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Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Posted on May 23, 2007
By Chris Hedges
I also know from my time in the Muslim world that the vast majority of the some 1 billion Muslims on this planet—most of whom are not Arab—are moderate, detest the violence done in the name of their religion and look at the Pat Robertsons and Franklin Grahams, who demonize Muslims in the name of Christianity, with the same horror with which we look at Osama bin Laden or Hamas. The Palestinian resistance movement took on a radical Islam coloring in the 1990s only when conditions in Gaza and the West Bank deteriorated and thrust people into profound hopelessness, despair and poverty—conditions similar to those that empowered the Christian right in our own country. Before that the movement was decidedly secular. I know that Muslim societies are shaped far more by national characteristics—an Iraqi has a culture and outlook on life that are quite different from an Indonesian’s—just as a French citizen, although a Catholic, is influenced far more by the traits of his culture. Islam has within it tiny, marginal groups that worship death, but nearly all suicide bombers come from one language group within the Muslim world, Arabic, which represents only 20 percent of Muslims. I have seen the bodies—including the bodies of children—left in the wake of a suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem. But I have also seen the frail, thin bodies of boys shot to death for sport by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. Tell me the moral difference. I fail to see one, especially as a father.
Finally, let us not forget that the worst genocides and slaughters of the last century were perpetrated not by Muslims but Christians. To someone who lived in Sarajevo during the Serbian siege of the city, Sam’s demonization of the Muslim world seems odd. It was the Muslim-led government in Bosnia that practiced tolerance. There were some 10,000 Serbs who remained in the city and fought alongside the Bosnia Muslims during the war. The city’s Jewish community, dating back to 1492, was also loyal to the government. And the worst atrocities of the war were blessed not by imams but Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. Sam’s argument that atheists have a higher moral code is as specious as his attacks on Islam. Does he forget Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot? These three alone filled the earth with more corpses in the last century than all of the world’s clerics combined.
The danger is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart—the capacity we all have for evil. All human institutions with a lust for power give their utopian visions divine sanction, whether this comes through the worship of God, destiny, historical inevitability, the master race, a worker’s paradise, fraternite-egalite-liberte or the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Religion is often a convenient vehicle for this blood lust. Religious institutions often sanctify genocide, but this says more about us, about the nature of human institutions and the darkest human yearnings, than it does about religion. This is the greatest failing of Sam’s book. He externalizes evil. And when you externalize evil, all tools, including violence and torture, become legitimate to eradicate an evil that is outside of you. This worldview—one also adopted by the Christian right—is dangerous, for if we fail to acknowledge our own capacity for evil it will grow unchecked and unheeded. It is, in essence, the call to live the unexamined life.
This externalization of evil is what allows Sam to endorse torture. He, of course, deludes himself into believing that it is reason that requires us to waterboard detainees in the physical and moral black holes we have set up to make them disappear. He quotes Alan Dershowitz, not only to reassure us that the Israelis treat Palestinians—400 of whom they have killed in Gaza over the past few months—humanely, but to trot out the absurd notion of a ticking time bomb, the idea that we know a terrorist has planted a large bomb in the center of the city and we must torture him, or in the glib phrase of Harris, we must dust off “a strappado” and expose “this unpleasant fellow to a suasion of bygone times” (P. 193).
I guess this reference to torture is amusing if you have spent your life encased in the protected world of the university. As someone who was captured and held for over a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the 1991 Shiite uprising in Basra and then turned over for my final 24 hours to the Iraqi secret police—who my captors openly expected to execute me—I find this glib talk of physical abuse repugnant. Dershowitz and Harris cannot give us a legal or historical precedent where such a case as they describe actually happened. But this is not the point; the point is to endow themselves with the moral right to abuse others in the name of their particular version of goodness. This is done in the name of reason. It is done in the name of a false god, an idol. And this god—if you want it named—is the god of death, or as Freud stated, Thanatos, the death instinct, the impulse that works toward the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves. For once you torture, done in the name of reason, done to make us safe, you unleash sadists and killers. You consign some human beings to moral oblivion. You become no better than those you oppose.
The danger of Sam’s simplistic worldview is that it does what fundamentalists do: It creates the illusion of a binary world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality, of the forces of light battling the forces of darkness. And once you set up this world you are permitted to view as justified military intervention, brutal occupation and even torture, anything, in short, that will subdue what is defined as irrational and dangerous. All this is done in the name of reason, in the name of his god, which looks, like all idols, an awful lot like Sam Harris.
“Necessity,” William Pitt wrote, “is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.”
Sam ends his book with a chapter that can best be described as Buddhism light. His spirituality, which apparently includes life after death and telepathy, fuels our narcissistic obsession with our individual unconscious. I am not against solitude or meditation, but I support it only when it feeds the moral life rather than serves as an excuse to avoid moral commitment. The quest for personal fulfillment can become an excuse for the individual to negate his or her responsibilities as a citizen, as a member of a wider community. Sam’s religion—for Sam in an odd way tries at the end of his book to create one—is in tune with this narcissism. His idealized version of Buddhism is part of his inability to see that it too has been used to feed the lusts of warriors and killers, it too has been hijacked in the name of radical evil. Buddhist Shinto warrior cults justified and absolved those who carried out the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese in Nanjing. By the end of World War II Buddhist and Shinto priests recruited and indoctrinated kamikaze (divine wind) pilots in the name of another god. It is an old story. It is not the evil of religion, but the inherent capacity for evil of humankind.
We have forgotten who we were meant to be, who we were created to be, because we have forgotten that we find God not in ourselves, finally, but in our care for our neighbor, in the stranger, including those outside the nation and the faith. The religious life is not designed to make you happy, or safe or content; it is not designed to make you whole or complete, to free you from anxieties and fear; it is designed to save you from yourself, to make possible human community, to lead you to understand that the greatest force in life is not power or reason but love.
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