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.

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

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.

February 1, 2010

Review: Terryl L. Givens, "When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought"

Title: When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought
Author: Terryl L. Givens
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: History/Philosophy/Theology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 388
ISBN: 9780195313901
Price: 29.95

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar
Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home."

-William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (248).

Wordsworth’s captivating poem has worked its way into countless LDS General Conference addresses, books, seminary lessons and sacrament meeting talks.1 In today’s Christian landscape Latter-day Saints may feel somewhat alone in their belief of preexistence, that humans do not burst into existence at mortal birth.2 However, that loneliness can be quelled with the broad historical perspective of the concept traced in Terryl Givens’s When Souls Had Wings. Early-20th century Mormon educator John Henry Evans was significantly off-base when he said Wordsworth’s Ode “gives the first Christian hint, outside the New Testament, of a possible pre-earth life of the human spirit.”3 Givens discovered enough hints (Christian and otherwise) throughout the history of philosophy, theology, and literature in the West to fill a book. While institutional Christianity “has long consigned the doctrine of a pre-mortal soul to the realm of heresy,” he discovered that the tenacious belief “has persisted across millennia and across cultures” (4). 

In twelve chapters Givens follows the notion of preexistence from its earliest known embodiment in the Ancient Near East to Classical, Jewish, Christian, Renaissance, Romantic and Transcendental traditions, to the scientific speculations of the modern age. The concepts, people, and cultures surveyed make the book feel thicker than its 326 pages appear. Ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle cross paths with Origen, Augustine, Kant, Blake, Tennyson, Joseph Smith, and Richard Dawkins. Concepts including original sin, human depravity, grace, justice, theodicy, creation, existence, memory, language, personality, sorrow, politics, and the scientific method collide with preexistence, which has surprising implications for them all. This strange cast of characters and concepts is artfully (sometimes overwhelmingly) composed by Givens, creating a symphony of potential contemplation about what it means to be human. Even those who believe in a preexistence often disagree on its condition, whether it includes fully conscious and aware free agents, partial, ghostly pieces of identity, raw material from which an identity is crafted, or simple existence as a hypothetical—that is, existing only in the foreknowledge of an omniscient deity.

Treating the history of an idea is a slippery exercise. “The idea [of preexistence] appears to have more than one point of origin,” Givens notes, “and influence and inheritance are in any case notoriously difficult to establish with certainty where the history of ideas is concerned” (4). Givens negotiates these difficulties by focusing on the “cultural work” the idea performs (304). For instance, early Christian father Origen had embraced a concept of the human soul as preexistent. The idea fell into disfavor for the Church, however, when theological concerns shifted from defending God’s justice and human freedom to developing doctrines of God’s grace and human depravity. For many Christians thereafter, preexistence was too great a threat to the sovereignty of God to be seen as anything other than a dangerous heresy (103).

Instead of simply tracing the idea from source to source, Givens aims to “elaborate an entire series of motivations and purposes behind an idea that has flourished well outside and beyond the early Christian contexts” (5). It's been used by poets to account for feelings of resonance or familiarity with ideas, places or people they had never met in life before. It’s been used by philosophers to find an ultimate ground of existence or meaningful human free will. It’s been used by theologians to reconcile what seems like an unjust world with faith in a loving Creator. Givens does not attempt to prove the doctrine of preexistence, but to analyze its “ideological and practical significance” through Western history (7). A brief discussion on Mormonism barely scratches the surface of the origin and meaning of the idea in LDS history. This was an understandable disappointment. Hopefully it will encourage further research in this area of Mormon thought (212-220).

Admittedly, this book is a bit more difficult to read than Givens’s former work.4 Those looking for simple, vindicating proof-texts on preexistence will surely be disappointed; this is an academic book that rigorously wrestles with the complexity of the topic, not the truthfulness of the LDS gospel. Nevertheless, Givens could make a reader stop and think twice about a joke on a LaffyTaffy wrapper. Imagine what he could do with a concept as deep, rich, and personal as the preexistence of the soul. Before the book was published Givens delivered an address on preexistence at a conference for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. He noted: “my own appreciation for (and understanding of) the preexistence has been enriched and broadened by a comparative study of the idea and its myriad appearances in the history of philosophy, theology, and literature. What I have come to appreciate is this cardinal insight: If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true.”5 For a greater appreciation for (and understanding of) the idea of preexistence, this unique book is a must-read.

Update: Givens has begun writing a series of articles on the preexistence based on his book. Check out his brief overview at Meridian Magazine.

The earliest reference I could locate in an LDS publication is Orson F. Whitney, "Spirit Promptings," Saturday Night Thoughts, Deseret Book Company, (1921), p. 299. Portions of the poem have appeared in nineteen LDS General Conference addresses, from Henry D. Taylor's "Some Rain Must Fall" (Conference Report, April 1963, pp. 119-121) to Thomas S. Monson's “I Know That My Redeemer Lives!,” (Ensign, May 2007, 22–25). Monson has referenced the poem in six addresses, more than any other speaker.

Givens prefers the contradictory term “preexistence” throughout the book. He acknowledges its inferiority to “pre-mortal existence,” but notes the former term “has far and away predominated in the history of the concept” (3).

John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, (Deseret Book Company (1946), p. 279.

His other books include: Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 1997), By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2003), People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford University Press, 2007), and The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Terryl L. Givens, "When Souls Had Wings: What the Western Tradition Has to teach Us About Pre-Existence," 2007 FAIR Conference, fairlds.org.