What’s eating Chris Hedges?

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.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to What’s eating Chris Hedges?

  1. Amanda says:

    But what is Hedges’ view on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus????

    (Great post)

  2. 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.

    I know I take my life in my hands here (or to speak less melodramatically, I know I will be misunderstood here), but I wonder how many of those kinds of people there are? Of course there are lots of fundamentalists – but I don’t really know any – and I don’t have much respect for them – or at least their beliefs. So I’ve not interested myself much in them.

    What of the others?

    I know of the jokes in Yes Prime Minister where a major wing of the Anglican Church is what you join if you don’t actually believe in God. But I know of lots of people for whom I have lots of respect – not just for their ethics but also for their intellects – who think of themselves as very serious Christians who, at least on my guess, regard the doctrines of Christianity as metaphors for something, rather than anything resembling scientific truth.

    They may use expressions like “their relationship with God”. They may use expressions that come to us from a time when those who believed didn’t face much tension between scientific truth and the ‘religious truth’ they sought in religion. But what does it mean to them. They may take the view (I’m thinking without a great deal of evidence, that they take the view) that that kind of language is as accurate, as true to what they’re trying to do as any other language they might use.

    But they may not actually think of God in a way that means you can grab hold of their words and say “There, well what IS this thing that you have a personal relationship with?” as if you’re going to get the same kind of answer as the answer you’re after when you say “what is the cause of the collapsing population of polar bears in the Arctic?”

    We are dealing here with very basic orientations towards meaning. One can take this on an epistemological plain as I did in this comment, though it’s more common to take it on an ethical plain. Either way, we have a bunch of people who seem like intelligent people – people as much of reason as we recognise any of ourselves to be, who would simply say that they’re not being listened to. That they’re being (more or less completely) misunderstood.

    It simply isn’t satisfying to me to say of people who I regard as being worthy of great respect in a discussion are just guilty of the most basic and elementary errors as a result of wishful thinking or some new age desire to be ‘open minded’. And though I’m not a believer, I have no problem with thinking that speaking of one’s relationship with God, or in many of the myriad ways that one tends to within a religious tradition is not some piece of mindless adherence to some relic of the pre-scientific age. I’d go as far as to say that in some sense it might in the final analysis be wrong, or wrong headed, though I’m blowed if I know how we’d ever find out, but it is not trivially stupid, which is basically the message of the militant atheists.

  3. Vee says:

    It is similar to the defence of Ron Paul and libertarians at Catallaxy.
    Alls it takes is one nut to stray from what it means to be Christian or Libertarian or any other philosophy and thats how it becomes perceived in the wider world. Its happened with Communism or should that be Leninism, Stalinism, etc.

    Its currently happening with Libertarianism, Christianity, perhaps Islam and arguably democracy.

  4. James Farrell says:

    Nicholas, the one thing that’s obvious from your comment is that you haven’t been raised in any religion. There is nothing ‘fundamentalist’ about my description of God that you quoted. It’s what 99.9% of self-identified Christians purport to believe. (Whether they actually believe it is another matter). If your friends don’t think of their God as someone they can pray to, someone who communicates with them in some manner, is capable of interceding in events on their behalf; and if they don’t believe in an afterlife; they are not even theists, let alone Christians as I use the term. At best they are deists. Of course, if they want to call themselves Christians for other reasons, that’s their privilege. And if they want to refer to this or that abstraction as ‘God’, who is to say whether it’s the same God that the Bible refers to, or the one in whose name Jerry Falwell asked for money?

    I’m not sure where Hedges stands on this — perhaps he’ll explain in his book. But the version of Christianity he espouses doesn’t sound that different from Humanism. If his difference with the atheists boils down to how much credit Christianity — and monotheism in general — deserves for the development of rationalism and liberal democracy, that doesn’t seem to justify a complete hatchet job on them.

  5. Stewart says:

    Sorry to come in late here, but just a comment on the habit of calling certain atheists fundamentalists. The philosopher A C Grayling has an essay, Can an atheist be a fundamentalist? in the collection edited by Hitchens called The Portable Atheist. Here is the take-no-prisoners first para:

    It is also time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase ‘fundamentalist atheist’. What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god [a divine foot, say, or buttock]? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? [That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays]. Or might it be that a nonfundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?

    Nicholas Gruen won’t be happy with this quote, but I happen to agree with it. Every single development in civilisation in the last few centuries in the West – and thankfully there have been many – has been fought tooth and nail by the organised religions. I too know many nice Christian folks, even highly intelligent ones, but I haven’t heard a single coherent argument for their beliefs. And history teaches us how terribly damaging those beliefs have been, when given the political power to be acted upon.

  6. James Farrell says:

    You’re not especially late, Stewart. This topic won’t go away in a hurry.

    I agree with the first three-quarters of Grayling’s statement. (And you’re right: Nicholas won’t like it.) But I’ve found that these discussions always get bogged down and acrimonious when one side starts claiming all the credit for modern civilisation, or blaming the other for mass murders of the past. Can we ever establish whether the Inquisition represented true Christianity, rather than merely a nasty mutation; or whether Stalin killed millions “in the name of” atheism? If someone wants to give a bit of credit to Christianity for laying the foundations of modern science, or abolishing slavery (notwithstanding the opposition of some Christians), I can’t see that this needs to be rebutted ferociously at every turn. It’s not as though a few favourable historical consequences of Christianity add weight to its adherents’ claims about God.

  7. Stewart says:

    On the old Stalin chestnut, he was clearly a psychopath, and not the first, only the most powerful. He certainly wasn’t thinking of atheism during his killing spree, any more than Suharto or other mass-murderers. My argument would be that the relentless thrust of liberal education and democratisation – basically enlightement values, is our best guarantee against such types seizing and maintaining power.
    The Inquisition wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. Only a few centuries ago Europe was essentially a theocratic entity, with monarchs claiming themselves to be God’s representatives, and using this licence to ride roughshod over their subjects. The Catholic church, as well as its Protestant adversaries, had enormous political power, with the burning of heretics and witches at the stake, the incredible brutalities of the Thirty Years War and the English Rovolution etc etc. In spite of the world wars of the twentieth century, from which we have learned much, Europe [now more united than ever] is enjoying an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The emasculation of organised religion as a political phenomenon has played its part in this development. Look at any modern theocracy and you will see a state noted for its brutality and backwardness. This isn’t ‘ferocious’ stuff, it’s just basic observation. As to the role Christianity has played in modern science, I’d love to be informed of it.

  8. Woops – the previous post should have read – “But most peoples response to this would not be to become athiests[I meant ‘anarchists’], but to believe in the value of constraints on government, developments of the doctrine and institutions of governments.”

  9. Stewart,

    I’m not sure if I won’t like it. I just don’t think much of it. Right now lefties blame ‘capitalism’ for any number of things – the exploitation of the environment. But in fact it’s part of the ground of our being. So some of our nasty tendencies have capitalism as their ground. (Just as the Russians managed to rape their environment – rather more badly than we did – through socialism.) I guess it’s legitimate to offer some views based on this. Ie ‘capitalism is better for the environment than socialism’. But I think it makes more sense to speak with closer attention to the specific facts of situations rather than have these great lumbering abstractions churn up the landscape.

    Likewise the ‘battle’ between ‘Christianity’ and science. The early builders of science – most of them anyway – were believing Christians. There were (perhaps), things in Christianity that made it more likely that Christians – particularly Protestant ones – would develop science. (Of course this is speculative and of course there were lots of other things going on). And then there were those in the establishment who were threatened by the new ideas – and they were (necessarily) a Christian establishment. Does this reflect badly on ‘Christianity’. It does perhaps reflect badly on established Christian institutions. Then again lots of people in governments went along. Does this reflect badly on ‘governments’. Perhaps. But most people’s response to this would not be to become anarchists, but to believe in the value of constraints on government, developments of the doctrine and institutions of governments.

    One might believe that even if such risks were ever present in governments, that they were still a good thing, and the best one could aim for was to ameliorate the risks. If one were a believing Christian, and a believing Christian who valued the church – quite a few aren’t too impressed with the church and some don’t fancy it much at all – one might take a similar view of the church.

  10. P says:

    Maybe the militant atheists are not fundamentalists. They do however seem to think in black and white. Nor is there any “I disagree with what you say, but will defend your right …”. Demonisation of the “other” is not an effective strategy for achieving change IMO.

  11. Amanda says:

    Likewise the battle between Christianity and science. The early builders of science – most of them anyway – were believing Christians.

    They were mostly all astrologers of some kind too. So what?

    A Scientologist could come up with a slam dunk consistent quantum thory of gravity tomorrow and it would not lend credibility to claims made about Xenu. That person being a Scientologist wouldn’t take away credibility from the idea either, if it stood on its own merits.

    Does the god you speak of exist and what evidence can you provide for what you say? They’re the only important questions to me and the ones that need to be satisfied before we move on — and they’re the ones people most want to obsfuscate on and hand-wave away because … well I guess because I’ve never seen anyone answer it satisfactorally.

  12. Amanda, I think I agree with where you’re coming from. But the quote you take from me is in the context of responding to others.

  13. Amanda says:

    Point taken. Hey maybe this heated online debate will finally be the one that solves all the arguments. ;-)

  14. James Farrell says:

    Thanks, Amanda: I just got around to listening to that. The poor interviewer is coming from the same position as I was in the post. I think Hedges is right that the violence committed in the name of various religions can’t be blamed on religion per se, and that an excessive distrust of religion (in other cultures) can feed into xenophobic neocon ideology. On the other hand, I think he underestimates the tendency of religion to develop into ant-rational and tribal ideologies which legitimate violence even they don’t directly motivate it. I was also a bit irritated by Hedges’ constant appeals to his own vast knowledge and experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.