Monday, March 24, 2008

I don't believe in John Gray

Having previously read American Fascists and thought it to be an important book warning about the extremism inherent in the Christian nationalist movement, I was intrigued when it came to my attention that the author Chris Hedges had written an extended essay entitled I Don't Believe in Atheists arguing that so-called "new atheists" share the same proto-totalitarian characteristics.

"New atheists" refers to atheist authors who have recently published books critical of religion; they are commonly identified as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. First, I'd observe - as did Keith Parsons - that there isn't anything particularly "new" about these atheists. And secondly, I'd point out that Dennet's Breaking the Spell is oddly grouped in with the other authors since the book is non-polemical but instead calls for critical examination of religion as a social phenomenon while surveying the types of questions that could be applied to the study of religion.

Hedges's basic argument is this:

[New] 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. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. All too often throughout history, those who believed in this possibility of perfection (variously defined) have called for the silencing of eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular notion of the good into an inflexible standard of universal good. They prove blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil not for evil’s sake but to make a better world.
Much of the rest of the booklet is a reiteration of the above. Indeed, in what isn't but seems like every single page of the book, Hedges asserts that "new atheists" are utopians who believe in the myth of moral progress and are therefore proto-totalitarians. I found this to be a very curious assertion (more on that in a moment.)

Hedges has a very bleak, nearly Hobbesian view of humanity. We are always on the precipice, always capable of devolving back into a state of barbarity. We must always recognize man's capacity for sin, that we are always like our enemy. Only this kind of humility keeps us away from the fatal belief that humanity can be perfected which itself leads to the release of horrific violence in the name of some ultimate Good.

Recognizing that Hedges has covered over a dozen wars first hand as journalist, I can understand why his outlook would be dark. And I think he makes valid points about understanding the nature of humanity and taking steps to see to that we don't divide the world into Good and Evil. Yet I still could not wrap my head around his belief that the Enlightenment view that human reason and science could be used to better human kind leads inevitably to genocide and revolutionary violence.

But then I noticed this book excerpt in The Guardian from philosopher John Gray. At first glance I thought that it was an article from Hedges promoting his booklet - that's how similar the argument is. As it turns out, Hedges is popularizing the premise of Gray that the humanistic belief in the potential for human progress by applying reason to human problems is a slippery slope to totalitarianism. I would argue that there are some serious and obvious flaws with that notion, but I don't have to since A.C. Grayling (and others) already did that.

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.
I would also refer readers back to this article responding to the charge that atheism is reponsible for 20th century totalitarianism.

There really isn't much more needed to be said about the central premise of I Don't Believe in Atheists as it is identical to Gray's article and suffers the same flaws. But there is another problem with the essay. Hedges use the pronoun they when he should actually be using he, as the bulk of his criticism applies to Sam Harris and to a lesser extent Christopher Hitchens.

The criticism that Hedges offers for the militarism of Harris and Hitchens is mostly valid and acute. The casual way that Harris tosses off the suggestion that torture, "collateral damage", and nuclear first strikes against Muslims can be justified by Islamic irrationality is troubling (something I've mentioned before.) Hitchens has adopted in the "War on Terror" a Trotskyist cause that has blinded him to the ruinous consequences of the policies he has supported. The notion that by invading Iraq the Middle East would magically become democratic was utopian hubris. But why in the world are Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins lumped in with them?

If you were to know nothing of them other than what Hedges had written, you'd think that Dawkins and Dennett are rabid Muslim haters who are ready to annihilate Islam through a new crusade or something. At one point after having spent several pages covering the views of Harris and Hitchens on fighting "Islamofascism," Hedges immediately lumps all four together without noting that neither Dawkins nor Dennett share the "War on Terror" views of Hitchens and Harris. All are accused of being bigots and it is the fear of Hedges that in the face of another terrorist attack the "new atheists" will join force with Christian nationalists to call for the extermination of Muslims in a Manichean was of Us vs Them.

Yet on March 22, 2003, Richard Dawkins wrote in The Guardian an article about the invasion of Iraq where he criticized the United States for engaging in precisely that sort of behavior!

Whatever anyone may say about weapons of mass destruction, or about Saddam's savage brutality to his own people, the reason Bush can now get away with his war is that a sufficient number of Americans, including, apparently, Bush himself, see it as revenge for 9/11. This is worse than bizarre. It is pure racism and/or religious prejudice. Nobody has made even a faintly plausible case that Iraq had anything to do with the atrocity. It was Arabs that hit the World Trade Centre, right? So let's go and kick Arab ass. Those 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, right? And Eye-raqis are Muslims, right? That does it. We're gonna go in there and show them some hardware. Shock and awe? You bet.

Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil, St Michael's angels against the forces of Lucifer. We're gonna smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all and let God deal with their souls. Minds doped up on this kind of cod theology have a hard time distinguishing between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Some of Bush's faithful supporters even welcome war as the necessary prelude to the final showdown between Good and Evil: Armageddon followed by the Rapture.
What's more, Dawkins goes on to make almost the exact same point about the nature of evil and the way to address it that Hedges had made in criticism of Dawkins and the others

Like sin and like terror (Bush's favourite target before the Iraq distraction) Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn't help: they will be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top.
This is typical of much of what Hedges says about the atheists he identifies in his essay. For example, E.O. Wilson is mentioned in brief and is accused of justifying the subjugation of women and social inequality in his Pulitzer winning book On Human Nature. I haven't even read that, but being familiar with Wilson's work, I'm fairly confident in wagering that Wilson didn't justify either so much as he explained how they can make sense from an evolutionary perspective. And, again, by name-dropping Wilson, Hedges has lumped him in as one of the "new atheists" who have been accused in the booklet of being blind to the destruction of our environment. Um, hello? Wouldn't it be worth mentioning that Wilson is one of the planet's leading conservationists and has also taken the lead in forming alliances with religious leaders to protect and preserve the environment? Also, might it also have been pertinent to point out that Wilson is not an atheist?

Other cartoonish claims abound. Dawkins and Dennett are advocates of indoctrination and mind-control (this stems from Hedges reading into their usage of the meme metaphor something sinister.) The "new atheists" hold the Panglossian view that this is the best of all possible worlds. Really, who knows an atheist worth his salt who thinks that?

I also found there to be an incoherence between this work and American Fascists. In this essay, Hedges accuses "new atheists" of exaggerating the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and its negative consequences. Yet if we are to be worried (as we should be) about the deleterious effects that Christian fundamentalism is having on American politics, should not we be equally concerned with an Islamic fundamentalism that is more systemic in the Muslim world and has come to power in multiple regimes (with at least one having access to nuclear weapons?)

All this aside, the essay is well-written and Hedges draws upon multiple literary allusions to flesh out his argument, which, despite being flawed is still a valuable reminder about the need to not forget our inherent capacity to do our fellow humans evil.*

*Slightly edited since first posting.

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