Chris Hedges debated Sam Harris in May 2007 and the Christopher Hitchens two days later, and these debates left him with a bad taste in his mouth. He now believes that, “The agenda of the new atheists… is disturbing” and they share an “intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted” belief system. [Hedges: 1] The atheists “attack a repugnant version of religion… to condemn all religion.” [Hedges: 33] They ignore the positives that have come of religion and spread the blame of the worst on to all believers.
Hedges believes that the new atheists “haven’t read” Aquinas, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and “don’t want to.” [Hedges: 71] This is a bold claim. He further says, “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett know nothing about the Middle East. They do not speak Arabic. They have never studied Islam.” [Hedges: 140] Is this true? I do not know, but these are his claims.
He also argues against the idea that the world of science replacing religion makes the world a progressively better place. “Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea.” [Hedges: 10] “The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention.” [Hedges: 13] These believers are, again, “deluded”. [Hedges: 28]
Hedges is not your typical opponent of the atheists. He does not oppose atheism itself, and he is not pushing for a religious outlook. As he says, “We dislike the same people. But we do not dislike them for the same reasons.” [Hedges: 3] Hedges opposes the methods of the religious fundamentalists, which he sees as the same as the new atheists.
Against Sam Harris
“We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and teachings of the Prophet.”
Hedges say that Harris’ book is full of “childish simplicity” and “ignorance of world affairs” and he pushes a “demonization of Muslims”, making him “idiotic and racist.” [Hedges: 2] Further, “Harris insists he understands the Muslim world because he has read opinion polls and passages in the Koran.” [Hedges: 71] Says Harris: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Indeed, Harris even “calls for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world. He defends torture as a logical form of interrogation.” [Hedges: 36]
Harris says, “the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.” He recommends the use of a strappado, a device where a person’s body is suspended from their wrists tied being their back while weights are added to their feet. The irony here is that the device was invented by the Inquisition, the very epitome of the idea Harris claims to be against. For the record, Manadel al-Jamadi was strappadoed in November 2003 in Abu Ghraib and died from his injuries. The US military ruled his death a homicide.
Clearly, the problem with Sam Harris is not his atheism but his acceptance of values he should deplore. Being willing to kill or torture because there are ideas he thinks are evil is exactly the argument the Muslim extremists he argues against might make. Whether done in the name of Islam or anything else, mass murder is a serious crime that can never be justified. If Harris thinks that doing so in the name of “science” or “progress” or “atheism” makes killing innocent people acceptable, he is just as idiotic as Hedges claims him to be.
Against Christopher Hitchens
“I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it.”
Both Harris and Hitchens talk of the Muslim world “in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.” [Hedges: 6] Hitchens says that George W. Bush was “obviously not … on a Christian crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan”. [Hedges: 123] And he says Martin Luther King, Jr. was “in no real as opposed to nominal sense… a Christian.”
The first point has already been address against Harris — there is no morally acceptable way to condone murder, beating or racism. That is as barbaric as Hitchens claims they are. He is, in effect, defending civilization by being uncivilized.
Whether Bush was on a Christian crusade or not is debatable. I do not believe so, but it seems that Hitchens does not want to accept the idea because he supported the Iraq invasion and would not want to be thought of as siding with Christian crusaders. It is a fine distinction: he is right to deny it, but denies it for the wrong reason.
Hitchens’ claims about MLK are simply ridiculous. He is so determined to get King on his side that he denies that a minister was Christian. Hitchens is, of course, dead wrong. Ministers have fought for social justice and some still do — there is plenty to be found in the words of Jesus about compassion. MLK did some very un-Christian things (such as his infidelity) but to deny he was a believer or to demote him to a “nominal” Christian is just flat wrong.
Against Richard Dawkins
“If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.”
Dawkins seems to have a narrow view of the Koran. The Koran allows others to practice their beliefs in peace, and condemns attacks on civilians. Islam preaches that suicide of any type is an abomination. Suicide bombing did not come from the Muslim world. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber in May 1991 — his attacker was Tamil Tiger, a Marxist from Sri Lanka. Dawkins’ “good bet” would have been wrong.
Hedges says that while Dawkins points out the evil of the past (such as slavery), he “ignores new ones, such as industrial warfare and nuclear weapons, the brutality of totalitarian capitalism, globalization and looming environmental disasters.” [Hedges: 41] This is correct, but not entirely. Globalization has good and bad aspects, the environment can be saved by science and technology as well as harmed, capitalism is still preferable to feudalism (and still better than it was in the 1920s). Warfare and nuclear weapons are, indeed, bad, but there is hope that the globalization of communication may reduce the threat of war. I do not believe Dawkins would deny the existence of these so-called evils, but they are fixable and it is unreasonable to assume that new problems will stop arising at some point.
“Dawkins… reduces the world to a binary formula of good and evil. Religion is a force of darkness. Reason and science are forces of light. He… views the world through this childish lens.” [Hedges: 88] As an example, Hedges points to Dawkins’ division of Northern Ireland into “loyalist” and “nationalist”, which he sees as euphemisms for Protestant and Catholic. But Dawkins ignores the roles of unionists and republicans. The conflict is not entirely a religious matter. Hedges is right, at least to a point, that Dawkins takes a simplistic view of good and evil, religion and atheism. His book, The God Delusion makes many solid claims against religion, but many weak ones, as well, easily refuted by a philosophy undergraduate.
“Dawkins asserts the accidental nature of existence. This is a claim beyond the ability of science to test or prove.” [Hedges: 101] I will not defend or refute this claim, as it is beyond the scope of my scientific knowledge. Dawkins and Stephen Hawking may disagree.
While Hedges makes some valid points, and he is right to call out the new atheists for their hate speech, he does not quite have the “slam dunk” case he believes he does.
His biggest error is in lumping together these men into one group. It is perhaps ironic that he makes a case against lumping all Muslims together, and then paints all the new atheists with the same brush. Sam Harris is one extreme, and to lump others with him is unfair. He once or twice throws Daniel Dennett into the mix, which is altogether a poor decision — at no time does he ever quote Dennett as saying anything unreasonable (and thus why I have not quoted him above). And the case against Dawkins is not the same as against Harris by any means, even if there are slight overlaps. This generalization is unfortunate.
I also feel there is some error in saying that mankind cannot morally evolve. Hedges is right to say men still have immoral desires, and the crusades of one century are the nuclear wars of another. But one some level the evolution seems clear, no matter how small. Moving from viewing women as second-class citizens to full-fledged voters and property-owners is no small feat. And the beauty of this is the fact it will likely never reverse: can you envision a world where women’s rights are some day revoked? While torture and war can be done by science or religion, their is a strong undercurrent of progress whether Hedges sees it or not.
However, in the most general sense, he is right. There is no sense in replacing religion with atheism if the same violence and hatred will be pursued. A person is entitled to their own beliefs so long as they are moral. As much as I would like to see religion’s grip on mankind loosen, I would rather see a peaceful Christian than a malevolent atheist. A person’s inner workings mean nothing compared to their actions towards their brothers and sisters.
Hedges, Chris. When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists Free Press, 2008.