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I don't believe in atheists by Chris Hedges

I don't believe in atheists

by Chris Hedges

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This is a rant against the scientistic fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc. Hedges mounts a perfectly valid attack against this shallow and deluded propaganda. This materialistic bigotry wearing the clothes of science and critical thinking deserves the dressing down dealt by Hedges and really much more.

Hedges founds his criticism in Christianity which is doubtless a fine foundation for the majority of his audience. I though am a Buddhist so for me the book doesn't quite work. This book presents several challenges for Buddhists.

What would a Buddhist criticism of belligerent scientism look like? Hedges is constantly referring to the original sin or the essential imperfectability of humans when he criticizes fundamentalism. But in some sense the perfectability of humans is at the core of Buddhism, i.e. the third Noble Truth of the Buddha, the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. Indeed, shallow interpretations of Freedom and the Path to Freedom can get Buddhists stuck in various forms of fundamentalism. Indeed, various modern forms of Buddhism even seems to ally themselves with scientism and thereby flirt, at the very least, with fundamentalism and similar forms of conceptual grasping that thereby stray from liberation.

This book presents more of a question than an answer for Buddhists. This book as a critical itch, as the start of a significant project, is probably how it will appear to most readers with a reflective bent. Hedges opens the door to a deep subject. He motivates further thought in a very effective way. He brings up an urgent and central issue of our time. This is an important book, not so much because of its arguments, but because of the questions they open up. ( )
1 vote kukulaj | Dec 10, 2016 |
I will start by saying that I am sympathetic to the overall idea behind this book: a strict, "militant" atheism has the potential to -and in some people probably already has- become a fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, in any shape or form, is a "Bad Thing" that must be guarded against. I also am already a subscriber to the idea that humans are not morally perfectible, that this is usually a big component, implicit or explicit, of said fundamentalism. I think it evident, as well, that human society as a whole, if such a thing exists, is probably not steadily improving in some absolute moral sense; minimally, that any such gains can be lost in the blink of an eye.

So far, so good. Now, lets walk through how Hedges goes wrong.

Chapter One, a couple of Major Issues:

On page 20 Hedges quotes nearly a paragraph from Sam Harris. He cuts the quote to being with what reads like Harris proposing that "we" be prepared to kill other people if "we" deems their beliefs to be too dangerous.

But this not at all what the section in Harris is actually saying; if you go back to the source and read it, the paragraph (and preceding paragraphs) are talking about how beliefs shape our actions. Harris then he goes on to say, as quoted by Hedges, that, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." But this is in a section discussion beliefs, systems of beliefs, and so forth! Including how much belief can motivate us, up to and including killing people!

Strike two. Page 36. Quotes Harris as, again, proposing that we nuke an Islamic regime that acquires long range nuclear weapons. Which is not at all what Harris is saying! He *clearly* states that this would be ridiculous outcome, and moreover a crime against humanity, but that some future US government might feel they have no alternative. He then goes on to say how this could result in a counter strike against the US, and this would lead to -obviously- more mass death, and all because of irrationality.

But Hedges doesn't present *any* of that. He again cuts the quote to make it sound like Harris is actively proposing we go out and nuke e.g. Iran as soon as we think they have a long range nuclear capability. In fact, the scenario describe is morally complicated; there is no "good solution." Again, all of which Hedges either missed completely or disingenuously ignored to better make his point.

Note: In the passage in The End of Faith Harris places blame squarely at the feet of "religion" for what would be a US first strike against a fundamentalist state. Which seems, well, not at all fair. It is *this* reasoning that Hedges seems to really, really get angry over. And I would say understandably so. This is also couched in page after page of Harris "demonstrating" how Islam is a religion of violence. Which strikes many as more than a bit bigoted. Here of there Harris walks this back a bit, saying that, more or less, e.g. Christianity was a religion of violence at one point. But that gets lost in his repetition of, "Islam, Islam, Islam" everywhere else.

In chapter two, Hedges discusses science and religion and how he sees scientists and atheists misusing "science" (e.g. turning it into what Hedges calls the "cult of science.") I, again, am sympathetic to some overarching ideas here: e.g. it seems ridiculous to me that there are some fairly smart people talking about "the singularity" in 10 to 50 years. This is fantasy dressed up as religion dressed up as science.

Hedges then goes on to commit a whole series of mistakes that reveal how little he understands both what he is criticizing directly, as well as the underlying science. He waves his arms at "Darwinism" being applied outside biology, and says this is a mistake; he seams to mean that theories that are part of modern, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory are applied outside biology, and this is (universally?) bad. And then he talks about Nazis.

He waves his arms at Quantum Mechanics, talking about how processes at the particle level are irreducibly random, leaps from there to the fact that the world is unpredictable, and says viola. Of course, the two have nothing to do with each other. Quantum processes are inherently random, and at the sub-microscopic scale this randomness becomes evident in certain situations; "life" is random because we don't have enough information. Theoretically, at least, you could drive cars around from now until the heat death of the universe and not have an accident, given sufficient information; car accidents are not inherently random. International politics, driving cars, religious debates, and day to day life are not quantum processes, not inherently random either; just really, really complicated/information laden. Two different kinds of randomness, and never the twain shall meet.

I could go on in this vein, but will stop. I really have a pet peeve with people dragging out QM to explain stuff, as they nearly, nearly, nearly never have the foggiest idea of what they are talking about.

I'll just do one more chapter. In chapter three, I see much that I agree with. Yes, there is a brittleness to the "New Atheist" program, though I think Hedges overplays this somewhat. I began a couple of years ago to become dissatisfied with what I was hearing from e.g. "The Four Horsemen" because it was invariably to simplistic, or just illogical. To claim that "religion" is responsible for all wrongs committed in the name of one or another particular religion, while "atheism" is not responsible for anything is a severe double standard. To say the least. To dismiss, essentially, all other causes for discord, war, murder, etc. other than religion is, well, stupid.

However, Hedges overplays this a bit when he, in turn, simplifies and flattens the feelings of "new atheists." He sees them merely as yet another group of fundamentalists; he doesn't seem to even consider that they are reacting to the increasingly politicized fundamentalist religious movements in the US, or the hubris and privilege that "the religious" often express when confronted with the fact that some people are in fact not religious. He seems to lean toward blaming atheists for the misunderstanding and stress that the existence of two distinct, probably incommensurable, world views causes. E.g. that for a person who does not believe in a "higher power", anthropomorphic or not, it is actually often fairly *disturbing* to deal with full-grown adults *who have an invisible friend.* Add to this that said invisible-friend-having people also run, essentially, the whole world... it is difficult to simply accept that as an alternative world view. And I imagine it must be very disturbing for those who do believe in a God/god/gods/power to have people around who hold the very concept -not just your particular belief, but the concept itself- as invalid.

And that none of that has got anything to do with Empire or Globalization of the vapidity of middle class life. Which clearly are Hedges true concerns (and, to an extent, again, I have to agree with his views.)

Anyway, since this review is quickly becoming as long as the book, I will stop. I will say that I've rarely read something that I found myself so much in agreement with while simultaneously so strongly in disagreement with. Part of it is that Hedges is somewhat sloppy in his reasoning, part of it is that I just don't agree with him everywhere, part of it is that I think he is a bit hypocritical. But he does well point out the overreach of the "New Atheists." He is not as successful at explaining the idea behind the lack of absolute progress (I'd say go read John N. Gray if you are interested in this.) And I think he fails to address that his entire book is a call to a higher morality, a call for moral progress in effect, or that he is choosing to define religion and cherry-pick authors and beliefs (in Hedges case, in to case a good light) in just the same way that he accuses Hitchens and Harris of doing (in their cases, to cast in a very nearly uniformly bad light.) ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
I read Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens before reading this book, along with Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. I would recommend reading this book after reading theirs. Chris Hedges debated Hitchens and Harris, inspiring him to collect the arguments in this book. Hedges is a foreign correspondent, covering multiple wars and directing the Middle East bureau of the NY Times. He is no evangelical, he grew up a liberal Presbyterian that rejects certain parts of the Bible as literal (This creates some logical errors for him, see below.) He is critical of fundamentalist, right-wing American Christianity and sees it as equally grievous as the New Atheists.

Hedges writes that American Christians have grown wealthy via America's prosperity and globalization, and this prosperity has lead to arrogant behavior and churches that "love the poor but hate how they smell." Liberal Christians err in thinking that by becoming all-inclusive and standing for few things in particular they can make everything better. Hedges is not a neocon but rejects Christian liberals who embrace pacifism and believe, like the New Atheists, that mankind is progressing toward some more-englightened utopian future of its own accord. He likewise points out that the religious right and secular humanists both hold up America as a light to the world-- a place of blessed freedom and enlightenment. But this is problematic, as history tells us our country was made prosperous in part by slave labor, breaking treaties and massacring Native Americans, and that our enlightened civilization killed hundreds of thousands of women and children by intentionally dropping the atomic bombs on civilian populations in WWII. These actions were supported both by Christians who believed God created certain men superior to others as well as social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer who argued that evolution demanded survival of the fittest races. In other words, we have no moral high ground to stand on.

Hedges seems not to have read Francis Schaeffer, which is a pity for his arguments. But he is similar to Schaeffer in his examination of art and culture. For example, WWI occurred after a period in which there was much talk about the evolution of an enlightened people. The post-war art reflected the jaded cynicism and a rejection of those views. Hedges rightly compares Sam Harris et al to Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), a highly civilized, enlightened European supposedly above the savages he meets in the Congo who becomes a savage himself. Such a vision is the logical conclusion of the New Atheists world. Harris, for example, advocates pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims who he sees as a major threat to his secular freedoms. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens was supportive of the 2003 invasion of Iraq because it boded well for the spread of secularism over religious fanaticism.

New Atheists preach a utopia achieved by enlightened human evolution and argue that we're evolving toward a better nature. This leads to a sort of racism, because they purport that it's the religious people who are holding our society back. Eliminate them, and let the intellectually enlightened elite make the rules. (That's the logical conclusion of their vision as pointed out in the 1970s by Francis Schaeffer.) Hedges writes that this is not only dangerous, but absurd, and contrary to what history has shown time and again and that he has observed around the world in various cultures. We're not growing more peacefully enlightened but more violent, and the violence has little-to-nothing to do with religion. Hedges disagrees with Harris that the Balkan war was religious, or that wars are primarily religious. He covered many as a correspondent, and argues that religious systems all over the world have been pluralistic and tolerant of others, contra what Harris & Hitchens preach. Suicide bombers have little to do with religion and more about shame and occupation. Hedges points out that suicide bombings originated with anarchists and communists on the left, and were originally used by groups such as the Tamil Tigers. The first suicide bomber in the U.S. was a Leftist making a political statement. Saudis and Palestinians see this as a way to wage war in the absence of armies, they find their occupation by foreign powers shameful and worth fighting.

Hedges does well in explaining how Richard Dawkins misuses evolutionary biology, he uses it as a basis for designing the structures in which we should interact; our legal code. This is as grievous as codifying the Ten Commandments. Darwin's theory was not a litmus test for determining whether human behavior was beneficial or not. Darwin in no way thought mankind was evolving into a more enlightened state or to some utopian endpoint. Darwin was a student of Malthus and had his own racist views, but Herbert Spencer took them farther, making social Darwinism into its own religion. This misuse of Darwin has created a "cult of science" that is harmful. Dawkins' world leads to selective abortions, eugenics, and genetic manipulation to weed out the bad elements and make ourselves better, more immortal.

Real scientific study tells us that evolution is a series of random processes that always finds ways around attempts to control manipulation. Hedges writes that quantum mechanics demonstrates that some things are unknowable, and that there will always be randomness. Psychology (and behavioral economics) repeatedly shows that people do not make rational choices, no matter what amount of information they have. The book concludes with a diatribe against the poisonous obsession with image, status, and wealth that is destroying our society and keeping us ignorant. Hedges writes that these New Atheists are products of this culture, using marketing techniques that play to our fears and ignorance, to hold themselves up as the experts who we should buy the product from. They dismiss our cultural, biological, and psychological realities and promise salvation by science and the evolution of human character.

More troubling, Harris and Hitchens pretended to be open-minded while having very closed systems. Hedges quotes from a debate where Harris refused to change his views on people in the Middle East despite being shown that he spoke no Arabic, had never lived there, and misrepresented a Pew research poll he was citing. Hitchens, likewise, made all sorts of theological comments but refused to read any theological work because it was all "worthless."

Forgiveness cannot be explained biologically. People are more than a random compilation of molecules because we have a spirit or soul that is a "mystery." Hedges' weakness is accepting the New Atheists comments on morality. New Atheists use a measure of morality similar to that of Christians, but without the logical underpinnings. If there is no God and we are all just random molecules and there is no such thing as a "soul" or an "afterlife" and no one is made in God's image, then on what basis to we decide right and wrong? Majority rule? The rule of the elite like Sam Harris? This is the biggest weakness of the New Atheists and Hedges misses it. But he does argue that religion is what creates ethics. That there is a soul that is a "mystery," and therefore sacred and to be protected. Biology does not give us any reason to forgive others, or love them as ourselves. The author writes that religious thought encourages human inquiry, to explore our universe.

Hedges writes that to reject the idea of sin is "catastrophic." The concept of sin is a check on utopian visions of totalitarians. We will never have a final victory over evil or achieve some type of moral perfection. As such, he critiques both New Atheists who proclaim there is no God, no soul, no afterlife, and have no means of defining evil or sin as well as liberal Christians who downplay the depravity of man. He quotes heavily from Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book.

I believe that Hedges has his own logic problem here. He rejects literal interpretations of the Bible yet criticizes liberal Christians for not taking sin literally enough. His argument relies on some absolutes, and since those are biblically-based it begs the question: How much of the Bible or truth does he believe in? How does he decide? He seems to embrace modern cosmology and natural selection. This is problematic because the Bible says death only entered the world because of sin-- you can't have millions of creatures dying in an evolutionary process and hold to biblical teachings about the origin of sin and death. If you reject Genesis, then you have to reject Jesus' quoting of the book, which makes even more things fallible.

Hedges is mainly arguing against the illogical arguments of the New Atheists and pointing out the danger in following their philosophies to their logical conclusions. Likewise, he is attacking both liberal Christians and evangelicals. About 70% of his critique is on those he debated, the other 30% is directed at Christians.

I enjoyed this book and agree with Hedges in much, but he has his own formal errors that need to be addressed. He would do well to read William Lane Craig, Francis Schaeffer, and Ravi Zacharias to name a few. 3.5 stars out of 5. ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
I agree with the basic sentiment behind this book, that the new atheists are awfully dogmatic and should get a more nuanced view of religion, but it was sloppily done, like a string of last-minute sermons strung together at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. The author seems to believe that human nature is fundamentally sinful, which is not where I'm coming from. I skimmed this one -- I think if I'd read every word I would have gotten too annoyed with the author. ( )
1 vote Amelia_Smith | May 2, 2015 |
I read Chris Hedges' previous book, American Fascists, because I agreed with its thesis, but nevertheless found it highly disappointing. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt, I chalked it up to plain ineptitude. But when I saw this book, I began to suspect that Hedges was not just inept, but dishonest---and upon reading the book, those suspicions were confirmed.

Contrary to the misleading title, this is not a "there are no atheists in foxholes, everyone secretly believes in God and people who claim to be atheists just hate Him" kind of book---believe it or not, it is even worse than that. It is basically an attack an what Hedges calls "New Atheists." When I first heard this term a couple of years ago, I was skeptical about its validity, as one should always be wary of neologisms particularly in the political realm. "New Atheists" are those who not only are arrogant enough to actively disbelieve in God, but also have the effrontery to try to publicly defend their views---as opposed to the somewhat less unacceptable old atheists who kept their mouths shut and stayed in their place. Actually, there's nothing new about outspoken freethinkers, and they're in good company, joining the ranks of such radical skeptics as Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Paine and several other Founding Heroes, etc.

Hedges' strategy is to single out the authors of several recent bestsellers promoting atheism, namely Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. To be sure, there are good grounds on which to criticize all of these people---Sam Harris, after claiming that religion is bad, then advocates Buddhism (he says it's more "scientific" than other mystical beliefs) and Dawkins, though a good polemicist against Creationism, is actually not a very good evolutionary theorist (he continues to advocate "gene selectionism," his defense of which in The Selfish Gene made him famous, despite the fact that most other reputable biologists dismissed the theory shortly thereafter)---but Hedges probably does not mind these flaws. What really makes him angry is the fact that these atheists claim to be certain that theism is wrong. This certainty, Hedges argues, places them in the same camp with the Christian fundamentalists he attacked in his previous book, their flaw also being that they held certain convictions---that is, it is not the content of their beliefs that is bad, but that they really believe them; not how they came to hold their views (by reason or faith? though it turns out there is no such question for Hedges, as he says the atheists' views are equally faith-based), but that they actually think that they are true.

To back all of this up, you might expect Hedges to offer us a lot of facts, as his fellow journalist Hitchens did in God is Not Great, but what we get instead is a lot of quotes from Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad, among others. Dostoevsky was a great artist, and one of my personal favorite writers, but frankly he didn't know what he was talking about much of the time, and referring to some scene in Crime and Punishment is not evidence for Hedges' case---yet that is what he continually resorts to. He also makes a lot of completely unsupported assertions, such as that, contrary to the atheists' claims, the Koran unequivocally condemns suicide and does not exhort its readers to global jihad. Unlike the atheists, who actually cited chapter and verse of the Koran, Hedges just tells us this---and it may be true, but the point is that, like the Bible, the Koran says a lot of contradictory things that could be taken as justification for a lot of things, and clearly is taken as justification for such things in significant parts of the Muslim world today. For Hedges to blithely deny this insults his readers' intelligence.

Worse, he resorts to a lot of ad hominem attacks, based on straw-man misrepresentations of his opponents' actual views---for instance, he says that the "new atheists" advocate a state of perpetual war a la Orwell's 1984. This is utterly outlandish, and intellectual fraud of the worst sort. Hedges tells us that the atheists are bad because they try to dehumanize Islamic terrorists, who are actually trying to kill us, and make them look like monsters---then tells us that the atheists are inhuman monsters.

This sort of contradiction runs throughout, but for philosophical Pragmatists (into which camp I'm sure Hedges falls) it's just word games anyway, so they can say or do whatever they want, without regard for the truth, since they claim there is no "truth" in the sense of our minds actually being able to know external reality. That seems to be the underlying premise Hedges is working from, and I'm sure Richard Rorty would thoroughly approve of this mess.

Hedges' character could be summed up nicely (and devestatingly) by this passage from Ayn Rand (one literary figure I'd bet Hedges really hates) in Atlas Shrugged: "He was laboring to sound cynical, skeptical, superior, and hysterical together, to sound like a man who sneers at the vanity of all human beliefs and thereby demands an instantaneous belief from his listeners." ( )
8 vote AshRyan | Oct 8, 2009 |
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What yesterday was still religion, is no longer such today; and what today is atheism, tomorrow will be religion.
—Ludwig Feuerbach
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whose love is the eternal rocks beneath,
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 141656795X, Hardcover)

From the New York Times bestselling author of American Fascists and the NBCC finalist for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning comes this timely and compelling work about new atheists: those who attack religion to advance the worst of global capitalism, intolerance and imperial projects.

Chris Hedges, who graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, has long been a courageous voice in a world where there are too few. He observes that there are two radical, polarized and dangerous sides to the debate on faith and religion in America: the fundamentalists who see religious faith as their prerogative, and the new atheists who brand all religious belief as irrational and dangerous. Both sides use faith to promote a radical agenda, while the religious majority, those with a commitment to tolerance and compassion as well as to their faith, are caught in the middle.

The new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, do not make moral arguments about religion. Rather, they have created a new form of fundamentalism that attempts to permeate society with ideas about our own moral superiority and the omnipotence of human reason.

I Don't Believe in Atheists critiques the radical mindset that rages against religion and faith. Hedges identifies the pillars of the new atheist belief system, revealing that the stringent rules and rigid traditions in place are as strict as those of any religious practice.

Hedges claims that those who have placed blind faith in the morally neutral disciplines of reason and science create idols in their own image -- a sin for either side of the spectrum. He makes an impassioned, intelligent case against religious and secular fundamentalism, which seeks to divide the world into those worthy of moral and intellectual consideration and those who should be condemned, silenced and eradicated. Hedges shatters the new atheists' assault against religion in America, and in doing so, makes way for new, moderate voices to join the debate. This is a book that must be read to understand the state of the battle about faith.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:07 -0400)

Critiques the radical mindset that rages against religion and faith, and identifies the pillars of the new atheist belief system, revealing that the stringent rules and rigid traditions in place are as strict as those of any religious practice. The new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, do not make moral arguments about religion. Rather, they have created a new form of fundamentalism that attempts to permeate society with ideas about our own moral superiority and the omnipotence of human reason. Journalist Hedges makes a case against both religious and secular fundamentalism.--From amazon.com.… (more)

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