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By Chris Abani

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Report

On Secular Fundamentalism

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

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

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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These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism, are an unquestioned good. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

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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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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