Chris Hedges wrote a pretty good book on fundamentalism called American Fascists; at least, I thought it was pretty good, but now I have my doubts about his credibility. He has a new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and has an essay that summarizes his position. I could not believe how awful it is — it’s basically a declaration that all atheists are exactly like Pat Robertson, and then it charges in with nothing but venom and accusations to defend his position.
Here’s a perfect example.
These atheists share a naÃ¯ve belief with these fundamentalists in our innate goodness and decency. They, like all religious fundamentalists, fail to grasp the dark reality of human nature, our own capacity for evil, and the morally neutral universe we inhabit. There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.
Wait a minute — Christian fundamentalists believe we’re victims of original sin, and will go on and on about what evil people we naturally are, and how it is only the grace of God that prevents us from running off raping and pillaging and killing. He’s starting off with a very peculiar characterization of fundamentalists.
And what about the atheists? Are there utopian dreamers among us? Sure, but not many — it’s hard to be too optimistic when you’re a minority surrounded by glib believers in balderdash. I think we tend to be realists: humanity has done fairly well for itself, and has potential to do better, but human nature is not a perfect ideal, nor is it perfectable, and we’re always going to have conflict and compromise. The question is whether we’re going to resolve those conflicts with reason, or with tribalisms and superstition.
While I don’t see much talk of a “glorious utopia” in atheist circles, I also don’t see as much of the bleak nihilism of Hedges, in which aspiration is pointless because we’re all doomed to futility. Hedges’ black-and-white view seems terribly stark and unrealistic.
He’s also prone to lumping all atheists together into one highly unrepresentative group.
Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity. They see the war in Iraq and the greater conflict in the Middle East as an attack on irrational religion and a fight for the civilizing values of western culture. They too divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris — who asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world — describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude, and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. These authors are as culturally, historically, and linguistically illiterate as Christian fundamentalists, reducing one-fifth of the world’s population to their cartoonish visions of what it means to be a Muslim. They are a secular version of the religious right.
“Most of these atheists”…who has he been talking to? Hitchens and Harris are most emphatically not representative of atheist views on war. When Hitchens spoke at FFRF on the need for strongarming the Muslims in Iraq and Iran into surrender, people walked out on him, and he was loudly decrying atheists as wimps who were weak on the war and were too pro-Democrat, too anti-war. Atheists are politically diverse, and if anything, tend to lean away from the views Hedges assigns to us.
But wait! Hedges is not done making himself look ridiculous!
The New Atheists misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology as egregiously as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Darwinism, which pays homage to the final and complete mastery of our animal natures, never posits that human beings can transcend their natures and create a human paradise. It argues the opposite. The illusion of human progress, in the name of evolutionary biology, is actually anti-Darwinian. And in this the New Atheists are honest neither about science nor Darwin. Science is used by them to supplant religion, to provide meaning and hope. It is used to assuage these innate religious yearnings. Since scientific knowledge is cumulative, albeit morally neutral, it gives the illusion that human history and human progress is also cumulative. And in many ways science has simply replaced the faith our premodern ancestors had in God.
Uh, “Darwinism”? If you knew how much I detest that frequently misused term…
And then to follow it up with the weirdest definition of evolution I’ve heard yet — “which pays homage to the final and complete mastery of our animal natures” — I want to know where this guy is getting his information. We do not master our animal natures, we are animals, and our nature is us. It is quite true that a proper understanding of evolution demolishes the idea of an overall pattern of progress towards a single goal, replacing it with an expanding diversity of strategies and a dominance by chance variation, but selection does reveal that there are better strategies for survival, at least in the short term.
And face it, on a social level there are better ways of doing things. Equality is better for all people than racism and discrimination; tolerance is better than oppression; representation is better than tyranny. We don’t sit around passive, saying that well, heck, an occasional lynching of a black man or the existence of gangs that beat up people walking out of gay bars is just as good as the absence of the same … we do have ideals to which we aspire, and we all work towards them. Atheists are people who believe that we can improve society with reason, and that yes, we can supplant the superstition and mythology of religion with better ways of making decisions. This is not wrong. This is how we achieve our goals.
But to see an author dismiss the idea of a betterment of the culture is hypocritical and absurd. Hedges writes books and has them published and sells them to people, I expect with the idea that readers will learn from them. Learning, however, is one of those utopian ideals that he seems to find so pointless.
But more ominously, the New Atheists ignore the wisdom of original sin, as well as studies in cognitive behavior that illustrate that human nature is often irrational and flawed. We are all governed, even in our moments of greatest lucidity, by unconscious forces. This understanding, whether achieved through Augustine or Freud, has been our most potent check on schemes of human perfectibility and utopian visions. But the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientifically legitimate than alchemy.
These “New Atheists” are bizarre products of Hedges’ imagination. The real New Atheists are well aware of the flaws of human character, and have no illusions of inevitability.
But gosh, I’m wasting my time. Hedges is clearly enraptured by his own delusions, and there’s no hope of educating him, or anyone else for that matter; we’re all poor doomed slaves of our impoverished natures, and all attempts to acquire a better, more accurate understanding of the world are pointless, occult mysticisms. There isn’t even any point to buying any of his books, or listening to his lectures, or reading his futile screeds.