Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe in Atheists

I have mentioned author Chris Hedges before.  I love his work--for the most part.  Three years ago, however, he debated Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about the merits of religion and didn't fare well--primarily because he was on the wrong side of the argument.  But, rather than recognize this fact, he expressed his feelings by writing a book in which he engaged in a combined "straw man" and "ad hominem" counterargument.

The debates, of course, weren't about the actual existence of god.  Chris Hedges knows better than to go there. Like so many intelligent religious people, he bases his convictions on the usefulness of religion.  This was the focus of the debates but, unfortunately, was not the focus of his book.

Instead, Hedges engaged in a mis-characterization of what Harris and Hitchens had to say and then focused his attention on that.  He said that the new atheists externalize evil and don't accept that it comes from within us and that a utopian society can be created through violence. 

First, with regard to the sources of evil, I don't recall any atheist, new or otherwise, ever saying something so simple minded as the idea that people are good and that all evil comes from religion.  Yet, that appears to be what Chris Hedges thought he heard.  I think the reason he heard it was his unwillingness to hear what they were actually saying:  Religion is a bad thing because it makes people behave worse than they would without it.

Hedges believes that all evil comes from within us, apparently.  Unfortunately, he fails to see that this includes religion because it come from within us as well.  And, as I have taken pains to say before, it comes from a dark place within us.

Hedges also thinks that humans will simply find other excuses to do bad things if religion is eliminated from our society.  That may be partly true but it's hardly a good reason for ignoring a source of evil that is currently a favorite of evildoers.  The obvious response to that argument is that we will fight against those new excuses when they do arise.  Let's get rid of the biggest, baddest, and oldest of the excuses for human evil, religion, first.  Hedges' argument is analogous to saying there is no reason to fight a deadly disease because its victims will just die of something else if we save them.

Not only is religion the current problem, its age and entrenchment in society make it uniquely evil--as do the centuries of polish and finesse that the religious have brought to its methods for causing evil.

Newer reasons for doing evil should be easier to fight because they will be less familiar and less well packaged and thus easier to spot and defend against.  Furthermore, establishing the precedent that irrational mind memes can and should be eliminated will make it easier to do so.

Our current attitude toward rationalizations for evil is a large part of the problem itself.  It will certainly be the case that people will find new reasons to do evil so long as we allow the standards for sanity to be based on something other than objective facts and pretend that popular forms of irrationality are not insanity and must be respected.

People already have a natural tendency to see those who aren't members of their group as less than human.  Any philosophy that divides people into groups artificially and encourages them to see others as immoral or evil simply for not being a member of their group is itself an evil philosophy.  How do we know about this natural tendency?  Through scientific observation and analysis--not from some holy book written by scientific illiterates.

People do have a tendency to do such things and to rationalize them and to delude themselves.  They probably always will because the seeds of those negative behaviors were planted by nature's formation of our brains through accretion of increasingly higher functioning layers without jettisoning the earlier ones.

Should we for that reason accept the idea that we are just "bad" and do nothing about it?  Of course not.

Should we not strive to make ourselves better?  Should we not strive to create a society that is more like a utopia, even though we know we can never actually create a utopia?

Of course we should.

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