… or not.
Both PZ and Ebonmuse have mentioned a recent book by Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (which I haven’t read), called I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Hedges introduces his book in this essay, and, though those two much more esteemed bloggers than myself have already done so, I can’t refrain from adding my part.
The New Atheist authors [...] 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.
Now, if you know anything at all about atheists, if you know any of us personally, if you read atheist blogs (never mind being an atheist yourself), you’re probably as shocked right now as I was when I read the above for the first time. “Intolerant”? “Chauvinistic”? “Bigoted”? Excuse me?!? On what grounds does Hedges call atheists that? Well, here’s his argument: we believe in making the world a better place. We don’t believe human beings are intrinsically and irrevocably evil. The nerve of these pesky atheists! Don’t we know that the world can’t become better in any way? Furthermore, the very fact that we want to try makes us not only more evil than everyone else, but actually dangerous — because we have some dreams of “utopia” and will, inevitably, sacrifice and kill anyone who gets in our way.
But it gets better:
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.
OK, take a deep breath. Where to start?
First, as PZ says, religious fundamentalists don’t have a belief in “our innate goodness and decency”. Much the opposite; their theology rests on the fact that we are flawed, are sinners, and need “saving”, even though we don’t deserve it. In my opinion, nobody hates humanity as much as religious fundamentalists do. Therefore, since we atheists aren’t like that, we certainly don’t “share” that with them.
Second, humanity doesn’t progress morally? If only there was a time machine to send Hedges to the middle ages for a while; I’d love to see if, when he came back (assuming he survived, of course), he’d still say that human morality hadn’t evolved, that things are now as bad as they were 500 or 1000 years ago. The world is far from perfect, and there’s still a lot to do, of course, but, nowadays, in most of the world, women and non-Caucasians can vote, slavery and rape are illegal, and you can criticize your rulers without being imprisoned or killed for it. If this isn’t “moral progress”, then I don’t know what would qualify.
We may not be “moving toward a glorious utopia”, but, despite the actions of both life-hating fundamentalists and nihilists like Hedges, I still feel very lucky to be living now instead of even 100 years ago. And I’m not talking about technology.
And there’s more…
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.
“Wisdom of original sin”? Man, this sounds like an Ayn Rand villain… it’s like I’m reading a column by Ellsworth Toohey! If there’s a concept which is pure evil, pure injustice (being culpable for the actions of others) and pure humanity-hating, it’s “original sin”. The fact that Hedges sees “wisdom” in it just shows how much he hates humanity, life, and the fact that he’s alive — and that other people can find joy in their lives. How dare they?
“Governed by unconscious forces”? While we certainly don’t have perfect control of our minds or our lives, Hedges seems to go beyond that; his words suggest a form of determinism, or predestination, with shades of John Calvin. Furthermore, Hedges seems to be shocked and offended by the idea that someone may not want to conform to their fate, and actually may want to improve things. It’s as if this predestination is “God-given”, and to defy it is a sin.
I could go on. Like Ebonmuse says, Hedges is a nihilist. Not only that, he wants to impose his nihilism on everyone. To him, anyone who dreams is a naïve idiot at best, and dangerous at worst. To him, there may be no god, but “original sin” is a concept worthy of praise, because we’re all animals, we’re all evil, and we’re all monsters. There can be no progress, no betterment of things, and the best we can do is to resign ourselves to our fate and suffer the least by default; to actually try to change things, to make things better, to make the world a better place, to him, is a deluded dream which will inevitably make things worse, cause atrocities and a lot more suffering, and is as bad as the worst kind of fundamentalism.
Still, reading this is very educational to me. I was unaware that people like Hedges existed outside of Ayn Rand novels…
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