Chris Hedges Doesn’t Like Us Very Much

The things I do for you people.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore when I saw a copy of Chris Hedges’ When Atheism Becomes Religion (retitled from the original, I Don’t Believe in Atheists). Since it was only a few dollars, I decided to get it – it might be good for a laugh, I thought, or as posting fodder.

Well, I’ve slogged my way through it, and I do mean slogged. It seems as if this book was written as a rush job, hoping to cash in on the popularity of the New Atheists. For one thing, it’s only 185 pages, and it’s a small book, not much bigger than pocket-sized. But more to the point, Hedges’ argumentation is embarrassingly sloppy. It reads as if he was making it up as he went along and couldn’t be bothered to keep track of what he’d already said: there are places where he’ll casually make a statement that completely undercuts a different statement he made in an earlier chapter, or even earlier in the same chapter. These glaring self-contradictions make me skeptical that this book could have received any serious editing at all. (More on those later.)

But in spite of its brevity, Hedges’ book packs an incredible amount of venom and vilification between its covers. From beginning to end, it’s literally one long frothing-at-the-mouth-furious rant. He accuses atheists of complicity in every evil you could imagine, and a few that he appears to have invented specifically for this book. This level of crazed vilification of atheists is one I’ve never seen before, not even in books by the most fanatical of Christian fundamentalists. It’s clear that the existence of the New Atheists infuriates Hedges at some very deep and visceral level, enough to make it difficult for him to think straight.

You probably think I’m exaggerating. Well, if so, let me quote some representative passages to give you an idea of the cumulative effect this book produces:

[The New Atheists] embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists (p.1)… [They] have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power (p.7)… [They] are as bankrupt as the passions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists who sanctify mass slaughter (p.20)… [They] are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class (p.22)… [They] are little more than carnival barkers (p.32)… [T]hey empower the demons of self-exaltation, greed and lust for power (p.40)… These delusions are part of a worldview… that places itself and its selfish desires and dreams before the protection of life itself (p.57)… [They] embrace a perverted idealism that is sadly familiar in light of all twentieth-century tyrannies (p.58)… [They] have become the high priests of the cult of science (p.64)… These atheists are suburban mutations. They are products of a moral and political landscape corrupted by too much television (p.86)… [They] urge us forward into imperial projects that are as foolish as they are suicidal (p.111)… They can no longer make moral distinctions. They are blind to their own moral corruption (p.154)… They forget what it is to be human (p.157)… They bolster our self-satisfaction, anti-intellectualism and provincialism (p.179)… [They] are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world (p.183)… 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 a virtue. 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 the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. (p.183)

If you’re worried for my mental health after wading through this drivel, don’t be. Hedges’ ludicrous polemic bears so little resemblance to the actual views of any atheist I know, the overall effect was comedic – as in, he can’t really expect us to take this seriously, can he?

As just one example: throughout the book, he accuses us of being dangerously naive idealists who believe that humanity is perfectible and that we’re moving inevitably toward a utopia of reason. One of his chief villains is Christopher Hitchens, who’s accused of being “rhapsodic about the future world made possible by science and human ingenuity” (p.30). Well, here’s a quote from Hitchens:

Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. (source)

Do these sound like the sentiments of a starry-eyed utopian? This example, which took me about five minutes to dig up, underscores the point of how sloppy, cursory, and shallow this book’s arguments are. If I were going to attack the views of a group so devoted to reason as the New Atheists, I’d take care to accurately summarize their worldview and support each point with citations, so as not to be accused of beating up a straw man. Clearly, Hedges has no interest in doing that. But it does make me wonder what the real reasons for his hatred of us are, given that his stated ones are so plainly inadequate. Coming up soon, I intend to write a series of posts which will critically analyze the fallacies in Hedges’ book, and hopefully, come up with an answer to that mystery.

Other posts in this series:

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