Monday, June 18, 2012

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe In Me (or you)

"I Don't Believe in Atheists" by Chris Hedges is an odd book. For parts of it, where Mr. Hedges argues how the world is a mess because of the Global War on Terror, Global Climate Change, and a whole host of other things I was nodding my head in agreement. However, from that very accurate and depressing summary of the world situation he jumps to the totally unwarranted and unsupported conclusion that somehow its all the fault of science and reason. His argument is that the human race is being destroyed by Utopian rationalists who believe that science can solve all problems.

I acquired his book because it was described as a response to the New Atheists. I was expecting a response to the arguments in The God Delusion or The End of Faith on evidence for the existence of God. I am in violent agreement with those books and I was interested to see how someone whom I respect for his political writing would respond to them. However, Hedges gives up that battle from the start.

He states in the beginning that "The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction... love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil,... and death"

This statement highlights the fundamental difference between Mr. Hedges and myself. Mr. Hedges doesn't care about the truth. He would rather believe something even if its false because he thinks believing that God exists will enable him to contemplate the transcendent whether or not God exists.

I have to admit I'm not 100% sure what Mr. Hedges means by contemplating the transcendent. It sounds as if he means things like falling in love, appreciating beauty, a sense of awe at nature, etc. If that is what he means I do all that stuff without a belief in God. I don't see why you have to believe in God to contemplate the transcendent. Or rather I should say if there is no God then I don't see why some false idea would help contemplate the transcendent, or contemplate anything for that matter. If there was good evidence that God exists then I certainly can understand how contemplating the transcendent might include studying or even worshiping the agent that created the whole thing. I just don't see the flip side. If there is no God then why would you still want to believe in a lie? Whatever the transcendent is I would think that a reverence for truth would be an essential part of it. Unfortunately, Mr Hedges isn't much help here. He never provides an argument to support his thesis that the transcendent can only be contemplated via belief in God. As with in fact virtually everything he says in the book he merely states it as something that is obviously true and needs no support.

Rather than discussions about evidence or proofs for God existence most of the book discusses the history of the world and what a mess it is.
Hedges gives endless examples of how humans can be abysmal to each other. The majority of his examples are related to what the Bush administration labelled the Global War on Terror. This is an example of his incredible ability to ignore basic facts. Equating the Bush administration with atheists and scientists ranks at the level of reasoning one would expect from Sarah Palin or an American Tea Party member.

Mr. Hedges blames all the evil things in the world on anyone who believes that human beings can make progress. In fact he does a lot of blaming and leaps of logic in his book. Just some examples:

* He blames the Enlightenment for the first world war, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia.
* He blames Darwinism for Social Darwinism pretending that one inevitably leads to the other.
* He blames Science in general for Pol Pot (p. 57) and for all the damage done by industry to the environment.
* He claims that its obvious that Christopher Hitchens is still a Trotskyite.
* The biggest leap, its more like a backward somersault, is when Hedges quotes Dawkins saying that Natural Selection is not at all the same as morally justified as proof that Dawkins "builds [his] vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection."

Its not just science and rationalism that Mr. Hedges disdains. He believes that any belief system that holds out the hope for human improvement is evil. So not only does he disdain science and rationalism but all organized religions as well.

He dislikes Islam, Christianity, and all religions that offer "collective salvation" which is pretty much all of them. This is one thing that baffles me about philosophies such as this. By Hedges' own definition the realm of the transcendent is "that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction". Yet he then proceeds to make a rational argument for why most religions are really inadequate for contemplating the transcendent. Granted, its a terrible argument (it seems they are Utopian just like atheist scientists) but still if he really believes his definition of the transcendent then he shouldn't believe it can be reasoned about in the first place.

As I said he never really justifies any of his core arguments. He provides no evidence that a belief in the possibility of human advancement is inherently evil. He simply states that belief in advancement leads to tyranny: "The belief in moral advancement implicitly calls on us to ignore the common good and place our faith in the empowerment of the state. It teaches that everything should be dedicated to private gain... Corporatism is about placing our faith in unchecked corporate advancement, as well as in neutral disciplines of science and technology." (p. 79)

i don't like tyrannical state power or corporatism either. But I don't see how believing that it is possible to improve humanity is synonymous with either of them. It seems to me that the few people that I admire as moral leaders, people like Martin Luther King all believed that it was possible for humans to improve the world.

Ultimately Mr. Hedges book is a good example of how, as Christopher Hitchens would say, "religion spoils everything". Mr. Hedges is a smart man and a good writer. I've admired his political work and his appearances on media such as Democracy Now! for quite some time. Yet when he brings his religious dogma into play he ends up with a world view that is hopeless and looks down on virtually the whole of the human race, both believers and atheists alike. Chris Hedges doesn't believe in me because I'm an atheist, and chances are whether you are a Christian, Jew, Marxist, Muslim, or other, if you believe that there is some hope for the human race he doesn't believe in you either.

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