Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Book Review: I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges

A few notes about the author: Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and writes for numerous publications. For nearly two decades he was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times covering wars in Central America, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He studied under James Luther Adams at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of six books including two that I previously read: War is a Force that Gives us Meaning and What Every Person Should Know About War. In the spring of 2009 Hedges was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California.

The title of Hedges’ book is a little misleading. Chris Hedges does believe in atheists. What he does not believe in is the project of the so-called “New Atheists” as exemplified by a group of four authors: Sam Harris who wrote The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything, Daniel Dennett who wrote Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion. Hedges’ book is a much more powerful, intelligent, and insightful version of a sermon I preached in November, 2006 in which I strongly criticized Dawkins and Harris.

In May of 2007, Chris Hedges debated Sam Harris in Los Angeles and Christopher Hitchens in San Francisco. I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which has also been released under the title When Atheism Becomes Religion, is his fierce refutation of the projects of Harris, Dawkins, et al.

Hedges argues that Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett have a lot in common with the religious fundamentalists whom they mock and attack. He actually calls their thought a form of fundamentalism and accuses them of holding an arrogant certitude, of being anti-intellectual in the sense of not really being interested in other ways of thinking, of holding that their own worldview is true and the only one that matters and therefore being dismissive of other worldviews, and of being utopian thinkers.

Utopian thinkers believe that the world is heading towards a form of perfection. Utopian thinking is dangerous in that it can sanction all kinds of immoral behavior. The means are not important if they move us towards the ends. Hitler was a utopian thinker. So are Christian Fundamentalists who believe that the second coming of Christ is upon us. For Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, their utopian vision is a world dominated by reason and science and in which all superstition and religion is eliminated.

Hedges argues that the concept of moral progress is a myth. He takes a much more negative view of human nature. While I find Hedges a little too negative about human nature, I find that he makes some excellent points.

What I found most interesting about Hedges’ book is how he reveals and explains the reason that the likes of Hitchens and Harris enthusiastically support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture, and attempts at nation-building. Hedges quote Harris as advocating for pre-emptive nuclear war against Islamic states. “If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or [even] 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… It may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Harris advocates for a strike even if the cost is tens of millions of lives in a single day.

Hedges also quotes Harris on the issue of torture, “Given what many of believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.” “The ethical divide that seems to be opening up here suggests that those who are willing to drop bombs might want to abduct the nearest and dearest of suspected terrorists – their wives, mothers, and daughters – and torture them as well, assuming anything profitable to our side might come of it.” Hedges also quotes Harris as recommending specific torture techniques, such as the strappado. These grossly immoral positions, Hedges argues, are the result of a kind of arrogant utopian thinking that is willing to welcome any means necessary to advance towards illogical ends.

In my sermon in November, 2006 I chided Dawkins for his willful ignorance of theology. Hedges makes exactly the same point when he writes, “Stepping out of the cartoonish and childish taunting of religion to a discussion of the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr is beyond the capacity of these [new] atheists. They haven’t read them and they don’t want to.”

While Hedges does not tip his own hand regarding his religious identity, in the book he comes across as a broad humanist, or even a humanist in the classical sense of the term. He draws not only from theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Luther Adams but also from authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad. In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning he turned time and time again to Shakespeare. In this text he draws from a broad array of cultural sources, from the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes to the Japanese dance form known as Buhto to the writing of Samuel Beckett, Willa Cather, and Marcel Proust.

Hedges’ writing is part writing and part voice crying out in the wilderness. I stand convinced that he is one of the most insightful and provocative thinkers of our time.

[Click here to see other books I've read in 2010.]