Atheism’s Unholy Trinity

Jarrett Dapier

Last spring, Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the New York Times, flew to Cal­i­for­nia to see some athe­ists about God. Over the course of two debates – one in Los Ange­les, the oth­er in Berke­ley – Hedges sparred with Sam Har­ris, author of The End of Faith, and Christo­pher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great. Accord­ing to Aneli Rufus, who report­ed on the Hedges vs. Hitchens debate for Alter­Net, Hedges was trounced.”

Athe­ism 2, God 0.

Now, out of these debates comes Hedges’ lat­est book, I Don’t Believe In Athe­ists (Free Press, 2008), a relent­less, deeply con­sid­ered defense of the reli­gious impulse. 

The book’s title is nei­ther an accu­rate per­son­al state­ment nor a reflec­tion of the volume’s con­tents. As Hedges has said, he is no athe­ist. Nev­er­the­less, he elo­quent­ly defends athe­ists who are intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est” – those who accept an irre­deemable and flawed human nature” – and believes they hold an hon­ored place in a plu­ral­is­tic and diverse com­mu­ni­ty.” Intend­ed to pro­voke, the title sets up false expec­ta­tions for a sim­plis­tic no athe­ists in fox­holes” screed that sells the book short.

Instead, Hedges’ main tar­get is utopia, which he calls the most dan­ger­ous lega­cy of the Chris­t­ian faith and Enlight­en­ment.” And pri­mar­i­ly in the works of evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist and author Richard Dawkins, as well as Hitchens and Har­ris – the new athe­ists,” as Hedges calls them – the author finds a moral­ly bank­rupt utopi­an world­view that divides human­i­ty between the prim­i­tive faith­ful and the civ­i­lized rational. 

Accord­ing to Hedges, the new athe­ists argue that once human­i­ty is deliv­ered from reli­gion – what Hitchens has called man-made filthy pro­pa­gan­da” – and places its faith in sci­ence and rea­son, we will final­ly advance moral­ly as a species. But hid­den under the jar­gon of rea­son and sci­ence,” writes Hedges, this con­vic­tion is a sec­u­lar ver­sion of reli­gious extrem­ism. To Hedges, this makes them dangerous.

Too many of the new athe­ists, like the Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists, sup­port the impe­ri­al­ist projects and pre-emp­tive wars of the Unit­ed States as neces­si­ties in the bat­tle against ter­ror­ism and irra­tional reli­gion,” he writes. To make his case, he cites Har­ris’ jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a nuclear first-strike on the Mid­dle East and Hitchens’ con­tin­ued sup­port for democ­ra­cy-via-bomb­ing in Iraq. 

Hedges doesn’t mince words about these athe­ists: They are sub­ur­ban muta­tions,” hope­less epi­cures” and prod­ucts of the moral­ly stunt­ed world of enter­tain­ment.” Because many athe­ists con­flate rad­i­cal, lit­er­al­ist reli­gion with all reli­gion – and refuse to see any good that has come from faith – Hedges sees them as intel­lec­tu­al­ly shal­low. To him, one must come at faith hon­est­ly – through years of sus­tained thought, read­ing, reflec­tion and intro­spec­tion. The same goes for atheism. 

One of the strengths of Athe­ists is Hedges’ author­i­ty to write on the top­ic. The son of a Pres­by­ter­ian min­is­ter, he wit­nessed how his father’s faith inspired him to fight for social jus­tice, even when it was deeply unpop­u­lar in the rur­al, upstate New York com­mu­ni­ties in which he preached. It was this mod­el of courage-through-faith that led Hedges to pur­sue a degree from Harvard’s Divin­i­ty School, where he gained his under­stand­ing of theology.

Hedges spent the next 20 years cov­er­ing for­eign wars for a host of news­pa­pers, includ­ing the Times, where he served as the Mid­dle East Bureau Chief. He has wit­nessed many of the late 20th century’s worst hor­rors – in Alge­ria, Bosnia, El Sal­vador, Iraq, Koso­vo and Sudan (where he was impris­oned). Hedges mined these expe­ri­ences to great effect in his excel­lent, hard-hit­ting 2003 book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Mean­ing.

In a 2008 inter­view with Salon, Hedges said, I spent so long in war zones that I think we don’t know what we would do under repres­sion and abuse. … That’s the bril­liance of the great writ­ers on the Holo­caust, like Pri­mo Levi. … They under­stood the human­i­ty of their own killers.”

Hedges spends the first half of Athe­ists refut­ing the claim that human­i­ty has advanced moral­ly. The Enlight­en­ment myth … taught that our phys­i­cal and social envi­ron­ment could be trans­formed through ratio­nal manip­u­la­tion. … [But] human his­to­ry is not a long chron­i­cle of human advance­ment. It includes our cru­el­ty, bar­barism, revers­es, blun­ders and self-inflict­ed disasters.” 

In the sec­ond chap­ter, God and Sci­ence,” Hedges pro­vides an engross­ing his­to­ry of Dar­win­ism and the Enlight­en­ment, and their dark lega­cies of vio­lence. He cites Friedrich Nietzsche’s fear that the British would use social Dar­win­ism to jus­ti­fy impe­ri­al­ism, and offers a pel­lu­cid argu­ment against science’s appli­ca­tion to philosophy. 

Hedges under­stands the deprav­i­ty of which human beings are capa­ble – be they sec­u­lar or reli­gious. To turn away from God is harm­less. To turn away from sin is cat­a­stroph­ic,” he writes. 

At the same time, we all expe­ri­ence moments of tran­scen­dence – such as a parent’s love for his child – that we are dri­ven to account for. The mean­ing of this con­tra­dic­tion is the domain of reli­gion. Sci­ence can nev­er ade­quate­ly grap­ple with such sub­jec­tive human complexity:

Sci­en­tif­ic ideas … are embraced or reject­ed on the basis of quan­tifi­able evi­dence. 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.

Hedges draws from the works of artists like Samuel Beck­ett, Albert Camus, Willa Cather, Joseph Con­rad, Fyo­dor Dos­to­evsky and Uta Hagen, as well as fig­ures like Thomas Aquinas, Sig­mund Freud, Rein­hold Niebuhr and Arthur Schopen­hauer. These indi­vid­u­als, who wres­tled with – and against – faith and a trag­ic world­view, serve as Hedges’ touch­stones as he seeks to express the core lim­its of human­i­ty and what he calls the pos­si­bil­i­ties of religion.” 

Hedges’ writ­ing has a hurtling, run­neth-over qual­i­ty that can be redun­dant and vague at times (as in his sec­tion on the con­cept of tem­pered free will”). He is also prone to cranky digres­sions (as in his sec­tion on a fash­ion design­er pro­filed on CNN). And some read­ers may be dis­ap­point­ed to find that Hedges does not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­man­tle each argu­ment in the new athe­ists’ books. 

Instead, Hedges views the new athe­ists not so much as an orga­nized threat, but as indi­ca­tors of a larg­er ten­den­cy in Amer­i­ca toward a dan­ger­ous­ly sim­plis­tic way of think­ing. It is fear, igno­rance, a lack of intro­spec­tion and the illu­sion that we can cre­ate a har­mo­nious world that leads us to sanc­tion the immoral,” Hedges writes. Our ene­mies have no monop­oly on sin, nor have we one on virtue.”

Hedges pro­pos­es the rad­i­cal notions that we admit our com­plic­i­ty in the vio­lence of the world and acknowl­edge the human­i­ty of our ene­mies. Reli­gion – with its oth­er long his­to­ry of encour­ag­ing com­pas­sion toward oth­ers and intro­spec­tion about the evil at the cen­ter of humanity’s heart – is too valu­able in this aim to be flat­ly dis­missed. Amen.

Jar­rett Dapi­er is a for­mer assis­tant pub­lish­er at In These Times. Pre­vi­ous work for ITT includes inter­views with play­wright Christo­pher Shinn and Fugazi gui­tarist, Ian Mack­aye.  He cur­rent­ly works with teens at the Evanston Pub­lic Library where he runs a recy­cled drum­ming pro­gram and directs stage adap­ta­tions of young adult lit­er­a­ture. He lives in Evanston, IL.
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