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On Secular Fundamentalism
Posted on Apr 7, 2008
By Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges, who went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.” This essay is adapted from the book, which was inspired in part by Hedges’ debate with Sam Harris.
The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science. It is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists. It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can perfect itself and master its destiny.
We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species toward a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion, if you are secular, is blamed for genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. Secular humanism, if you are born again, is branded as a tool of Satan.
The folly of humankind, however, is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors. It has not exempted itself from institutional religion or the cult of science and reason. The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists. It comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species.
Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is nothing in science or human history or human nature to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear. We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the endemic flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history. This belief in inevitable moral progress, whether it comes in secular or religious form, is magical thinking. The secular version of this myth peddles fables no less fantastic, and no less delusional, than those preached from many church pulpits.
The word utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 from the Greek words for no and place. To be a utopian, to live for the creation of a fantastic and unreal world, was to live in no place, to remove oneself from reality. It is only by building an ethic based on reality, one that takes into account the dangers and limits of human nature and human power, that we can begin to adjust our behavior to cope with social and political problems. All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in moral squalor, criminality and fanaticism.
The current “war on terror” by the United States is a utopian vision. It is being fought so that evil can be violently uprooted. Its proponents promise a world that will become “reasonable,” a “civil” world ruled by the “rational” forces of global capitalism. Those who support the “war on terror” speak as if victory in any tangible sense is possible. This noble vision of a world in harmony is used to turn us into criminals, beasts who carry out needless murder and torture in Iraq and our offshore penal colonies in the name of human progress.
The desire for emancipation, universal happiness and prosperity has a seductive pull on the human imagination. It preoccupied the early church, which was infused with exclusivist, utopian sects. We are comforted by the thought that we progress morally as a species. We want things to get better. We want to believe we are moving forward. This hope is more reassuring than reality. But all the signs in our present world point to a coming anarchy, a massive dislocation of populations that will result from ecological devastation and climate change, multiple pollutions, the weight of overpopulation and wars fought over dwindling natural resources. Science, which should be used to address these looming disasters, has largely become a tool of corporations that seek not to protect us but make a profit and stimulate the economy. New technologies that are potentially threatening, such as genetically modified organisms and nanotechnologies, are being unleashed with no understanding of the impact on the biosphere. The global population is expected to jump from about 2 billion in 1930 to 8 or 9 billion in the mid-21st century, and this means that if growth is left unchecked we will no longer be able to sustain ourselves, especially as nations such as China seek the consumption levels of the industrialized nations in Europe and North America. Nearly two-thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are already in precipitous decline worldwide. The old wars of conquest, expansion and exploitation will be replaced by wars fought for the basic necessities of air, food, sustainable living conditions and water. And as we race toward this catastrophe, scientists continue to make discoveries, set these discoveries upon us and walk away from the impact.
The belief that science and reason will save us makes it possible to ignore or minimize these looming catastrophes. We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. It is dispiriting to live in a world where things are not moving forward and will most probably get worse. We prefer to believe that we are the culmination of a process, the end result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures trapped in the irrevocable limitations and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress gives us comfort in times of turmoil. It allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves above others. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is morally irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and place our hopes in an absurdist faith.
The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention. Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. But the belief in the possibility of collective moral progress, in our ability to advance as a species spiritually and ethically, is seductive. It is what has doomed populations in the past that have chased after impossible dreams, and it threatens to doom us again. It is, at its core, the enticement that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.
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