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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • Ryan

    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.

    I also understand that “states rights” were the real issue in the Civil War. Nothing at all to do with slavery, nosirree.

  • David Ellis

    I watched that debated on youtube not long ago and had exactly the same reaction when the moderator chimed in on Harris’s very reasonable point that a well-executed opinion poll can tell us a lot of things that a person visiting the region, even over several years, would probably not realize.

  • Ryan

    Yeah, maybe I’m a bit sheltered, but it just doesn’t seem kosher to me for the moderator of a debate to ever say “wrong, wrong, wrong” — even if one of the debaters has just made a demonstrably false claim. Refutation should be left to the other side. Had I participated in a debate like that, I’d have walked out after giving Scheer a few choice parting words. But of course, I have no class.

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com feralboy12

    The quarterback drops back to pass, looking for an open receiver…he throws…and it’s intercepted by the referee! HE…COULD…GO…ALL…THE…WAY…

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I don’t think it’s wrong for a moderator to say something is wrong. I wish they would do it more often. That said, it’s important that the moderator actually be correct.

    If one side makes a non-factual or non-scientific claim, the moderator can disallow it. Normally, the idea that an opinion poll tells you more than a series of anecdotes is a simple factual call. What’s odd here is not that the moderator intervened, but that the moderator is so anti-knowledge.

  • sqeecoo

    While I agree with the jist of your article, and don’t pretend to claim to be an expert on the wars in former Yugoslavia or that religion wasn’t at all a factor in this conflict, as a Croatian I can tell you that in my personal experience, composed of listening to Croatian media and to war stories of numerous persons, I have never encountered a single element of religious motivation for the war.

    Serbs, Croats and Bosnians share a turbulent and violent political history. Plenty of purely political crimes and oppression and division occurred, much to it under communisim. Religion might play a factor, but issues of nationality, territory, language, superiority, and old hatreds and crimes provide ample motivation for conflict. I’d say that claiming that this was a “holy war” is a gross oversimplification.

    Just my two cents.

  • 2-D Man

    That might be very true, squeeco, but it doesn’t need to be true to point out Chris Hedges’ inconsistency:

    [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)

    …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)

    According to what Hedges has here, calling it a Muslim holy war would be inaccurate, but calling it a holy war would be perfectly acceptable. If he wants to throw Christianity under the bus, he can be my guest.

  • sqeecoo

    Can’t argue with that! Still, I’ve heard the “Yugoslavian wars were based on religion” line from atheists a few times, and I don’t like to see them succumbing to the common oversimplification of blaming everything on the one thing you dislike the most.

    So I just wanted to point out that things might not be as simple as that :)

    Cheers!

  • Andrew G.

    This classic article from Bora Zivkovic discusses his view of the relationship between religion and nationalism in the Yugoslav breakup quite well, I think.

  • Ryan

    If one side makes a non-factual or non-scientific claim, the moderator can disallow it.

    Point taken — but it should be done sparingly, and only if the moderator can cite specific evidence to refute the claim, and then, I should think, only in the case of the most shameless falsehoods. We can both agree, however, that this guy was waayyy outta line.

    BTW, longtime lurker here before posting yesterday. Discovered this page through Ebonmusings and have been fascinated (and challenged) by the debates in these comments sections. Cheers to all!

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Interesting you should bring up the Balkan wars.

    A refugee immigrant from Sarajevo I know insists there are no ethnic or even linguistic differences among the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians.

    She says they differ by religion being Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim respectively.

    Their bitter, age-old hatreds, depicted in the media as based in ethnic or national differences, are entirely religious and, apart from the difference of religion, these 3 are really one ethnic group speaking one self-same language.

  • M.

    A Serb chiming in to support what squeecoo said in the comment #6, :) and to give thumbs up to Bora’s article referenced in #9. Religion really did have very little to do with the conflict, although all sides used religious language occasionally (i.e. when convenient).

  • ThatGuyMontag

    Just as an interesting tangent, but does atheism have anything to say about Nationalism?

    If we take atheism narrowly defined as being about the rejection of the belief in god well then obviously no. On the other hand, if you think of atheism as I do, as being part of a more general commitment to intellectual rigor, well then isn’t the idea of a “Serbian National Character” as ridiculous as an “All Seeing Sky Fairy” is?

  • Legion

    Ryan:

    The Civil War was a religious war. It pitted those Christians who considered slavery to be a moral evil against those who thought it was sanctioned in the Bible. Abolitionists were inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary. Religious rhetoric was used by the warring sides to condemn each other. You cannot deny those facts. Those who think that economic and social differences between the North and the South, States versus federal rights, etc, had something to do with the war are crazy people.
    Religion poisons everything.

  • Ryan

    Legion:

    The Civil War was a religious war. It pitted those Christians who considered slavery to be a moral evil against those who thought it was sanctioned in the Bible. Abolitionists were inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary. Religious rhetoric was used by the warring sides to condemn each other. You cannot deny those facts. Those who think that economic and social differences between the North and the South, States versus federal rights, etc, had something to do with the war are crazy people.
    Religion poisons everything.

    I’m not disagreeing. My comment on “states’ rights” was sarcastic. Although I will say, as Ebon has pointed out, that a good many freethinkers were prominent in the Abolitionist movement as well. Those Abolitionists who objected to slavery for religious reasons were doing so in spite of the Bible, which is inescapably pro-slavery.

    Just another problem with religion: A literalist view of any religious text I can think of simply does not conform to basic human morality, despite the philosophical contortions of theologians.

  • Legion

    “..Ebon has pointed out, that a good many freethinkers were prominent in the Abolitionist movement as well..”

    Baloney. The freethinkers were very few; they did not affect the religious nature of the Civil War.
    I bet there are some among Muslims terrorists who think they are just using Islam as an effective catalyst for war, but their number is insignificant. There are even some crazy professors who claim that the 9-11 targets suggests that their selection was based on a political-economic analysis of the centers of global economic and military power (Pentagon, WTC, etc). Obviously, they are dead wrong. They are all Muslims, hence religion is to blame. One advantage of this way of thinking is that it absolves western powers of responsibility for their actions in the Middle East.
    Remember: just blame religion.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Baloney. The freethinkers were very few; they did not affect the religious nature of the Civil War.

    Read Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers” if you’d like to disabuse yourself of this erroneous notion. Of course, I doubt that you can find very much support for all the religious people clamoring for repeal of slavery. Even in the north there were quite a few religious leaders that were very pro-slavery.

  • Samuel

    I should point out that the abolitionist movement was… complicated. For example, there was widespread support in the south for the idea of separate creation of different races which blatantly violates the bible. The issue of free thinkers during that time is complicated as well as politicians had to be pious in order to appeal to the public which considered being an intellectual a bad thing (like today actually).

    Legion

    They are all Muslims, hence religion is to blame.

    The US has systematically screwed over Central America, installing dictators, funding dissidents, crushing unfriendly regimes, etc. To date there has not been a pan-Central American movement advocating the removal of US influence from the region by high profile terrorist attacks.

    Or you could look at Al-Qaeda’s stated goals and count how many have a religious element.

    One advantage of this way of thinking is that it absolves western powers of responsibility for their actions in the Middle East.

    That doesn’t follow. Many people that colonial powers conquered were barbaric, but that doesn’t absolve the west from screwing them over. Unless you divide the world into deserving and non-deserving, every person is deserving of moral consideration.

    TGM

    If we take atheism narrowly defined as being about the rejection of the belief in god well then obviously no. On the other hand, if you think of atheism as I do, as being part of a more general commitment to intellectual rigor, well then isn’t the idea of a “Serbian National Character” as ridiculous as an “All Seeing Sky Fairy” is?

    I think this would be rationalism. And yes, exclusive nationalism is stupid.

  • Ryan

    …the religious nature of the Civil War…

    So it was all about religion? Nothing to do with the political maneuvering over the expansion of slavery that took place for decades before war broke out? The South’s pro-slave stance was entirely a religious one? There was no economic incentive (such as free labor in an almost entirely agrarian society) for the South to want slavery intact?

    Don’t misunderstand me. There is no doubt that religion was used to condone slavery. There’s also no doubt that pro-slavery clergy could point to many supportive passages in the Bible. But to imply the Civil War was a “religious war” is to completely misunderstand history. Religion helped fuel the debate, certainly. Religion may have in part motivated some of the main political players. But that sure as hell doesn’t make the conflict primarily a religious one.

  • Legion

    My last comment in this blog

    First of all, I was being sarcastic, but I notice some people really believe that the Civil War was a kind of religious war. Crispy Jesus, you American atheists are so fucked up. You see religion everywhere.

    Secondly, you people are free to analyze the role of religion during the Yugoslavian crisis, that’s fine, but first you have to take into account some basic facts:

    a) The NATO bombing was a CRIME OF AGRESSION as defined in Nuremberg.
    b) Yugoslavia had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs. That’s why it had to be eliminated.
    c) Justice Goldstone concluded that the bombing was “illegal but legitimate”. Illegal makes it a WAR CRIME.
    d) The atrocities came AFTER the Nato bombing.
    e) The KLA (Muslim fanatics) was getting full support of CIA.

    Is religion the big problem here? I don’t see how. But maybe there must be some. What I do know it´s that any comment on the Yugoslavian crisis without these basic facts is NONSENSE and IDIOTIC. And I’ve just realized that Atheism has been hijacked by New Atheists fanatics. Deaf and blind to evidence.

    Good luck in your crusade for kissing Sam Harris’ ass.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Coming from the guy who threw out a bunch of garbage assertions about all us American atheists in an earlier thread then didn’t listen to any replies and now can’t answer objections here but can only throw out more assertions and accusations of (ironically) being deaf and blind? Classic.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Vitriol does not a good argument make.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Tehe… I love when they blow up. Kablooie!

    Err… Internet posters, not muslim fanatics, I guess I should clear that up in light of recent conversations. Tehe.

    And as a lesson to everyone else, don’t forget your [/sarcasm] tags when writing satirically. There’s some really messed up people who frequent this site, so you can never be sure what is said in earnest, unless you want to wind up typing in Pastalian hymnos or something.

    “hApYUpN/”

  • Mothman

    This is the last place I expected Ar Tonelico to come up.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Clearly, some people have pet issues about which they can’t stand to hear a dissenting opinion. On the other hand, since Legion was also the person who wrote this inane comment, I suspect trolling. Not very good trolling, mind you; he was probably just upset he wasn’t getting the response he wanted.

  • Scotlyn

    Are there standards for trolling, now? Perhaps an etiquette book?


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