Friday, March 14, 2008

Chris Hedges on the "Fundamentalism" of the New Atheists

This was posted at The New Humanist yesterday -- interesting stuff. See below for more.

It's interesting to see that Chris Hedges' new book is an attack on the New Atheists. Perhaps best known as a foreign correspondent, early last year Hedges published American Fascists, which compared the Christian Right in America to the early European fascist movements. Around that time, he wrote an article for New Humanist on the opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Having attacked Christian fundamentalism, Hedges is now training his sights on what he perceives as "atheist fundamentalism" in his new book I Don't Believe In Atheists, which has just been published in America.

There's an intriguing interview with Hedges on Salon that I urge you all to read. He says he's only recently found the New Atheists on his "radar screen", but suggests that he finds them every bit as dangerous as the Christian right, putting his view that "Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way."

Hedges even expresses a fear that the religious right and New Atheism might one day join together in an attack on Islam: "What I worry about is that in a moment of collective humiliation and fear, these two strands come together and call for an assault on Muslims, both outside our gates and on the 6 million Muslims who live within our borders."

Much of this seems somewhat over the top, but it's certainly interesting that someone like Hedges would launch such an attack on the New Atheists. You only have to read the article he wrote for us last year to see that he would be in broad agreement with atheists on many issues – indeed, his views on the Christian Right should really mark him out as a potential ally for the New Atheists – but there's just something in the aggressive tone of Hitchens et al that's really troubled him.

Many of us who understand that religion is not intrinsically evil can see Hedges' point pretty easily. Obviously, fundamentalism of any kind is the problem, as Hedges pointed out in American Fascists.

Here is some of the interview with Hedges from Salon -- in this we get a better sense of where he is coming from and why. He is not uninformed -- he has debated both Harris and Hitchens.

You say that "I Don't Believe in Atheists" is a product of confrontations you had with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. How did those debates inspire the book?

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn't paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. 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.

Although I come out of a religious tradition -- I grew up in the church, my father was a Presbyterian minister, I graduated from seminary -- I've spent my life as a foreign correspondent, mostly for the New York Times, and I have a pretty hardheaded view of the world. 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.

A lot of people would find it counterintuitive that you would go from your last book, "American Fascists," which was a scathing critique of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., to writing against atheism. Do you see these as connected projects?

I do. I didn't start out that way, because these guys were not on my radar screen. I think a lot of their popularity stems from a legitimate anger on the part of a lot of Americans toward the intolerance and chauvinism of the radical religious right in this country. Unfortunately, what they've done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. They adopt many of the foundational belief systems of fundamentalists. 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. That's fundamental to the Christian right, and it's also fundamental to the New Atheists.

You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere. 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.

Don't you think that a belief in perfectibility or progress may be necessary for people who devote their lives to big endeavors, like, say, developing vaccines? Americans especially are known for big dreams. It seems like to lose the idea of progress would be a kind of defeatism.

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

But you say in the book that the Holocaust, because it was framed as a modern project and an outgrowth of technological advance, was that kind of scientific progress, as well.

Well, I wouldn't quite say it that way. 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.

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. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can't make certain segments of the society "civilized," as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.

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

So you think that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are just shills for a neocon agenda?

Well, Dawkins is a little different, because he's British. But looking at our own homegrown version of new atheism, yes. Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way.


Read the whole interview.

For those who think he might be exaggerating things by linking the New Atheists with the neo-cons, I need only remind you of Sam Harris' defense of torture.

A little more from Salon, just for fun.

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.

A lot of the book is devoted to making this comparison between Christian and what some call secular fundamentalists, but you are pretty hands off when it comes to fundamentalist Islam.

The only reason I go after Christian fundamentalists and New Atheists is because they're here and I'm an American. Fundamentalism -- whether it's Hindu fundamentalism or Jewish fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism or Islamic fundamentalism -- is the same disease. Karen Armstrong has explained that brilliantly. Fundamentalists, no matter what their religious coloring -- bear far more in common with each other than they do with more enlightened members of their own religious communities. I'm an enemy of fundamentalism, period. And if I'm not going after Islamic fundamentalism in this book, it's because what I've tried to do is talk about these two very dangerous ideological strains 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.


I think Hedges makes some good points. The idea that both fundamentalist Christians and atheists place "evil" somehow outside themselves is very problematic, and it may be the single greatest defining factor for fundamentalist beliefs.

Anyone have thoughts on this?


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