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:
- the inerrancy of the Bible as the literal word of God;
- the virgin birth of Christ;
- the bodily resurrection of Christ;
- the belief that Christ , through his death by crucifixion, forgave for the sins of humanity;
- 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.