Point of Inquiry and the Chris Hedges Interview

I just finished listening to the recent interview D.J. Grothe did with Chris Hedges on Point of Inquiry: I don’t believe in atheists (5/2/08). Grothe is an excellent interviewer and I’m always impressed with his ability to engage a guest with smart questions and dialog, resulting in a podcast that gives the listener a new insights to a guest they may have already listened to time and again. His interviews with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, James Randy and many others who are already familiar speakers have never failed to provide a fresh perspective.

Having said that, I’d add that his interview with Chris Hedges was the first I’ve listened to that even Grothe seemed a bit frustrated with the guest! Mind you, he still manages it well (far better than I would have) and the result is still an informative interview.

Chris Hedges is the author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he attempts to outline a case against the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Hithchens, Harris, …), specifically that they are “fundamentalists,” “radicals,” and believers of “utopianism..” To be fair, I’ve not read the book. Indeed, I’ve not even heard of it or Hedges until the POI interview. So my criticisms of Hedges’ opinions are based solely on the interview itself and his words there, which Hedges implied were a reflection of what he wrote in the book.

  • Radical Atheism

To the first charge that the “new atheists” are “radical,” (I’ve a feeling there may be some liberal use of inverted commas throughout this post, so forgive me (at least I’m not nesting parenthetical comments)), I’d say this is true. After all, this is part of the reason the adjective “new” is applied to the label of atheism. Books like The End of Faith, God is Not Great, and The God Delusion are radical departures from previous atheistic literature if only in their marketing and popularity. The messages of these atheist authors is, likewise, radical in that there is a call for the rationally minded to speak out, to question, and to come out as atheists were applicable. Never before has atheism been so popular. There’s nothing wrong or inappropriate about being radical, particularly if it’s for the right cause.

But what Hedges seems to want us to believe is that being radical is synonymous with being wrong, evil, or otherwise negative for society. Granted there are many radical people who are flat out evil: suicide bombers, car jackers, wife beaters, polygamist cult leaders, advocates of female genital mutilation… these are all radical members of society. But what of those that led movements of suffrage, organized labor, and civil rights in the early part of the 20th century? And countless other “radicals” who recognized that the status quo was worth changing or improving upon?

  • But what of Hedges’ charge that the new atheists are “fundamentalists”?

Hedges wields the term like a pejorative with an intent to be insulting more than critical. This, of course, isn’t new to atheists who apply the term to religious wackjobs, nuts, and cranks that go on about creationism, try to convince reasoned people that huricanes and tsunamis are hurled by imaginary deities at cities and nations because of homosexuality, and that science is the work yet another, albeit evil, deity known as Satan. In order to see why it’s a term that wouldn’t apply to atheists, new or old, it might first be helpful to understand the origin of term “fundamental.”

The Fundamentals were a series of pamphlets distributed by to churches and clergy by Protestant Christian apologists in the earliest decades fo the 20th century. Funded by a grant by Milton and Lyman Stewart of Union Oil Company, this collection of 90 essays in a 12 volume series of pamphlets essentially touched on what were then described as the “fundamentals” of Christianity:

  1. the inerrancy of the Bible as the literal word of God;
  2. the virgin birth of Christ;
  3. the bodily resurrection of Christ;
  4. the belief that Christ , through his death by crucifixion, forgave for the sins of humanity;
  5. the belief that Christ will, one day, return to establish his kingdom on Earth

Later proponents of The Fundamentals advocated, a return of society to a “pre-1950’s” structure and hierarchy in family and society as a whole: where gender roles were clear and those that wouldn’t accept a fundamentalist worldview were marginalized from the in-group of “right thinking” Christians. Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, etc. were all threats to the “fundamental truths” of Christianity. This may even have been handy in demonizing the “atheistic communists” during the first years of the Cold War, the same years we first see the words “in God we trust”, on U.S. currency and hear the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Eisenhower probably wasn’t trying to follow the advice written in the essays of The Fundamentals that lambasted “higher criticism,” argued against liberalism, and denounced false churches. Instead he was seeking to unify a nation against the common enemy of communism. It must have been easier to show the American people that our cause is just by vilifying and demonizing the communist as godless -surely God was on our side.

These days, fundamentalists are generally regarded as those cranks and kooks in society that adhere to the literal “truths” of whatever cult they belong to, as told in their scriptures. Ironically, fundamentalists are the truly honest members of their respective religions since liberal or moderate adherents appear to cherry pick what portions of their scriptures are to be taken literal and which are to be considered allegorical, poetic, or the limited perspectives of Bronze Age nomads.

I think liberal and moderate adherents of religious cults know this. It pisses them off since their reason and intellect tells them most of their cult scripture is pure B.S. -otherwise they’d be proponents of stoning adulterers and beheading rape victims. And yet they can’t shake their delusions about old bearded white men in the sky and pretend to be affronted with the “new atheists” that dare to point out their fallacy. The new atheists dare to question time honored traditions of superstition. The new atheists have the audacity to criticize beliefs of others and to suggest that those beliefs are linked to violence, ignorance, and -let’s face it- stupidity.

Worse than that, Hedges goes so far as to mischaracterize the arguments of new atheists, specifically, Sam Harris. Several times, Hedges stated that Harris advocated in The End of Faith for a preemptive, first strike and nuclear war with Islam; that he equates all Muslims as suicide bombers and terrorists who fly planes into buildings. Clearly Hedges either: 1) didn’t actually read Harris’ book; 2) didn’t understand what he read; or 3) is outright mischaracterizing Harris’ words for those whom he is betting has not read The End of Faith. I don’ t think 1) is true, though it is possible. Had 2) been the case, I wouldn’t imagine Hedges would have been employed by newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Christian Science Monitor. That just leaves 3), unless I’m overlooking an option, and, where I live, mischaracterized is just a fancy way of saying “he lied.”

Here’s what Sam Harris had to say in The End of Faith (pp 128-129):

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? 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. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen.

One thing that was very obvious with Hedges’ interview with Grothe, and if I’m off the mark please tell me in a comment here, is that Hedges seemed pretty full of him self. Several times Grothe questioned the reasoning or the justification for his opinion and each time Hedges seemed to respond with an appeal to his time spent with Muslims here or there; the fact that he’s allegedly “banned” from Saudi Arabia for his journalism there; etc.

I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the “utopianism” nonsense that Hedges seems to go on about. There are so many other things wrong with his arguments in his book (assuming that he was accurately portraying them in the interview) that I’ll let others listen, read and criticize.

One things for sure, if the nonsense he was spewing on Point of Inquiry is any guide to his intellect, honesty, and integrity, I certainly see no reason to believe in Chris Hedges or accept the veracity of anything else he’s written on the Middle East, Islam, Iraq, and Terrorism.


15 Responses

  1. I hope PoI doesn’t invite Hedges back. He was rather belligerent and condescending and refused to answer a couple of questions.

    I’m surprised they didn’t talk about the title of the book. When I saw it in the store, I thought it was about how atheists really believe in God but just won’t admit it since I’ve heard this argument before. Hedges doesn’t think this, so why would he name his book that?

    I’ve decided I’m not going to buy his book “American Fascists” because I don’t want to give this guy any money. There are several other books on the same topic I can read. I’ve already read one.

  2. I turned it off after 20 minutes.

    I didn’t like how he brusquely dismissed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “I’m not familiar with her work. I reported from the Middle East for 20 years, so I don’t need to read someone else’s opinion of what it was like.”

    If I was DJ Grothe, I would have shot back, “But Mr. Hedges, you may have reported from the Middle East for 20 years, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali was was raised and lived as a Muslim in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. I think her insight is just as valuable if not more so than yours.”

    And as for his criticism of the “New Atheists”, what American Atheists besides Sam Harris is he talking about? And how many atheists take their marching orders from Harris? While I appreciate his efforts in bringing atheism to the public discourse, I don’t consult what he or Dawkins or Hitchens has to say about a topic before forming my own opinion.

    I think what is going on here is pretty clear. Hedges got his ass handed to him in debates with Hitchens and Harris, so this book is his petty way of getting payback.

  3. You’re both so right. I was curious about the title as well since he stated that he had know problem with atheism as a philosophy in the outset of the interview.

    And I, too, found his response to Grothe’s question about Ayaan Hirsi Ali to be part of his whole dismissive and self-aggrandizing attitude. He basically said she doesn’t matter because he already had all the experiences he needed to tell us about life in Islamic society.

    I also found it irritating that he kept calling Harris and the “new atheists” racists for criticizing Islam. Islam is a race? This, of course, isn’t a new tactic. Apologists for Islam have been playing the “racist” card for a long time whenever someone dares question or criticize their superstitions. Much the same way Scientologists cry “religious bigotry” when Mark Bunker puts out videos that reveal them for the con-artists they are.

  4. I’m only making an educated guess here, but I think Hedges considers Islamophobes to be racist because their ravings conjure up images of dark skinned turban headed savages. So yes, Islam is a religion, not a race, but the Muslims we tend to have a problem with don’t look like us. I could be wrong, but I believe that is where he is coming from.

    Getting back to Hedges beef with Harris, I remember reading a post by someone who had attended the debate between them. He said that after the debate was over, there was a long line of people lined up to get Sam Harris to sign their copies of his books, whereas no one seemed interested in Hedges, and that he was actually going up to people and asking them if they wanted him to sign copies of his book. Given his ego, I suspect that the experience was an affront to Hedges, so he wrote his new book so that he could have a forum to get back at Harris.

  5. Good post!

    I particularly appreciate you addressing the use of the term “fundamentalist” in regard to atheists. Not that I haven’t been called worse, but just as you pointed out, fundamentalism refers to a rigid adherence to specific doctrine, scripture or set of rules. Despite the many straw versions of atheism that Christians bandy about, atheism requires none of that and, therefore, atheists cannot be fundamentalists, by definition.


  6. […] positive correlation between a region’s religiosity and its crime rate. The other post, Point of Inquiry and the Chris Hedges Interview, contains some remarks, for which I will take the author to task, about non-fundamentalist […]

  7. Nice post and thanks for the clarification. It’s an important distinction between Harris advocating bombing Iran and Harris entertaining the preemptive strike scenario and coming away horrified at the moral ugliness and insanity of it all.

    That said, even though I’m an atheist, I can’t join Harris in his campaign against all religion. I have had too much common cause with people of various faiths in matters of social justice, fighting poverty, advocating the rights of ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, and opposing war. It doesn’t hold me back from questioning religious beliefs or from criticizing them. But I still hold a great deal of respect for people whose faith motivates them to do good deeds. Those people are the worker bees of many a social justice movement.

  8. It’s amazing how cult-like the “new atheists” are. In another interview, when interviewed by a much better interviewer, Hedges was asked about Hirsi Ali and how she (Hirsi Ali) spoke about the horrors of Islam and glories of the West. Hedges replied simply that the West was good for her and asked if the West was good for the millions displaced in Iraq and the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I could add that the same is true about the millions killed by the Belgians in Congo, by the French in Algeria…)

    It’s interesting how the blogger has succinctly ignored D.J.Grothe’s amazing oversight and attempted misrepresentation of what Hedges said. Here’s the conversation:

    Hedges: fanaticism… terror are not forces in any way exclusive to religious belief systems. You know, Nazism, Communism, Pol Pot

    Grothe: … Everyone can say it’s mostly religion and you’re saying it’s mostly, what, American Empire.

    A conclusion that does not follow at all from what Hedges said.

    Furthermore, the blogger completely ignores the fact that Grothe could not mention /one/ Islamic nation that supported his (or if he was merely playing Devil’s Advocate, which I doubt, Harris’s and Hitchens’s) thesis. Hedges gave the example of how *muslims* did a lot to help.

    Grothe again had his thesis torn to shreds when he claimed that all social advances were driven by secular forces. He pointed out that even Gandhi was deeply religious.

    If you ignore everything about the interview, I guess the bloggers delusions hold.

  9. Is an excellent reference regarding the bloggers dismissal of Sam Harris calling for a nuclear first strike against the Middle East. See “my” website though it isn’t actually mine and I have nothing to do with the website.

  10. Our anonymous visitor above continues the fallacious tactic of attempting to apply the failings of the religiously deluded to those that use reason and rationalism to guide their worldviews. Referring to the so-called “new atheists” as “cult-like” is an example of a pejorative that works well with the religiously deluded but falls short when applied to rational people.

    Sorry, “Anon,” but it doesn’t work. Instead, you ramble on about an alleged “oversight by Grothe” that you characterize as “amazing,” yet you fail, also, to reveal that “oversight” in any lucid detail. Quoting a portion of the interview, the only only thing you have is a possible mischaracaterization that Grothe was using to attempt to get Hedges to clarify a point. Any listener of Grothe’s interviews knows that this is a frequent interview tool and, he was indeed, playing Devil’s Advocate as he always does.

    Hedges appeared too self-centered and narcissistic to notice the opportunity to clarify a point and missed a chance to solidly explain his position. I was actually eager to hear his response for which nothing came.

    In addition, Grothe was again playing Devil’s Advocate for the position of Harris, Hitchens, et al in his “Islamic nation” question, but, once again, Hedges acted like a pompous ass and became passively aggressive to his interviewer rather than recognizing an opportunity to elucidate the point and genuinely take the floor. Yet again, this is an interview style that has worked well with Grothe with nearly every subject he’s interviewed -they all get it. Hedges’ ego apparently prevents him from getting it.

    Finally, you make the claim that I “dismiss” “Sam Harris calling for a nuclear first strike against the Middle East.”

    And if there is a single factual thing you’ve written above, it is this. I dismiss it because no where has Sam Harris made this call. But the deluded care little about facts, evidence, or supporting their wild and speculative accusations. They, of course, have a conclusion to which the only data relevant is that which supports their delusions -even if the data is a lie.

    But if I’m wrong, I challenge you to demonstrate where it is that Harris has called for this alleged “nuclear first strike” or where it is that he’s advocated torture. Please cite page and paragraph.

  11. If you look at my second comment and click on “anon” it takes you to an article that appeared in the Beast magazine.

    To attribute intentions to someone whose motives you do not know is irrational. You cannot assert that Grothe’s intentions were solely those of a Devil’s advocate. Grothe has always gone on about “a science based morality” when absolutely none exists. Just a few weeks ago he asked Marc Hauser what his opinion of a science based morality was. Hauser expressed pretty much the same opinion as Hedges saying that he had no hope for us to overcome our instinctive moral intuitions; how we could, with practice overcome them in one moral situation (euthanasia in Europe) but how we would just go right back to our natural instincts in similar cases (generic harm by omission versus action).

    The new atheists all believe in a utopian dream and the that they are morally superior to “them”. This is unfounded in fact.

    These new atheists have absolutely no facts. What they say is no different from the religious fanatics of the world and certainly what they say is not founded in facts. There have been many studies of suicide bombers and all of them, without exception, say that there is no causal link between religion and suicide terrorism. The consequences of shills like the new atheists will lead to our doom and destruction. I would feel much safer if these people were thrown off a cliff. Of course to say that is very impolite and what I say must not be followed upon.

  12. […] are a few blogs discussing the interview, such as at Breaking Spells at Center for Inquiry and a few others. Most noted that Hedges creates a bit of a caricature of New […]

  13. ylooshi said:

    > Finally, you make the claim that I “dismiss” “Sam Harris
    calling for a nuclear first strike against the Middle East.”

    I made no such claim. Please show where such a claim was made.

    Here’s what I said:

    > > It’s interesting how the blogger has succinctly ignored D.J.Grothe’s amazing oversight and attempted misrepresentation of what Hedges said. Here’s the conversation:

    > > Hedges: fanaticism… terror are not forces in any way exclusive to religious belief systems. You know, Nazism, Communism, Pol Pot

    > > Grothe: … Everyone can say it’s mostly religion and you’re saying it’s mostly, what, American Empire.

    That is not a request for clarification. Nazism and Communism had nothing to do with American Empire.

    Grothe used “amorphous” terms like “the Left”, “radical Islamic nations” which he could not qualify when asked to be specific. That is not science.

    If you wish to do science, you must present data. Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens present absolutely none. (I’ve read enough of their works to know.) In a recent conference when it was pointed out to Harris that even followers of his favorite religion, Buddhism, have performed suicide terrorism — Tamil Tigers, Japanese Kamikaze pilots — he merely dismissed them [Beyond Belief 2006].

    If one wishes to make the claim, which the new atheists do, that religion is the cause of all the world’s problems then, logically, they face the burden of proof to show that these world conflicts were caused by religion. This is not easy because the presence of strong religions institutions in conflicts is not an indicator of the cause of the conflict — their presence could have been caused by the conflict, for instance. Another burden that anyone wishing to prove the thesis is to show that religion has not been a force for good. Chris Hedges mentioned the priests in Myanmar and Muslims in Serbia in this interview, Scott Atran mentions Muslim clerics in Sudan. The Civil Rights Movement was deeply religious with its roots in Christianity.

    This is hardly a simple topic and if someone wishes to present any thesis in a serious manner they must consider all the factors in a conflict. None of these details are addressed by the new atheists. In other words, they are not scientific.

  14. Sorry for the late posting, but Chris Hedges’ obvious hate for the West, and suggestion that all the West produces is corpses does like so many thinkers on the Left do — they focus on negative results, and (deliberately?) overlook the positive.

    One name for Chris Hedges — Norman Borlang.

  15. Thank you for your detailed and well cited post on the “Left”, ‘Late to the Party’. You have convinced me that Chris Hedges is wrong.

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