BOOK REVIEW: I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges
(Free Press, 2008) 224 pp; $25.00
review by Carl Coon
Published in the Humanist, September/October 2008
Chris Hedges is an experienced journalist who knows his way around the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, as well as other troubled areas. He has written one of the more powerful arguments against war in his well-received War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Random House, 2003). More to the point, from the humanist perspective he is one of the most eloquent and effective adversaries anywhere in the United States of the evangelical Christian right. His recent book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007) argues persuasively that the Christian fundamentalist movement is becoming a serious threat to American democracy.
So, he should be sympathetic to the humanist cause, right? Well, no. In his latest book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, he takes the remarkable position that the “new atheists” are actually fundamentalists themselves, just as wrong-headed and dangerous as the Bible-thumping Christians who deny evolution and insist that the Bible, taken literally, is the fount of all wisdom and moral direction. He bases this extraordinary discovery on a couple of extravagant statements he picked up in separate debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in May 2007, backed by a reading of their latest books, plus what looks like a superficial glance or two at recent works by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. He refers to Harris and Hitchens briefly, on page one, as new atheists and then applies the term to all “such thinkers.” It isn’t always clear later in the book whether he is attacking all non-believers, or just the two (Hitchens and Harris) who have annoyed him, or something in between. It doesn’t really matter that much, because his charges are both general in nature and lavishly distributed. Plenty of mud for us all.
To understand his argument you have to understand that Hedges is convinced that human nature is fixed, immutable. He cites various philosophers (especially Nietszche) and authors (especially Dostoevsky), to support his belief that human nature contains seeds that inevitably lead us to destroy that which we build. Progress is illusory. He cites Joseph Conrad’s works, especially Heart of Darkness, many times. And then he fortifies his argument with personal experiences in the Middle East and the Balkans (which give him plenty of ammunition). You can make allowances for the fact that he has directly experienced far more human suffering and cruelty in these parts of the world than most of us. Even so, his outlook is one of unrelieved gloom and doom. Try this quote: “We do not march toward a rational paradise. We march toward a world where the rapacious and greedy appetites of human beings, who have overpopulated and failed to protect the planet, threaten widespread anarchy, famine, nuclear terrorism, and wars for diminishing resources.” This is not a cheerful book.
The other assumption on which Hedges bases his attack is that science and religion are in different corners, non-overlapping magisteria. He further assumes that unless you have a modicum of both in your mental system, you’re a fundamentalist. Without science, you rely wholly on the Bible and believe there is a millennial goal when humankind will be perfected. Total reliance on science and reason, without faith, would also make you a fundamentalist because you likewise believe in the perfectibility of mankind. Hedges supports this dubious assertion by citing the fact that Pol Pot and Mao Zedong held out a vision of some future utopia in which people would be different. I doubt if anyone reading this column will be impressed by putting all nonbelievers in the same kettle as two of history’s most famous mass murderers. Never mind, Hedges charges ahead with arguments like this: “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.”
Talk about stereotypes! Even before he associates nonbelievers with Pol Pot and Chairman Mao, he takes a couple of extravagant statements from the most outspokenly contrarian members of the nontheistic community, Harris and Hitchens, and at least implies that we’re all are on the same page. He records Hitchens as saying that it was okay to attack Saddam Hussein. He notes Harris saying in his book that all Islam, not a gaggle of Muslim malcontents, is the enemy. So, how many of us agree with those statements? If we don’t, why should we all be tarred with the same brush?
Beyond fairness, there is the question of whether Hedges’ arguments have any intrinsic merit. I don’t think they do. It just ain’t so that because atheists believe in evolution, we share with the fundamentalists a sense that humanity is moving toward some millennial outcome, a utopia where humans will be transformed and everyone will be happy. At least that’s not the way I understand what the theory of evolution means for the freethought community. It’s a linear thing, yes, and it does have a directional impulse, involving increasingly sophisticated adaptations to a constantly changing environment. But it is a process, not a revealed vision of a promised land. It just goes on and on.
The next major flaw in Hedges’ argument is his view of that elusive thing called human nature. Our behavior is influenced by circumstances, but our choices exist within a wide set of parameters that are determined partly by our genes and partly by our previous life experience. Seen in historical perspective, the genetic factor evolves very slowly, while the environmental determinants change much more rapidly, with the evolution of technology and culture. Hedges is right that leaders who seek to remake human nature from the ground up in one generation, like the aforementioned Communist despots, are necessarily going to fail. But if he is wrong that we freethinkers share that ambition, he is equally wrong in his belief that human nature can never change at all, even over the very long run. Science and reason tell us that human nature is durable but not immutable, and allows us to think optimistically about our long-term future while recognizing our limitations.
And now we come to perhaps the most important flaw in Hedges’ argument. Like many people brought up in a religious tradition, he assumes that morality is derivative of faith, and that if you don’t believe in some religion you are basically amoral, whatever you may say. “It is impossible to formulate a moral code out of reason and science,” Hedges writes. “The language of religion,” he continues, “allows believers to remain in a world that is real while holding up an ideal and an ethic that cannot be scientifically examined.”
But is it true that ethics cannot be scientifically examined? Only if you accept his claim that science and religion are non-overlapping domains. That is, of course, a widely held notion. Even a respected scientist like Stephen J. Gould subscribed to the “separate domain” school of thought. And once you make that assumption, it is easy to fall into the trap that religion came first, before science, and morality followed as its offspring. After all, the Bible has been around a lot longer than Darwin. So, if religion came first, and produced morality, then how can freethinkers who deny the efficacy of faith have any claim to being moral persons? And if they aren’t moral, doesn’t that explain Pol Pot and Mao and Stalin and so on?
Well, the evolutionary psychologists and other scientists are just now amassing the evidence that will blast this argument to smithereens. Religion did not come first. Altruism came first, and it started as pure instinct, hard-wired in the genes, where it still resides as part of our human nature. Religion came along much later, as a means of exploiting the existing instinct for altruism, and helping it to adapt to increasingly complex societies. My own hunch is that religion first became significant about 50,000 years ago, when our ancestors started talking in abstractions. Anyway, altruism got its name changed to morality and the shamans and priests and rabbis have been claiming it as their own property ever since. But the experimental evidence belies the claim that they invented it. (See Marc Hauser’s book, Moral Minds, which I reviewed in the January/February 2007 issue of this magazine.)
It’s time for the secular community to take back this thing called morality, and file it where it belongs, with all of us. Let’s stand up to all three of those arrogant monotheistric religions that persist in telling us they have a lock on what is moral behavior and what isn’t, and give them this simple answer: sorry, folks, your copyright has run out.
In conclusion, don’t bother to get this book. Wait until Hedges takes on Harris and Hitchens on topics he understands better than they do, like the war in Iraq and the nature of Islam. At that point the discussion could become instructive. It will certainly be entertaining, for you can say one thing about Chris Hedges: he is just as good at applying collective guilt to large groups on the basis of the peccadilloes of a few individuals as is either of his chosen adversaries, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.
Carl Coon is the vice president of the American Humanist Association and a former ambassador to Nepal.