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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 3)

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.

The point of religion, authentic religion, is that it is not, in the end, about us.  It is about the other, about the stranger lying beaten and robbed on the side of the road, about the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized, the sick, the destitute, about those who are being abused and beaten in cells in Guantanamo and a host of other secret locations, about what we do to gays and lesbians in this country, what we do to the 47 million Americans without health insurance, the illegal immigrants who live among us without rights or protection, their suffering as invisible as the suffering of the mentally ill we have relegated to heating grates or prison cells.  It is about them.

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.

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.


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By Ga, May 23, 2007 at 8:29 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 8:08 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 7:59 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 7:51 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 7:51 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 7:12 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 6:24 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 6:17 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 6:06 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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