In 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther, began a new era in Christianity by declaring his independence from what he saw as the excesses and iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. Having kicked off the Reformation by nailing an itemized list of complaints to a church door, Luther challenged not only the orthodoxy of the Church but the political structures of Christian Europe.
In the early years of Luther’s new religion—Protestantism—he became known as a defender of the Jews, whose treatment at the hands of Catholics horrified him. “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian,” he once wrote. As his theological revolution had purged what he saw as the impurities of Catholic dogma, Luther thought that now the Jews would finally be able to be converted to Christ.
Of course, the problem Jews had with Christianity wasn’t with the selling of indulgences, but with the divinity of Christ. When Europe’s Jews failed to join Luther’s new church, he turned on them most viciously. By 1536, he presaged the Final Solution in his book, “Of The Jews And Their Lies,” calling for Jews to be put into bondage, killed, or expelled from Europe if they did not convert to the gentle message of the Gospels (he put his money where his mouth was by driving them out of many a German principality.) In the introduction to this seminal work of anti-Semitism, Luther writes,
“I have received a treatise in which a Jew engages in dialog with a Christian. He dares to pervert the scriptural passages which we cite in testimony to our faith, concerning our Lord Christ and Mary his mother, and to interpret them quite differently. With this argument he thinks he can destroy the basis of our faith.”
Chris Hedges, author, journalist, and himself a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and son of a Protestant minister, has written his own 21st-century version of “Of The Jews And Their Lies,” entitled I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Anti-Semitism is relatively passé for today’s Christians (at best, a bit tacky after Hitler), but bigotry against the godless remains relatively safe to express in public. Many a reviewer and interviewer have called the title “cute” (cuter than Von Der Juden und Ihren Lügen?), and Hedges’ bigotry seems to be getting a pass from folks on the left for who probably would have reacted differently had it been anyone else writing the same words.
I feel the same about Hedges as I do about Christopher Hitchens, after he came out so forcefully behind the Bush’s invasion of Iraq; a deep admiration now gone sour. Hedges says the book was born of his debates with what he calls ‘the new atheists,’ writers such as Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and E. O. Wilson. He calls today’s atheist writers religious fundamentalists, assigning them to “the cult of science” and decrying their intolerance and bigotry while doling out plenty of his own.
In foreign policy terms, an atheist like myself has much more in common with Hedges—we both oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (unlike Hitchens and Harris). In searching for a larger framework to contest what he sees as Hitchens’ and Harris’ support of imperialist war, however, he decides to tar even war opponents like Dawkins and Dennett with guilt by association and lumps us all together as evil and a danger to the Republic. But while atheism might be said to have a political philosophy (the separation of church and state), it certainly doesn’t have a foreign policy.
Within the 224 pages of I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges winds his way through a dense thicket of strawmen. Not only has Hedges created a new Christianity for himself (one without heaven, hell, religious institutions, or an interventionalist god), but he’s created another one for his enemies. “To turn away from God is harmless,” Hedges grants, magnanimously, but “to turn away from sin is catastrophic.” You can have your Model-T in any color you want, as long as it’s black as religiously-defined sin.
Works like I Don’t Believe in Atheists reinforce the fact that nonbelievers are one of the most hated minorities in America. Hedges’ liberal bigotry is writ small, at least in the physical sense—the book is a pocket-friendly 5″ by 7″. The sprawling (and often repetitive) critique of today’s out-of-the-closet atheists finds Hedges equating us with Nazis, all the while calling on the reader to heed the wisdom of, say, Christian Realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped shore up support for the atomic bomb and is considered by many to the first neoconservative. Niebuhr’s “just war” theory is often invoked by Iraq war supporters, because it frames mass murder as the necessity to confront evil.
I Don’t Believe In Atheists is a gentle, liberal incitement to an American pogrom against nonbelievers, based on his very own version of a blood libel:
“while the new atheists do not have the power of the Christian Right and are not a threat to the democratic state as the Christian Right is, they do engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism. They sell this under secular banners. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection, this time made possible by science and reason.”
Do atheists believe in a ‘state of perfection?’ Do atheists belong to what Hedges calls the ‘cult of science?’ Must we all have gods, as Martin Luther once said?
A thoroughly modern believer, Hedges declares he can pick and choose truths and falsehoods from science with the same ease as he does from Bible (parts of which he calls ‘morally indefensible’). As with other intelligent design advocates, a faulty understanding of science buttresses a foregone conclusion—that the divine inhabits the gaps in human scientific understanding and the pursuit of further understanding is hazardous to the soul. Richard Dawkins, a target of Hedges’ self-righteous indignation, calls this belief the ‘god of the gaps,’ and Hedges tries mightily to sacralize the mysteries of the universe in order to warn scientists against the hubris of discovering truths about reality instead of waiting for revelation about the mystic.
Intelligent design, a modern descendant of creationism, is the same impulse which lead ancient mapmakers to draw sea serpents in unexplored parts of the oceans and declare: “thar be monsters.” Hedges’ book amounts to nothing less than the intelligent design argument applied beyond biology to all realms of human endeavor, from physics to philosophy. And the monsters are the so-called “new atheists.”
“Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry,” announces Hedges, but his dogma leads him toward an inquisition instead. The main thrust of the book is the idea that today’s atheists are trying to ‘perfect’ humanity, which is at the top of Hedges’ list of cardinal sins:
“[t]he belief in human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil. It provides cover for criminality and abuse, a justification for murder. It sanctifies war, murder, and torture, for an unattainable purpose. It denies our own moral pollution.”
One could substitute “the divine” for “human perfection” in the above sentence, but that’s the easy way out. Even if the new atheist authors really believe in human perfection, is that the same thing as a belief in moral progress? “There is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere,” protests Hedges. Well, it all depends on your metric for progress, of course—not to mention your definitions of ‘moving’ and ‘anywhere.’ If nothing in nature or history supported the idea of progress, Hedges’ wouldn’t have to repeatedly and weakly dismiss the notion. For Hedges, the fact that there is still murder and hatred and all manner of iniquity and inequality proves that there is no progress ever past or present, QED.
But really, is there anything in human nature to say we, as a species, I suppose, are moving anywhere? There’s a whole science of genetics which is helping to explain how we got here in the way we did, from helping us trace the movement of early humans out of Africa to developing cures for birth defects which were never possible before. Did morality work differently for our pre-human ancestors as it does for homo sapiens? Does the evolution of and within hominid society qualify as moral progress? I would venture to say so, if only because I don’t think animals are capable of the kind of abstract reasoning ethics require. Evolutionary biology shows us that change is slow, and its smallest increment is generational.
Hedges’ idea that naturalists believe we are the culmination of a process leading towards perfection shows the limits of his understanding. “The belief in human perfectibility, in history as a march toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology.” Actually, it’s malformed science; biologists understand that evolution is a continuing phenomenon, and we are not the end of it. Only under the weight of eschatology (the study of the end of time) does evolution have an ‘end.’ For scientists, Darwin only described a ‘means.’ What Darwin showed was that evolution was random, as opposed to competing evolutionary scientists of his day—like Lamarck, who theorized that giraffes grew long necks in order to feed from tall trees.
Hedges is just getting started mischaracterizing science for his own ends: “[p]luralism has no place in science. Neither does the principle (so familiar from the arts, humanities and human sciences) of competing truths. Scientific ideas, because they an be demonstrated or disproved, are embraced or rejected on the basis of quantifiable evidence.”
Pluralism certainly has a place in science, and it’s called the cutting edge, where such ideas are called theorems. (Just look at the panoply of string theories, which are themselves intended to resolve the competition between quantum field and general relativity theories.) Hedges’ rants remind me of an English major drunkenly explaining that Science majors have no soul. And not only that, adds Hedges, but neuroscientist Sam Harris “does not engage in the laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding… He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship.” (One presumes Hedges had compelled Harris to debate him against his will in San Francisco in 2007).
Hedges fumbles a lot. For example: “[Sam Harris’] assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children as suicide bombers could only have been written by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who have just lost their child.” Now, I have never been to Gaza, but one such parent, known as ‘Umm Nidal‘ (who famously encouraged her sons to become martyrs and handed out chocolate and halvah upon hearing her son was killed attacking an Israeli settlement) was, in fact, elected to Palestinian parliament on the Hamas ticket in 2006. Similarly, Hedges protests that somehow religion had nothing to do with the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Christians. The book is full of such hollow falsehoods, Jesuit-level equivocations and semantic boondoggles.
The tone of the book is reminiscient of a sermon—long, tedious, repetitive, and full of earnestly resolute pomposity:
“The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. […] God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe. […] God is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence.”
Reverence of what, exactly? It isn’t clear, but it seems that if anything should be exalted, it is human limitation and our irredeemable shortcomings, whatever those might be. Hedges not only constructs a strawman (the belief that atheists and scientists are trying to perfect humanity) but a new religion—the worship of human flaws. There is no greater sin for Hedges than to turn away from the concept of Sin, and those who do are embracing an evil so profound that Hedges’ doesn’t talk about much else. Hedges’ speaks of the “wisdom of original Sin” and exalts, at length, human evil:
“Human evil is not a problem. It is a mystery. It cannot be solved. It is a bitter, constant paradox that is part of human nature.”
Hedges goes on to accuse the new atheists of ‘externalizing evil’ — but the truth is that Hedges is guilty of internalizing ‘good.’ English doesn’t have a distinction between religious and secular definitions of ‘good’ the way it separates ‘evil’ from ‘bad,’ so let me clarify that as an atheist, I believe in ‘bad’ but not ‘evil.’ Because contrary to what religion wants you to think, the relevant parties to telling right from wrong are your fellow beings, rather than any imaginary ones. Yes, there is bad and good, but we must always ask—bad for whom? Good for what?
In a summary of his book published by the Free Press, Hedges writes,
“Religious institutions, however, should be separated from the religious values imparted to me by religious figures, including my father [who was a liberal minister]. Most of these men and women frequently ran afoul of their own religious authorities. Religion, real religion, was about fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy and defying the powerful.”
Leaving aside for the moment the question of how Hedges gets to cleave ‘real religion’ from the kind most people practice, we must ask—what exactly are religious values? Are there such things regardless of the religion in question?
The truth is, there’s only one universal religious value: orthodoxy in the service of power. The world’s faiths share a vast-ranging disagreement on everything else, even the number of gods to be worshiped—from zero in Theravada Buddhism to the Trinity of Catholicism to the countless loa of Voodoo. Everything about the temporal world is up for spiritual grabs, from the threshold for justifiable homicide to the divinely inspired way to wipe your ass.
Much as science is morally neutral, religion is merely a tool for the powerful to control the masses. And yet, there is a process by which religions themselves evolve. Within my own lifetime, for example, Bob Jones University, which went from defending their ban on interracial dating and marriage on God’s ipse dixit before the Supreme Court in 1983 to revoking the policy in 2000—not because George W. Bush was about to make a speech there and they didn’t want to offend the heathens for political purposes, but because the sacred words of God must have changed, mysteriously acquiring a new meaning.
Whether there’s a text or an oral tradition, every religious person picks and chooses, interprets and reinterprets the tenets of their faith and applies them to the real world. Those choices are temporal, secular—because religion is all in your head. Interaction with your fellow humans is real, and therefore will never live up to Hedges’ idealized ‘good.’
Morals are personal, ethics are interpersonal. The ‘zeitgeist’ (as described by Dawkins) describes the movement of social mores—the definitions not only of evil, but of ‘good’ as well.
When Hedges admits that some parts of the Bible are ‘morally indefensible,’ it is the reader’s duty to ask how they got that way. So when Hedges writes, “All ethics begin with religion. We must determine what moral laws to accept or reject. We must distinguish between real and false prophets,” while enjoining us from using reason and science to do so, on what basis does Hedges make these distinctions? It would appear that there is no rational distinction between true and false prophets.
The truth is that all of us, Hedges included, create a personal moral code using real-life, secular ethics—the realm of human interaction which Hedges finds so spiritually devoid: “Those who focus only on human communication, who are unable to step out of the realm of prosaic knowledge, sever themselves from the sacred. They remain trapped in a deadening self-awareness. They lose the capacity to honor and protect that which makes life possible.”
A band of prophets known as the Firesign Theatre once said, “when you clock the human race with the stopwatch of history, it’s a new record every time.” Things we view as “evil” or immoral by today’s standards were moral yesterday, and we gauge our progress by comparing these standards. For example: would Jesus buy an SUV? Has burning gasoline always been sin, or just bad for the environment? And how could we possibly answer such a question (much less ask it) without the advances of science? Moral ‘progress’ is inevitable, if only because morality has to address new problems every day.
Hedges goes on at length about how the new atheists want to ‘perfect’ humanity, but suspiciously, he doesn’t use any direct quotes. So, I decided to read Harris and Dawkins in search of this ideology of perfection, but I couldn’t find any. Dawkins definitely speaks of the Zeitgeist and of “evolving complexity,” but nowhere does he say that ‘perfection’ (whatever that is) is attainable or that he has set his sights upon it. Harris hardly speaks in absolutes, and certainly doesn’t say that atheists seek to achieve perfection. So, where is this murderous ideology of perfection?
Seek and ye shall find, says the Bible, and Hedges’ uses his denseness as his guide: “Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. Those who, in the name of science, claim that we can overcome our imperfect human nature create a belief system that functions like religion… there is nothing, when you cut through their scientific jargon, to support their absurd proposition.”
Leaving aside whether Hedges is truly capable of understanding scientific jargon—as opposed to simply cutting through it—you have to wonder (as with his claim that “Dawkins, like Christian zealots, reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil”) where he’s getting this stuff. As Hedges writes, “these are not questions atheists answer. They attack a religious belief of their own creation.” Atheists don’t believe in eschatology, and neither do we seek to negate ourselves by becoming gods. Atheism merely seeks to turn the pyramid scheme of religion upside-down.
“Because there is no clear, objective definition of God,” writes Hedges, “the new atheists must choose what God it is that they attack.” Actually, that’s not true, but like all good debaters, Hedges needs to reframe the debate on his terms in order to claim rhetorical victory. What Hedges fails to understand is that atheism is a rejection of the whole notion of a top-down universe, no matter whom your particular creation myth places at the top. A universe without gods is one which is eternal and works from the bottom up, without meaning or intent. Hedges characterizes the universe as “morally neutral,” but at the same time posits an objective ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that God is the good in each of us. One wonders why, if there is only one god, why it can’t be the morally neutral in each of us? If animals have a moral value, what is it, and do they share the same god as humanity or the rest of the universe?
For most of the book, Hedges’ seems hell-bent on conflating atheists with Raëlians, an extropian UFO cult who send out press releases claiming to have cloned a human being every so often. For all his Western-centric chauvinism, Hedges’ concept of the universe, with its personally uninvolved deity in an amoral universe who works through us, sounds a lot more like some Yoruba-derived syncretic religion, such as Candomblé or Santería: Oludumare, the creator, doesn’t deal with people, and so requests are made of orishas (‘the owners of heads’) who possess and work through their followers. But Hedges’ Christian prejudices against atheism and polytheism are merely precursors to the real weakness in his arguments.
When Hedges writes, for example, that “[w]e 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,” is he saying that the pursuit of any scientific knowledge (for example, genetics, which can certainly be said to “change human nature”) is an evil because it attempts to improve the human condition? And if some science is OK, where is the boundary between good and evil science, the border line where Hedges and the Unabomber stand, wagging their fingers at humanity?
“There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere,” he proclaims. It seems by definition that if there there is human progress that we are moving somewhere (if not towards some glorious utopia). Hedges lives in a world of absolutes, as much as he protests otherwise; since the imaginary end (utopia) is deemed impossible, he seems to say there cannot be any movement altogether, failing to make the distinction between ‘perfect’ as a verb and as an adjective. When, for example, America’s founding Deists employed the phrase ‘a more perfect Union,’ it didn’t suggest (to me, anyway) that they thought there was going to be a perfectly perfect Union.
I Don’t Believe In Atheists plumbs the depths of Hedges’ unwillingness to engage with atheism, or atheists—encapsulated by the way he laughs off Christopher Hitchens’ lack of theological training with regard to his question of who created the Creator:
“This is the declaration of an illiterate. Aquinas, along with many other theologians, addressed at length the issue of who created the creator. God, Aquinas argues, is not an entity. God is not a thing or a being. Creation is an act of handicraft. Creation is the condition of there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn’t happen long ago. Creation is a constant in human existence. It is part of life.”
This is what’s known as “conversion by definition” (or “the bear hug”) where extremely lazy evangelists posit that the fact one is alive is proof that at least one god exists. (For the sun, or your electronic devices, which operate on the principle that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, it’s a different story.) “God is a human concept,” admits Hedges, but that’s about as far as he’s willing to go in understanding the subjects of his monograph. Because Hedges’ doesn’t understand atheism, his critique is understandably flawed. Worse still, he is unwilling to subject himself to his own critique:
“They see the “other” as equal only when the other is identical to themselves. They project their own values on the rest of the human race. …Those who are different do not need to be investigated, understood or tolerated, for they are intellectually and morally inferior. Those who are different are imperfect versions of themselves.”