Chris Hedges, When Atheism Becomes Religion. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008) 212 pages
A Book Review by Ozodi Thomas Osuji
Mr. Chris Hedges:
This weekend, I read your book: When Atheism Becomes Religion.
As I understand it, you are making an argument to the effect that both religious fundamentalists (Islamic and Christian) and secular fundamentalists (such as Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins) could be dangerous to civilization. You seem to say that though they come from different spheres, religion and science; they seem driven by the same impulse. They seem to be motivated by a belief that there is a good that human beings ought to approximate, but come at it from different perspectives. Both groups seem intolerant of different and or divergent opinions; both seen unable to tolerate ambiguity and want a simple white and black world where the truth is known and accepted.
The religious zealot believes that his religion offers a picture of what is good for mankind and wants to convert all people to that image; the secular fundamentalist has a picture of what human beings ought to become and wants to make all people to approximate it.
Beginning with the French Enlightenment, you seem to be saying that certain Westerners have a desire to make human beings into rational, scientific creatures and work hard to accomplish that end. You reviewed some enlightenment thinkers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, and some racist thinkers, such as Kant and Hume, the scholarly John Locke, the paranoid Thomas Hobbes and the revolutionary Tom Paine as some of those who were motivated to transform human beings to rational beings. These persons, in your opinion, lacked the complexity of traditional theologians, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Eckhart, Anselm, Erasmus etc that accepted the corruption of man. Catholicism, as I understand it, has a premise that people are born in sin (from disobeying God, as symbolized by the allegorical drama in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit), live in sin and need a savior from sin, and that left to their own devices they cannot save themselves.
As you see it, secular idealists are similar to religionists in that they are driven by an obsessive-compulsive desire, fanaticism really, to change people and make them fit their preconceptions and presuppositions of what they believe that people ought to become. In your opinion, this desire to transform people into idealistic conceptions of them is utopian. As you see it, human beings defy any ideal image we can entertain for them.
From your book, it would seem that you are a liberal who embraces, what for lack of a better term can be called, moral and cultural relativism. You seem to be saying that we ought to let other people be as they are, and let them live their lives as they see it, including indulging in their religions, and not try to change them, convert them to our view of how they ought to be. From your perspective, we do not know for sure what is best for all human beings.
The secular humanist often sees religion as a threat to his freedom and you seem to suggest that religionists ought to be left alone, for though they seem to believe in rubbish that since we do not know what the truth is they ought to be left to believe in whatever they want to believe in.
Regarding rational humanists, you pointed out the evils done by some of those who have made science and reason their god; you seem to be saying that man is not a rational animal and those who trust him to be rational are baiting on the will of the wisp.
For quite some time now I have despaired at the capacity for white Americans to think and behave rationally. In fact, I had concluded that white Americans are inherently unintelligent and incapable of rational thinking and behavior. Watching what their religious fundamentalists spill out on TV (and in writing) one wondered if they are human beings at all, otherwise how could they believe in the gibberish written in the bible? The bible seemed not different than Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil Aenead, fairy tales that are used to teach some human verities. I simply do not see how a rational person can take the bible as true. If the bible is the word of God I concluded that God ought to be crucified. Where is God as the powerful destroy the weak, as the forces of nature destroy human beings, as in tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, draughts, diseases etc? The image of God portrayed in the bible, especially the Old Testament portion of the bible, is that of an angry old man who killed you if you did not obey him; he was a pathological narcissist seeking attention and admiration from folk or else he flew into narcissistic rage. Please do not talk to me about the Judeo-Christian God; if he were a human being we would involuntarily put him in a psychiatric hospital and fill his body up with neuroleptic medications, which though would not heal him of his psychosis but would sufficiently make him zombie-like to not fly into unnecessary rages and lashing out at people.
In the sphere of politics, observing the jabbering that come out of the mouths of conservative (Republicans) and liberal (Democrats) Americans, one could not help but wonder if these people are a breed of dumb sub-human beings? They did not seem to rise to the level of even elementary school children.
Consider the Neocons love affair with preemptive wars, specifically their intervention in Iraq. It does not take too much intelligence to realize that in killing innocent Arabs in pursuit of whatever it was they were pursuing (certainly, it was not because Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons for they knew that he did not, and was harboring Al Qaeda, for they knew that he did not harbor those who hated him with passion, those who saw him as a satrap of the West and thus would like to remove him from office) well, observing the behavior of Americans, on the right and left of the political spectrum, one wondered why they did not ponder the long term consequences of killing Arabs? It does not take too much intellect to understand that having killed innocent Arabs and humiliated Arabs national pride that their sense of victimhood and humiliation would be in their psyche for centuries to come, and that, sooner or later, they would seek revenge on Americans and white folk in general.
The humiliated Arab would be motivated to destroy those who humiliated him and this desire could last a thousand or more years! (If in doubt, note that Osama Ben Laden gives as one of his reasons for attacking the West the war of crusades when Christian Europeans came to the Middle East to conquer it for Christendom; this took place a thousand years ago! The human mind never forgets any insults it experiences from other people. If the individual is weak he bears insults quietly but is always seeking for an opportunity to seek revenge. When America becomes weak those her people are currently degrading with impunity will descend on her and tear her apart. Human beings are vultures and hyenas, a lesson that naïve Neocon Americans have not learned.)
America cannot be made safe by victimizing and humiliating innocent Arabs! If so, why did George W. Bush and his Neocons go to war in Iraq and killed over 100, 000 innocent Arabs, made millions refugees in other lands and destroyed the country’s infrastructure? Are they sadists who enjoy killing people? Do they just want to go kill Arabs (as their ancestors used to go kill Indians and African Americans)? They have the weapons to kill and they killed for the fun of killing people, to feel superior (to whom)?
Didn’t these folk realize that there are consequences to killing human beings or did they believe that they would get away with it forever and ever?
Only an idiotic people would believe the notion of behavior not having consequences for them and their children. The sins of fathers are visited on their children to the tenth generation, it is written somewhere in the Bible.
Any one who has read history understands that empires come and go. Where is, today, the British Empire? Where are the French, Russian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires?
The American Empire is not an exception to historical realism (American exceptionalism is a pipe dream).
Already, China is challenging America’s economic dominance of the world. If the USA does not have the economic wherewithal to maintain a powerful military it cannot have a powerful military to intimidate the world into kowtowing to its wishes (act as a terrorist who uses force to bully other countries into accepting its ill thought out policies). If America does not have a powerful military it cannot lord it over other countries.
And maintaining a costly military will, in time, exhaust the American treasury. America had to borrow the money (mostly from China) with which it fought its unnecessary wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Where exactly did the brain dead Neocons expect America to obtain the money to finance her endless wars? Considering that they do not want Americans to pay taxes (they are like children who want to eat their cake and have it; they abuse our ears with the foolish rant that you can have government without the people paying taxes to support it) how exactly were these children expecting to finance their perpetual wars? If you are going to be the superman of the world, be a superior person you must have the resources to gratify your delusion of importance. (The Neocons are frightened, inferior feeling children who want to flex their powerless muscles to make them seem powerful; see, in real wars they run away. Neither George W. Bush, Dick Cheney nor David Wolfowitz and the other neocons went to the war of their youth, the Vietnam war; the little lily livered cowards ran away but want to fight their wars with other people’s children.)
Any one with eyes to see can see that in a few decades America would become just a great power, one of the great powers of the world but would not be the sole superpower of the world. America simply would not have the economy to support the delusion of superiority required by continued sole superpower status.
In a few centuries to come, school children would be reading about a once powerful America, as they today read about ancient Persia, Greece and Rome.
Soldier come; soldier go; empires come, empires go. Whatever goes up must come down; no condition in this world is permanent. Change is the only thing that is permanent and predictable in human existence.
We are born, grow up, age and die. Our bodies are composed of the various elements (such as carbon, oxygen, potassium, calcium etc) and whatever is composed must decompose; we must die and decay and our bodies return to the elements that made them up. The elements, in turn, decay into (hydrogen) atoms, which, in turn, decay into particles and which, in turn, decay into sub-particles and which in turn become (nothing?).
( If the Big Bang hypothesis of the origin of the world is admissible, originally, there was nothing; somehow, that pre-singular state of nothingness compressed itself into a state of singularity which then became incredibly hot (where did heat come from) and exploded and in nanoseconds produced sub-particles (such as quarks and neutrinos) and those, in turn, formed into particles (such as protons, neutrons and electrons) and those formed the atom (of hydrogen) and over time that primordial atom differentiated into the 104 elements we now have on the chemical table. The elements then combined to form molecules and those produced the stars and planets and eventually biological life forms on earth. That is to say human beings came out of nothing! This story is as incredible as the story in Genesis whereby God created the world through magical processes by conjuring things to appear out of nowhere. One is amazed that few persons have appreciated the silliness of this hypothesis. No wonder some now posit the rebound hypothesis that says that universes come into being, expand and collapsed into themselves to begin all over again. Should we just say that the Big Bang hypothesis and other hypothesizes of the origin of the universe and the idea of multiple universes occupying the same space are as fanciful as the God hypothesis?)
Mr. Hedges, I must say that I was encouraged to change my mind about Americans from reading your book. I had concluded that white Americans are idiots who, if we did away with them the world would not be any worse. Reading your book has reassured me that white Americans are capable of reasoning.
However, I do not accept your seeming cultural relativism. Like the secular idealists that you railed against, I do believe that with reason and science we could figure out a rational, scientific culture and socialize our children to internalize its yardsticks and operate under its parameters. However, I am different from the intolerant idealists that you talked about.
I do not like Christopher Hitchens; I think that he is an over fed adolescent; in fact watching his bloated British imperialist face on TV, pontificating on why America should undertake a preemptive war on Iraq made me vomit; his childish arrogance masquerading as erudition is repugnant.
I do not like Professor Dawkins; I think that he is an exuberant adolescent, emotionally. He comes across as a shallow biologist who has not taken the time to read up on philosophy and theology (in several writings, I took issue with the Darwinist view that evolution accounts for everything…which is not to say that I accept the idea of intelligent design propagated by equally brain dead religionists).
I have not read Mr. Harris but judging from his reported utterances at your debate with him at Royce Hall, UCLA (my Alma Mata), he appears a child. Mr. Harris’ arrogance is to be forgiven because he seems motivated by crass fear.
Arab Muslim terrorists attacked and killed over three thousand Americans on September 11, 2001 and, understandably, many Americans now live in fear of been killed by Arab Muslim terrorists, and some of them become totally paranoid. Apparently, Mr. Harris is paranoid and out of his paranoia inordinate fear wants to go and eradicate all Muslims from the face of the world. Apparently, he gives his desire to murder scientific sanction; he blesses his predatory instinct with the nonsense that his culture is rational and scientific and rational, scientific cultures should prevail over non scientific cultures.
Is America rational and scientific? What America is Mr. Harris talking about? Every day Americans are as primitive as the primitives in the Amazon jungle.
You reviewed your understanding of (Herbert) Spenserian Social Darwinism, and these secular idealistic folks belief that some people are more civilized than others and in the world of struggle for the survival of the fittest that the fittest ought to prevail.
If I may echo your question: what is the fittest surviving for? What are people living for? A little thinking tells us that human existence has no apparent meaning and purpose to it, so why are the strong struggling to live? These powerful apes live only to die and, as Shakespeare observed in Hamlet, become food for worms! So much for their power and struggle to survive!
What would seem to make sense is to eradicate all human beings. As the pessimistic philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, observed, man seems a mistake of nature, a mistake that ought not to have been made.
So, scientists produce the weapons of mass destruction to eradicate human beings and that is something to brag about? One ought to be ashamed of those who do such things. But this is being overly sentimental for the universe is, as you said, neutral and destroys people as people destroy themselves (see, tsunamis, earthquakes etc destroy people at random, just as terrorists kill people at random).
People are irrational creatures and there is no reason to suspect that they would become rational in the future. My own hunch is that they would get to a point where they would have the means to eradicate themselves and do so and cockroaches would take over the world (why should cockroaches live?).
I do not see secular fundamentalists as reasonable persons. I said as much when I reviewed Dawkins book, The God Delusion. (You can fish out that review; I have forgotten the title, and am too lazy to rack my memory to remember it; Google it via my name).
Dawkins had an idea of God, the Judeo Christian idea of God as documented in the Christian bible. His English Anglican upbringing gave him that idea. That idea is irrational and he railed against it. The question I asked is this: why rail against a silly idea of God, why not find out if there are other ideas of God that approximate reason?
I have taken the time to study Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Their views of God seem acceptable to aspects of reason though in the ultimate they are myths. In my view, it is possible to use the intellect to posit an idea of God that rational persons can live with though in the ultimate one must accept that the human mind is incapable of fully explicating God.
What is self evident is that there is an aspect of people that lead rational persons, such as Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal, Leibnitz and William James, Henry Bergson etc to suspect that there is more to life than meets the eyes, that there is a spiritual aspect to human beings. This is not a delusion (belief in what is not true as true) for one can be a strict atheist or agnostic and have certain experiences that science cannot explain.
Human beings who are not motivated by fear or desire for life eternal can sometimes have experiences that reason cannot explain. From those experiences such persons come to believe in spirit though when they try to explain what spirit is they find that words cannot explain it. As William James pointed out in the Varieties of Religious Experience, spiritual experience is ineffable.
I happen to believe that some religions are better than others. If folk must be religious, that is, superstitious, they ought to be Christian! And I say this not because of ethnocentrism or cultural chauvinism; I am African and not Christian European.
I see Christianity as the best of the great superstitious religions of mankind. Why so? It teaches love and forgiveness (even as Nietzsche pointed out that the last loving person died on the cross at Golgotha).
I have read the Koran and for the life of me do not understand what its writer is teaching. Moreover, Islam appears to sanction violence in the propagation of its theology.
Buddhism is too vague to be useful in social organization. Consider its aim, nirvana. It teaches that if we empty our minds of all separated ego self concepts, accept no ego self and just be; that if we stay in the no self void that we can experience a state of union with all being. To the extent that some persons experience nirvana (what Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart called mystic union with God) they cannot explain it to other persons, nor can it make sense to those who have not experienced it. I do not therefore see how one can organize society with this notion. This probably accounts why Buddhist nations are as violent as their Judeo-Christian and Islamic counterparts, the people are operating out of raw self centeredness!
Hinduism is useful in its conception of the world as a dream, the dream of Brahman/Atman, a dream we are to awaken from. However, the fact is that Hinduism is a particularistic view of God; it emanates from the Indian subcontinent and is based on the Indian people’s unique experiences in their part of the world; it teaches the Hindu view of life. Non-Indians can hardly live as Hindus. As Joseph Campbell (Power of Myth) recognized, what the world needs is a universalistic view of phenomena, which even though is still a mythology is acceptable to pure reason.
If I could I would banish all extant religions from human affairs and like Saint Simon and August Compte come up with a scientific culture for people. Alas, I know that I cannot make religions disappear from people for religions address an aspect of people that reason does not reach. There is an unknown aspect of us that science cannot figure out. I accept the limitations of pure reason. I accept the existential necessity of religion (and if, as Sigmund Freud said, religion is an illusion and gives people false hope, so be it; sometimes people need hope otherwise they despair and kill themselves).
I am tempted to comment on each chapter of your book ( The God Debate, Science and Religion, The New Fundamentalism, Self Delusion, The Myth of Moral Progress, Humiliation and Revenge, The Illusive self) but will not go there. I will not go there for much of what you wrote I have grappled with elsewhere.
Your thesis that the pursuit of idealism, religious and secular, leads to brutal behaviors is a theme I have written on. I have learned about the dangers of idealism.
Essentially, some human beings are idealists (and some are realists). Idealists reject their actual selves (their weak and imperfect bodily selves) and use their inventive minds to invent ideal selves (which are mental constructs, ideation, ideas not rooted in the world of space, time and matter hence can seem perfect; when ideas interact with the real world they must become imperfect) and ideal social institutions and ideal world. Having posited what seems to them ideals of everything they are motivated to bring them into being. In pursuit of those ideals some of them treat other persons as means rather than ends, as means to their idealistic goals. (Thanks for the note that it was Francis Assisi who first said that human beings are ends and should not be used as means to other ends. Apparently, his country man, Niccolo Machiavelli, did not listen for what did he teach his Prince but to see people as means to the end of his power and national integrity?)
Socialist idealists, such as Stalin and Mao, killed millions of persons, those who they perceived to be obstacles on the path to achieving their ideal society and ideal socialist man.
Fascist idealists, such as Adolf Hitler, eliminated whoever they thought did not approximate their conception of the ideal human being. To Hitler, Slavic people, Jews, blacks, the physically and mentally handicapped and homosexuals ought to be killed and he killed millions of them. The world ought to be populated only by his ideal conception of human beings, tall, six foot six inches, blue eyed blond Aryan Germans. (Hitler perverted Hegel’s contorted notion of the absolute idea to mean that people live or should live only if they are useful to the Germanic state; read, if they serve his power needs, if they are amenable for him to use them to build his empire of delusive power. Hitler had the desire to replace God and become the creator of the world. His was the ego run wild, as secular egos can become…Dawkins is very close to that wild deluded state; Wilson’s sociobiology that denied goodness and attributed every human behavior to selfish genes is obviously the thinking of a deluded man; if had any presence of mind he would have appreciated that some human beings are capable of dying for the common good.)
Religious idealists see people as good to the extent that they embrace their ideal religion. If you are not a member of the Jehovah Witness, one of the selected 44, 000 you are destined for hell (are there not more than 44, 000 Jehovah witnesses yet?); if you do not accept the literalist interpretation of the Bible of the Assemblies of God, United Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist Christians you are not born again, not saved and will not join Christ in the New Jerusalem. (Never mind that these folks are generally more racist and sexist than those who see the bible as a source of moral guidance, not literal word of God.)
Simply stated, the pursuit of ideals has been the bane of mankind. Yet some persons are motivated to seek ideals. Some persons cannot accept themselves as they are and must seek something better and in the process of attaining it destroy other persons. Some men have a fierce urgency to attain ideals than others.
Secular idealists, such as E.O. Wilson, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris and Dawkins, are potential murderers, and society ought to keep an eye on them. As long as they merely make infantile noise about their desires to change man and society into their ideal concepts, they are should be left alone but if they tried to act on their wishes that is another matter. Hitler had a right to teach his views of the new man but he had no right to try to force society to become it; our mistake was not to have stopped him from implementing his dastardly hypotheses.
Your other theme, the imperfectability of human beings is a topic I have written volumes on. Human beings are animals and, as such, do what other animals do; they struggle for food and territory and kill each other to obtain those. For example, white American animals killed Indian American animals and took the latter’s territory to grow food for themselves, and enslaved Africans.
But before one becomes sentimental about this unpleasant reality, one must remember that the Indians from whom Americans stole land were doing the same thing to each other. Africans were enslaving each other.
Man is a predatory animal. He can only live by killing other animals and eating their flesh. He is a savage and, as Schopenhauer observed, ought not to live. But he does live and the question is what are we going to do about him?
How can we improve man a bit? Obviously, we cannot transform him into an angel. And the worse part of it is that those of us, who are acutely aware of the imperfections of man and want to change him, make him perfect, can become the worst human beings there are.
Consider. I am an African. I am trained in the scientific method and approach phenomena from that perspective. As a student, I became acutely aware of how corrupt Africans are. I was motivated to change them, to make them the type of persons I saw on campus. So, how does one accomplish that seeming admirable goal, how do you change Africans?
If you tried to radically modernize Africans you would have to destroy their cultures and or kill those who hold on to those cultures, hence are obstacles to your modernization project (remember that Stalin killed the Kulaks because they resisted his efforts to modernize Soviet Agriculture, that is, to collectivize it; at least, that was his rationalization).
The adult African carries in his mind (especially in his unconscious mind) his peoples culture (what Jung would call collective unconscious mind) and those affect his behavior. Since that culture makes him behave in a corrupt manner…corruption is continuation of his people’s over one thousand years of capturing and selling their people to Arabs and Europeans hence behaving amorally… one would have to kill him and take away his children and socialize them to a more civilized way of living. I am saying that to produce Africans that are quickly amenable to lawful behavior we would have to do away with contemporary adult Africans! The alternative is to let them be and muddle through and in a thousand years learn to behave in a lawful manner.
If one adopted the radical solution of doing away with anachronistic Africans so as to achieve the desired ideal good, what would that make one? It makes one a murderer. The idealist, religious or secular, sooner or later, risks becoming a murderer. This is the tragedy of the human condition.
So what is the solution? Let people be as they are and let people accept whatever religion they want even if you do not like their religion? Oh, dilemma your name is the fate of the true intellectual. The thoughtful person is always vacillating whereas the mind dead person is quick to action and the price is the bloodbath that characterizes society.
Mr. Hedges, I just wanted to let you know that I am impressed by your book; it has led me to rethink my hitherto negative opinion of white Americans, to entertain the possibility that may be some of them are thoughtful human beings! You did a good job and I intend to read your other books, including American Fascists.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
May 3, 2009