Christopher Hedges Doesn’t Believe in Atheists—and Neither Do I: A Review of Hedges’s Most Recent Book, and Why PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins Would Do Well to Read It Too

In light of PZ Myers’s recent flirtation with atheist illiberalism and iconoclasm, and Richard Dawkins’s knee-jerk defense of him, I think that thoughtful liberals, both secular and religious, might consider reading Christopher Hedges’s most recent book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

Hedges has been an international correspondent for the New York Times, and he wrote, last year, a widely discussed book on the dangers of Christian fundamentalism titled, American Fascists.

In his most recent book, Hedges’s thesis is that the neo-atheist movement is as susceptible to authoritarian, and even totalitarian, impulses as religious fundamentalism.

Hedges’s book is thus practically a primer to thinking about the drift of PZ Myers away from liberal tolerance and basic civility. 

Hedges is concerned about the human propensity toward externalizing evil, demonizing opponents, and committing violence in the name of utopian progress, whether conceived as bringing on the second coming of Jesus, an Islamic caliphate, or a more broadly secular society.

A few months back, when I first read the book, I thought that Hedges’s rhetoric was excessive, and I was not prepared to call the neo-atheist impulse as, in the main, tending toward the authoritarian or the fundamentalist.

But after following reader forum comments on various topics at Dawkins’s website, as well as the recent incident surrounding Myers, I now think it is fair to say that prominant neo-atheists sometimes veer toward being illiberal, and are often attracting followers who are deeply bigoted, impatient with nuance, intolerant of human diversity, and psychologically closed off in ways that mirror fundamentalism. 

Another thing I like about Hedges’s book is that he does not let neo-atheist leaders (such as Dawkins and Sam Harris) off the hook wherever they indulge in illiberalism (as in the areas of parental control over child-rearing, and saber-rattling toward Muslim nations). He offers an example of a principled, liberal stance against extremism and intolerance. 

Hedges wants to live in a pluralistic global society, not one that increasingly veers toward homogenization (religious or secular). He wants people to grow up, walk in the shoes of others, and not be so cock-sure of their own conclusions.

But in this sense, alas, Hedges is being a bit Utopian himself.

Still, I Don’t Believe in Atheists is an excellent, life affirming, and complex reflection on the human condition. The title of the book strikes me as mostly a way of grabbing attention so that Hedges can address the (to me more profound) subject of the human propensity toward totalitarianism.

In this sense, a good book to accompany this one is Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers, a historical study of the clash between religion and politics in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hedges book can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Believe-Atheists-Chris-Hedges/dp/141656795X/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Christopher Hedges Doesn’t Believe in Atheists—and Neither Do I: A Review of Hedges’s Most Recent Book, and Why PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins Would Do Well to Read It Too

  1. Tauriq Moosa says:

    A book by Prof. John N. Gray has also been written, but probably more broadly and in depth than Hedges’. Gray’s book “Black Mass and the Death of Utopia” (might be wrong), is indeed a case showing how the fight of utopia leads to dystopia.

    But I think these labels like “neo-atheist” or “new-atheists” are stupid and incorrect. What does that even mean? Atheists writers who speak against religion? Wow, there’s a surprise! But there’s nothing new about that. Nietzsche is far more provocative I would wager, when blatantly attacking George Eliot (pseud.) and the Church head on.

    The danger of atheism? Well I think it is wrong to say that there is a danger in atheism strictly speaking. Any human world-view can lead to violence, anger and destruction. As Christopher Hitchens says: “we’re half a chromosome a way from an ape… and it shows!” Here the pun is on the incorrectly attributed word “ape” meaning chaotic, savage, etc.

    The danger is forgetting the raison d’etre of secular humanism and its tennets. Respect, empathy, compassion and FREE ENGAGEMENT – recognising othes as humans regardless of faith, culture, etc. This is what all the so-called “neo-atheist” writers are fighting for and each in his writings has stated plainly he knows the dangers of fundamentalism in every mindset, religious or secular, all too well. Hedges’ assumptions are nothing new, incorrect and simply wishy-washy (though that is unfair considering I have not read the book but I have read many books and articles espousing the same thing as you described).

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