I don’t believe in Atheists

I don’t believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges is a book that looks at the arguments put forth by the current crop of atheist books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris and declares them to be poor and not offering the wealth of insight into humanity that Hedges claims that religion does.

Hedges has a masters in Divinity and worked much of his career as a journalist in conflict zones around the world. He was in El Salvador and then in Bosnia during the way. He also lived in Jerusalem and Cairo and speaks Arabic. He is also very learned, the book is full of quotations from philosophical and religious figures. It is clear that Hedges has a wider familiarity with philosophy than the atheists that he looks at. Dennett who is a philosopher is mentioned less, but Dennet is also a philosopher who is more concerned with science.  Hedges’ book is clearly coloured by his world view that comes from having seen first hand the horrors that man can inflict on man.

Hedges concentrates on Harris in the book. Harris’ book, The End of Faith, is a poor book whose main point appears to be that atheists should support a war against Islam, even if it kills millions. Harris is, as Hedges points out, completely ignorant about the Middle East. Hedges points out that this ignorance on Harris’ part is particularly important when dealing with Islams attitude to killing people which is far more compassionate and against killing than Harris makes out.Hedges states that he thinks that Harris is a new type of fundamentalist who believes in the perfectibility of humans and the extermination of those with different points of view.

Hedges looks at science in the second chapter and appears to think that science is amoral. He points out that science does not provide a basis for a system of belief. He also goes into the many ways in which scientific discoveries have been used for evil. Hedges also refutes fundamentalist religious views about creationism and evolution with aplomb. He states that these are comic book views that crumble but that accepting these scientific ideas does not weaken the case for religion.

Hedges looks at what he sees as the myth of moral progress. This is a very interesting part of the book where Hedges states that humans have not made moral progess. It’s a controversial statement. While humanity still fights violent wars and does evil things surely the reduction in deaths as a percentage of humanity in the twentieth century means something. Also there has been a reduction in the number of wars over the past 40 or so years. In addition there is far less slavery than there was 200 years ago and the general attitude to slavery has changed. Perhaps this is not moral progress and is merely material progress, but perhaps not. Is the equality, albeit somewhat theoretical, that men, women of any race, religion and sexual orientation now have under the law really not a sign of some moral progress?

The book makes the point that human perfectibility is a dangerous illusion and that humans are complex entities that need to be looked as imperfect moral creatures with free will and that we need to be humble in our own assessments of ourselves. He believes that religion provides the best way to find a guide to looking at ourselves. He makes the point well. As an atheist I’d have to say that his book impressed me more than the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and Harris. It would be good to find as good a book about atheism as Hedges’ book is that is written by an atheist. Hedges shows that atheist thought has a lot to learn from religion.



One response to “I don’t believe in Atheists

  1. Your point about slavery is interesting in that it makes clear that material and moral progress can’t be separated but feed off each other. Material equality for men and women makes it easier to argue for moral equality, and moral equality makes it easier to argue for fairness in material equality.

    The same argument could be made for medical advances – cures for diseases could only be effective when society decided that the poor were worth worrying about and should be able to enjoy freedom from disease.

    Sounds like an interesting book, though the first chapter sounds a bit like a straw-man argument- is it?

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