general Utopianism in which atheists take part than on the rejection of God itself. Actually, what really gets Hedges's dander up when it comes to the "new" atheists, and Sam Harris in particular, is their attitude toward Muslims. In my video posts from last week you can see Hedges and Harris go at it, and the book gives Hedges a chance to take more shots at his antagonist. He equates Harris and Hitchens, the biggest atheist cheerleaders for the war on terror, with the Nietzschean "last men" who "ignore and disdain all that went before [them]" and "confuse cynicism with knowledge." They are "tiresome epicures" who "express the dreams and desires of a morally stunted middle class" (84-6). They espouse atheism in order to "avoid confronting the core and most important issues taken up by religious thought"(100-1).

Context matters. If one thing unites American Fascists and I Don't Believe in Atheists beside their common author, it's the fact that both sets of Hedges's enemies, Christian rightists and militant atheists, seem to want to kill Muslims. Hedges's answer is simple: Muslims are people, too. Moreover, he's pretty much right about the political roots of most "religious" violence. But the fact that the conflict is political rather than religious doesn't mean there's not a conflict. It doesn't mean that there'll be more conflict if there's less religion, but it also doesn't mean that there'll be less conflict if more people adopt Hedges-style religion.

In any event, as the videos show, Hedges is strongly affected by his time dwelling among ordinary Muslims. It's from them, obviously, that he gets the notion that not so many believers are the literal-minded morons of the atheist imagination, but I don't think his personal impressions give him the right to argue that religious dogma has little to do with the manner or intensity of certain political conflicts. It's hard to argue that religion hasn't exacerbated the Arab-Israeli conflict or the war on terror. It's harder yet to argue that irreligion has exacerbated the latter conflict, as if Americans enter battle waving Harris's or Hitchens's books or yelling that there is no God. But that, in effect, is what Hedges has written. To account for a handful of atheists supporting the war, he has to construct a straw man that matches the description of no atheist I know of. He then has the gall to accuse atheists of building a straw-man religion without really proving that his account is more accurate.

Hedges has many interesting things to say, especially toward the end of the book when he rips on modern pop culture and what he sees as an incipient new age of idolatry based on images rather than texts. He probably wouldn't approve of the indigo-children mythology after all, despite what I may have suggested a few days ago. But in the end his book may be too bleak. He really seems to think he can make the world better by telling people that there is no hope. He appears to have rejected any notion that people can make (indeed, have made) their lives better in anything more than a superficial, materialist way. At the same time, he'll hold up Martin Luther King as a model of conscientious religion in the service of justice, defending him against Hitchens's so-called slander that King was a Christian in name only, as if justice isn't something that people can only progress toward, or not an ideal that people must believe they can fully realize. Hitchens tries to adopt King as a secular humanist by noting that King never threatened segregationists with hellfire. Hedges is insulted by such rhetoric, but he never really explains exactly how King's belief in justice and his nonviolent strategies follow necessarily from the divinity of Jesus or other essentials of Christian doctrine. Hedges insists that people of faith are inspired to seek justice, but since his own faith seems to be based on the irredeemable misery of existence, I don't see how his religion would have a positive impact anywhere.

Consider this: Hedges's hero is the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who influenced King and many more liberal believers to the present day. Niebuhr's big idea was that our "fallen" nature should limit any Utopian ambition, whether it be Communism or pacifism or American exceptionalism. Hedges attributes to Niebuhr the remark that "religion...is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people"(4). Hedges seems to be okay with this, but that's not what religion promises. Any religion worth its salt promises to turn bad people into good people. If Hedges's religion isn't even going to make that promise, then what good is it?

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