Coming out in March 2008
I’ve just finished reading American Fascists, in which the famous American war correspondent Chris Hedges presents a deeply unpleasant portrait of the Christian Right. Much of the story will be unsurprising to readers who’ve been paying attention to the phenomenon: what distinguishes Hedges’ book is its explicit characterisation of the movement as fascist. Drawing on the writings of Hannah Arendt, Fritz Stern and various other philosophers and sociologists, he establishes a theoretical model of fascism and proceeds to show the ‘Christian dominionist’ program corresponds to it, point by point.
If you’re on his side, Hedges’ critique is very satisfying. In fact the vehemence of his invective is reminiscent of Hitchens, Dawkins and other anti-religious polemicists attracting attention at the moment. But whereas those authors are atheists, Hedges is in fact a Christian, and indeed his main motivation is outrage at the hijacking of Christianity by the dominionists, and their total distortion, as he sees it, of the belief system he grew up with — one which stresses reflection, respect, tolerance, peace and so on. These considerations led me to wonder to what extent Hedges has engaged with the atheists, and whether he would have sought an alliance with them against a common foe, or whether he would have given priority to defending religion itself against the atheist assault, and insisting on the difference between good and bad Christianity.
It’s the latter, it seems. A quick google turns up several articles and video debates, where Hedges is found accusing the atheists of not only mistaking the mutated Christianity for the real thing, but also of overlooking the indispensable role monotheism has played in the emergence of individualism, altruism, modern ethics, and the open society.
But now it seems Hedges has tired of having to defend his religion, and gone on the rampage against the atheists, in a new book entitled I Don’t Believe in Atheists. According to the Amazon blurb, the book argues that
The new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, do not make moral arguments about religion. Rather, they have created a new form of fundamentalism that attempts to permeate society with ideas about our own moral superiority and the omnipotence of human reason…
Hedges claims that those who have placed blind faith in the morally neutral disciplines of reason and science create idols in their own image — a sin for either side of the spectrum. He makes an impassioned, intelligent case against religious and secular fundamentalism, which seeks to divide the world into those worthy of moral and intellectual consideration and those who should be condemned, silenced and eradicated. Hedges shatters the new atheists’ assault against religion in America, and in doing so, makes way for new, moderate voices to join the debate. This is a book that must be read to understand the state of the battle about faith.
The charge of arrogance is familiar, and has been aired by other writers on this very blog, but I don’t see any justification for it. People pooh-pooh astrology all the time, and no reasonable person complains that they are arrogant and aggressive, that they are straying from their areas of expertise, that they ignoring the difference between naive and sophisticated versions of astrology, or that they are countering one dogma (astrology is right) with an equally untenable dogma of their own.
In any case, I don’t get the feeling Hedges is particularly concerned about the rude an mocking tone directed at Christain theology. He doesn’t give the impression that he wants to defend any aspect of Christian doctrine at all. He defines God in a way that is pretty much unrecognisable to those of us accustomed to thinking of God as a supernatural being with human-like qualities, who communicates with us an a personal level, who awards merit and demerit points:
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. God is that mysterious forceand you can give it many names as other religions dowhich works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty and goodness.
As theological dogma goes, this would at worst entitle Hedges to be a classed as a ‘murky’, Daniel Dennett’s term for people who insist they believe in God but refuse to be so vulgar as to attribute any particular characteristics to Him. You get the impression that he agrees with most of the atheists’ critique of Christian theology, and perhaps even enjoys their flaying of the Falwells and Robertses. If anything, what he doesn’t want is to be lumped with people like that himself. Having grown up in a progressive and enlightened branch of Christianity, intensely proud of the his father, a Presbyterian minister who opposed the Vietnam War and stood up for for gay rights in the name of Christianity, he is not prepared to hand over the brand name to a bunch of fascist bullies who represent the opposite of the values he stands for. I think that this indignation, which he feels on behalf of many religious people, and not just Christians, is the key to his whole position: the chief crime of the atheists is their determination to tar all Christians with the same brush, and it is this stubbornness that gives their project its authoritarian and dangerous character.
If Hedges really plans to show that their movement is nothing less than the mirror image of the religious monster unmasked in American Fascists, it won’t be an easy task. In the earlier book he provided abundant examples of cult-like and fascist practices by the Christian Right, which clearly: aspires to political power and aims to entrench its values in the Constitution; fetishises violence in the form of apocalyptic Judgement Day scenarios; stirs up hatred against homosexuals; isolates its members from mainstream information and expert opinion; preys on the most abused and downtrodden members of society; brainwashes its members, cutting them them off from family and friends, and demanding a huge commitments in terms of loyalty, time and money; promotes a cult of masculinity and male authority; and attacks science while advancing its own pseudoscience in its place.
One would think that in making the case that the atheist movement has even a few of these tendencies, Hedges will have an uphill battle. However, in the later parts of this debate with Sam Harris he makes a valid point: that the neo-con ideology fused two groups with little in common other than a hysterical attitude to Islam — the religious right, who see Middle Eastern politics in terms of a cosmic struggle; and evangelists for Western culture and institutions, who regard Islam as the stubbornest manifestation of backwardness and superstition. Thus, it emerges that Hedges’ biggest concern about the atheist surge is its role in the ideolological justification for the neo-con geopolitical agenda. If you can convince people that an entire nation or group of nations suffers from a virulent brain virus — in this case Islam — that renders them as amenable to reason and compromise as a pack of rabid dogs, it is much easier to win support for violence against them. Almost all of his examples have to do with either Israeli attitudes to Palestinians or American attitudes to Arabs in general.
Particularly on the basis of his dealings with Bosnian Muslims, Hedges clearly feels a strong affinity with anyone who understands religion in the terms he does — not subservience to some celestial monarch, but an instinctive altruism and faith that truth and goodness will prevail — and feels insulted on behalf of all the enlightened Muslims who are caught up in the neo-con net of demonisation.
But the current wave of populising atheists are not all neocons. Both Dawkins and Dennett are opponents of the Iraq war, and indeed, like Hedges, use the Bush-Cheney Christian connection as evidence of the perils of adopting a dogmatic and belligerent worldview. Hitchens, on the other hand, did support the Iraq War. Harris has gained a bit of notoriety as a defender of torture in the Dershowitz-Bagaric tradition, and appears to be the crudest of the quartet when it come to making simplistic generalisations about Muslims and characterising Islam as inherently malign. But neither of the latter two could remotely be called a crusader; their concerns about Islamo-fascism have only the tiniest overlap with the Christian Right’s portrayal of Muslim countries as the massed armies of Satan.
I have a hunch Hedges’ new book would not even have been written if Hitchens had only subtitled his book How Religion Poisons a Lot of Things. It’s a shame he didn’t, because I’d prefer that they were allies.