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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Religion in the Military

Christopher Hitchen's recent column in Vanity Fair is a frightening look at how entrenched the Church is within the State. Hitchens asks...

"Is there a clique within the United States military that is seeking to use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to mount a new crusade and to Christianize the 'heathen'? And does this clique also attempt to impose its beliefs on young Americans in uniform, many of whom may even be Christian already? If the answer to either question is 'yes,' then we are directly financing the subversion of our own Constitution and inviting a 'holy war' where we will not be able to say that only the other side is dogmatic and fanatical."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chris Hedges at The New School

This past week, I had the honor of introducing veteran war correspondent, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and writer, Chris Hedges, to The New School. Hedges spoke on his recent book "Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle".

Hedges' lecture was a sobering and, admitedly, grim assessment of the current American empire. The premise of his book is that we are a culture in decline that only values illusion, which is seen in our addiction to psuedo-events, trivial gossip, and celebrity culture. As things get increasingly worse, people seek-out comfort in entertainment and/or religous extremism. The decline of a literate society makes understanding the complexities or potential solutions of this crisis nearly impossible.

To view the lecture click here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Change?

For the past year, I've defended President Obama's decisions and lack of initiative on various issues. Whether from the decision to bailout Wall Street bankers, his lack of support on LGBT rights, and his compromise to remove the "public option" on health care reform - President Obama continues to disappoint. I realize the job of the President is tough, but I voted for Obama with the hope that he would be a game changer; instead, he only continues to follow the same misguided policies of former Presidents. Of course, I firmly believe that despite the bad decisions he has made, our country is in a better place than it would have been had Senator McCain been elected. But how better? ...Not much. Thus, I'm more than disappointed by President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan.

There are far greater problems to confront than those based on the fear of terrorists. Agreed, Al-Qaeda -like all extremists- are a threat to peace, rationality, and understanding. I wish we could be done with all this ignorant backwards and mystical thinking that continues to foolishly define our human existence. God does not exist. Those who waste their short lives fighting, worshiping, or even thinking about "god" only continue to prevent humanity from honestly confronting the realistic problems and issues that remain detrimental to our collective survival. Unfortunately, Obama's plan will likely embolden the extremists (on all sides of the debate). Islamic extremists will have fresh fodder for more recruitment to Al-Qaeda and their Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and "new Atheist" counterparts will only further believe they’re killing of others is somehow justified.

If Obama really wants to change Afghanistan, he should focus specifically on building new infrastructure: education, schools, food, technology, etc. Give the people what they need, which is not more of the same bloodshed. For all the money wasted on militarism, why not invest in the country?

Obama is only sending in more destruction that will further our slide into oblivion. I am also personally surprised and frustrated that Obama did not listen to Vice President Joe Biden who argued for sending small groups of special operations forces, that would focus on the Al-Qaeda fighters instead of the 30,000 additional ground troops. Unfortunately change is nothing more than a cliche. Sure, the personality has changed, but the machinations of militarism, religion, and empire remain the same.

- - -

One week later, I read George Packer's column in The New Yorker. Packer writes,

"No Obama doctrine yet exists. What the President has is a sophisticated theology, an anti-utopian belief that human imperfection is inevitable but progress is possible if human beings remain self critical about what they can achieve. This is the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has called 'one of my favorite philosophers."