Chris Hedges, author of the much-praised “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” seems to have become unhinged.
He has a new book coming out with the ever-so-clever title “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” for which he’s published an advance summary essay and interview at “click-thru our desperate attempts to get you to pay money for words on the internet” publication Salon.
And folks, it’s just terrible. The essay is a mess from start to finish, seemingly utterly impervious to absurdity of its arguments in the face of everything from logical consistency to actual positions of his targets.
Most egregious is the way Hedges can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what sins “New Atheist” targets are guilty of: at some points he assert that, for instance, Christopher Hitchens believes in nothing. But without any explanation, he ALSO makes the charge that “atheists” are starry-eyed utopians that believe in the power of human perfection so strongly that, who knows: maybe they’d kill for it, those crazy buggers. How can both possibly be true?
Now the correct answer to this question is, of course, simply that atheists do not have any sort of affirmative philosophy in common: not even the four he’s most peeved at. The follow-up in this case, however, is that by and large he’s wrong in both of his contradictory claims. Very few atheists (and none of the presently popular “New Atheist” authors) are nihilists , and very few (and none of the presently popular “New Atheist” authors) are starry-eyed about human perfection. Most atheists are explicit pragmatists, not utopians of any stripe. If they celebrate a common cause in science and reason, it is because they think it will make things better, not perfect. This seems like perfectly reasonable idea: does Hedges really think it’s nuts and the sign of “fundamentalism,” as he implies?
Well, as others have noted, presumably Hedges himself isn’t entirely against the idea of improving the human condition, or else he wouldn’t be paradoxically writing books seeking to convince people to be less reflexively warlike. So exactly what is so threatening, so outrageous, about likewise criticizing religion and suggesting that the world might be better off with less of it? Hedges never says, exactly: there is no substantive response to these arguments other than to simply call them intolerant and ignorant. Instead we get rejections of bizarre straw men: (“we are not moving toward a glorious utopia. “) followed up by equally insane counter-pronouncements like “we are not moving anywhere” (really? recognizing rights like, say, free speech, is not any sort progress in the human condition? Medicine? Suicide prevention hot-lines? These are all take-it-or-leave it trivialities to Hedges?)
Here’s Hedges accusing the “New Atheists” of promoting:
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.
Again: I doubt Hedges can sustain a serious argument to the effect that any of these major figures, much less atheists in general, speak in terms of “collective salvation” or a “perfect society.” In fact, all of them very clearly say that a world without religious faith would not be a perfect world, merely an incrementally better one. All of them are, in fact, students of liberal enlightenment, champions of free inquiry (including the freedom to be offensive, stupid, dishonest, etc.), and are explicitly against coercive measures to enforce belief or agreement, fundamentally. They’ve lobbed rhetorical attacks on religious claims, not called for death camps. And trying to lump Hitchen’s militant stances on the Iraq war into his atheism seems, if anything, quite backwards. It certainly isn’t an attitude characteristic of “New Atheists” as a whole (most of whom seem to be anti-war even to the point of a silly pacifism), nor is it the same thing as Harris’ philosophy-grade ticking time-bomb thought experiments on torture and war.
Here’s another Hedges claim that just seems outright bizarre:
The new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, do not make moral arguments about religion.
Of course they do. These arguments are, in fact, the core of their writings for goodness sakes. This is like saying that Stephen King does not write books about horror monsters. When Dawkins calls the God if the Old Testament a monster, he’s not just slinging insults: he’s pointing out that a causally genocidal creature is morally abhorrent. When Harris points out that acting on irrational faith is tantamount to lying, this isn’t an academic classification: it’s speaking against the harm that can be caused by unjustified certainty.
The worst of it though, is this passage on evolution:
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.
Here’s a meager list of what’s bizarrely wrong here:
- The use of “Darwinism,” the creationist epithet that falsely implies that Charles Darwin is some sort of patron saint of any particular ideology whose teachings are respected over and above normal scientific evidence.
- The usual mistake of thinking of evolutionary biology as if it were itself a normative and comprehensive worldview: something all the New Atheists have argued extensively against, not for.
- Nothing about evolutionary biology, nor any of the writers Hedges is attack, makes any of the grandiose claims he is attacking:
- Evolutionary biology has nothing to say about the “mastery of animal natures.” In fact, most biologists try to avoid the confusing and misleading dichotomy between supposed “animal nature” and human culture.
- Evolutionary biology does not declare human progress, as judged by human values, illusionary. Evolution does indeed do away with the idea of “high” and “low” creatures and directional evolutionary development, but nothing about it precludes human beings judging things like the eradication of slavery to be moral progress. This is, then, a complete non-sequitur.
And then there’s this:
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.
Good grief. Cognitive behavior is Daniel Dennet’s primary scientific interest. Sam Harris is working on a doctorate in neuroscience. I’m betting that both of them know a heck of a lot more about studies of cognitive behavior than Hedges, and I can assure him that both think human nature can be plenty irrational and flawed.
And, wait a minute: he’s really claiming that Hitchens doesn’t think that human nature is irrational and flawed? Seriously? Seriously? The consummate curmudgeon? The petulant pessimist? Who is Hedges trying to kid here?
The sad reality is that, like many would-be voices of reason, Hedges doesn’t seem to have made even the most basic inquiry into the nature of non-belief: his “throw everything and the kitchen sink” style of accusation barely manages to be self-consistent, let alone even close to fair or accurate. Instead, he seems satisfied that if he can declare everyone but himself to be equally extreme that he can play the favored moderate without having to do any sort of heavy intellectual lifting to justify his particular positions.
Boy is that getting old.