By David Swanson
Chris Hedges recently published an article called “The Dangerous Atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris,” ( http://www.alternet.org/rights/80449 ) but he failed to include in it any indication of what he thinks is dangerous about their atheism. He thinks they have horrible political opinions, but does not explain how those relate to atheism. He thinks they have a fetish for science and technology, but does not explain how that relates to atheism. He thinks they cherish a simplistic utopian vision of progress, but he himself traces that to Christianity. He thinks they are fanatics willing to kill for their magical belief in human progress, but that would just mean they had something in common with a lot of theists.
There is good and bad to be found in our religious heritage, and our world is full of noble and ignoble acts by theists and atheists alike. For every admirable or offensive trait in an atheist, we can find one in a theist. For every Martin Luther King Jr., there’s a Pat Robertson. But does theism or atheism, on the whole, tend to encourage more, or less, desirable behavior?
Hedges concludes his article by remarking that his new book is “a call to reject simplistic and utopian visions. It is a call to accept the severe limitations of being human. It is a call to face reality, a reality which in the coming decades is going to be bleak and difficult. Those who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals real. They believe the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. They ask us to inflict suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth.”
No one could argue with any of that, if Hedges meant to apply it to theists and atheists alike. But he calls his book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” and he adds one more sentence to the end of the article: “The New Atheists, in the end, offer us a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is one we have seen before. It is one we must fight.”
This makes clear that what Hedges objects to is fanaticism, and that he knows it can be found in theists and atheists alike. But his marketing plan for this useful but less-than-groundbreaking insight is decidedly not headlines like “The Dangerous Fanaticism of a Few People Who Happen to Be White, Male, and Atheist.” His whole brand is opposition to the supposed danger of atheism. So it comes as a disappointment to discover that Hedges doesn’t even try to identify a connection between atheism and fanaticism. He describes a group of atheists who are fanatical about things that millions of theists are fanatical about too. He does not suggest that atheism in any way encourages fanaticism, or the belief that there has been moral improvement through human history, or any of the other notions he rejects. Hedges is convicting a handful of atheists of guilt by association. After all, the mere failure to believe in a particular cultural myth could hardly be a cause of their habits of thought.
Belief in theism, on the other hand, can have serious consequences. In fact, theism is unavoidably a simplistic and utopian vision. It may not result in adoption of any other simplistic visions, and it may not result in the use of force, but it does put one’s mind in the habit of accepting nonsensical wishful thinking. Theism includes a “belief” that something called a god controls the world, and usually includes a “belief” that death is not real. Some of the most admirable people in the history of the world and living today have held these beliefs, and some of them have not. But these are beliefs that tend, as a rule, to encourage acceptance of the status quo, to discourage personal responsibility, and to put one in the habit of believing transparent falsehoods. That many people overcome these influences, with various degrees of success, does not make them less real.
Theism has a damaging influence on human thought and action, and the existence of different flavors of theism provides a justification for hatred and murder. If Iraqis were all Christians, millions of them would probably still be alive. The United States would probably not have done to Iraq what it has done over the past two decades. And the idea that Iraqis could govern themselves if left free to do so would be far more apparent to many more Americans. The entire “global war on terror” would collapse without Christianity and Islam.
I’m not agreeing with the millions of Muslims around the world who believe the primary motivation of U.S. crimes to be hatred of Islam. I think their religious identity blinds them to the tragic fact that the United States is attacking Islam because it is situated overtop of vast oil supplies. But it would be harder for the United States to attack the possessors of oil if they shared a religion or a lack thereof with Americans.
Of course, without theism, people would hate and kill others on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, and various other excuses. Atheism does not make any individual or population decent or good. Atheism doesn’t make anyone think in any particular way. But theism, by its very nature, encourages obedience to authorities, and belief that such authorities should be trusted even if their ways are mysterious. The bizarre American reaction to 9-11 in which Rudi Giuliani and George W. Bush were so comically turned into figures of authority was facilitated by religious thought. If so many people were not in the habit of turning to a lord or savior in times of fear, Hedges and all those trying to talk some sense into them would have a much easier task.