I do not know a lot about Chris Hedges, but he has always struck me as a very decent man who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of his fellow man. I’ve read several of his articles, but none of his books. However, I just finished listening to I Don’t Believe in Atheists, a critique of what he calls atheist fundamentalism.
As always, I prefer that you interpret this review as my take on (or understanding of) the book, and not as an authoritative retelling on what the author is trying to say. I could certainly get something wrong here, so please read his book first before drawing any final conclusions.
First and foremost, this is not a book about proof for the existence of god. Nor is it a tirade against atheists for not believing in a divine entity.
Rather, I Don’t Believe in Atheists is a critique of what Hedges (and others I suppose) call the New Atheists – nonbelievers that he claims are just as fundamentalist and unyielding in their beliefs as fundamentalist theists are—naming, in particular, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins.
In my opinion, the book is rather poorly named because it doesn’t clearly convey what the book is about, and because Hedges doesn’t just take on the New Atheists within its pages. He also takes on fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, and draws parallels between these two and the New Atheists. (The paperback edition was subsequently retitled When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists.)
Fundamentalist Christians believe in creationism, angels and demons, prescriptive morality, and an idyllic utopia in which all of man is converted to the one true religion, and spends the rest of their time on earth serving and worshiping god. These people, Hedges says, are delusional. They believe in irrational things and cling to views of human nature that do not correspond with the historical behavior of the human race.
But the New Atheists, those who preach the gospel of science and reason, are equally delusional, he claims, because they too believe in utopian ideals about the betterment and perfection of humanity. They claim that if we can just eliminate irrational religion in society, teach science and reason, and dispense with superstition and magical thinking, that one day we can have a peaceful world based on mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding. Then and only then will true progress be made. But human history does not support this view, either.
Knowledge and science are morally neutral. They can be used by good people towards good ends, and by bad people towards bad ends. They cannot save humanity from itself. Evil is not a problem which can be solved. Rather, it is a mystery of human nature. A mystery we will never be rid of. A curse we cannot escape.
All we can hope to do is resist it. Shame it. Suppress it. Work against it. But we will never eliminate it. And those who preach either the gospel of a dogmatic religion as salvation or of science and reason as salvation are kidding both themselves and those who believe them.
Because we have a well-documented history, and because we see culture and technology as continually moving forward and building upon the past, we mistakenly believe that we are progressing morally at the same rate – that moral virtue evolves as quickly as our scientific understanding of the world around us.
But we’re not, and it doesn’t. Neither the dogma of fanatical religion nor advances in science, reason, and technology have made us more humane. They have not influenced our moral instincts. We are just as capable and willing to prey upon our fellow man as we have always been (and Hedges provides many examples to prove his point). Both religion and secularism, he says, can rationalize horrendous acts of violence for a perceived benefit to human moral and social progress. If we can just eliminate the undesirables, the non-conformists, the ones who don’t share our views and won’t play along with our vision of the future, then, and only then, will we truly fulfill our human potential.
Hedges answer to all this is what I believe he believes to be authentic religion. To him, true religion is about community, compassion, and tolerance. It is about helping the needy and embracing the outcast. It is not about abortion rights, adultery, gay marriage, divine judgment, or an unyielding dogma.
This, we are to suppose, is the religion that Hedges practices. Well, perhaps it is. I don’t know him so I can’t say for sure, though I do get the impression that he is definitely the type of person who would strive for this ideal – who would make these values his own. But the flaw in this, or perhaps I should say the irony, is that he is advocating, on a basic level, what fundamentalist Christians and the New Atheists are advocating: that the world would be a much better place if the rest of us were like them. And it is hard not to wonder if he is not being a bit too idyllic, as well. I mean, how many people do you know who are like this?
I am tempted to say that he is wearing rose-colored glasses. But upon reflection, Hedges’s experiences as a war correspondent, as a man who’s seen the worst of human nature, does not allow one to accept that he is simply being naïve.
In many ways, I Don’t Believe in Atheists is both a cynical and sobering. I can certainly see some of myself in his criticisms, and for that, I’m glad. Things that challenge us are always so much more interesting than things that flatter us.
However, I do think the book had its share of flaws. In the first part of the book, he drones on and on about the New Atheists being this and that, and this and that, and this and that, to the point of tedium. It’s like, okay, I get it already! Can we move on?
I also think that he was a bit too forgiving of religiosity and I don’t think he was always being fair to Hitch, Dennett, et al, but as I have not read their entire collected writings, I cannot say with certainty how accurately he portrayed their views. (Though some of the Sam Harris quotes were quite troubling.)
Additionally, words like “sacred,” “transcendent,” and “reverence” appeared way too often for my comfort. Generally speaking I have no use for those kinds of words, because I don’t believe in any of them, and they lend themselves too readily to extremism, I think.
Well, I still have many more notes jotted down, so I could probably say a lot more about this book, but since this review is already pretty long, I’ll leave it with this: While I don’t agree with everything Hedges said, and while I’m not yet convinced he was always fair and objective, I would definitely recommend I Don’t Believe in Atheists.
As for me, I’m still not quite prepared to issue a final judgment on the book. I cannot reconcile some of what I believe with his claims. And that’s fine. It is certainly worth revisiting in the future, and I hope to do just that. And while I would not consider it a masterpiece, it is an important book that asks you to reconsider your views instead of one that just placates them.
You've definitely piqued my interest in reading this, although you may have been a lot more patient with it than I could be. Maybe I'll get a chance to check it out :)
I just want to say, in defense of Sam Harris, that his words are often taken way out of context... even despite his attempt to buffer his words by saying, "This is not my view; this is not what I recommend!" That happened in Letter to a Christian Nation, where people have said he believes we should nuke Muslims, or something along those lines. He has repeatedly stated this was not an option he supports, but merely that he thinks it could be an inevitable outcome of religious wars.
Anyway, thanks for the review!
I listened to the audio book, which is only 4 CDs -- so not very long.
One of my issues with the book was his reductionist approach to generalizing about what the "new atheists" believe. I don't think he was always being fair. Nonetheless, I think his point is well taken: often, in pursuit of an idealized society, we allow ourselves to committ atrocities in the name of the greater good. This is the hallmark of an extremist -- be it secular or religious.