Thursday, March 27, 2008

The New Atheists

American journalist/author Chris Hedges has written a book entitled, “Why I don’t believe in atheists.” He is currently on a book tour and has been interviewed in the local media several times. This book is an attempt to rebut the jarring messages of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others, and to defend religion. Hedges’ last book was “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. He is a self-described moderate Christian liberal.

I read that book and would recommend it to anyone. I haven’t read his anti-atheist book, although I intend to do so. I have, however, read the opinion of the religion and ethics editor in the Toronto Star on his work and I have viewed both interviews and debates with Hedges on U-Tube.

His simple message is that God resides in each of us and that we all have the capacity to do ill or good. Evil or goodness is an inherent quality in humans, not an external force to be harvested or constrained. His objection to the atheists is that they are committing the same sort of fallacy that fundamentalist Christians do, externalizing evil as if it is a force in the universe. While Christians believe in the gospel of the devil, atheists believe in the evil of religion. In fact, he refers to these robust atheistic writers as fundamentalist atheists.

I may change my mind after I read his book, and, if I do, I will blog further on this subject, but at first blush I would say that Hedges is off base and employing inappropriate language. It makes sense to speak of fundamentalist Christians to differentiate them from moderate or nuanced Christians. Fundamentalists believe the Bible to be the literal word of God.

But there can be no fundamentalist atheist. An atheist, in its modern usage, simply means a person who does not believe in the existence of a supremely governing deity (irrespective of religious dogmas of one stripe or another). What would a moderate atheist be? Consider an agnostic – a person who cannot decide one way or the other whether they believe in the existence of gods, a perfectly defensible and moderate view. Atheists have made that decision, so agnostics can’t be atheists.

But it is a far cry from simply being an atheist (I don’t believe) to considering religion to be a source of evil. And it is also far cry from maintaining that the mythical Devil caused some calamity (the external form of evil) to pointing to the evils of the Spanish Inquisition which were real and carried out with church blessing. In what respect would people doing harm in the name of their religious doctrines and under divinely sanctioned authority not be reasonable evidence of the inherent danger and risk of evil-doing that religions pose for humanity? The same could be said for the practice of slavery which really only got its moral force from the Catholic and Protestant church leaders.

President George Bush believes he is divinely guided in waging his war in Iraq. Is he evil? I don’t think so, but I do believe he is misguided. And it is his faith-based reasoning that is causing harm, not an inherent human quality of a black heart.

Were there good-hearted Nazis, or were there just good-hearted Germans who became evil because they subscribed to an evil ideology? It seems to me the human heart can inform ideology in equal measure to ideology informing the human heart. I don't think you can say that evil strictly resides in the human heart -- especially when it is the head giving way to emotion, fired by ideological propaganda. Indeed, religions can be evil.

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