If you pick up Chris Hedges’ recent book I Don’t Believe In Atheists, don’t be misled by the title. This book is no recapitulation of the well-worn phrase: “There are no atheists in foxholes” which is often used by those wishing to combat atheism by dismissing it. Hedges very much believes Atheists exist; in fact, he concludes that the newest generation of Atheists—including Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris—are part of a new and dangerous breed of ideologue closer in kind to the religious extremists they desire to rhetorically and, in some cases, literally annihilate. Hedges’ success here is in the simple gesture of holding up a mirror to New Atheists and showing how they have become that which they abhor in others
After having finished Hedges’ book, however, his choice of title is still a mystery to me as it encapsulates little of his argument and perspective. But there is a quality to the book that feels rushed and unfinished. I can only speculate whether the title may have suffered some in the push to get the book into the hands of readers still mulling over this emergence of New Atheist literature. At the same time, I welcomed Hedges’ drive to respond as I have personally been overcome by the urge to wipe the insufferable smugness from the pages of Dawkins’ The God Delusion or mock with as sharp and funny a tongue Hitchens’ own hyperbole and over-reaching in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And I have found it disheartening to witness the collective failure of Christians to engage these thinkers more effectively in public debates. Francis Collins’ book The Language of God, for example, intended to resolve some questions of faith under the microscope but failed to address how a theory like Intelligent Design, if held by Christians, radically challenges the traditional view of Jesus as Savior since death itself is recast as a part of the creative process and not, as Christian dogma most often proclaims, the wages of sin. And Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative Christian and American apologist whose work to defend his religio-political views I generally find appalling, spends too much time arguing with Atheists like Hitchens in a game of one-upmanship to decide whether religion or atheism has been responsible for more death and violence in world history. (Note: I openly admit that D’Souza’s apologetics may always be undone in my mind by the simple fact that he once dated Ann Coulter.)
I Don’t Believe In Atheists is a departure from recent debates in that it is not primarily or substantially a defense of religion. Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate and the son of a Presbyterian minister, is steeped in Christian tradition but maintains a critical distance in evaluating the relative good and evil for which religious institutions have been and are responsible. Neither is Hedges’ book a wholesale dismissal of atheism. Rather it attempts to be a focused rebuttal to the “New Atheists” who, in their frustration with and anger at the by-products of religious fundamentalism, are becoming as shallow in understanding, hostile in approach, and dangerous in worldview as those fundamentalists they abhor (Hedges cites Harris’ nuclear first strike option against the Islamic world as one example). In this way, New Atheists have become a new kind of fundamentalist, Hedges argues, as they advance a view of the world that is as absolute and rigid as any doctrine of religious fundamentalism and that relies on a utopian vision of the future based on their preferred system of thought. As Hedges states in his prologue:
These atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. All too often throughout history, those who believed in the possibility of this perfection (variously defined) have called for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular notion of the good into an inflexible standard of universal good. They prove blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil not for evil’s sake but to make a better world, (1-2).
Examining the impact perfectionism and utopia building has had on the fundamentalist mindset, whether religious or atheistic, Hedges provides examples from history showing how fundamentalist projects are doomed to fail. Such failures, he says, are proof that no matter what we know or believe about the world that the limitations of human nature itself will prevent us from ever reaching our utopian ideal.
Rather than keeping those utopian visions, Hedges advocates their relinquishment at both extremes in exchange for a path of greater humility, acceptance of reality, and complex understanding of the world as it is. Hedges’ own view of the future does not contain a great deal of hope, however, as he speaks at times like a Hebrew prophet railing against the excesses of society at the brink of its demise. And his conviction that human nature is itself beyond repair is, I thought, surprisingly and uncritically Christian. Hedges pursues this, suggesting that the recognition of sin in our own lives is an important moderating influence as we are less likely to see ourselves as unchecked instruments of God if we remember that we too are sinful at our heart. And yet, his belief that evil will always be with us, that “it is a bitter, constant paradox that is part of human nature,” and that the “belief that we can achieve human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil,” (156) suggests a movement away from hope in any form of Christian eschatology, any statement that all will be made well one day. It’s almost as though Hedges gave up the part of the Christian story that ends in healing and renewal and kept the part about how we got into this mess in the first place. I don’t fault him—he’s a realist. At the same time, he doesn’t apply his critical skills in examining his own assumptions about human nature—a concept that is not fixed by any means—beyond using various historical examples and literary passages to make his point.
In the end, it’s hard to know what Hedges hopes for except perhaps that we as a species might not destroy ourselves and the world with us. Of course, if that happens, then that would be everything. But Hedges does not offer very concrete solutions for getting there; he is too cautious, perhaps, and jaded to reach for an ideal that could become just another fatal grab at utopia. Rather, he abstractly ponders the “Illusive Self” in his last chapter and laments the various social and moral ills of modern society, suggesting a return to religious life that is not based on utopian delusions but, rather, formed from an ever present awareness of human limitation and reverence for mystery that is responsive to the real and pressing needs of our world.
However, I’m not as ready as Hedges to give up on the idea that we are moving towards a better future. We may never see “perfection” but that does not have to be the goal. Besides, who are we to know what perfection is or if it is or isn’t already with us? A little bit of agnosticism is healthy for spiritual growth and even the smallest dose can transform the fundamentalist heart. But humility in the face of eternal mysteries does not negate proactive engagement with the world. It does mean we recognize that we do not have all the answers or the only vision for the world.
Where Hedges does rest his hope in experiences of love, mystery, and interconnectedness, I wish he had fleshed some of these out more systematically and with greater faith. Because if we believe in the power of these experiences, how can we more deeply embody them in our own lives? And if we can embody them in our own lives and relinquish our own fundamentalist tendencies then perhaps we will witness a future that is not shaped by force or exclusion according to the anxious needs and angry reactions of fundamentalists seeking greater control and security but that is instead shaped by an organic movement of spirit that brings us closer to an ideal of community of which we occasionally get true and beautiful revelations. Who knows? I would like to believe that such a movement has already been at work in the world, however slowly and painfully it is coming to life.
Heather Isaacs Royce writes from Napa, CA where she works as a Hospice chaplain.