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I don't believe in Chris Hedges

Oh.my. Chris Hedges has gone and put his foot in his mouth. He's gone and written a new book entitled I Don't Believe in Atheists in which he claims that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and other "New Atheists" are just as dangerous to America as Christian fundamentalists. Oh, yes. And did you know there are such things as secular fundamentalists? Indeed!

The irony, of course, of this whole thing, is that while Chris Hedges is lambasting people like Hitchens, they really hold substantially similar viewpoints of the Christian Right, and have substantially similar job histories, and substantially similar personalities. I gues this is what being religious does to a person. I got the impression from reading the article that Hedges was just embarrassed by his performance in debate against Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, because seriously, where else could all this venom against atheists be coming from? It's certainly not based in reality.

The interview with Salon is dissected below.

Let's look at this choice paragraph about Hedges' view:

While speaking out against the Christian fundamentalist movement and its political agenda, Hedges noticed another group -- this one on the left -- conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America's role in world politics. The New Atheists, as they have been called, include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and bestselling author and journalist Christopher Hitchens -- outspoken secularists who depict religious structures and the belief in God as backward and anti-democratic.

There are so many things wrong here, I hardly know where to begin. Speaking out about the authoritarian drive behind religion is a bad thing? The New Atheists are allied with the neocons? Okay, sure, Christopher Hitchens is, but since when were Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins neocons? I'm really confused.

Hedges goes on to say this:

After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.

Gee, doesn't that sound like a sore loser? He went into the debates unprepared and got slammed for his Christian illogic, and was offended that anyone would dare tell him his religious worldview was possibly at odds with reality. And so, of course, they must be secular fundamentalists... And exactly how are atheists intolerant for engaging in debate? How have atheists prevented anyone else from believing what they want other than by talking about it? How is this at all kin to the Christian Right who would take over society and force everyone to live according to their rules (and have harsh punishments for failing to do so)?

I certainly understand that there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever, that many people of great moral probity and courage define themselves outside of religious structures, do not engage in religious ritual or use religious language, in the same way that many people who advocate intolerance, bigotry and even violence cloak themselves in the garb of religion and oftentimes have prominent positions within religious institutions. Unlike the religious fundamentalists or the New Atheists, I'm not willing to draw these kind of clean, institutional lines.

Of course, he's better than the New Atheists are because he's parrotting their words from the standpoint of a theist. How dare atheists say the same thing. And other than Hitchens rather absolutely entitled book, how have Harris and Dawkins said anything other than religion is fundamentally bad--not because there isn't anything redeeming about it--but because reason is a better way? There is a lot about religion which is bad, and one of the worst things is giving over one's powers of reasoning, to let someone else make decisions for you, lazy thinking. Not to mention the impression that if one is religious that one must be a good person, which facilitates all kinds of evil, and occasionally encourages good people to do evil in the belief that they are doing good (facilitated by the inability of the religious person to think for themselves). But, of course, it's okay for him to say this, but god help an atheists who says so.

Unfortunately, what they've done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists.

A Utopian belief system? What belief system is that? That reason is a more effective tool for handling our earthly problems than sitting in a room and talking to yourself?

For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress -- that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society.

Huh? Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist believes this? I don't think so. This is some kind of gross, but common, misunderstanding of evolution. And why is it a bad thing to strive toward a better human society? The difference between us and the Christian Right is that they would use force to get what they want, and atheists use talk to encourage other people to agree with their vision.

Technology and science, though they are cumulative and have improved, in many ways, the lives of people within the industrialized nations, have also unleashed the most horrific forms of violence and death, and let's not forget, environmental degradation, in human history. So, there's nothing intrinsically moral about science. Science is morally neutral. It serves the good and the bad. I mean, industrial killing is a product of technological advance, just as is penicillin and modern medicine. So I think that I find the faith that these people place in science and reason as a route toward human salvation to be as delusional as the faith the Christian right places in miracles and angels.

Uh-huh. Science unleashed violence, death and environmental degradation? Science did no such thing. Technology did these things. Is technology an outgrowth of our greater understanding of science? Well, yes? But science is a way of thinking, of discovering new information. Technology is a slave to our desires, and we usually use new technologies without considering the changes it can bring about. Technology certainly is morally neutral, and so the fault lies with humanity not technology, or the science that made it possible.

But he is still looking in the wrong places. And it doesn't surprise me that he would either. Women are significantly better off without religion and with science. There is nothing intrinsic to religion that necessitates this, just an unfortunate fact of history, but that does not make it less true.

And what is this nonsense about faith in science and reason? This is a very different kind of faith than religious faith. The Christian Right has no evidence to believe in what they do, and yet they do, and then convince themselves the evidence exists. Science is tentative, waits to be proven through experience, but remains tentative and cautious, looking for the flaw in their logic, or the new bit of evidence that will both expand their understanding and correct their previous faith in some less sophisticated version of a theory. These worldviews are nothing alike. Improvement by successive approximations is Utopian? Just wait until I tell my numerical analysis prof this!

This represents yet another fundamental misunderstanding of science and the philosophy of science. Did he not do any research for this book?

Well in science, one does have progress, because science is based on what can be proved and disproved.

I'm lost. So it's wrong to believe in progress, but in science there is progress?

I would say that the fascist agenda was Utopian, and that it adopted the cult of science. That's what leads Hitler to try and breed humans and apes to try to create an oversized warrior or to send expeditions to Tibet to find a pure, Aryan race. I mean, that's not science. It's the cult of science, and I think the New Atheists also make that leap from science into the cult of science, and that's a problem.

So, science is to blame for Hitler? Don't blame the ideology, blame the means? Gotcha. So, let's ban writing because surely Hitler used that to spread his agenda as well. And TV. And... horses, because without them there would have been no Ghengis Khan.

The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church.

The Enlightenment was a blessing and a curse? What isn't? Certainly, though, any pretense that it was equally a curse as a blessing is patently ludicrous. What part of medieval society should we have kept that we didn't, exactly?

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous.

Sin? So I guess Buddhists are dangerous 'cause they don't have a concept of sin either?

I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.

Am I missing something here? Atheists don't acknowledged their own sin? Saying that Stalin was not the epitome of what it means to be an atheist is externalizing it? Sam Harris wants us to bomb the Middle East? I'm sorry, but I don't remember that. And while I wouldn't really put much past Hitchens when it comes to advocating for the eradication of the threat he perceives Islam to be, when did Sam Harris ever advocate torture? Does arguing with someone about their irrationality count? Sam Harris wants preemptive war? He must have been reading a different Sam Harris because I don't remember anything like that at all. Someone have the quote for me? If anything, what I remember was a fear that America would do this, not that he was advocating it.

So, he's got some kind of beef with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but he can't sell that book, so let's paint all of the "New Atheists" with the same brush, shall we?

And as for the New Atheist political agenda coalescing completely with the Christian Right, I beg to differ!!! If the only purpose of the Christian Right was to oppose Islam, you still wouldn't be halfway to that preposterous claim.

At one point the interviewer asks:

You say at one point in the book that the New Atheists, "like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class." But I wonder what you would say to someone like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a victim of genital cutting who fled her faith-based homeland for the secular West, when she says that the secularism of Western society is better than the religiosity of her native Somalia?

Hedges' reply? It was better, for her.

Oh, I see, so she doesn't count. All the women in that part of the world don't count. What about all the women over here who already enjoy the benefits of a secular society? We don't count either? And what about the people who reject the dominant religion? It's not better for them, too? Male and female? And what about the gays? And what about the children who don't have to grow up with their heads full of hate for the Jews or whatever other religious group. Children who might get to grow up and not throw their lives away for that hate by killing themselves and a lot of other people? Or the ones that don't have to be sacrificed to make the rains fall? It's not better for them either?

I see. So, in a religious society, Hedges is part of the religious elite and his position in society is threatened by secularism. I get it now.

So, is Western society -- American society -- better for Iraqis?

We've given the Iraqi's Western society? They have a free, secular state? Sorry, only a fool thinks those changes happen overnight, or that the new Iraqi state is in any way secular. We've hurt them, yeah. But that doesn't negate all the other values of the world we live in and they don't. Only a fool pretends that any human society will be perfect. You don't have to be perfect in order to be "better".

Here's another exchange between the interviewer and Hedges, and I think the interviewer has it right on spot. He/she is first, then Hedges.

If we're afraid to privilege Enlightenment values, don't we run the risk of sanctioning religious rituals that discriminate against women and minorities?

But I would never argue that! I mean, I think genital mutilation is disgusting. I'm not a cultural relativist. I don't think that if you live in Somalia, it's fine to mutilate little girls. There is nothing wrong with taking a moral stand, but when we take a moral stand and then use it to elevate ourselves to another moral plane above other human beings, then it becomes, in biblical terms, a form of self-worship. That's what the New Atheists have, and that's what the Christian fundamentalists have.

When exactly have the New Atheists elevated themselves to another moral plane above other human beings?? C'mon, that's just stupid. Atheists want to emphasize the commonality of humanity, and reject the privileged status that religious people give to themselves. The stats don't lie that atheists tend to be more moral (at least from a legal perspective), but this is only emphasized in order to defend against the claims of the religious that atheists are less moral. That's self-worship?

And when you open the world up for religion, don't you run the risk of advocating for genital mutilation by default? That's the same logic he uses against the New Atheists.

I've tried to do is talk about these two very dangerous ideological strains [of fundamentalism] within American society, although the New Atheists are peddling this under the guise of enlightenment and reason and science in the same way that the Christian right tries to peddle it as a form of Christianity.

Okay, Chris, so if you did go after Islamic fundamentalism, how would you sound any different than the New Atheists you are trashing?

In talking about going after Islamic fundamentalism and the fear people have of it:

And that frightens me, that demonization of a people -- turning human beings into abstractions, so that they're not human anymore. They don't have hopes, dreams, aspirations, pains, sufferings. They represent an unmitigated evil that must be vanquished. That's very scary, and that is at the bedrock of the ideology of the New Atheists as it is with the Christian fundamentalists.

I agree that Hitchens sometimes goes too far on this score. But that doesn't give Hedges the right to tar the entire New Atheist "movement" (a couple of books) with the same brush. This reaction is a fear response, fine. But like anything else, we have to reason through that fear and figure out the best way to handle it. Clearly, dropping a nuclear bomb is not the answer. If anything, it will only make matters worse on any number of scores. The problem must be tackled with reason and remember that these people have been raised with a certain mindset: one that is getting worse, not better. Enlightenment is the only thing that can save us both!

Now this interviewer pissed me off, too! Look at this exchange. Again, interviewer first, Hedges in the next paragraph.

Do you think the new atheists are similarly uninterested in their impact? It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance.

Well, not Harris. Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it's about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn't changed. It's all about him. It's all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he's that kind of a figure. He's witty, and he's funny and insulting. You know I debated him, and in the middle of the debate he starts shouting, "Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!" Of course, unlike him, I've actually stood at the edge of a suicide bombing attack. That kind of stuff is just ... it's the epistemology of television. They make a lot of money off it, but it's gross and disgusting and anti-intellectual and not at all about real discussion.

Oh, look at that question! It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance. A performance? You think these people want to receive death threats?

Oh,my. And then Hedges... man, the guy really has a personal grudge against Harris and Hitchens. Intellectually shallow? Comparative religions is not his field, but he's certainly not intellectually shallow. A little unusual in his interest in meditation for an atheist, but intellectually shallow? And Hitchens, okay, sure, some of it is about performance. He is witty and funny. Ann Coulter is none of those things. But does he not believe in what he says? Oh, I'm quite certain that he does. It's anti-intellectual to have great one-liners?

See, it just seems to me, especially in this paragraph, that he's sore about not being able to better defend himself in debate. He didn't do his homework and now he's left-braining it, and convincing himself it's just the opposite of reality. Dare I say, that's religious thinking at work!

I think he's completely amoral. I think he doesn't have a moral core. I think he doesn't believe anything. What's good for Christopher Hitchens is about as moral as he gets.

See, there's that scapegoating of atheists again, because my interactions with Hitchens have been quite the opposite. I don't know him personally, of course, but in watching his debates, he is very much concerned with morality and that is much of what disturbs him about religion, is that it isn't fundamentally moral in its practice, and all the immorality that people do that goes unpunished by religious figures. The treatment of women, for instance, he's been vocal about in debates, and I think his positions, whatever I think of his conclusions, are fundamentally based in a concern for others, and a compassion that I fear Chris Hedges simply doesn't share. When Hitchens talks about women dying in childbirth, you can tell he's thinking about his daughter. He talks about it in very moral language, about being tortured to death. I don't think he can have that level of sensitivity to women, and be amoral.

One last exchange between the interviewer and Hedges:

Do you worry that Hitchens and some of the other so-called liberal hawks have the advantage of charisma, that they are better able to seduce an audience?

We had over 1,500 people at the debate at UCLA, and I think that the people who came liking Sam Harris left liking Sam Harris. I don't think that they heard a word I said, and it's just insulting ... I've debated Christian fundamentalists, and it's the same. I can get up and say, look, I grew up in the church, I went to seminary. No, I'm part of the forces of godless secular humanism that are trying to destroy Christians, and they just repeat it like a mantra -- half of their audience which came to hear them hears it, and the same is true of the New Atheists.

The New Atheists are liberal hawks? Hitchens is a hawk, but he's not exactly liberal, since he's so often identified as a neocon. And what about Sam Harris? Could it possibly be that people left liking Sam Harris because they agreed with him? Because you weren't able to do the job of convincing them otherwise? Surely, all 1500 people at the debate didn't come liking Sam Harris. Forget about the people who had an opinion before... what about people who didn't? How'd you do with them? Do you think perhaps he's projecting? This impression I have of someone totally out of his depth in the debating club and is just upset that he can't hack it is just being reinforced.

The advantage of charisma, though... I like it! Too bad we can't get Richard Dawkins to run for President. (Constitutionally, yeah, I know, but I can dream, can't I?!)


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2008 07:46 pm (UTC)
I found the reference where Sam Harris talks about torture. It looks like a thought experiment to me. Atheists have no moral absolutes, everything, rather is determined by the circumstances. One simply does not say "don't steal" if stealing is the only thing between you and starving to death. Similarly, Sam is saying that "don't torture", while certainly more serious, may also be generally a good thing to follow, even if only because it's patently ineffective, particularly when the person really doesn't know anything. But that under certain extreme circumstances, it may be a necessary evil in an effort to prevent a greater evil in the imminent circumstance of more people dying right now. I don't know that I would call this advocating torture in general, but an acknowledgement that whatever the "sin", we can concocting circumstances in which it might be beneficial to consider breaking absolute commandments. I think it's intended to express the depth of Sam's concerns about the enemy we face in radical Islam, but even then, I don't see this advocating Gitmo. We haven't yet risen to the threshold Sam describes. I also see Sam looking at this as a morally painful route, but as a necessity nonetheless.
Mar. 13th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
Hers' part 1 (of 9) of the debate between Harris & Hedges. You tell me what set Hedges off because I'm not sure.

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