Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chris Hedges's I Don't Believe In Atheists

In his new book I Don't Believe In Atheists, Chris Hedges attacks the ideology of the so-called “new atheists,” saying of Sam Harris's book The End of Faith that “His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist.” There's a lot of this deconstruction of the, ultimately, imperialistic and fundamentalist undertones to currently ascendant pop atheism throughout the book and it's a welcome analysis.

The problem with the book is that Hedges doesn't stick to just deconstructing the imperialist poses and intolerance of the “new atheists.” He tries to make the case for religion and in that he largely fails. It doesn't help that he makes his own facile arguments—blaming the Enlightenment for slavery and the Holocaust for example. There's also his tendency to go off on, granted, very interesting tangents, but ones that tie neither to condemnation of Utopian ideology nor his defense of a nebulous “religion” that he never really defines. For example:

“Our return to an image-based culture means the destruction of the abstract thought made possible by a literate, print-based society. Image-based societies do not grasp or cope with ambiguity, nuance, doubt and the many layers of irrational motives and urges, some of them frightening, that make human actions complex and finally unfathomable. They eschew self-criticism for amusement. They build fantastic non-reality-based belief systems that cater to human desires and illusions rather than human reality.”

Then the next paragraph:

“Believers in the Bible, as well as the Koran, were asked to embrace a hidden deity.[...] To worship God without physical representations of God made it appear as if believers were worshiping nothing. It was to give up security. It was to believe in a God that could not be seen or controlled. It was to live with paradox, uncertainty and doubt. It was to accept anxiety. To believe in this deity required abstract thinking. It made possible the moral life.”

Those are interesting points—the image-based society and the idea of God initially as an abstract—but how do they actually relate? In fact, how do they not contradict each other? Hedges criticizes “image-based societies” embracing “non-reality-based belief systems” and then, in the next paragraph, praises the Abrahamic faiths for embracing an unknown and unknowable God before they were a print-based society. How is the embracing of a “hidden deity” not exactly what he's criticizing? And while the very brief analysis of how an invisible God depended upon abstract thought, how does that make the moral life possible?

In the preface to the book he defines “spirituality” as the spiritual courage to stand up to adversity and injustice. What he calls “spirituality,” though, I call “morality,” and maybe that's what he means by making the moral life possible. He argues throughout the book in favor of empathy and empathy requires abstract thought. However that doesn't lead back to religion and certainly doesn't lead back to God. In fact the logic runs the other way—abstract thought is a prerequisite for both morality and God, but one does not require the other.

And that's the problem with his arguments for religion and thus his arguments for God in the book, they don't actually work. Hedges says, “Because there is no clear, objective definition of God, the new atheists must choose what God it is they attack. Is it the God of the mystics, the followers of the Social Gospel, the eighteenth-century deists, the Quakers, the liberation theologians, or the stern God of the patriarchs?” A fair question, but I'd say they attack the same God Hedges seems to. He repeats, constantly, that we're in a morally neutral universe, that there is no heaven or hell and we only have other people to look to for help. He denies the God of First Cause, an interventionist God and a supernaturalistic God, and pretty much any definition of God at all. So what religion, and what God, is he defending?

He's trying to defend religion as culture, history and idea. He argues that there's human wisdom in these stories and they help us understand the irrationality of the human animal—an animal capable of reason yet still ruled by instinct and the unconscious. Hedges argues that because of our irrationality, science and reason alone cannot explain or provide meaning to the human condition, but that art can. But art is not religion and he doesn't connect religion with art or explain how religion is necessary if we already have art explaining the human condition. And that's ultimately the problem with the book. It has something to say, something that needs to be said and says it well, but surrounds it with absurdities, logical leaps that don't follow and a half-hearted defense of something he doesn't seem to feel is worth defending, in fact, something he can't denounce because then what side of the debate would he be on?

To his credit, Hedges rejects ideologies that provide simple answers. It's what's allowed him to ask the hard questions of the situations he's been in and to find a deeper explanation for the human condition. But what of the drive towards the simple answers? And not just that. Why are there some people who not only consent to being ruled but want it? There are those who want a king, an emperor, the boot stamping on their face forever. What of this drive? Hedges has an extensive background in philosophies that grew out of human tragedy so it's disappointing that he puts that background to such meager use. He could ask why the “new atheists” who reject the paternalistic, authoritarian idea of God turn to cultural imperialism, a different paternalistic, authoritarian ideal, but he doesn't. He points out their basic fallacies, but not the big one, and it's that big one that's the problem.

No comments: