February 4, 2010

Review: Chris Hedges, "When Atheism Becomes Religion"

Title: When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists
Author: Chris Hedges
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Religion
Published: Trade paperback ed., 2009.
Pages: 212
ISBN: 1416570780
Price: 15.00

Chris Hedges is just as annoyed by religious fundamentalism as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other proponents of the so-called "new atheist" movement. His earlier book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America is not exactly a feel-good tribute to religion. The proponents of new atheism, Hedges writes, have "found a following among people disgusted with the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists. I share this disgust" (3). He shares little else with new atheists, though, a group whose "agenda" he finds "disturbing" and whose writings he finds frequently "tedious" at best, and more often "idiotic and racist" (2, 3). 

This disgust pervades Hedges's new book, When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalism.1 The book is a downer. No pie-in-the-sky hope for humanity, no smug sense of spiritual superiority in rejecting the often-illogical rhetoric of the heathens here. Rather, Hedges dispatches the new atheists by describing the thread he believes connects them to the very ideologues they claim to despise: "These atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason" instead of Jesus Christ (1, 2). When Atheism Becomes Religion is "a call to reject simplistic utopian visions. It is a call to accept the ineluctable limitations of being human" (7). Hedges’s own utopia would be a world where people don’t clamor for "the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress" (2). He wants a utopia where people don't hope for utopia.

This all may seem a bit overblown; Hedges himself saw Sam Harris's book as a "facile attack" of "childish simplicity," not anything to be particularly alarmed at (2). After Hedges participated in a public debate against Harris in 2007 he changed his tune.2 He finds that Harris and other new atheists "divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge, and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs” (6). Such a view is a false dichotomy because "there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever" (1). People have committed atrocities in the name of God while others have accomplished great acts of charity without belief in a divine creator. But this is the sort of nuance missing from the arguments of the new atheists. (Hitchens's book, for example, is subtitled "How Religion Poisons Everything.") That which lacks nuance can quickly become a dangerous crusade against a marginalized other.

Consider the beatitudes Christopher Hitchens disseminated while debating Hedges: "And I say to the Christians while I'm at it, 'Go love your own enemies; by the way, don't be loving mine.'...I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don't make any apology for it" (23). Hedges eruditely sums up Hitchens's view: “Those who are different do not need to be investigated, understood or tolerated, for they are intellectually and morally inferior” (22). Through seven chapters Hedges responds to some of the charges of the new atheists, but more often casts his eyes on dangerous problems new atheists overlook, calling for more balance. 

In the first chapter, "The God Debate," Hedges points out that “the battle underway in America is not a battle between religion and science; it is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists” (10). As for the latter, they confuse technological and scientific progress with moral progress. “The Enlightenment may have encouraged an admirable humanism, but it also led to undreamt-of genocide and totalitarian repression” (21).  Hedges again notes that it isn't belief or disbelief in God that makes the important difference; it is how such belief is utilized in the lives of believers. “Dawkins sees no moral worth in religious faith, just as Christian fundamentalists see no moral worth in those who do not accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior” (88). Both, Hedges says, are mistaken.

According to Hedges, new atheists pick on a simplistic strawman God in whom few people actually believe to begin with: “The new atheists, who attack a repugnant version of religion, use it to condemn all religion. They use it to deny the reality and importance of the religious impulse. They are curiously unable to comprehend those who found through their religious convictions the strength to stand up against injustice” (33). They either misuse or horribly misunderstand history in general, and attract skeptical followers eager to join them as they "flee from complexity" (34). The chapter closes with one of Hedges's predominant and depressing themes, which make the whole book a difficult read: “Human history is not a long chronicle of human advancement. It includes our cruelty, barbarism, reverses, blunders, and self-inflicted disasters. History is not progressive” (42). To be sure, Hedges is not arguing for a naive pacifism when he warns of the dangers of militarism: “The danger is not pacifism or militarism. It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility and the failure to accept our own limitations and moral corruptions” (121).

Throughout the rest of the book Hedges describes some of this human cruelty and barbarity, sometimes in heart-wrenching detail, arguing that overzealous religionists and secularists alike have slaughtered in the name of their respective gods. He discusses the different shades of science and some of the difficult questions, moral, ethical, and spiritual, that it is not able to answer. He warns that Nietzsche's vision of the race of "Last Men" is oddly familiar to those lusting for comfort and personal satisfaction today. The Last Man disdains all that went before him, wallows in ignorance, feigns satisfaction with all he does, and perhaps most tellingly for the new atheists, confuses cynicism with knowledge. Hedges warns people inclined to skepticism who may be drawn in by the new atheist attack: “Those who promote the new atheists’ faith in reason and science offer an escape from moral responsibility and civic engagement” (86). Don't be fooled.

In chapter six, "Humiliation and Revenge," Hedges highlights a theme he has written extensively on elsewhere: war. Perhaps the strongest section of Hedges's book, and the most important for Americans to consider, deals with the new atheist approach to Islam. They embrace what has been called the "clash of civilizations" hypothesis. The West and Islam simply cannot coexist; they are on a collision course as evidenced by 9/11 and other religiously-motivated extremist violence. Hedges finds this theory simplistic, unfair, and potentially dangerous. Having spent more than a decade as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR, he is under no delusion regarding the danger of fundamentalist religious extremism. He has stood over the exploded pieces of human bodies, he has seen the collateral damage of a tragic struggle that has claimed countless lives. Even here he cannot find common ground with new atheists, however: “Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and [Daniel] Dennett know nothing about the Middle East. They do not speak Arabic. They have never studied Islam. Their ignorance does not prevent them, however, from denouncing Islam and the danger posed by the Muslim world” (140). In the clash of civilizations, only one belief system is good—their own.

Richard Dawkins goes as far as claiming that teaching children the value of faith merely grooms them for suicide bomb missions. Overlooking teachings in the Qur'an regarding tolerance for other beliefs and the condemning of attack on civilians (and suicide, incidentally), Dawkins forgets that the method of suicide bombing began with secular and Western ideologies. Despite Dawkins's assertions to the contrary, “the vast majority of the billion Muslims on this planet—only 20 percent of whom are Arab—detest the violence done in the name of their religion” (142). Terrorism isn't simply religious; it's human. Hedges says this argument isn't intended to excuse or downplay such violence but to help understand it, which he believes is an important step to help decrease it.

Hedges astutely decries one of the foremost rhetorical tactics of Dawkins, Hitchens and the others: “To hold up the highest ideals of our own culture and to deny that these great ideals exist in other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, is made possible only by a staggering historical and cultural illiteracy” (144). This is a theme he revisits in the conclusion: “They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good….They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is best" (184). Don't believe him? He provides fewer examples than I would have liked, but ten minutes looking through the footnotes of a Hitchens book will be sufficient to make the case decisive.

In his final chapter, Hedges explores "The Illusive Self," and what it means to him to be human. He wonders about the seat of identity and the role of memory, sense perception, and myth in giving meaning to life.  Citing religious scripture, poetry, art and music he questions what meaning we garner from the stories we tell about ourselves. This discussion is a poignant digression that made me wish he had spent more time on it. He can't help but return to the role of social critic, expressing again a pessimism towards current American culture which he sees as fragmented, materialistic, and increasingly uninterested in silly things like spirit: “The danger we face does not come from religion. It comes from a growing intellectual bankruptcy that is one of the symptoms of a dying culture” (174). New technologies have the potential to draw people together as never before, but Hedges sees a privatization of space combined with escapism in the lonely virtual worlds of TV and the Web. He sees America becoming an image-based culture, destroying ambiguity, nuance, doubt, and irrational urges. People may be inclined to eschew self-criticism for amusement. The book crescendos as Hedges claims that people in such a condition are ripe for the new atheist's plucking:
The new atheists are products of the morally stunted world of entertainment. Despite their insistence that they have cornered the market on rationality, they appeal to neither our reason nor our intellect....The simple slogans these atheists repeat about religion do not communicate ideas. They amuse us. They bolster our self-satisfaction, anti-intellectualism and provincialism....They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe, (178-179, 184).
He closes by too-briefly outlining an alternative to such a skewed fundamentalist worldview. To Hedges, the better religious life (as opposed to the fundamentalist secular/sectarian versions) is composed of self-reflection and personal acceptance of limitation and ambiguity. Rather than listening to the new atheists and others who argue from ignorant absolutism, Hedges hopes people will listen instead to voices that "speak to our common humanity [and] appeal to our humility. They talk not of power but of the transcendent. They talk of reverence. And in their words we see the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion” (185).

This is too vague a prescription for the dire diagnosis that precedes it. Such terseness at the tail-end of such a gloomy book feels out of place, and it isn't likely to appeal to new atheists (though perhaps they aren't the target audience). Throughout the book Hedges's tone toward secular fundamentalists is sharp rather than measured, which doubtless leaves him open to the charge that he is only one more angry voice in the current fray. Moreover, some of his points are likely to turn off sectarian religious believers as well, ("Those who teach that religion is evil and that science and reason will save us are as deluded as those who believe in angels and demons," he explains, 28). Hedges wrote the book in the style of an essay as opposed to an academic treatment, though he includes a few footnotes and a decent bibliography at the end. It better serves, then, as a launching pad to further thought and investigation rather than a point-for-point refutation of new atheist books or their specific arguments. The book could have benefited from less sermonizing and more factual analysis. Finally, I hoped for a little more sociological analysis of "religion," and how calling certain atheists "religious" is more than a rhetorical strategy to dismiss them by applying a negative label. Undoubtedly, many atheists would object to being thought of as "religious" although many exhibit religious characteristics in spades, and this observation is not intended to be insulting. That the label of "religious" is considered a slight by such individuals is quite telling.

Despite these drawbacks, Hedges's engaging treatment of atheistic fundamentalism is worth reading if, at the very least, it helps readers reexamine hidden prejudices, or if it helps restore a healthy dose of viewing humanity as fallen and limited. Still, I recommend having a cheerier book close by, just in case. This book will make you think. This book should make you sad.



FOOTNOTES
[1]
The book was first published in hardback in 2008, titled I Don't Believe in Atheists

[2]
The debate between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris took place on May 22, 2007 at UCLA’s Royce Hall with Robert Scheer as moderator. Audio and video of the debate is available at truthdig.com. See an interview with Hedges regarding the debate at Vodpod.

37 comments:

Loyd said...

A few years ago I read Hedge's "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." After his years of covering war, I can see where is lack of hope in humanity lies.

BHodges said...

Yeah, super super grim.

Kent (MC) said...

I really enjoyed this review Blair. Thank you for your contributions in my life!

cinepro said...

Interesting review. Sounds like an interesting take on the new breed of atheists.

Samuel Skinner said...

Disagree with the article.

First, a couple things. I can only speak for the US- in Europe things are almost certainly different and I hear that backlash against Islam is also being blended with a degree of rascism that is disturbing. Also I think Harris is a little nuts.

"“The Enlightenment may have encouraged an admirable humanism, but it also led to undreamt-of genocide and totalitarian repression”"

The magnitude of the atrocities are staggering, but the percentage isn't. As for totalitarianism, that was impossible before modern communications. Of course you just had slavery and serfdom which were worse.

"Hedges again notes that it isn't belief or disbelief in God that makes the important difference; it is how such belief is utilized in the lives of believers."

Which is the problem- It is amoral.

"“Dawkins sees no moral worth in religious faith, just as Christian fundamentalists see no moral worth in those who do not accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior” (88). Both, Hedges says, are mistaken."

Because religious faith is based on belief and beliefs have no moral value- only interactions with others do. To argue otherwise is to believe in thought crimes.

" They use it to deny the reality and importance of the religious impulse. "

I don't deny it- after all, that is the reason religious fundamentalists are dangerous, like all fanatics.

"They are curiously unable to comprehend those who found through their religious convictions the strength to stand up against injustice”"

It is much better to trust in others that you can meet and see how you affect and improve their lives- that way you help guard against making the wrong choice and embracing injustice.

"“Human history is not a long chronicle of human advancement. It includes our cruelty, barbarism, reverses, blunders, and self-inflicted disasters. History is not progressive”"

This is the first time humanity has ever had this many members. This IS progress.

"It is the poisonous belief in human perfectibility and the failure to accept our own limitations and moral corruptions”"

People in poor countries have a higher rate of corruption than wealthy ones. People can be made better by improving them and their environment.

"arguing that overzealous religionists and secularists alike have slaughtered in the name of their respective gods."

Which is why we fight against all ideologies that result in such a slaughter.

"some of the difficult questions, moral, ethical, and spiritual, that it is not able to answer."

So use philosophy, logic and reason.

Samuel Skinner said...

"The Last Man disdains all that went before him, wallows in ignorance, feigns satisfaction with all he does, and perhaps most tellingly for the new atheists, confuses cynicism with knowledge."

Nietzche was just copying off the Greek cynic movement. There isn't anything new about it. Also "people who think science and reason will lead to the improvement of the human race" are cynical?

"“Those who promote the new atheists’ faith in reason and science offer an escape from moral responsibility and civic engagement”"

The same new atheists spend so much of their time attempting to change the minds of other people and claiming that their actions are right and their opponents are wrong.

"In the clash of civilizations, only one belief system is good—their own."

The alternative is moral relativism.

"To hold up the highest ideals of our own culture and to deny that these great ideals exist in other cultures, especially Eastern cultures, is made possible only by a staggering historical and cultural illiteracy."

I'm not aware of how this is related to religion versus atheism.

"Our way of life is best"

Actually that would be the Swedes. Given we can actually measure these things by life expectancy and immigration rates it turns out the Western way of life really is the best. Of course that doesn't mean the best possible- any form of industrialized society tends to beat out the competition. What is the best for humanity is a debatable question although it is certainly not any current society in existance.

"He can't help but return to the role of social critic, expressing again a pessimism towards current American culture which he sees as fragmented, materialistic, and increasingly uninterested in silly things like spirit:"

The United States has always been like that.

"The danger we face does not come from religion."

There are many dangers, not just one.

"It comes from a growing intellectual bankruptcy that is one of the symptoms of a dying culture"

What is a dying culture? How can our culture possibly die? Has any culture died except due to the death of its inhabitants?

"He sees America becoming an image-based culture, destroying ambiguity, nuance, doubt, and irrational urges. People may be inclined to eschew self-criticism for amusement."

Just like the 19th century when mass literacy arrived. None of this is new.

"To Hedges, the better religious life (as opposed to the fundamentalist secular/sectarian versions) is composed of self-reflection and personal acceptance of limitation and ambiguity."

If atheists can do it I find it hard to see how it can be considered a religious life.

"Rather than listening to the new atheists and others who argue from ignorant absolutism, Hedges hopes people will listen instead to voices that "speak to our common humanity [and] appeal to our humility. They talk not of power but of the transcendent. They talk of reverence. And in their words we see the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion”"

After arguing that history is not progressive and that secular fanatics are wrong about the perfectability of human nature Hedges solution is... having perfect people.

"which doubtless leaves him open to the charge that he is only one more angry voice in the current fray."

I'm going to have to object to the author's criticism hear. Anger is a reason reaction to injustice and as long as it does not cloud an individuals judgement there is nothing wrong with it.

Really, my main objection is that I am concerned only about the truth value of religion. Does he ever cover that in the book?

Jorgon Gorgon said...

"Dawkins sees no moral worth in religious faith, just as Christian fundamentalists see no moral worth in those who do not accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior"

Apples and condoms. Seeing no moral (or logical) worth in an idea is different from denying worth to individuals holding a particular idea. Equivocating between people and beliefs that they hold is one of the behaviours that had gotten us into our current mess, and is peculiar to totalitarian idologies, supernaturalist or secular. Atheism in itself isn't one of them, at least not in Dawkins' or Dennett's conception. Hitchens is arguable, of course, but he is also funny.

BHodges said...

Samuel (nice Biblical name!), thanks for stopping in. For clarification: this isn't an article, it is a book review. From some of your comments it seems you might agree with more with Hedges than with the "new atheists" he is responding to. In the end, you asked:

Really, my main objection is that I am concerned only about the truth value of religion. Does he ever cover that in the book?

Hedges does not argue regarding the truth value of religion. Instead, his book addresses how "religious truths" can be abused by sectarian and secular folks alike. The book is geared to oppose utopianism. As I noted in the review, Hedges "closes by too-briefly outlining an alternative to such a skewed fundamentalist worldview." Hedges urges "self-reflection and personal acceptance of limitation and ambiguity....This is too vague a prescription for the dire diagnosis that precedes it. Such terseness at the tail-end of such a gloomy book feels out of place."

What books would you recommend on the subject of the "truth value of religion"?

BHodges said...

Jorgon Gorgon: Seeing no moral (or logical) worth in an idea is different from denying worth to individuals holding a particular idea.

To an extent, I agree. Of course, if one holds that beliefs or "ideas" form a part of an individual, your comment would require more nuance. Also, at least in Harris and Hitchens's case, they quite literally have conflated beliefs with people with dangerous suggestions of preemptive strikes, etc. This seems to me as though they are confusing "apples" and "condoms," to use your colorful and strange metaphor.

Amanda said...

The problem with arguing against "new atheists" (I count myself among them), is that there is no centralized dogma we "believe" in. For example, the argument that new atheists are bigots because Hitchens is un-apologetically pro-war is a broad generalization. I am anti-war and atheist. Hitchens, Dawkins, etc., have interesting philosophies - some I agree with, some I don't, regardless that we have disbelief in common.

BHodges said...

Amanda, one of the main problems with the writers you mentioned is their unwillingness or inability to grant the sort of nuance you want to see from Hedges (which, by the way, he grants which you'll see if you read the book).

BHodges said...

To be more pointed, Hedges is not arguing against a falsely patched together movement of unified new atheists, but pointing to a general worldview he sees as simplistic and dangerous (in addition to arrogant and historically illiterate).

Samuel Skinner said...

"From some of your comments it seems you might agree with more with Hedges than with the "new atheists" he is responding to. "

Not exactly- I find it ironic he accusses the new atheists of being cynics while at the same accusing them of utopianism for example. The two are directly opposed!

"The book is geared to oppose utopianism."

Utopianism is perfectly fine as long as it is not based solely on improving people. Attempts to do that have generally gone poorly.

"What books would you recommend on the subject of the "truth value of religion"?"

Given the sheer number of religions, philosophy and basic logic skills are more useful than any book that attempts to go through them all.

"Of course, if one holds that beliefs or "ideas" form a part of an individual, your comment would require more nuance. "

Yes, but people shouldn't be doing that. If a person holds a specific political ideal it should be because they believe that say.. technocratic socialism is the best way of achieving their ends, not that it is something that they should inherently hold onto. The same should hold for all complex beliefs.

"Also, at least in Harris and Hitchens's case, they quite literally have conflated beliefs with people with dangerous suggestions of preemptive strikes, etc."

That is Harris. Hitchens just likes mocking people. Harris keeps on forgeting that "ends justify the means" needs to include the effects the means will have on the end- otherwise you end up ignoring the fact that the people you are dealing with will react to your actions.

"but pointing to a general worldview he sees as simplistic and dangerous"

All popular movements tend to have views that are simplistic and dangerous. The question is how much. In this case, as long as they don't go past mockery and strident secularism we should be perfectly fine.

I think Hedges reaction is only really appropriate towards Europe because they do have a convinient opponent easy to demonize. The US doesn't have that problem as our atheists don't hate Catholics more than Protestants.

"(in addition to arrogant and historically illiterate)."

Yeah, the Cather crusade is a much better example than the witch hunts in the middle ages but it falls victim to the "Who remembers the Armenians?" problem.

BHodges said...

I think it is possible to be cynical about some things while not being cynical about other things.

You said "philosophy and basic logic skills are more useful than any book that attempts to go through them all." This seems to assume (wrongly and arrogantly) that religion excludes philosophy and basic logic. Either that, or I don't see your point. I would think you could recommend one book for starters.

"Hitchens just likes mocking people."

Yes, mocking and arguing in behalf of preemptive military strikes, etc.

"Yeah, the Cather crusade is a much better example than the witch hunts in the middle ages..."

This seems to confuse violence and religion, seeing one as a necessary aspect of the other. It overlooks the fact that violence has been fueled by monotheism, polytheism, and atheism. Revisit some of those "basic logic" books you recommended above. (Also, you're talking to a Mormon who believes there was an apostasy of Christ's religion leading to problems such as said crusade.) ;)

Kokobim said...

Really good stuff Blair. I have studied a lot on Atheism and the Skeptical movement, and I follow the podcast Skeptics Guide to the Universe a lot, and other Skeptical podcasts that those of that movement put out. I consider myself a skeptic in many ways, and value the things that the skeptics do to expose and debunk nonsense. But I deplore the atheism that they espouse, and how they pretend that science is atheistic, when it is inherently non-theistic, because God is not an empirically falsifiable proposition. Dawkins has a lot of good stuff in his book the God Delusion which my atheist friend gave to me, especially when dealing with Intelligent Design as a political movement, and has thoroughly debunked Irreducible Complexity. But Dawkins is an arrogant and sour person that may have torn down the nonsense of creedal Christianity, who believe in a big three in one and one in three blob, but has not dealt with the LDS God philosophically in the least bit. It is only the God of Mormonism that is a rational God, that can stand up to the demands of rationalism. It is only Mormonism that is the truly science friendly religion.

Samuel Skinner said...

"This seems to assume (wrongly and arrogantly) that religion excludes philosophy and basic logic."

Philosophy is essentially a way to deal with the questions religion origionally attempted to answer. Religion doesn't necesarily exclude logic as it is a tool and not a field of study.

"Yes, mocking and arguing in behalf of preemptive military strikes, etc. "

Ah, I forgot about his neo-con political leanings. He keeps them seperate from his atheism, although I could just be forgeting it.

"It overlooks the fact that violence has been fueled by monotheism, polytheism, and atheism."

Yes, but the question is how much. Not all religions cause the same amount of violence. I'm willing to accept that the Jains have mostly clean hands.

Many polytheisms tended to be more accepting of other faiths- the Romans, despite their prechant for mass murder, slavery and combining faith and government didn't care what gods you worshiped as long as you weren't a threat to the state.

The only examples of violence in the name of atheism would be Albania where the ruler looked at the correlated between atheism and development and fliped causation. Most of the rest of the time violence is done in the name of anti-theism or nationalizing church property.

"and how they pretend that science is atheistic, when it is inherently non-theistic,"

Atheistic and non-theistic are synonyms.

"because God is not an empirically falsifiable proposition. "

Are we talking about the same God? The one that parted the Red Sea for Moses? The one claimed to create the world? I think interacting with the universe would make God emperically testable unless you are a deist.

BHodges said...

If we're going to measure the amount of blood on hands I think the recent totalitarian atheistic movements are taking the prize.

You mention the Romans as being open as long as things don't disrupt the state. Painting them as ecumenical models is inaccurate. I'll be blogging about that soon too in another review. I think you're quite off in minimizing violence fueled by atheism, I'm frankly surprised at the recent history you're overlooking.

Samuel Skinner said...

The majority of the deaths from communism are from the Great Leap Foward. Given that the plan was developed as a way to respond to the threat of a nuclear attack and radidly industralize the PRC I don't think you can tie it to atheism at all.

"You mention the Romans as being open as long as things don't disrupt the state. Painting them as ecumenical models is inaccurate."

Compared to the Christian Church which had violent disputes over iconography and wheter the trinity was real or not, the Romans were models of tolerance.

"I think you're quite off in minimizing violence fueled by atheism, I'm frankly surprised at the recent history you're overlooking."

Communism was fueled by poverty, not atheism.

BHodges said...

If only you'd attempt a similar contextualization of religious war. As noted earlier, killing isn't a religious or non-religious phenomenon, but a human phenomenon. Again, more to come in a review of another book.

BHodges said...

As for the Romans being models of tolerance, I can only suggest further historical investigation on your part.

Samuel Skinner said...

"If only you'd attempt a similar contextualization of religious war. "

I do. I don't blame the repeated famines in India under British rule on Christianity despite the fact that the UK was technically headed by a monarchy who was also the head of the church- only actions undertaken that are for explicatly religious reasons.

For example, the Romans persecuted the Druids, some of the more distruptive private cults, the Jews and the Christians. Only the Christians would count as religiously based persecution due to their refusal to participate in the state religion.

BHodges said...

So what are we supposed to do, trade examples back and forth of human depravity in the name of ideologies neither of us seek to uphold? Gulag, anyone?

Samuel Skinner said...

Can you give me examples of crimes commited in the name of atheism? I'm not trading atrocity for atrocity- I'm pointing out that you can't commit atrocities for a cause that doesn't exist. Antitheism is a cause and you can hurt people in the name of it, but atheism isn't.

"in the name of ideologies neither of us seek to uphold? "

What the religious ones have in common you do share though. Aside from utilitarianism, I don't have much in common with communists.

BHodges said...

Let me be more clear: Despite what people imagine today as living in an enlightened and superior society, we're still riding the wave of unprecedented[?] war in the name of states, not gods. Death camps, gulags, forced famines, and brutal modern warfare, these things in the past hundred years that can't be blamed on some vague idea of "religion," unless, of course, you identify religion in Tillich's way, worship of ultimate concerns. I'll have more to say on it in the near future, but am lacking the time right now.

Samuel Skinner said...

"we're still riding the wave of unprecedented[?] war in the name of states, not gods. "

Actually this is the most peaceful time in human history. Since the end of WW2 there hasn't been a major full scale war on the planet, just a bunch of proxy conflicts. Heck, the last major war in Latin America was 75 years ago.

Sure we have things like a genocide every other decade, but mass murder has happened throughout history- the difference is that we care about it now.

I don't see where all this pessimism comes from. We have had more war in the name of the state since the 1500s, but that is because states in Europe were weak during the dark ages.

"Death camps, gulags, forced famines, and brutal modern warfare, these things in the past hundred years that can't be blamed on some vague idea of "religion""

This is a complete red herring. Just because something isn't the worst problem doesn't mean it isn't worth solving. Religion is tied to other bad things and unlike most other problems it exists entirely due to beliefs in peoples minds. And before you ask, no I'm not advocating thought control- just secularism and the elimination of religious exemptions. I'd go for more, but I think improving the educational would be more effective than trying to convince people.

"Tillich's way, worship of ultimate concerns."

That is beyond silly. People don't worship ultimate concerns. People worship dieties.

BHodges said...

"Beyond silly" translates to me as "I don't know what you're talking about." Which is understandable, I haven't taken time yet to explain here.

Speaking of "beyond silly," your comment that "Religion is tied to other bad things and unlike most other problems it exists entirely due to beliefs in peoples minds" is nearly nonsensical and begs more questions than it attempts to answer.

Sure we have things like a genocide every other decade, but mass murder has happened throughout history- the difference is that we care about it now.

Yes, I wonder how that new ethic came to the fore. More on that to come.

"but that is because states in Europe were weak during the dark ages."

Ah yes, the myth of the dark ages. Times were bleak, it's true, but there's more to that story as well.

BHodges said...

Samuel:

I think I see one of the main disconnects between us. This is my last comment on it for the present-- as I've repeatedly hinted at, I am working on another review that touches on some of these issues and lack the time to fully flesh it out for you in the comments here.

You said: "Given that the plan was developed as a way to respond to the threat of a nuclear attack and radidly industralize the PRC I don't think you can tie it to atheism at all.

Let me correct any impression I've given that "atheism" is a big boogey man, or that "atheism" is responsible for the horrifying problems the world has encountered since the "Enlightenment," or that I (or Hedges) is "tying atheism" to the problem. There's no tying involved, it isn't a simple tu quoque argument on behalf of "religion," an underdefined and often ill-used term. It seems evident to me that many of these more recent, terrible things I mentioned above have been done without a cross and without a hijab. But there have been prophets and holy books among these newer movements, though they claim not to believe in God (or actively oppose belief in a traditionally understood Judeo/Christian/Islamic God).

There is something deeper than a silly belief in God behind human violence. As noted in my review, "People have committed atrocities in the name of God while others have accomplished great acts of charity without belief in a divine creator. But this is the sort of nuance missing from the arguments of the new atheists." Trying to make this into a battle between silly, scary, superstitious God-believers and enlightened, rational "secularists" is just the sort of "flee from complexity" Hedges is opposed to, and our exchange here in these comments is getting stuck in the complexity-free zone. I appreciate your feedback but it feels like I didn't sufficiently get that point across in the review. In future reviews I'll try to make it more apparent.

BHodges said...

Oh, and it seems the impression was given specifically from my comment about violence "fueled by atheism," which you dismissed, insisting that there were other factors at play in "Communism," (though I think even then it requires more nuance, it seems to me the real problem was with totalitarianism which is not a necessary corollary to communism). There's that word "nuance" again. It's one I see lacking when you type about religion specifically. FWIW. Thanks for the discussion, take care.

Samuel Skinner said...

""Beyond silly" translates to me as "I don't know what you're talking about." Which is understandable, I haven't taken time yet to explain here."

Worship refers to holding something in high regard and paying it respect. Ultimate concern presumably refers to things like truth, beauty and ideals that are in their purest form. People value those things, but they do not worship them.

"is nearly nonsensical and begs more questions than it attempts to answer."

Homophobia, the US intelligent design movement, opposition to the equal rights amendment... really and this is just modern America.

"Yes, I wonder how that new ethic came to the fore. More on that to come."

Given that it occured during the late 1800s I'm going to credit the industrial revolutions giving birth to a large middle class.

"Ah yes, the myth of the dark ages. Times were bleak, it's true, but there's more to that story as well."

The Roman Empire had something like a 20% urbanization rate and housed a million people in the capital. After the fall of the empire things got substantially worse around the Mediterranean.

"(though I think even then it requires more nuance, it seems to me the real problem was with totalitarianism which is not a necessary corollary to communism). "

Totalitarianism is necesary for something like Leninism, which is the only form of communism that can actually take place on a large scale.

Also, totalitarianism isn't the true problem either- Fascist Italy was totalitarian and didn't rack up nearly as high a body count as Spain, Germany or the USSR.

"There's that word "nuance" again."

You are seeing nuance where there isn't the need for it. Just because not all believers are bad does not mean faith itself is good. People and history require nuance- ideas do not.

BHodges said...

Just because not all believers are bad does not mean faith itself is good.

And just because not all believers are good does not mean faith itself is bad? In other words, it sounds like you agree with Hedges.

Andrew S said...

*dust has settled*

I really enjoyed the review, think I would like the book, BUT I also agreed a lot with what Samuel was saying. I'd subscribe to his newsletter, if he had one.

To address the final comment (and maybe put words in Samuel's mouth), I think it is true that just because not all believers are good does not mean faith itself is bad. FAITH ITSELF is not judged by the BELIEVERS ("people and history require nuance"). However, it does not necessarily mean that one must take Hedges's conclusion that faith itself has some good -- since "ideas do not" require nuance according to Samuel's last comment, then by looking at the idea of faith, we could theoretically determine if it's good, bad, or a little bit of both.

I like the line from Hedges though

Hedges’s own utopia would be a world where people don’t clamor for "the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress" (2). He wants a utopia where people don't hope for utopia.

BHodges said...

by looking at the idea of faith, we could theoretically determine if it's good, bad, or a little bit of both.

I don't think this is what Samuel has been arguing. This is what I've been arguing, though.

What's interesting about Hedges is he seems to yearn for a utopialess utopia.

JC said...

"People and history require nuance- ideas do not."

Wow, really? At least from my perspective, most of what you and the blog author have been trying to do in these long series of exchanges is to work out the nuances in your individual ideas. I could be totally off about this point, but that's what I've been reading here.

Few ideas in life are as concrete as we sometimes try to pretend that they are. Even statements that would be considered as "universal" points of shared morality by many atheists and theists alike have a strong basis in our individual cultural background. Take, for example, the Western view of death. Most Westerners would more or less acquiesce to the idea that "Death is an ultimately bad thing and it's good to stay alive for as long as possible." However, if you look at other cultures around the world, you would see a much different view of death. For example, in some aspects of Japanese culture, death can be both noble and meaningful -- think Samurai. Also, in many more traditional cultures (especially in Latin American literature), death is not seen as an ending point per se but as a part of a cyclical rebirth. All of these ideas are nuances, to one extent or another, that modify our understanding of death.

So, yes, ideas are nuanced, both in their cultural understanding and their presentation.

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