Wednesday, December 03, 2014

I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges (Book Review #114 of 2014)

I Don't Believe in Atheists by Hedges, Chris (2008)
I read Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens before reading this book, along with Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene. I would recommend reading this book after reading theirs. Chris Hedges debated Hitchens and Harris, inspiring him to collect the arguments in this book. Hedges is a foreign correspondent, covering multiple wars and directing the Middle East bureau of the NY Times. He is no evangelical, he grew up a liberal Presbyterian that rejects certain parts of the Bible as literal (This creates some logical errors for him, see below.) He is critical of fundamentalist, right-wing American Christianity and sees it as equally grievous as the New Atheists.

Hedges writes that American Christians have grown wealthy via America's prosperity and globalization, and this prosperity has lead to arrogant behavior and churches that "love the poor but hate how they smell." Liberal Christians err in thinking that by becoming all-inclusive and standing for few things in particular they can make everything better. Hedges is not a neocon but rejects Christian liberals who embrace pacifism and believe, like the New Atheists, that mankind is progressing toward some more-englightened utopian future of its own accord. He likewise points out that the religious right and secular humanists both hold up America as a light to the world-- a place of blessed freedom and enlightenment. But this is problematic, as history tells us our country was made prosperous in part by slave labor, breaking treaties and massacring Native Americans, and that our enlightened civilization killed hundreds of thousands of women and children by intentionally dropping the atomic bombs on civilian populations in WWII. These actions were supported both by Christians who believed God created certain men superior to others as well as social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer who argued that evolution demanded survival of the fittest races. In other words, we have no moral high ground to stand on.

Hedges seems not to have read Francis Schaeffer, which is a pity for his arguments. But he is similar to Schaeffer in his examination of art and culture. For example, WWI occurred after a period in which there was much talk about the evolution of an enlightened people. The post-war art reflected the jaded cynicism and a rejection of those views. Hedges rightly compares Sam Harris et al to Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), a highly civilized, enlightened European supposedly above the savages he meets in the Congo who becomes a savage himself. Such a vision is the logical conclusion of the New Atheists world. Harris, for example, advocates pre-emptive nuclear strikes on Muslims who he sees as a major threat to his secular freedoms. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens was supportive of the 2003 invasion of Iraq because it boded well for the spread of secularism over religious fanaticism.

New Atheists preach a utopia achieved by enlightened human evolution and argue that we're evolving toward a better nature. This leads to a sort of racism, because they purport that it's the religious people who are holding our society back. Eliminate them, and let the intellectually enlightened elite make the rules. (That's the logical conclusion of their vision as pointed out in the 1970s by Francis Schaeffer.) Hedges writes that this is not only dangerous, but absurd, and contrary to what history has shown time and again and that he has observed around the world in various cultures. We're not growing more peacefully enlightened but more violent, and the violence has little-to-nothing to do with religion. Hedges disagrees with Harris that the Balkan war was religious, or that wars are primarily religious. He covered many as a correspondent, and argues that religious systems all over the world have been pluralistic and tolerant of others, contra what Harris & Hitchens preach. Suicide bombers have little to do with religion and more about shame and occupation. Hedges points out that suicide bombings originated with anarchists and communists on the left, and were originally used by groups such as the Tamil Tigers. The first suicide bomber in the U.S. was a Leftist making a political statement. Saudis and Palestinians see this as a way to wage war in the absence of armies, they find their occupation by foreign powers shameful and worth fighting.

Hedges does well in explaining how Richard Dawkins misuses evolutionary biology, he uses it as a basis for designing the structures in which we should interact; our legal code. This is as grievous as codifying the Ten Commandments. Darwin's theory was not a litmus test for determining whether human behavior was beneficial or not. Darwin in no way thought mankind was evolving into a more enlightened state or to some utopian endpoint. Darwin was a student of Malthus and had his own racist views, but Herbert Spencer took them farther, making social Darwinism into its own religion. This misuse of Darwin has created a "cult of science" that is harmful. Dawkins' world leads to selective abortions, eugenics, and genetic manipulation to weed out the bad elements and make ourselves better, more immortal.

Real scientific study tells us that evolution is a series of random processes that always finds ways around attempts to control manipulation. Hedges writes that quantum mechanics demonstrates that some things are unknowable, and that there will always be randomness. Psychology (and behavioral economics) repeatedly shows that people do not make rational choices, no matter what amount of information they have. The book concludes with a diatribe against the poisonous obsession with image, status, and wealth that is destroying our society and keeping us ignorant. Hedges writes that these New Atheists are products of this culture, using marketing techniques that play to our fears and ignorance, to hold themselves up as the experts who we should buy the product from. They dismiss our cultural, biological, and psychological realities and promise salvation by science and the evolution of human character.

More troubling, Harris and Hitchens pretended to be open-minded while having very closed systems. Hedges quotes from a debate where Harris refused to change his views on people in the Middle East despite being shown that he spoke no Arabic, had never lived there, and misrepresented a Pew research poll he was citing. Hitchens, likewise, made all sorts of theological comments but refused to read any theological work because it was all "worthless."

Forgiveness cannot be explained biologically. People are more than a random compilation of molecules because we have a spirit or soul that is a "mystery." Hedges' weakness is accepting the New Atheists comments on morality. New Atheists use a measure of morality similar to that of Christians, but without the logical underpinnings. If there is no God and we are all just random molecules and there is no such thing as a "soul" or an "afterlife" and no one is made in God's image, then on what basis to we decide right and wrong? Majority rule? The rule of the elite like Sam Harris? This is the biggest weakness of the New Atheists and Hedges misses it. But he does argue that religion is what creates ethics. That there is a soul that is a "mystery," and therefore sacred and to be protected. Biology does not give us any reason to forgive others, or love them as ourselves. The author writes that religious thought encourages human inquiry, to explore our universe.

Hedges writes that to reject the idea of sin is "catastrophic." The concept of sin is a check on utopian visions of totalitarians. We will never have a final victory over evil or achieve some type of moral perfection. As such, he critiques both New Atheists who proclaim there is no God, no soul, no afterlife, and have no means of defining evil or sin as well as liberal Christians who downplay the depravity of man. He quotes heavily from Reinhold Niebuhr throughout the book.

I believe that Hedges has his own logic problem here. He rejects literal interpretations of the Bible yet criticizes liberal Christians for not taking sin literally enough. His argument relies on some absolutes, and since those are biblically-based it begs the question: How much of the Bible or truth does he believe in? How does he decide? He seems to embrace modern cosmology and natural selection. This is problematic because the Bible says death only entered the world because of sin-- you can't have millions of creatures dying in an evolutionary process and hold to biblical teachings about the origin of sin and death. If you reject Genesis, then you have to reject Jesus' quoting of the book, which makes even more things fallible.

Hedges is mainly arguing against the illogical arguments of the New Atheists and pointing out the danger in following their philosophies to their logical conclusions. Likewise, he is attacking both liberal Christians and evangelicals. About 70% of his critique is on those he debated, the other 30% is directed at Christians.

I enjoyed this book and agree with Hedges in much, but he has his own formal errors that need to be addressed. He would do well to read William Lane Craig, Francis Schaeffer, and Ravi Zacharias to name a few. 3.5 stars out of 5.

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