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Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Posted on May 23, 2007
Chris Hedges
Truthdig / Todd Wilkinson

Chris Hedges reads from his essay at the Truthdig debate “Religion, Politics and the End of the World” on May 22, 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.
Faith allows us to trust, rather, in human compassion, even in a cruel and morally neutral universe.  This is not faith in magic, not faith in church doctrine or church hierarchy, but faith in simple human kindness.  It is only by holding on to the sanctity of each individual, each human life, only by placing our faith in the tiny, insignificant acts of compassion and kindness, that we survive as a community and as a human being.  And these small acts of kindness are deeply feared and subversive to institutional religious and political authorities.  The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman wrote in “Life and Fate”:


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I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man.  The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality.  It can never be conquered.  The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is.  Evil is impotent before it.  The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it.  This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil.  It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.  But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

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By Ga, May 23, 2007 at 9:29 pm Link to this comment

Religion can cause otherwise good people to kill in its name. This is a well established fact of Christianity as well as Islam.

Atheism, not a religion, but a lack of religion, does not provide a doctrine that can be used to cause otherwise good people to kill in its name.

I am so sick of people saying that the Bible is the true word of God.

When someone mentions the Bible, ask them, “What version?” If they can’t answer that question then they profess a profound ignorance and admit that they are blind adherents to a book simply and only because someone told them to believe in it. (Actually, the book basically tells its readers that they should “just believe.” How convienent!)

Ever hear of Adam’s other wife?

And another thing. If you do believe in the Bible, your biggest fault is that you (most likely) want to deprive all others from their beliefs!

All religious fundamentalists—including “Christians”—suck.

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By Kellina, May 23, 2007 at 9:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kudos to Akira_Maritias (comment #72111) - despite being ill, you made many excellent points. I like the purple-bird analogy. (Kind of like Bertie Russell’s flying teapot orbiting the earth.)

Atheists are a-theists. 1) They don’t believe in a god. Atheism is no more a religion than a-astrology. (If you don’t believe in astrology, you are a-astrology.)

2) There are thousands of gods; you don’t believe in any of them except your one god, right? So that makes you an atheist about one less religion than I am. You are an atheist with respect to every other god ever worshipped.

Being an atheist just means you don’t feel that there is enough (or any) compelling evidence to endorse the concept of a god. It doesn’t mean that you lack morals or have any particular character structure or endorse any particular values. About 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to believe in a (Christian) god who demanded my unquestionning faith and obedience and belief in him/her without which I would burn in hell, tortured for eternity. Why the hell would God have given us brains if we weren’t supposed to use them? Without the concept of hell, I’m sure that more Christians would start to question their faith.

There’s plenty of psychological evidence that how people picture their god/savior has more to do with how their parents treated them (harsh vs. loving) and their residual attachment needs in the case of rejecting parents. “Belief in a just world” probably also plays a large role. We want to believe that there is order in the world; that if life on earth is unfair, that things will be rectified in the hereafter. Good wins out in the end. It’s comforting, in other words, like a proper fairy tale.

Unfortunately, all these religious assumptions can wreak plenty of mischief, death, destruction, guilt, sexual abuse (due to repressing ordinary human desire), etc. Not to mention the fact that whomever you are relying on to interpret “god” for you—has his/her own agenda.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, May 23, 2007 at 8:59 pm Link to this comment

One thing certain about keeping discussions about religion/atheism going it that there must be a lot of money to be made from it.  There certainly are no answers.  Now, I’m gonna pass the collection plate.

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By archeon of thrace, May 23, 2007 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

Atheism is not a religion.

Saying “I don’t believe in god” is not the same as saying “I believe there is no god”.  Atheism is not “against” religion, that would be anti-theism.  I am an atheist, I don’t believe in god, or a god.  Do I think that a god or gods couldn’t or can’t exist? No that is not what I think.  That the arguments for the existance of god, and the arguments that claim if god exists I must worship him/it/her are weak, baseless, illogical and go agains reason is what I think.  Note carefully pro-theists that to say “this is what I think” is a universe apart from “this is what I believe”.

Atheism is not a religion, there is not Church of Atheism.  There are no Atheist Saints.  Atheism has no prophets.

Science is also not a religion, and it like atheism does not rely on “faith” to blissfully not answer the question “why?”.  For religion the answer to this is “god”, but “where” and “why” is god?  I find more satisfaction in “because” than “god”.

The theology of god allows for this kind of convoluted illogicality:  “God spoke to me and said: I do not exist”.  Thus god would not exist.  God being allpowerfull means he can do anything - including willing himself into nonexistance.  Yet because once he does not exist he cannot again will himself into existance (the theology states that nothing can come from nothing), he is not allpowerfull, and if he is not allpowerfull he is not god.  So if he is not allpowerfull and not god why worship him?

Faithies answere this: can god create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift?

Or: can god change history?

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By syshax, May 23, 2007 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

well his version of religion isn’t really religion

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By Mark Smith, May 23, 2007 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

#72121 by Jacks on 5/23 at 6:24 pm
(6 comments total)

“Atheism itself is a religion, as it believes in something that cannot be proven true or untrue: there is no God(s).”

Jacks, you might change your mind about atheism being a religion if you just look it up in a dictionary.  Atheism has no dogma, no doctrine, and is thus based on and open to evidence - and in fact, embraces new evidence.  Religion starts with dogma and tries to refute new evidence or just make it fit the doctrine. That’s a very big difference.


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By Jacks, May 23, 2007 at 7:24 pm Link to this comment

Atheism itself is a religion, as it believes in something that cannot be proven true or untrue: there is no God(s).

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By Leefeller, May 23, 2007 at 7:17 pm Link to this comment

Is this the same God that told Bush to go to war? This has been going on for ever, “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell covers the bases quite well.

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By Akira_Maritias, May 23, 2007 at 7:06 pm Link to this comment

“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.”

You know what’s sad? People read this and believe that it strengthens their faith.

For starters, nice title. “I don’t believe in atheists”. Good, good. In a sense, you don’t believe in someone that doesn’t believe in something. Interesting.

Second, this quoted chunk disturbed me quite a bit. You don’t seem to notice that a load of people have chosen to kill in the name of this wonderful idea. This nice thing that you complain has been twisted…isn’t nice. Actions speak loudly. No matter how many times the preacher says “God is good”, if he is strapping a bomb to his chest to do “God’s work” then it isn’t a good argument. This human idea has caused a good deal of suffering, and people are greatly concerned with pleasing this idea.

You can claim that God is really good, but it does not make it true. For starters, it is probably true that you have never physically seen, met, or talked to this God. You therefore don’t know if this God made us because he loved us, or if he did it because he loves to watch suffering. Secondly, the concept of “God”, being a human concept, is flawed. God is considered all knowing and all powerful without once touching us or our plane of existence. If I argued that a purple bird follows me and gives me chocolate that no one else can see, people would think I was nuts. But if I said that God was always with me bringing me joy, people would smile and be happy for me.

Do you see the irony? Religion is disturbing; it demands obedience and violence. God has laws dictated in these books. If religion had never existed, God would not be a concept at all.

Think about it. As for me, I can’t think so well. I don’t even know if I made any sense…I’m a wee bit ill right now.

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