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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

(Page 2)

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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Faith is not in conflict with reason.  Faith does not conflict with scientific truth, unless faith claims to express a scientific truth.  Faith can neither be affirmed nor denied by scientific, historical or philosophical truth.  Sam confuses the irrational—which he sees as part of faith—with the non-rational.  There is a reality that is not a product of rational deduction.  It is not accounted for by strict rational discourse.  There is a spiritual dimension to human existence and the universe, but this is not irrational—it is non-rational. Faith allows us to transcend what Flaubert said was our “mania for conclusions,” a mania he described as “one of humanity’s most useless and sterile drives.” 

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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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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