Chris Hedges' Hangup on Religion

By David Swanson

Chris Hedges is one of the best, one of the most morally useful, writers we have. He’s free of loyalty to political party or dogma. He knows war first hand and describes it without flinching. He’s an almost ideal gadfly to our corporatocracy. But he has a hangup on religion that holds him back.

Hedges will tell you that he has no use for fantasies about life after death. He’ll profess no interest in gods or prayer or a divine plan or anything of the sort. He’s perfectly aware of what lies on the negative side of the balance sheet for religion (or what he would call institutional religion), how it trains blind obedience, how it diminishes the value of life before death, how it shifts responsibility from people to imaginary beings, how it divides groups of people who kill in its name. But when you ask what, then, lies on the positive side of the account for religion that justifies supporting it, Hedges’ answers range from slim to silly.

One answer he gave me was that there are mysteries in the world, including emotions like love. Well, of course there are. But, I told him, I make no claim to having plumbed the depths of every emotion and having perfectly understood it, I just have no use for god or heaven. Does one have to claim omniscience to be an atheist? I thought only God claimed that!

But Hedges will tell you that it’s wiser to be an agnostic than an atheist because you just don’t know. But, of course, no one who says this means it quite that simply. If I were to be “agnostic” on whether the world is secretly run by demons dwelling in the livers of antelopes and every other imaginable lunacy, I wouldn’t have time to do any substantive being of an agnostic. I could just say “I’m an agnostic on all fantastical BS” and leave it at that. But when it comes to whatever it is that Hedges and others reluctant to fully part with religion mean by “religion,” they want to see some agnostical activity going on, specifically lamentation of the passing of religion. I don’t think engaging in such activity tends to make one more or less arrogant or humble.

Hedges’ latest article is called “After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck with Nietzsche.” He opens with five good paragraphs on damage done, both by major religious institutions and by religiosity in general. Then he writes:

“But I cannot rejoice in the collapse of these institutions. We are not going to be saved by faith in reason, science and technology, which the dead zone of oil forming in the Gulf of Mexico and our production of costly and redundant weapons systems illustrate. Frederick Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or “Superman” — our secular religion — is as fantasy-driven as religious magical thinking.”

Setting aside the dubious idea that U.S. culture today is driven by anything resembling Nietzsche’s Übermensch, how in the world did we leap from the collapse of religion to “faith in reason, science, and technology”? Of course, we have too much of that as well, but it’s not all we have or all we could have. We aren’t limited to religion or THAT. And it’s not the central explanation of the oil spill or the wars, given that a majority of us oppose the policies that have led to both. We have allowed our “leaders” to act against our interests, as if they knew best, a habit encouraged by religion, not science.

Of course, we need to be respectful of nature. Of course, we need to be humble in the face of ecosystems (and emotions) that we do not begin to understand. Of course, we need to stop trying to conquer the world and behaving as if we were its gods. We need to outgrow “faith in reason, science, and technology” just as we need to outgrow faith in religion. And we are doing so. Suggesting that we must choose one catastrophic course or the other, religion or scientific domination, does not help our progress. I’m not making an argument about whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic — I think either, in so far as it distracts from action, is morally inexcusable. I’m suggesting that if we want to progress or even survive it will be through overcoming both religion and faith in technology.

In his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr., said:

“There is nothing wrong with power, if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject the Nietzschean philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love. Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

I imagine Hedges agrees with that. But he should notice that King is suggesting a choice other than science or religion, one just as available to an atheist as to an agnostic or to a religious believer like King. All being agreed on the wisdom of such a course, the question of whether or not to keep dragging the vestiges of religion down through the centuries becomes a separate question, to be decided based on whether religion does more harm or good.

Hedges goes on to say that there are “religiously motivated people toiling in the inner city and the slums of the developing world” and that they “remain true to the core religious and moral values ignored by [religious] institutions.” What values? Hedges lists “individual responsibility” and “compassion, especially for the weak, the impoverished, the sick and the outcast.” But, of course, most people who have been responsible and compassionate have been religious for the same reason that most people who have been servile and cruel have been religious: most people, period, have been religious. In fact, polling on political questions at least begins to suggest that the most responsible and compassionate Americans today, on average, are atheists. We’re less likely to support injustices like wars and torture. Whether we’re more responsible and compassionate through all aspects of our lives, I do not know, but I haven’t seen any evidence that we’re less so — just antiquated fearmongering about how morality will disappear if religion does.

Hedges continues his effort to equate the loss of religion with moral decline:

“We are rapidly losing the capacity for the moral life. We reject the anxiety of individual responsibility that laid the foundations for the open society. . . . The great religions set free the critical powers of humankind. . . . [R]eligious thinkers were our first ethicists. . . . These religious institutions are in irreversible decline. . . . But don’t think the world will be a better place for their demise. As we devolve into a commodity culture, in which celebrity, power and money reign, the older, dimming values of another era are being replaced. . . . We live in the age of the Übermensch who rejects the sentimental tenets of traditional religion. The Übermensch creates his own morality based on human instincts, drive and will. We worship the ‘will to power’ and think we have gone ‘beyond good and evil.’ We spurn virtue. We think we have the moral fortitude and wisdom to create our own moral code.”

And here is where religion holds Hedges back. We must, of course, find the moral fortitude and wisdom to create our own moral code to address our own moral circumstances. We will find most of that wisdom in lessons from the past, of course, and most of it from past religious observers. But we will be hindered by keeping alive almost anything we meaningfully refer to as religion, anything suggesting deference to a greater authority than the accumulated wisdom of humanity. We must be free of that if we are to envision what we need to become. For all of his failings, this is what Neitzsche attempted to do, and to some degree succeeded in doing. Hedges knows that Nietzsche condemned all the undesirable traits of modern culture that Hedges himself laments. But Hedges lays the blame, nonetheless, at Neitzsche’s doorstep as an enemy of religion.

And there’s something wrong with the timing of Hedges’ tale of woe. The cultural damage he describes is all current, while the loss of religion that he fears will cause it is substantially in the future. The vast majority of Americans today are more religious than Hedges himself is. We can’t fix their shortcomings by making them religious. Instead, we have to make them — and ourselves — more responsible and compassionate in a way that, indeed, moves beyond existing ways of thinking.

Without religious beliefs, we might still have violence, but Germans would not have made the worst of Nietzsche in Nazism. Without religious beliefs we might still have oil drilling, but we wouldn’t have senators telling us they don’t care because it is the next life that matters. And if Afghans and Iraqis did not belong to a different religion than most Americans, we wouldn’t bomb them and burn their babies with fire bombs and white phosphorous. Whether you agree with the views of the religious “extremists” or not, you have a moral choice: will you condemn the basis of their thinking or provide respectable cover for it?