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Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Posted on May 23, 2007
By Chris Hedges
It is by the seriousness of our commitments to compassion, indeed our ability to sacrifice for the other, especially for the outcast and the stranger, our commitment to justice—the very core of the message of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus—that we alone can measure the quality of faith. This is the meaning of true faith. As Matthew wrote. “By their fruits shall you know them.” Professed faith—what we say we believe—is not faith. It is an expression of loyalty to a community, to our tribe. Faith is what we do. This is real faith. Faith is the sister of justice. And the prophets reminded us that nothing is exempt from criticism. Revelation is continuous. It points beyond itself. And doubt, as well as a request for forgiveness, must be included in every act of faith, for we can never know or understand the will of God.
The problem is not religion but religious orthodoxy. Most moral thinkers—from Socrates to Christ to Francis of Assisi—eschewed the written word because they knew, I suspect, that once things were written down they became, in the wrong hands, codified and used not to promote morality but conformity, subservience and repression. Writing freezes speech. George Steiner calls this “the decay into writing.” Language is turned from a living and fluid form of moral inquiry to a tool of bondage.
The moment the writers of the Gospels set down the words of Jesus they began to kill the message. There is no room for prophets within religious institutions—indeed within any institutions—for as Paul Tillich knew, all human institutions, including the church, are inherently demonic. Tribal societies persecute and silence prophets. Open societies tolerate them at their fringes, and our prophets today come not from the church but from our artists, poets and writers who follow their inner authority. Samuel Beckett’s voice is one of modernity’s most authentically religious. Beckett, like the author of Ecclesiastes, was a realist. He saw the pathetic, empty monuments we spend a lifetime building to ourselves. He knew, as we read in Ecclesiastes, that nothing is certain or permanent, real or unreal, and that the secret of wisdom is detachment without withdrawal, that, since death awaits us all, all is vanity, that we must give up on the childish notion that one is rewarded for virtue or wisdom. In Ecclesiastes God has put ’olam into man’s mind. ’Olam usually means eternity, but it also means the sense of mystery or obscurity. We do not know what this mystery means. It teases us, as Keats wrote, out of thought. And once we recognize it and face it, simplistic answers no longer work. We are all born lost. Our vain belief in our own powers, in our reason, blinds us.
Those who silenced Jesus represented all human societies, not the Romans or the Jews. When Jesus attacks the chief priests, scribes, lawyers, Pharisees, Sadducees and other “blind guides” he is attacking forms of oppression as endemic to Christianity, as to all religions and all ideologies. If civil or religious authority enforces an iron and self-righteous conformity among members of a community, then faith loses its uncertainty, and the element of risk is removed from acts of faith. Faith is then transformed into ideology. Those who deform faith into creeds, who use it as a litmus test for institutional fidelity, root religion in a profane rather than a sacred context. They seek, like all who worship idols, to give the world a unity and coherency it does not possess. They ossify the message. And once ossified it can never reach an existential level, can never rise to ethical freedom—to faith. The more vast the gap between professed faith and acts of faith, the more vast our delusions about our own grandeur and importance, the more intolerant, aggressive and dangerous we become.
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Reason allows us to worship at the idol of our intrinsic moral superiority. It is a dangerous form of idolatry, a form of faith, certainly, but one the biblical writers knew led to evil and eventually self-immolation.
“We are at war with Islam,” Harris writes. “It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and teachings of the Prophet” (P. 110).
He assures us that “the Koran mandates such hatred” (P. 31 ), that “the problem is with Islam itself” (P. 28). He writes that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death” (P. 123).
Now after studying 600 hours of Arabic, spending seven years of my life in the Middle East, most of that time as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, I do not claim to be a scholar on Islam. But I do know the Koran is emphatic about the rights of other religions to practice their own beliefs and unequivocally condemns attacks on civilians as a violation of Islam. The Koran states that suicide, of any type, is an abomination. More important, the tactic of suicide bombing was pioneered as a weapon of choice by the Tamils, who are chiefly Hindu, in Sri Lanka long before it was adopted by Hezbollah, al-Qaida or Hamas. It is what you do when you do not have artillery or planes or missiles and you want to create maximum terror.
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