Douglas Adams famously referred to himself as a “militant Atheist,” mostly so that people would know he did not, in fact, believe God existed; he didn’t want to be confused with a garden-variety agnostic. However, the last few years have given rise–or at least a lot more attention–to an atheism that is militant in the more traditional understanding. These atheists have raised their profile considerably, collectively publishing thousands of pages on their belief system, and spending a good amount of time on the bestseller lists as a result. To wit: Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Sam Harris’s The End of Belief and Letter To A Christian Nation; and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
More on them later; for now, let’s have a look at one of the products of a pendulum shift in the other direction, courtesy of Chris Hedges. Previously the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists, Hedges trained early on as a seminarian, and later cut his teeth as a journalist for the New York Times. With I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges concerns himself with—to borrow a phrase from Tariq Ali—the clash of fundamentalisms. In doing this, he’s delivered not only a good read, but also something that will hopefully start a lively (not to mention probably heated) debate.
In the author’s own words:
We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species toward a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion (if you are secular) is blamed genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. “Secular humanism” (if you are born again) is branded as a tool of Satan.
Hedges suggests that it’s neither religion nor atheism that’s at the root of the problem. The real issue is human nature itself. We are not, he says, as far from our animal nature as we’d like to suggest; we’re neither as close to being rational supermen, or spiritual masters, as we’d like to think, or at least as those on the extremes would have us think. We can try our damnedest, but while individuals may show wisdom, compassion, deep thought, and all the rest, we’ll always have to deal with the darker undercurrents within us.
Atheists, you could pretty easily grant, have a broad (not to mention soft) target when it comes to religious fundamentalism. Not only have many atheists been turned away from faith by what they see as the worst excesses of fundamentalism, but some of the faithful have also found cause to cringe. There’s certainly a long enough laundry list of complaints: the sidelining of science, the stifling of rational inquiry and healthy skepticism, religious involvement in matters both dubious (intelligent design) and shameful (the Inquisition, 9/11, et cetera). There’s a lot to be said for questioning religion in good faith (pun only partly intended).
It’s another matter entirely, though, when you take on the very traits in your adversary that you profess to despise. Ralph Ellison said once—I think in Shadow and Act, but I’m not positive—“Never let your enemy be your teacher.” So it’s disheartening that of all the messages that fundamentalist atheists, unlike their less strident counterparts, could take to heart from fundamentalist religionists, the take-away would be an irrational closed-mindedness.
Religious fundamentalists are bedeviled by a similar dilemma. Hedges quotes Hitchens:
And I say to the Christians while I’m at it, ‘Go love your own enemies; by the way, don’t be loving mine. […] I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it. And I think it’s sickly and stupid and suicidal to say that we should love those who hate us and try to kill us and our children and burn our libraries and destroy our society. I have no patience with this nonsense.
Sounds more than a bit like Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, or Osama Bin Laden. But then, fundamentalism does make for strange bedfellows, and apparently also means never having to say you’re sorry. The irony is that each side, by portraying the other in caricature form, ends up living up to its adversary’s worst fears.
If we take religious fundamentalists at their word, then the religious impulse carried to the nth degree will be to the betterment of humanity, no questions asked (literally). This overlooks the anti-intellectualism, not to mention the anti-so-much-else that comes with the fundamentalist experiment. It’s hard to argue for something like Paradise on earth when different fundamentalist sects can’t even agree on the form and nature of that paradise, to say nothing of the nature, actions, and motives of God.
To be fair, though, let’s take the atheist argument at face value for a minute. Science has, after all, given us an understanding of the world that changes and grows at an almost exponential rate; has eradicated diseases, lengthened life, and augmented our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. But science has precious little to tell us about the ethics of the prices of the medications that can eradicate or control diseases being out of reach of many of those that need them most, about the quality and meaning of life, and our responsibility to the world in which we live. When it comes to finding the wisdom to put this knowledge to the best possible use, and to so much as acknowledge (much less explain) the transcendent, science falls silent.
Science and religion are complimentary, rather than competing, disciplines. Religion, at its best, can act as a moral and ethical check on the worst excesses of science. Science, on the other hand, has much to teach religion; a spirit of inquiry deepens the spiritual path from mere faith to a fuller, and richer, practice. It would be foolish, then, to suggest that neither side has anything to offer the other. We stand to deepen our understanding both of the sacred and the profane, allowing us to accept the best that each has to offer, while ameliorating the worst traits of both.