Atheists Don’t Debate (Except When We Do)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part II

In chapter 3, Hedges gives a two-and-a-half-page-long excerpt of a debate he had with Sam Harris at UCLA in May 2007, moderated by the columnist Robert Scheer, about whether Islam encourages suicide bombing:

HARRIS: OK, well, let me deal with your taking the measure of the Muslim world. Happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe… A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East.

SCHEER: Come on.

HARRIS: That’s not meant to be hyperbolic.

SCHEER: Wrong, wrong, wrong.

HARRIS: Let me tell you -

SCHEER: You can’t possibly believe that about polls, my God -

HARRIS: All we’ve got is conversations; all we’ve got is conversations.

SCHEER: The man has lived there for 15 years, for God’s sake. (p.73)

This quote is noteworthy for the way Scheer, allegedly present to act as the moderator, gives up the pretense of doing that and openly joins Hedges’ side. Hedges doesn’t comment on this, so either he didn’t notice (unlikely) or doesn’t think it casts him in a bad light that he let the moderator argue his side of the debate for him. After this quote, Hedges resumes bashing his opponents:

Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world’s problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world is divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. (p.75)

Harris has “no interest in debate”? After you just spent two and a half pages quoting from a debate he had with you? Did an editor even look at this book?

What really piques Hedges’ ire is that Sam Harris, when trying to explain the causes of Islamic terrorism, didn’t accept Hedges’ own personal reminiscences about people he met as a Mideast correspondent, and decided instead to rely on those worthless nobodies at Pew and their so-called “scientific 38,000-person random sampling of the populations of nine countries”. And then there’s Harris’ outrageous statement about the cause of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s:

[Harris' book was] tedious, at its best, and often ignorant and racist. His assertion, for example, that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous. (p.2)

Ooh, those atheists just make Chris Hedges so mad! They don’t know anything about what causes war. It’s a good thing we have a foreign-policy genius like Hedges to tell us what factors really led to that brutal episode of ethnic cleansing:

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns… sought their moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo… the mythic tale of the defeat, and the alleged treachery of the Muslims in the battle, figured prominently in windy discussions by common soldiers on the front lines in Bosnia during the war. (p.133)

The collective humiliation and the rage it produced obliterated self-reflection and self-criticism. It fed acts of aggression against Muslims. The images on the evening news in Belgrade of Serbian victims, as well as the alleged atrocities by the Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, were used to justify the wanton attacks by Serbs, most of them against unarmed Bosnian Muslims. (p.133)

The worst atrocities in Bosnia were sanctified not by imams, but by Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. (p.149)

But don’t forget, religion had nothing to do with causing that war! To say so would be “ridiculous”, and only “ignorant and racist” people like Sam Harris would think that! Aren’t you glad you have a Very Serious Person like Chris Hedges to explain this all to you?

Ironically, Hedges’ defense is the same as that of the Christian fundamentalists he decries: When discussing a modern holy war, if there are any identifiable political or nationalistic motives for either warring side, he concludes that religion is excused of all blame – even when religious figures sanctify acts of bloodshed, even when religious rhetoric is used by the warring sides to condemn each other or inflame their own people’s passions, even when religion is the very basis that the warring sides use to tell each other apart in the first place. As atheists, we should have no trouble agreeing that factors other than religion play into violent conflict, even if religion also bears a large share of the responsibility. It’s only people like Hedges who have to deny the obvious truth that religion can be both an initiator and an accelerant of bloodshed.

Other posts in this series:

Answering Questions from #IndyTOT
The Manhattan Option
The Cognitive Dissonance of Pro-LGBT Christians
Atlas Shrugged: The Jolly Roger
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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