When Atheism Becomes Religion

Author: Chris Hedges
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Length: 212 Pages

Review by dewdrop

So, this is actually the first book I have read by Chris Hedges. I am very unfamiliar with his body of work, minus a few brief online clips of him I have encountered. Rather than checking him out more before writing this review, I am using it as a chance to fairly judge his ideas in and of themselves without having his other activities color my thinking.

I found the book’s intelligence pleasantly surprising—when I saw the title I was unsure of what the book was precisely referring to, and was already skeptical. While I figured it was not a theistic book attacking atheism as a whole, usually the accusation that atheists have formed their own religion comes from some level of hyperChristian, dogmatic thinking. While I am not a connoisseur of books solely devoted to advocating atheism, the few that I can remember reading over the years I enjoyed because they were lucid in that they pointed out the logical absurdities of at least the biblical literalist’s deity. Hedges does not seek to discuss the pros or cons of atheism in its plain definition, so I realized early on that I was dealing with a book that had nothing to do with arguing for either theism or atheism. It is clear that he does not believe in the sort of literal policeman in the heavens touted by fundamentalists. He does not actually indicate any details of his own convictions about divinity, which is a strength in remaining objective as he discusses the nature of just one type of atheist, the equally ferocious fundamentalist.

This summation is in my own words, but what he shows is that the “new atheists” in question have much more in common with a politically-driven, fundamentalist Christian than say, an agnostic or someone who is genuinely spiritual without practicing an established religion. I say I was skeptical at first since even if you ardently proclaim the belief that there is no God, as opposed to the merely not acknowledging one, that “belief” is not sufficient to qualify as anything remotely religious, and again, such an attack is generally only made by argumentative so-called Christians. What I did not know until reading this book is that there are well known atheist authors whose ideas on American foreign policy are at least as violent and hubristic as the ones held by those neoconservatives who cheered America on as it was led into Iraq and Afghanistan to create mass bloodshed. He mentions one author who even suggested a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the whole of the Muslim Middle East since, after all, we can’t let them get weapons of mass destruction and do that to us first. And he goes into more detail about such writers who championed America’s use of torture in the Middle East against those backwards Muslims, since it may protect American lives.

One of his themes throughout the book that he sees as the major flaw shared by all fundamentalists, both atheist and believer, is the failure to see their own inevitably flawed nature as human beings. Such people believe in the possibility of attaining moral perfection, which is nice if you are using such a goal for your own inward, psychological transformation, but which becomes a deadly force when you believe that you already possess the formula, whether it be through means of biblical law or unbridled embrace of technological advancement and materialist worldviews in the case of the new atheists, and seek to wipe out all people who think otherwise. A fundamentalist is one who believes that all other categories of people than their own have nothing worthwhile to offer and must be changed or else eradicated—a bigot. And that’s what he has found under the polished masks of such supposed intellectuals—a worldview that has no room for nuance, mystery, or gray areas. No both/and, just either/or. He even explains the silly extent to which these folk have gone to claim religious figures like MLK and Gandhi, as mere humanists who spoke in religious terms only to gain the support of their respective movements.

Hedges uses a superior knowledge of history over these writers to expose their assumptions, assumptions that are understandable but incorrect. For instance, Richard Dawkins said, “If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.” While Hedges does not disagree about the superiority of critical thinking over blind faith, he then actually digs deeper into the root of the problem where the new atheists only attack the surface. The media equates suicide bombing with the Muslim world, but that is not where it originated. Rather it came from radical ideologies of the Western world like Leninism. “And it was the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group that draws its support from the Hindu families of the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, which invented the suicide vest for their May 1991 suicide assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.” Suicide as an instrument of combat against occupying powers is used where there is a lack of access to weaponry formidable to the physically mightier opponent. “It was used by secular anarchists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries… In Lebanon during the suicide attacks in the 1980s against French, American and Israeli targets, only eight suicide bombings were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were the work of communists and socialists. Three were carried out by Christians.” The actual Koran on the other hand “unequivocally condemns attacks on civilians as a violation of Islam. It states that suicide of any type, is an abomination.”

It is shown in this small, philosophically humble work that the demeanor of the new atheist is not the sober rationality it is cracked up to be. It is the world of sweeping generalizations, slogans and clichés, not patient intellectual inquiry and deep understandings of diversity. New atheists are not only falsely dividing the world into materialistic atheism with full faith in technology vs. braindead attachment to barbaric dogmas, they are putting the West on a pedestal above the supposedly savage world, all the while “the worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated by highly advanced industrialized nations.”

If all humans were morally perfect already, science would indeed be a growing light leading us out of intellectual darkness. Given that moral darkness runs deep in us at the most primal levels, regardless of the presence of a religion, a perfect faith in science is as unfounded as a perfect faith in a Bible or Koran—human beings are too limited to create systems universally applicable and unconditionally wholesome, scientific or religious. Therefore doubt, skepticism, caution, and criticism are just as crucial to the world of science as they are to the world of religion. Science and religion both can be used to help or to harm, to crack open and enlighten or to freeze thinking into complacent, imagined certainties that become bigotry.

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