Friday, December 26, 2008

Hitchens vs. Hedges


A couple of years ago, I read Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" at a time when I was particularly receptive to it--a time when the word and concept of religion seemed to have been co-opted by people possessed of such an astounding cynicism, that they thought nothing of mobilizing the homophobia of a minority of their constituents in order to give power to their monetary greed.

I didn't find the book to be perfect (I wrote a too-long post in it), but I did find it to be stimulating. On the upside, I thought that Hitchens obliterated the idea that the Bible (or any religious text) is the word of God, that it is a literal document, that it is an instruction manual, even that it is a valuable historical document. What stuck with me long after I had both listened to the audiobook and read the hard copy was Hitchens' comment that in the evolution of humans, "religion represents the childhood of our species."

I had previously seen religion as one can see any sharp object: an instrument that can be used to kill, or to cut the ropes that bind. Equal parts good and bad. Like humans themselves, capable of almost infinite good or infinite evil. By the end, that view seemed naive. However, Hitchens never did convince me that religion was causal, rather than correlative, as it relates to the Crusades, Islamist terrorism or any number of atrocities committed in its name. After all, "in the name of" implies a marketing tactic, not a root cause. He also seemed to miss the point that for many (I would hope a majority) of religious people, the underlying reason for their practice is not to justify their hatred, but to express their reverence, hope and gratitude.

So about two weeks ago, I'm trolling the audiobook aisles at the Highland Park Library and notice something called, "I Don't Believe in Atheists" by Chris Hedges. I grab it, thinking that it's time to hear the religious rebuttal to Hitchens (the sleeve made it clear that Mr. Hedges is highly critical of what he dubs the New Atheists: Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others).

I expected an unreasoned defense of blind belief from a devoutly religious, probably Christian, American male. What I got was something completely unexpected, surprisingly enlightening, intellectually refreshing and devastatingly depressing.

Hedges starts by refusing to fall into the polar trap of "religion" vs. "reason." That's not the issue to him at all. The real issue is whether or not you believe in human perfectibility, or what he would call Utopianism, in any form. In short, this is the belief that through anything--religion, science, reason, etc.--human beings can escape their natures and advance morally. Hedges does not believe in Utopianism. In fact, he compelling describes Utopianism as the toxic element behind the largest movements of evil in human history. In plain language, if you think you're right and they're wrong, and the world will only be better if you win and they lose, then they have to be killed so everyone else can advance.

On these grounds, he is equally critical of religious fundamentalism and New Atheism. He sees them as the same thing, pointing to Sam Harris' call for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world and Hitchens' staunch support of the war in Iraq. (Hedges lived in Muslim countries for years as a New York Times reporter, and convincingly exposes New Atheist ignorance on a complex religion with more than 1 billion followers.)

But while Hedges' argument is liberating on many fronts, it is also suffocatingly confining. He not only doesn't buy into human perfectibility (not a hard point to make), but staunchly refuses to believe in any form of collective human moral advancement. He might be called a New Human Naturist. He presents an image of human existence that strikes me as a morphing of the bound man of Western literature with the Narcissist of Greek mythology. We believe in our superiority even as we unwittingly commit specicide, destroying ourselves, our neighbors, and the environment we depend on for survival. We think God will save us. He won't. We think technology will save us. It won't. There's no point in removing religion, or science, or whatever you think is the barrier to improving our condition, because it can't be improved. Time is not linear. We are not on a path. We are trapped in a circular state, waiting for a Godot that will never come.

Hedges, like Hitchens, is ultimately stimulating but not (fittingly) perfect. His primary strength is in exposing the New Atheists as guilty of the same intellectual fascism that they condemn. A secondary strength lies in his nod to art and literature for their expression of the human condition. A third, related strength is his call to view the Christian Bible based on the etymology of the word "bible" ("small stories")--as a literary anthology not to be taken literally, not to be seen as a rigid instruction manual, not even to be seen as a coherent and purposeful compilation, but as stories that offer insight into the human condition. His weaknesses lie in not adequately developing his conflation of religion and art, and in his stating that we can't advance morally, yet still seeming to proscribe some kind of preferred path--which strikes me as self-contradicting (what's the point in seeking intellectual or spiritual advancement if it has no bearing on moral advancement?)

I appreciate both of these thinkers a great deal. In the end, they offer an exercise in discovering what you view as intellectually void or valid. For Hitchens, any belief in religion requires a shutting off of inquiry, which is destructive. For Hedges, any belief based on nothing but science and reason also requires a shutting off of inquiry, which results in a different kind of ignorance, also destructive. These two men, and their views of life, are fascinating because each sees the other as intellectually lazy, and both are right, and both are wrong.

Read them both, and draw your own conclusions.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I haven't read these books, but I'm cuirious about the authors' take on science. You said Hedges claims science cuts off inquiry. That seems odd given that science is fundamentally a tool FOR inquiry. In my view there's a real spirituality to science-- a humility and awe of the natural world and a quest for greater understanding. Was this view of science prevalent? Or was science characterized in another way?

Bee slippers

Marc Conklin said...

I might have overstated his position. Hedges isn't "anti-science" in the way you might think. He's well-versed, accepting and supportive of scientific inquiry and discovery. But in this particular book, he's highly reactive to the elevation of science as a transformative path of inquiry leading to what he would call moral improvement and human perfectibility. We advance in our knowledge, he would say. We advance in our understanding of systems and how they work. We advance technologically. But we do not advance morally. He objects to the sentiment that views the Age of Enlightenment as a path to moral improvement that should be (pardon the pun) resurrected, as Hitchens would say. To the person who would argue that religion is responsible for at least as much violence and genocide in the world as healing and compassion, he would argue that science is the same double-edged sword: It has led to at least as much positive advancement (medical healing) as it has to killing and genocide (the atomic bomb, weapons of mass destruction, the increasingly efficient systems of mass murder). The problem is not religion. The problem is not science. He would say that the problem is the human heart, which cannot be cured.

Anonymous said...

The choice isn't between reason or faith - there is a place for faith based on reason, which to a great extent is the worldview of the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. Those groups (which make up well over half the population of the U.S.) are usually ignored in this kind of debate. The Catholic, Episcoplian, Congretional, Methodist churches, et al are very comfortable with a critical examination of the Bible and of religious tradition/assumptions in general. You aren't required to check your brain at the door.