Saturday, March 15, 2008

Chris Hedges on the New Atheists

A lot of people would find it counterintuitive that you would go from your last book, "American Fascists," which was a scathing critique of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., to writing against atheism. Do you see these as connected projects?

I do. I didn't start out that way, because these guys were not on my radar screen. I think a lot of their popularity stems from a legitimate anger on the part of a lot of Americans toward the intolerance and chauvinism of the radical religious right in this country. Unfortunately, what they've done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. They adopt many of the foundational belief systems of fundamentalists. For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress -- that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society. That's fundamental to the Christian right, and it's also fundamental to the New Atheists.

You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere. Technology and science, though they are cumulative and have improved, in many ways, the lives of people within the industrialized nations, have also unleashed the most horrific forms of violence and death, and let's not forget, environmental degradation, in human history. So, there's nothing intrinsically moral about science. Science is morally neutral. It serves the good and the bad. I mean, industrial killing is a product of technological advance, just as is penicillin and modern medicine. So I think that I find the faith that these people place in science and reason as a route toward human salvation to be as delusional as the faith the Christian right places in miracles and angels.

Don't you think that a belief in perfectibility or progress may be necessary for people who devote their lives to big endeavors, like, say, developing vaccines? Americans especially are known for big dreams. It seems like to lose the idea of progress would be a kind of defeatism.

Well in science, one does have progress, because science is based on what can be proved and disproved.

But you say in the book that the Holocaust, because it was framed as a modern project and an outgrowth of technological advance, was that kind of scientific progress, as well.

Well, I wouldn't quite say it that way. I would say that the fascist agenda was Utopian, and that it adopted the cult of science. That's what leads Hitler to try and breed humans and apes to try to create an oversized warrior or to send expeditions to Tibet to find a pure, Aryan race. I mean, that's not science. It's the cult of science, and I think the New Atheists also make that leap from science into the cult of science, and that's a problem.

The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can't make certain segments of the society "civilized," as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.

So you think that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are just shills for a neocon agenda?

Well, Dawkins is a little different, because he's British. But looking at our own homegrown version of new atheism, yes. Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way.

You say at one point in the book that the New Atheists, "like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class." But I wonder what you would say to someone like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a victim of genital cutting who fled her faith-based homeland for the secular West, when she says that the secularism of Western society is better than the religiosity of her native Somalia?

It was better, for her.

She doesn't qualify that. She says it's better.

Well, she's speaking out of her personal experience, and it was better for her. I mean, look, I covered conflicts in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Central America, where Western society rained nothing but death and destruction on tens of thousands of people, which is of course what we're doing in Iraq. So, is Western society -- American society -- better for Iraqis? And I think part of the problem is people who create a morality based on their own experience, which is what of course the New Atheists and the Christian fundamentalists have done.

You believe new atheism has emerged in reaction to religious fundamentalism, but I wonder if you also see it as a reaction to a kind of cultural relativism and multicultural mind-set that a lot of people perceive as weak and self-destructive, in its tendency to sympathize with enemies.

Well, "enemies" is a pretty loaded word.

Do you think the new atheists are similarly uninterested in their impact? It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance.

Well, not Harris. Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it's about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn't changed. It's all about him. It's all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he's that kind of a figure. He's witty, and he's funny and insulting. You know I debated him, and in the middle of the debate he starts shouting, "Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!" Of course, unlike him, I've actually stood at the edge of a suicide bombing attack. That kind of stuff is just ... it's the epistemology of television. They make a lot of money off it, but it's gross and disgusting and anti-intellectual and not at all about real discussion.

Do you think Hitchens really believes what he writes?

I think he's completely amoral. I think he doesn't have a moral core. I think he doesn't believe anything. What's good for Christopher Hitchens is about as moral as he gets.

Do you worry that Hitchens and some of the other so-called liberal hawks have the advantage of charisma, that they are better able to seduce an audience?

We had over 1,500 people at the debate at UCLA, and I think that the people who came liking Sam Harris left liking Sam Harris. I don't think that they heard a word I said, and it's just insulting ... I've debated Christian fundamentalists, and it's the same. I can get up and say, look, I grew up in the church, I went to seminary. No, I'm part of the forces of godless secular humanism that are trying to destroy Christians, and they just repeat it like a mantra -- half of their audience which came to hear them hears it, and the same is true of the New Atheists.

-I don't believe in atheists

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