Blame it on 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. Or blame it on George W. Bush, Karl Rove and Christian apocalyptic fundamentalism. Or perhaps credit them with unleashing an avalanche of books by the "new atheists," Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray and others. That, in turn, has engendered a counter-revolution of sorts, with the religious of both right and left, and even some undecideds, weighing in. The debate over whether God exists, and whether religion has any truth content, shows no signs of abating.
Reviews of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and the other recent defences of atheism often claim that these new and assertive atheists are just like religious fundamentalists. But saying that atheism is a form of religion is like saying not driving a car is a form of transportation. Atheism is a non-belief, and lacks the main religious impulse to fanaticism: the conviction that stronger and more aggressive belief is always better, more pure, more truly faithful. The same reviews regularly dismiss the atheists' arguments because they ignore the wonderfully subtle and sophisticated views of contemporary theologians. But the views that Dawkins et al. have supposedly ignored are not presented by the reviewers; no doubt their existence, and their sufficiency as a response to atheism, are to be accepted on faith.
No matter: Chris Hedges has joined the chorus of anti-atheists with some new complaints. But Hedges's I Don't Believe in Atheists (reviewed in Books April 5) is a parade of straw men. No "new atheist" has announced a plan to eliminate religion, demanded ideological purity from anyone or pronounced a utopian vision of society sans religion - let alone proposed bloodshed to achieve these ends. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have aggressive views about how we should respond to radical Islamism, but their aims are defensive. Like Hedges, they are alarmed by violent fundamentalism. They are prepared to use force, but neither is proposing to emulate fundamentalist assaults on freedom of religion or the rights of women, let alone the destruction of wonderful ancient statues of the Buddha or the grotesque horror of suicide bombings. More important, though, is the fact that support for military intervention in the Middle East is neither universal among atheists nor restricted to them.
Atheists are often accused of having a dark and hopeless view of life. But Hedges is with them on this point - so much so that he attacks atheists as dangerously deluded in their optimism about moral progress. Happily, we don't need utopian delusions to recognize the advances that practical, secular and, yes, scientific developments have produced, many of them of great moral significance. Safe water, vaccinations, basic nutritional standards, decent sewers and hygiene have ensured, for the first time in history, that the vast majority of children in our fortunate country live to be adults. The development of the rule of law and democratic institutions in many countries over the past 200 years is also remarkable. It is stunning to see this progress so lightly dismissed. If despair is the best Hedges can offer, I'd rather put my faith in the atheists and our meliorist efforts, imperfect as they are.
Hedges gets some faint praise for atheism out of the way quickly. He sympathizes with those who cannot reconcile God's existence with their experience of suffering, and acknowledges the healthy tradition of atheism as an opponent of authoritarian, institutional religion. The rest of the book damns the new atheism as a truly monstrous threat. But the most heartfelt passages are about universal human frailties, the terrible things we do to one another and the moral destruction that bad circumstances can produce. The reader is left puzzled: Why is the book about atheism and not just the human capacity for evil? In a cynical moment, she might even wonder if this could, just possibly, be a marketing strategy.
Despite the obvious differences, Hedges claims that the new atheists are just like fundamentalist fanatics, desperate to impose their violent ideology on everyone. The absurdity of the comparison is manifest; Hedges is shooting at the wrong target. Nevertheless, as one who continues to believe in the emperor's new theological clothes, he is welcome to his delusions.
Bryson Brown is a logician and philosopher of science at the University of Lethbridge.
IN RESPONSE: It's not religion that's the problem, it's our capacity for evil, Chris Hedges says
The danger is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart - the capacity we all have for evil.
All human institutions with a lust for power give their utopian visions divine sanction, whether this comes through the worship of God, destiny, historical inevitability, the master race, a worker's paradise, liberté-égalité-fraternité or the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Religion is often a convenient vehicle for this blood-lust. Religious institutions often sanctify genocide, but this says more about us, about the nature of human institutions and the darkest human yearnings, than it does about religion.
The "new" atheists, in the name of reason, science and progress, endow themselves with the moral right to abuse others in the name of their particular version of goodness. The racist diatribes in their writing against the Muslim world, of which they are culturally, historically and linguistically illiterate, have turned them into secular fundamentalists.
These atheists, like religious fundamentalists, live in the illusion of a binary world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality, of the forces of light battling the forces of darkness. And once you set up this world, you are permitted to view as justified military intervention, occupation and even torture - anything, in short, that will subdue what is defined as irrational and dangerous.
The point of religion, authentic religion, is that it is not, in the end, about us. It is about the other, about the stranger lying beaten and robbed on the side of the road, about the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized, the sick, the destitute; it is about those who are being abused and beaten.
We have forgotten who we were meant to be, who we were created to be, because we have forgotten that we find God not in ourselves, finally, but in our care for our neighbour, in the stranger, including those outside the nation and the faith.
The religious life is not designed to make you happy, or safe or content; it is not designed to make you whole or complete, to free you from anxieties and fear.
It is designed to save you from yourself, to make possible human community, to lead you to understand that the greatest force in life is not power or reason, but love.
Chris Hedges is author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and, most recently, I Don't Believe in Atheists.