Monday, February 14, 2011

Chris Hedges' "I Don't Believe in Atheists": Book Review

Don't trust leaders, to quote whom Hedges does not, Bob Dylan. "The refusal to acknowledge human limitations and our irrevocable flaws can thus cross religious and secular lines to feed both religious fundamentalism and the idolization of technology, reason and science." (16) Hedges, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and son of a Presbyterian minister, tires too of mainstream Christianity's pulpiteers, with their "habit of speaking on behalf of people they never meet." (4)

He harps on Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens for their advocacy of attacks against the Islamic fanatics. He mistrusts Richard Dawkins' or E.O. Wilson's faith that we will evolve into a more perfect human community able to alter its genes and improve its makeup. "Dreams of fantastic miracles and collective salvation, whether through science or God, will accelerate our doom, for they permit us to ignore reality." (32)

He cautions us to narrow our hopes, to mitigate disaster and promote cooperation rather than to incite conflict against a billion Muslims or another billion Christians. The Enlightenment may direct humanists into a futile expectation of earthly liberation equal to that preached by those following Jesus, Marx, or Muhammed. Hedges quotes Karl Popper: "It appears to me madness to base all our political efforts on the faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers." (qtd. 39-40)

Instead, he urges humility, and counters a progressive perfection or fundamentalist salvation. He suggests that the Hindu or Buddhist cyclical distrust of linear marches to a better purpose may provide a better model than what some call the "Whig version" that we always improve upon our ignorant ancestors, and that we are smarter and wiser. Of course, Hedges acknowledges the move away from slavery towards women's suffrage and greater human rights, but he doubts the leaps in power that geneticists anticipate.

He goes on to explore literary and philosophical reactions to the modern enterprise. Conrad shrinks back from its horrors; Beckett's protagonists exist in a "perpetual middle" where we live--they see it better than we do from the fringes. Hedges distrusts grand narratives and epic schemes. For, no matter who is elected, "neither Christian fundamentalists nor the new atheists question the rape and pillaging of the country by corporations and the dismantling of our democracy." (87) Utopia by salvation or ideology or the free market's flatteners is always anticipated, promised to us while always delayed.

Anesthetized, we wait. The enemy first must be defeated. "The war on terror is another in a series of campaigns by those who practice barbarity and violence in the name of utopia." (I note that I learned yesterday that the US spends about half of all the military expenditures in the world.) However, while Hedges condemns our current war, he also dismisses pacifists, and this confused me. He reasons that in WWII they gave comfort to an enemy they sought to resist, but I remained puzzled about Hedges' own position regarding war. I assume for a just cause he's for it as a necessity to counter the inherent evil that penetrates our irredeemable selves, but this point became obscured.

These chapters jump around, and his chiding tone does weigh this slim book down. He tends to repeat and tends to generalize. I wondered if more nuanced thinkers whether believers or atheists might be better foils for him. See my review of a nuanced take, Michael Krasny's "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest," for a 2010 study which many readers sympathetic but not swayed entirely by Hedges may appreciate.

Hedges near his conclusion poignantly cites Proust's madeleine, Schopenhauer's comparison of our personal past to a novel dimly recalled, and our ability to strive for goodness despite the failed pieties of fundamentalists and the arrogant hubris of those who'd change the world if only believers could be eliminated from it. He castigates us, who "sit for hours alone in front of screens. We are enraptured and diverted by bread and circuses. And while we sit mesmerized, corporations steadily dismantle the democratic state. We are kept ignorant and entertained." (175) (See my Amazon US remarks about his similar lament in "Empire of Illusion.")

Amusing ourselves to moral death and intellectual regression, for Hedges, Americans fall behind as the image-based culture advances. He may be a bit simplistic here, for if you read this review of him on a screen, it's full of words, but his larger point that literacy declines as diversions increase remains arguably true. He closes by reminding us how few who profess faith bother with dogma, and his illustration of Catholic dismissal of papal bans on contraception (and often abortion) speaks to this tendency. Hedges figures that post-Darwin, the churches have lost the battle to convince moderns that God's in charge of all creation.

But, he admires the broader religious contributions to moral inquiry. He regards their mission to "unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism" as admirable. (184) He aligns these with the Greek admonition to "know thyself." He rejects absolutism, and preaches awareness of "our limitations and imperfections" to counter the utopian dreams. Humility for humanity shows, he concludes, "the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion." (185)

(P.S. I've reviewed, among thousands of others on Amazon US, the authors he criticizes: Daniel Dennett, "Breaking the Spell"; Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" & "Letter to a Christian Nation"; Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great"; Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion." Posted to Amazon US 11-5-10 & 12-5-10. My reviews, more recently, on Krasny, and Hedges' overlapping "Empire of Illusion," also appear there.)

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