The Dangerous Atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris
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The following is adapted from the new book by Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists (Free Press, 2008).
I flew to Los Angeles in May of 2007 to debate Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation , in UCLA's cavernous Royce Hall. I debated Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God is Not Great , two days later in San Francisco. I paid little attention, until these two public debates, to the positions of the new atheists, writers that also include Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet. Those are many people of great moral probity and courage who seek meaning outside of formal religious structures, who reject religious language and religious ritual and define themselves as atheists. There are also many religious figures that in the name of one god or another sanctify intolerance, repression and violence. There is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever.
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. We dislike the same people. We do not dislike them for the same reason. This is not a small difference.
The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are 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.
I started Harris' book when it was published but soon put it aside. His facile attack on a form of religious belief I detest, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist. His assertion that the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, was caused by religion was ridiculous. I was in the former Yugoslavia, including in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo when it was under siege, as the Balkan bureau chief for the New York Times . While religious institutions and their leaders enthusiastically signed on for the slaughter directed by ethnic nationalist leaders in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, religion had nothing to do with the war.
The war had far more to do with the economic collapse of Yugoslavia than religion or ancient ethnic hatreds. His assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children who die as suicide bombers -- or that suicide bombers are the logical result of a belief in Islam -- could have been written only by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who has just lost their child. I did not take Harris seriously. This was a mistake.
I was raised in a church where my father, a Presbyterian minister, spent his career speaking out, often at some personal cost, in support of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement and the gay rights movement. The religious figures I knew, and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and Father Daniel Berrigan. It was possible to admire these men and women and what they stood for, and hold in little regard institutional religion. It was possible to find in the Christian faith meaning and purpose while acknowledging the flaws in the Christian system and rejecting the morally indefensible passages in the Bible.
The institutional church has often used its power and religious authority to sanctify cruelty and exclusion. The self-righteous smugness and suffocating piety of religious leaders, along with the habit of speaking on behalf of people they never meet, are characteristic of many liberal and conservative churches. The church often likes the poor but doesn't like the smell of the poor. I graduated from seminary and decided, largely because of my distaste for the hypocrisy of the church, not to get ordained. I left the United States to report on the conflicts in Central America. I rarely go to church now, and when I do, often roll my eyes at the inanity of the sermons and the self-righteousness of many of the congregants, who appear to believe they are "honorary" sinners.
The liberal church, attacked by the atheists as an ineffectual "moderate" religion and by the fundamentalists as a "nominal" form of Christianity, is, as their critics point out, a largely vapid and irrelevant force. It may not support the violent projects of apocalyptic killing championed by atheists such as Harris or Hitchens and these Christian radicals, but it also does not understand how the world works or the seduction of evil. The liberal church is a largely middle class, bourgeoisie phenomenon, filled with many people who have profited from industrialization, the American empire and global capitalism. They often seem to think that if we can be nice and inclusive everything will work out.
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. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.
Religious institutions, however, should be separated from the religious values imparted to me by religious figures, including my father. Most of these men and women frequently ran afoul of their own religious authorities. Religion, real religion, was about fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy and defying the powerful. It was about caring for the other. Spirituality was not defined by "how it is with me," but the tougher spirituality of resistance, the spirituality born of struggle, of the fight with the world's evils. This spirituality, vastly different from the narcissism of modern spirituality movements, was eloquently articulated by Dr. King and the Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and put to death by the Nazis.
Many of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity in the battle against terrorism and irrational religion. They 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 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. They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible, by trying to argue that we can evolve morally -- something Darwin never asserted. They are as anti-intellectual as the Christian Right.
And while the atheists do not have much power and are not a threat to the democratic state, 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 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.
Harris, echoing the blood lust of Hitchens, calls, in his book The End of Faith , for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world. He defends torture as a logical form of interrogation. He, like all utopians, has reduced millions of human beings and cultures he knows nothing about to primitive impediments to his vision of a better world.
"What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?" Harris asks. "If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.
Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime -- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe." Harris reduces a fifth of the world's population to a vast, primitive enemy. He blithely accepts that we may have to murder "tens of millions of people in a single day." His bigotry, and the bigotry of all who dehumanize others, sets the stage for indiscriminate slaughter and atrocity. The people to be killed, we are told, are not really distinct individuals. They do not have hopes and aspirations. They only appear human. They must be destroyed because of what they represent, what lurks beneath the surface of their human form. This dehumanization, especially by those who live in a society with the technological capacity to carry out acts of massive industrial slaughter, is terrifying. The new atheists 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.
We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species towards a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion, if you are secular, is blamed for genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. Secular humanism, if you are born again, is branded as a tool of Satan.
The folly of humankind, however, is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors. It has not exempted itself from institutional religion or the cult of science and reason. The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists. It comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species. Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is nothing in science or human history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear.
This belief in inevitable moral progress, whether it comes in secular or religious form, is magical thinking. The secular version of this myth peddles fables no less fantastic, and no less delusional, than those preached from church pulpits. The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science. It is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists. It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can protect itself and master its destiny.
These New Atheists, 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, 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 towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.
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 neither honest about science or 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 pre-modern 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 scientific legitimacy than alchemy.
These New Atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism are an unquestioned 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 which 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 real. 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.