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Interviews | April 8, 2014 2 comments
The American Booksellers Association collects nominations from bookstores all over the country for favorite forthcoming titles. The Storied Life of... Continue »
I Don't Believe in Atheistsby Chris Hedges
The New Atheist authors, from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris to Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens, embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic, and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They too propose a route to collective salvation. They too believe in the moral advancement of the human species, this time through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and of the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are defined by them as impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil not for evil's sake but to make a better world. And they do this in the name of religion or science or reason.
These New Atheists attack a form of religious belief many of us hate. I wrote a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I am no friend of Christian radicals. The New Atheists and I dislike the same people. We do not dislike them for the same reason. This is not a small difference.
These atheists share a naïve 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.
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.
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.
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 authors, for all their airs of sophistication and learning, are deeply anti-intellectual. They engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism of the radical Christian Right. They sell this under secular banners, but this does not excuse it. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection made possible this time by science and reason. They argue, like these Christian radicals, that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world. They see only one truth their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them, and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed as inferior.
These New Atheists and the Christian radicals they so resemble have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism go unquestioned and are considered good. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.
I Don't Believe in Atheists is a call to reject simplistic and utopian visions. It is a call to accept the severe limitations of being human. It is a call to face reality, a reality that in the coming decades is going to be bleak and difficult. Those who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals a reality. They believe the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. They ask us to inflict suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth. The New Atheists, in the end, offer us a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is one we have seen before. It is one we must fight.
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Chris Hedges is the New York Times-bestselling author of American Fascists and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the New York Times's coverage of global terrorism. Hedges graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School and is a Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute. He lives in New Jersey.