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On Secular Fundamentalism
Posted on Apr 7, 2008
By Chris Hedges
We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God. We have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the human species makes moral advances along with the material advances in science and technology. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris to Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens have also forgotten they are human. Both they and religious fundamentalists peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.
The belief that human nature can be improved and perfected, that we are moving throughout history toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology. It permits wild, eschatological visions to be built under religious or secular banners. It is this belief that is dangerous. And it colors the thought of the new crop of atheist writers. They will tell us what is right and wrong, not in the eyes of God, but according to the purity of the rational mind. They too seek to destroy those who do not conform to their vision. They too wrap their intolerance in Enlightenment virtues.
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” Sam Harris writes. “This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”
Any form of knowledge that claims to be absolute ceases to be knowledge. It is a form of faith. Harris and the other atheist authors mistake a tiny subset of criminals and terrorists for 1 billion Muslims. They justify the unjustifiable in the name of civilization. The passions of these atheists, hidden under the jargon of reason and science, are as bankrupt as the passions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists who sanctify mass slaughter in the name of their utopia. Religious fundamentalists pervert and distort religion to serve their own fears and self-aggrandizement. Atheists do the same with science and reason. These two groups peddle the myth that we can conquer human nature, overcome our imperfections and build the perfect society.
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We must accept the severe limitations of being human. We must face reality, a reality which in the coming decades is going to be bleak and difficult. Those who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals real. They believe that the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. They ask us to inflict suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth. The atheists, in the end, offer us a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is one we have seen before. It is one we must fight.
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