Tulpesh Patel's Reviews > When Atheism Becomes Religion

When Atheism Becomes Religion by Chris Hedges
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Apr 03, 12

did not like it
bookshelves: ethics-philosophy, politics-sociology, religion
Read in March, 2012

The story of how When Atheism Becomes a Religion got into my hands is almost more interesting than what’s contained within its pages. In 2009, whilst working at the University of California, Los Angeles, a friend tried to post me a copy, having found it in a Borders bargain bin and thinking, quite rightly, that it would be something I would be interested in. Two weeks later it was returned to her with "Unauthorized Circulation: Religious Content (Int'l) RTS" written on the package. She kept the packaging and waited until she returned to the UK to give the book to me in person last year.

My immediate reaction to hearing that the book had been returned was to cook up a conspiracy theory about censorship by the American postal system – but, knowing that the simplest explanation is usually the most likely, I quickly dismissed the idea. Months later I found out that it was actually the family that my friend was staying with in LA, who are devoutly Christian, who stopped the package being sent. It seems that it was enough for a member of my friend’s host family to object to the package for the post office to deem it ‘unauthorised circulation’.

My friend wrote of her surprise that the host family would do such a thing as she knew them to be religious, but “… this didn't even cross my mind, since I don't even think they're anti-religious...”. I’m more bothered with why the post office complied and wrote such an explicit message on the front. The ironic twist to this whole saga is that *When Atheism Becomes a Religion* is written by a Christian about the putative faults of atheism.

I knew from the off that I was in for an interesting read when a pro-religion/anti-atheism book uses the label ‘religion’ pejoratively in its title. In light of all the drama of getting hold of the book, and having read on the back that Hedges has won literary awards, including the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, I was really looking forward to it.

With *When Atheism Becomes a Religion*, Chris Hedges aims to draw parallels between the dangers of Christian fundamentalists and the rise of the New Atheists. First, let’s just get this out of the way: careful consideration of the definition of faith and its concomitants shows atheism is clearly not a religion. AC Grayling has stated it most clearly: “Faith is the negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of proportioning judgement to evidence, after first weighing the evidence. Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence” (see Søren Kierkegaard’s famous ‘leap of [or rather to] faith’).

Hedges establishes his tone and ‘reasoning’ (I use the word lightly) very early on by distinguishing between Christian fundamentalism and his own moderate, ‘liberal’ Presbyterian Christianity, but conveniently lumps atheism, science (or rather scientism) and rationality into a homogenous fundamentalist ideology. Hedges’ main problem with New Atheists (Hedges specifically targets the Four Horsemen (Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens), but generalises to mean all those who do not believe in god and place importance on science, reason and rationality), is that they [all] “… believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection …” all the while ignoring original sin and “the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle will always be fought.”

The book is steeped in defeatism and allusions to end-times philosophy. It is obvious that Hedges’ career as foreign correspondent and reporter of war have made a serious, and understandable, contribution to his bleak outlook on human society and its future (passages on the Balkan wars, for example, are a difficult read). Hedges argues that “We are all flawed. Human ambitions and pursuits are vanity.” If this were just essays on how vicious and vindictive people can be to each other, I wouldn’t really have much of a problem with it, it’s the second part I struggle with.

There is no question that those who apply science and reason are, on the whole, striving to make the world a better place. In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that Enlightenment values have contributed to an overall decrease in violence over time. But even if Pinker is right, it does not make rationalists de facto Utopians. Humanist morality stems from the understanding that people have the capacity for evil, but that shared values can help minimise suffering. Equally importantly, understanding violence and evil is not the same as thinking that we can eradicate it, or eradicate people that commit violent or evil acts, which is one of Hedges’ more specious, incendiary arguments.

My main problem with this book is Hedges’ conflation of atheism (and the science/reason that underpins it) with political, racial and economic ideologies that have caused and are causing countless deaths and acts of violence. He is at pains to draw parallels between atheist and religious (specifically, Christian) fundamentalism, but seem to forget that few people have been killed by atheists for not believing in god. Throughout the book there are repeated references to the Enlightenment being directly responsible for fascism, the World Wars, the atomic bomb, the millions killed under Communist regimes, genocides, the war in Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan. This is a seriously misguided view. Science is simply a process of discovery; there is no agenda other than to understand. What is done with the knowledge that is gained is up to people, and people are not always rationed, reasonable or benevolent. In all the cases that Hedges cites, it is not unbelief in god that is at the root of the destruction, but struggles for power and domination.

You have to admire the sheer balls of Hedges for labelling Christopher Hitchens illiterate for questioning ‘who created the Creator’. Indeed, what room is there for reasoned discussion when suggestions that people enjoy their sex lives as long as they don’t harm anyone else, or that parents should not indoctrinate their children, but teach them to evaluate evidence, are dismissed as “… hollow, liberal platitudes that casually deny the seductive lusts of violence, evil and abuse – lusts the biblical writers who write the {ten} commandments understood and feared.”

But then, having conceded that Darwin ”obliterated reliance on the Bible as the literal word of God”, Hedges also suffers from the same problem that all pick ‘n’ mix religious apologist must confront: if you disagree with something decreed in your holy text (and therefore with God), where does this moral sense come from? By explicitly eschewing the parts of Christianity that are flawed or ‘morally indefensible’ (claims of creation, the misogyny, the punitive violence, the homophobia, the racism etc. etc., ad infinitum), Hedges seem to think that he will come across as even-handed and sensible, but instead does nothing but remind you that the very things that his liberal Presbyterian interpretation of religion disregards are done so because of basic appeals to human respect and decency, and of course rationality and reason – the very things his book denounces.

Hedges arguments are constantly undermined by the contradictions and non sequiturs that litter this book. To flick through it and pluck a random example: “To believe in this deity [god] required abstract thinking. It made possible the moral life.” So there you have it. Morals come from the ability to think about the fact that god doesn’t exist in the real world. “The atheists believe they know religions’ inadequacies even though they have never investigated religious thought.” The old chestnut of ”if you really thought about it you wouldn’t have a problem with religion; you’re only sceptical because you haven’t thought about it enough”. Indeed the same could be said for Hedges, who seems to have ignored the vast swathes of literature on humanist ethics, rational explanations of altruism, and morality without god.

At several points in the book I thought I had been fooled into reading ingenious satire, a feeling which culminated in reading Hedges’ summation of his arguments against atheism (pg. 178):

“The contemporary atheist, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. 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 proclaim the violence employed in our name as a virtue. They champion ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being.” And later on the same page: “Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points to inquiry. It seeks to unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism.”

If you swap the words ‘atheist’ and ‘religion’, and ‘rational’ for ‘religious’, you have one of the most succinct destructions of religion going. That Hedges writes this in complete earnest in a book written in criticism of atheism is beyond satire or even simple comprehension.
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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve Brilliantly written. Thank you.


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