Earlier this month, I chastised the theologian John Haught for falsely claiming that atheism leads to nihilism. Now the journalist Chris Hedges has launched his own attack on modern atheists, and the bizarre part is that he attacks us for possessing precisely the opposite failing: because, in his eyes, atheism does not lead to nihilism, and he considers this far more dangerous.
Hedges is one of the last people I’d expect to feel this way. He’s written books with titles like American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. So far, so good – but now he’s veered off in a totally unexpected direction by publishing a new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists. If his introductory essay is any guide, the entire thing is one mad, fuming geyser of accusations and insults. I haven’t the slightest idea what could have given him the motivation for this spitting, furious rant.
Despite numerous sweeping condemnations, Hedges’ essay fails to offer any quote, citation, or any other evidence that atheists actually hold the views he accuses us of holding. In his distorted portrayal, today’s atheists have “a naïve belief… in [humanity's] innate goodness and decency”, “fail to grasp the dark reality of human nature [and] our own capacity for evil”, and “support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States”. Worst of all, we believe in “moral and material progress” – the holding of which belief is “an act of faith”, “a form of the occult”, and causes its holders to “inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals a reality”, “inflict[ing] suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth”.
As I said, I don’t know what provoked this torrent of blind fury. (Did Richard Dawkins run over his dog or something?) Still, let’s deal with Hedges’ criticisms one at a time.
First: atheists possess a distorted view of human nature. Here’s how he phrases it:
These atheists share a naïve belief with these fundamentalists in our innate goodness and decency. They, like all religious fundamentalists, fail to grasp the dark reality of human nature, our own capacity for evil, and the morally neutral universe we inhabit…
The New Atheists misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology as egregiously as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Darwinism, which pays homage to the final and complete mastery of our animal natures, never posits that human beings can transcend their natures and create a human paradise. It argues the opposite.
Hedges’ tactic, used throughout this essay, is to invent a severely distorted or outright fictitious viewpoint, assert that all atheists hold it exactly as he describes it, and then attack them savagely for supposedly doing so. This is a good example. I would very much like to know which atheists “fail to grasp” humanity’s capacity for evil; predictably, Hedges gives not a scrap of confirmatory evidence. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with modern atheist arguments, our acknowledgement of humanity’s dark side is all too obvious. All the authors he excoriates spend ample time describing the horrors that humans have committed, often in the name of faith. Who does he fantasize is denying this? The lethal danger that unchecked faith can wreak, and has wrought, is very much the centerpiece of our arguments. (Sam Harris, if I recall, writes that The End of Faith was conceived in the first days after 9/11.) It is the primary reason we believe decisions must be made on the basis of reason and compassion, rather than on dogma or tribal instinct.
Second: atheists support war and imperialism. Yes, he actually says this:
Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity. They see the war in Iraq and the greater conflict in the Middle East as an attack on irrational religion and a fight for the civilizing values of western culture.
…They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism go unquestioned and are considered good.
Who on earth is saying these things? Is Hedges attacking the imaginary atheists that live inside his head? These are some of the most blatant lies I’ve ever heard about the atheist political position (insofar as there is any such thing). Yes, I grant that Christopher Hitchens has voiced his support for the Iraq war; these views are not shared by any other prominent atheist I know, and they are very much in the minority among atheists as a whole. And even Hitchens’ views bear little resemblance to the cartoonishly evil fantasies indulged in by Hedges. If anything, the vast majority of atheists recognize that the Iraq war is an ill-conceived misadventure that has only strengthened the hand of belligerent fanatics around the world, and that the battle against fanaticism and fundamentalism can only be won by reason, not by meeting violence with violence. Hedges’ accusation is a contemptible and pathetic slander with no relation to reality.
Third: atheists are intolerant and want to take over the world and kill everyone else.
They argue… that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world. They see only one truth — their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them, and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed as inferior.
Given Hedges’ own blinding ignorance of what atheists actually believe, he’s in an extremely poor position to say that we dismiss other views without examination. On the contrary, we have extensively examined these views and explained at length why we reject them. As for “eradicating” others who believe differently, this is another delusion on Hedges’ part. Again, as far as there is a battle, we expect it to be fought on the battleground of ideas – with force used only where self-defense necessitates it for protection. We expect that religion will dwindle gradually as our ideas take hold, not that it will be wiped out in some sudden, overwhelming surge. Hedges’ views are like those of a reporter who listens to a government official or charity worker talking about eradicating poverty, and then panics because he’s leaped to the conclusion that this must mean killing off poor people. His determination to distort our views as far as he possibly can only makes him look uninformed and ridiculous.
Finally, Hedges’ central criticism is that we atheists believe in moral progress. This is a dangerous fantasy, he says, because the dream of utopia inevitably leads to the slaughter of those who do not share it. Instead, he argues that the only safe route is to accept that humans are incurably evil, that human nature cannot be changed, and that there neither is nor has there ever been any moral progress of any kind, and the sooner we accept this the better off we’ll be. I am not making this up. Here it is in his own words:
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 of the Enlightenment.
… They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult.
…There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.
Now this is true moral nihilism: the belief that moral progress is impossible, and that all our ingenuity has only invented new forms of evil for us to inflict on each other. I consider it a compliment, coming from a genuine nihilist, to say that he views atheists as dangerously optimistic. But as for the substance of his remarks:
First, moral progress, though it may be slower than we would like, is real and it is undeniable. A glance over human history would offer as examples the abolition of slavery, the granting of equal rights to women and minorities, the emancipation of state from church, the flowering of democracy worldwide, the increasingly greater efforts at avoiding war through diplomacy, and many more. This is not to say that there aren’t many evils remaining, nor that no new ones have arisen. But Hedges’ bleak and embittered views about the futility of moral progress are totally contradicted by the available facts. Missteps are possible, and no one is preaching the inevitability of a glorious future, despite Hedges’ straw-man assertions on that point. But we as a species have overcome great challenges before and have improved the world by our successes. There is every reason to believe that further advancement is at least possible. We are not guaranteed success, but that is only a reason to work harder – not a reason to give up, as Hedges calls on us to do.
In our history, there have been evil tyrants who slaughtered millions in the name of their own twisted visions of utopia. But this does not mean, as Hedges thinks, that anyone calling for any moral progress whatsoever must have the same ends in mind. Believe it or not, it is possible to want things to get better without being a mass murderer! The “new atheists” are calling for the eradication not of people, but of beliefs – the beliefs that hold us apart and cause us to inflict inhumanities on each other. None of them that I know of think this will immediately lead to a perfect world, but it will eliminate at least one common cause of inhumanity, and in that respect would be an improvement.
It’s not ultimately clear what Hedges is demanding, unless it’s that we should all be as bleak and nihilistic as him, and abandon any hope of moral improvement or otherwise changing our situation for the better. Whatever the reason for Hedges’ irrational fury, the fact remains that today’s atheists are offering people reasons to hope and to work for the better, while he is only offering reasons to despair and surrender. This view has proven to be false every time it has come up in the past. If he wishes to cling to it, he’s welcome to fall by the wayside. The rest of us will be working to loosen the grip of dogma on the human mind and, by bringing about a viewpoint of reason in its place, to gradually change our world for the better.