May 20, 2013
Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Posted on May 23, 2007
By Chris Hedges
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday night, Chris Hedges and Sam Harris debated “Religion, Politics and the End of the World.” The following is Hedges’ opening statement, in which he argues that Harris and other critics of faith have mistakenly blamed religion for the ills of the world, when the true danger lies in the human heart and its capacity for evil. Click here for full debate coverage.
Sam Harris has conflated faith with tribalism. His book is an attack not on faith but on a system of being and believing that is dangerous and incompatible with the open society. He attacks superstition, a belief in magic and the childish notion of an anthropomorphic God that is characteristic of the tribe, of the closed society. He calls this religion. I do not.
What he fails to grasp is not simply the meaning of faith—something I will address later—but the supreme importance of the monotheistic traditions in creating the concept of the individual. This individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that at times defy the clamor of the tribe or the nation—is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths. This sense of individual responsibility is coupled with the constant injunctions in Islam, Judaism and Christianity for a deep altruism. And this laid the foundations for the open society. This individualism is the central doctrine and most important contribution of monotheism. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience is the starting point of the great ethical systems of our civilization. The prophets—and here I would include Jesus—helped institutionalize dissent and criticism. They initiated the separation of powers. They reminded us that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious life required us to often oppose and defy those in authority. This is a distinctly anti-tribal outlook. Immanuel Kant built his ethics upon this radical individualism. And Kant’s injunction to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means” runs in a direct line from the Christian Gospels. Karl Popper rightly pointed out in the first volume of “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” when he writes about this creation of the individual as set against the crowd, that “There is no other thought which has been so powerful in the moral development of man” (P. 102, Vol. 1). These religions set free the critical powers of humankind. They broke with the older Greek and Roman traditions that gods and destiny ruled human fate—a belief that when challenged by Socrates saw him condemned to death. They offered up the possibility that human beings, although limited by circumstances and simple human weaknesses, could shape and give direction to society. And most important, individuals could give direction to their own lives.
Human communication directly shapes the quality of a culture. These believers were being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity. This deity could not be captured in pictures, statues or any concrete, iconographic form. God exists in the word and through the word, an unprecedented conception in the ancient world that required the highest order of abstract thinking. “In the beginning,” the Gospel of John reads, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is why the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits Israelites from making concrete images of God. “Iconography thus became blasphemy,” Neil Postman writes, “so that a new kind of God could enter a culture.”
God is a human concept. God is the name we give to our belief that life has meaning, one that transcends the world’s chaos, randomness and cruelty. To argue about whether God exists or does not exist is futile. The question is not whether God exists. The question is whether we concern ourselves with, or are utterly indifferent to, the sanctity and ultimate transcendence of human existence. God is that mysterious force—and you can give it many names as other religions do—which works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty and goodness. God is perhaps best understood as our ultimate concern, that in which we should place our highest hopes, confidence and trust. In Exodus God says, by way of identification, “I am that I am.” It is probably more accurately translated: “I will be what I will be.” God is better understood as verb rather than a noun. God is not an asserted existence but a process accomplishing itself. And God is inescapable. It is the life force that sustains, transforms and defines all existence. The name of God is laden, thanks to our religious institutions and the numerous tyrants, charlatans and demagogues these institutions produced, with so much baggage and imagery that it is hard for us to see the intent behind the concept. All societies and cultures have struggled to give words to describe these forces. It is why Freud avoided writing about the phenomenon of love.
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