Friday, December 25, 2009

"When Atheism Becomes Religion" by Chris Hedges

(The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("[those who are] without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46.)

"Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite." - Chris Hedges

I do not believe in god and resent fundamentalism. My "faith" is with the human will, I "believe" in art. Agreed, the human will has not always expressed the best, bravest, or kindest of human intentions, nor has art always been beautiful or thought provoking. Nevertheless, the human will (expressed through art) is how I give order and meaning to this uncertain frightening world. I suppose you could say - atheism is my religion.

As an atheists I've felt angry and frustrated by those pushing religion onto me or others. At my lowest, I'm insulting to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Unjustly, I've even cynically joked about wars to "wipe religion off the map." I'm not proud of my sarcasm; but, thankfully (like any atheist worth my will), I question such "sinful" thoughts and actions. In fact, a great way to reflect on such things is with a good book. Fortunately, Chris Hedges' "When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists" is a timely read for anyone of any or no faith. Hedges compellingly argues against all fundamentalisms. He has not only made me more confident in my own "religion" but has forced me to also honestly admit atheism could just as easily become as totalizing and fascists as any other conviction. Thus, we must remain vigilant against all theisms.

Sure, I wish to be done with religion and perhaps this resentment stems from my years in Christian boarding school? Or, maybe it's living through this violent post-9/11 decade? Whatever the case, I'm not alone in my belief humanity would be more tolerant and enlightened if not so foolishly guided by religious illusions. There is real power in religion and like Hedges I find myself "disgusted with the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists." And also like Mr. Hedges, I "dislike the same people" as the new Atheists (i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris). "But we do not dislike them for the same reasons."

Although I enjoy reading the new atheists Hedges criticizes in his book, I suppose I do so with the same reason I listen to George Carlin or Marilyn Manson. For me, all represent a much-needed middle finger at organized religion. However, unlike Carlin or Manson (entertainers), Harris and Hitchens' audience is academia, the cable news cycle, and print media; thus, the jingoism and fear in some of their writing and lectures could stir-up some frightening totalitarian possibilities. Sam Harris is the most extreme with Hitchens right behind him; both justify the war in the Middle East as "just" and in support of rationalism against an inhuman fundamentalism. Although I'm an atheist, like Harris and Hitchens, I do not support empirical aggressions in the Middle East.

Hedges is also critical of evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. I'm very interested in Dawkins' writing, am glad he refuses to entertain discussions on "creationism", and am fascinated by his theories on memetics. Thus, when Hedges criticizes someone I really respect, I pay close attention. Hedges primary concern with Dawkins is with the way he describes science as utopian and capable of making great change; however, Hedges says this is unrealistic. He comments, many "are comforted by the thought that we progress morally as a species. We want things to get better. We want to believe we are moving forward. This hope is more reassuring than reality. [However,] all the signs in our current world point to a coming anarchy."

Hedges bleakly writes, "We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature." Indeed, "We are bound by our animal natures…Volcanic emotions are buried like land mines within us…These hidden realms of visceral, irrational emotions drive us as powerfully, perhaps more powerfully, than the rational constructs we build around them. They shatter our meticulously constructed self, plunging us into the chaos of existence."

Hedges is a realist, so his writing doesn't comfort. Subsequently, his work will hopefully wake some from lazily explaining this complex world through a simple prism of "memes". Agreed, memetic theory can be helpful in explaining certain ideas and thoughts, but Hedges is correct, "The attempt to equate patterns of human society with the behavior of genes…is part of the cult of science. The genetic coding that permits the transfer of DNA-encoded units…is fairly precise. But this model fails to work for the transfer of cultural, social, ethical, and political behavior. Patterns of morality are easily reversed or erased, especially in ages of revolutionary fervor, war, anarchy, fear, social decline and despotism."

Hedges writes, "A desire for moral advancement has repeatedly corrupted religious and secular ideologies. We want to believe that human suffering and deprivation is meaningful, that it has a purpose and that our lives make sense. This yearning for telos creates imaginary narratives of moral and historical progress…It is a way to ward off the awful fact that things often do not get better, that they often get worse, and that the irrational urges of human nature will never be conquered."

What Hedges may share with religious fundamentalists is his "end time" descriptions, which are grim. Of course, Hedges has seen the human will at its worst in Yugoslavia and the Middle East as a war correspondent. Hedges, informed by his experience, writes "When we are desperately afraid, when chaos and disorder envelop life, when the world is reduced to a bitter struggle to get enough to eat and stay alive, the fragile 'civilized' veneer that coats our existence in times of prosperity, order and safety vanishes. The coherent, rational self disintegrates, we sink swiftly into the depravity the atheists see as the result of religious fanaticism. Few of us are immune."

Ultimately, Hedges concludes, "The labels we attach to ourselves are a way to tell stories about ourselves, to create coherent narratives. The danger we face does not come from religion. It comes from a growing intellectual bankruptcy that is one of the symptoms of a dying culture."

"Happy Holidays..."

…peace and cheers to finding zen in '10.


ArdellaJ said...


Anonymous said...

how can some one so intelligent also be so dumb so is hedges saying sciencetist is another word fo god or creator with all the genetic codes ect this does not happen by accident if theres intelligence then theres a god even a dog knows theres a god watch him when it thunders as so too there is a devil ive met him a few time s

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