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On Secular Fundamentalism

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Posted on Apr 7, 2008
AP photos / left: Gautam Singh / right: Uwe Lein

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. 

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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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By HeevenSteven, April 7, 2008 at 8:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Chris I am a fan of your writing. I never miss your articles here; I’ve read one of your books and I will surely read more.


I don’t agree with Sam Harris’ statement about killing over beliefs. I don’t have that source here so I don’t know the context of his statement; but to lump that together with the other authors or indeed atheists in general is a huge straw man. It is the antithesis of humanism.


None of them predict utopia via science, only that our antiquated religious constructs will surely never get us there. Reason should and needs to have a higher place in our discourse, or we are surely doomed.

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By aimless, April 7, 2008 at 7:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow, a lot of flowery words that add up to—What?  He takes one short quote from Sam Harris that somehow makes his case that certain athiests are “Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century.” I can only assume he means the Nazis, who were Fascists and by definintion Christian…  Why does this supposedly intelligent person fall for that old belief that only a person of religious faith is able to have any kind of moral compass?  Is the Golden Rule only available to those who profess faith in dieties?  Good grief man, this is total crap.

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By Jim Yell, April 7, 2008 at 7:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There are a few secular thinkers that are arrogant, but there is no frame work for completely dismissing the feelings of others as there is in religious fundamentlism.

What is a War in my view is the dismissal of the rights under the “Bill of Rights”. Any move to ignore or enforce these rights sets us up for the kind of things that happened in Germany and other places, such as Europe in the 100 years war. Needless conflict over peoples rights to live there lives unmolested so long as they give each other the same right.

Now there are individuals and groups that love to force people to do what they want. This is not proper and in fact should be considered a criminal act, who ever does it. However this is not an absolute right since the consequences must also sometimes be considered. Such as you have a right to fire your gun, but not in a way that could lead to anothers being hurt. You have a right to believe your neighbor is going to Hell, but no right to interfer with their need to earn a legal living or indeed to send them to Hell.

Also, I think this use of War to describe everything from controling bad behavior to pulling weeds is not very helpful on an emotional level.

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By ASiegel, April 7, 2008 at 7:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m an atheist and I’m a scientist. I’m a geologist.

I have a serious problem with people who try to sell “intelligent design” as a valid, fact-based explanation for life on Earth. When they support their position with the argument that evolution is just a “theory”, I know I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t care enough about their position to research it thoroughly.  Either that, or they didn’t even take biology in high school. In science the word “theory” is used in relation to a hypothesis. At times, yes, hypotheses seem like “educated guesses” and sometimes results are unexpected. Still, they’re based on the best evidence the researcher has at that time. In the case of evolution, it is the rock record and the fossil record. Not only can relative time be determined, but chemical means can also be used by determining the decay of certain atoms in a sample.

On a more visceral and emotional level, whenever I hear the statement that intelligent design is just as valid as evolution and should be taught in public schools along side (or even instead of) evolution, I think to myself, “Fine, if they’re equivalent, then you wouldn’t mind me coming to teach evolutionary theory at Sunday school.”

I’m not too familiar with the Q’uran, but I’ve read one or two beautiful passages. I also have read some Buddhist teachings that have powerful messages. But I bought a tape of a talk given by the Dalai Lama and he lost me in the first 5 minutes when he said that it wasn’t enough to believe in the historical Buddha (Siddhartha himself). That to be a Buddhist meant to believe in (what I consider to be) the mythical forms as well. Why? Why isn’t the message of the historical Buddha sufficient?

Why does Jesus have to be divine for his message to have validity for people? Christian denominations are so focused on the death of Jesus (the cross is in front of nearly every church), why are they not so focused on the reason why the Romans executed him? Because he was a religious (and potentially political)activist and as such he represented a threat to Rome. Death by crucifixion: kind of a severe punishment for disrupting business as usual in the temple and preaching a few sermons about peace and the kingdom of god in which he believed. I’m oversimplifying, of course. To me, the politics of Jesus’ death was as good a reason as any to oppose the death penalty.  But that isn’t the position of the most vocal Christians in our country these days. I wish I would hear more self-identified Christians follow Jesus’ path of non-violence and care for the least among us instead of predetermination (doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you have faith) or worse yet, the “prosperity gospel”.

The unfortunate thing about most of the religious institutions is that they can’t seem to allow others to live in peace. Consider the tragedy in Gujarat, India a few years ago.

With respect to science, its good to remember that just because something can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it ought to be. Last year I heard a report by a journalist who’d had a radio frequency identification chip implanted under her skin. Now, it cannot be removed, since its moved from its original position. Putting a chip in your dog or your car is one thing, but I know I wouldn’t want to be tracked by satellite. The cell phone is enough, thanks.

In the cases of powerful institutions: science, government, economics, politics, religion, I’ve come to the position that “fundamentalist” anything is most likely a bad idea and at best should be approached with caution.

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By JohannG, April 7, 2008 at 6:58 am Link to this comment

Agreed!

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By Eric Barth, April 7, 2008 at 6:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have enjoyed reading Chris’s books beginning with WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING. I am a nonbeliever in supernaturalism, but I agree that “sin” (although I would prefer some other non-theological word)is to be guarded against. Just look at the sexual abuse, violence and neglect of children in our so-called civilized society. The mainstream news is full of such horrible stories. Chris is right that absolute faith in a religion or secular faith such as Communism is dangerous and leads to corruption and abuse of human beings. However, I would side with science and reason as entities which are controllable. Religion is fatalistic and posits that a supernatural being or beings direct human events.

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By JohannG, April 7, 2008 at 6:45 am Link to this comment

Disagree with the premise that “It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can perfect itself and master its destiny.” Who cares about humankind! Unclear what the author of this piece is arguing for. Not sure the guy knows what he is talking about. Advice: Ignore and move on.

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By ConventionClasher, April 7, 2008 at 6:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I must concede Hedges is trully a great writer, unfortunately the same cannot be said of his intentions. Masquerading as purely expository, his tone reeked of vendetta. In his constant attempts(and what apears a life long struggle) to re-invent a more conforming theology, to an increasingly incompatible world; Hedges seems to be reaching ever further. Obscurentism is always the name of his gamep; And in that task, he is a master.

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By Vash the Stampede, April 7, 2008 at 5:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism, are an unquestioned good.”

What is he talking about? The whole point of atheism is to accept reality and the fact that humans are on their own in the endeavor of civilization. Hedges blather demonstrates he doesn’t have the slightest clue about science or secularists.

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By Jaded Prole, April 7, 2008 at 5:22 am Link to this comment

Humans always have a desire for improvement in pursuit of an ideal. That is not necessarily delusional and certainly is, in general a good thing. I personally have little or no faith in anything but as a progressive and as a Socialist, I do not think it is neither delusional nor utopian to struggle for a more civilized and egalitarian society, our very survival may depend on it.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is our greatest enemy in pursuit of the progress we require. Whether political or religious, a rational scientific approach is vital and dogmatism is an obstacle. Where does the postmodern cynicism that says this is all “absurd” lead us? Shall we give up and just ride this handbasket wherever it takes us?

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By Frikken Kids, April 7, 2008 at 5:21 am Link to this comment

Reading this, I couldn’t get the image out of my head of Ace Ventura talking out of his ass!  What a load of crap this is.

“as we race toward this catastrophe scientists continue to make discoveries, set these discoveries upon us and walk away from the impact.”

Those bastard scientists!  Doing things like making it possible to grow enough food to feed billions, finding cures for diseases that in the past have wiped out billions, devoting lives to finding renewable energy sources etc, etc… 

While Hedges tries to present himself as some deep thinker, the fact is he’s too deeply attached to his religious world view to acknowledge any danger in it without pointing his finger and saying “YOU TOO” at secular humanism.

I’ll throw my hat in with science and reason.  They may not be able to save us, but they are our only hope.

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