I Don’t Believe in Atheists: An Interview with Chris Hedges

By John W. Whitehead
June 02, 2008

“The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists; it comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species. Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear. We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally.”—Chris Hedges

In I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free Press, 2008), best-selling author Chris Hedges identifies the “New Atheists,” including Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, as those who attack religion to advance the worst of global capitalism, intolerance and imperialist projects. He accuses them of a disturbing agenda—embracing a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists.

Hedges identifies the main pillars of the new atheist belief system, including a simplified world view of us versus them, intolerance and an irrational belief in science as the force that will resolve all problems, including the irredeemable flaws of human nature. He argues that this belief is itself an act of faith. Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity in the battle against terrorism and irrational religion. They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, which never posits that moral evolution is possible, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Hedges argues that they are a secular version of the religious Right.

Hedges did not take Harris or Hitchens seriously until recently when he debated them in Los Angeles and San Francisco and realized that their arguments were attracting large followings. As a seminary graduate and son of a Presbyterian minister, Hedges strongly believes that religion, at its best, struggles with the transcendent forces in life and seeks to promote an ethic of compassion and justice. Yet he is not blind to the ways religion has been distorted, especially by fundamentalists, to promote intolerance, exclusion and violence.

In I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges also insists that the war in Iraq was a mistake and that the new atheists that supported the war are wrong. He argues that those leaders who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams real. They believe, as did Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, that the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. Hedges argues that the new atheists, and their dangerous beliefs, are the most recent iteration of an old faith and must be stopped before they become more influential than they already are.

Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He was a member of the team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the New York Times coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Hedges is the author of the bestseller American Fascists and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He is a Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute and a Lannan Literary Fellow and has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University.

Chris Hedges took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer some questions from me for Oldspeak.

John Whitehead: Let me quote from your book: “It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency—this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit—that is the most disturbing aspect of all of these belief systems. There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally.” You paint a very dark view of human nature. Can you comment?
Chris Hedges: I don’t think it’s dark. It’s realistic. It captures the wisdom of original sin. And the wisdom of original sin is born out by studies of cognitive behavior, psychoanalysis and the fact that we are driven by forces often subterranean—subliminal forces that we don’t fully understand. We can all be taken over by the irrational. We have a kind of myopia. We tend to view the world and our moral systems from the vantage point of our own position and what accentuates or even exalts us. We tend to believe that the societies we live in are moral. This is a fact of human nature, and not to see it is dangerous because you fall into these very frightening secular or religious utopian belief systems. Utopian is a word that means “no place.” Utopian worlds do not exist. And when you build ethical systems based on utopian beliefs, they always descend into criminality and moral depravity. The Fascist and Communist movements were utopian movements. In many ways, the war in Iraq is a classic example of a utopian movement. We don’t often look at Dick Cheney as a utopian, but he is. I spent seven years in the Middle East as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times. All of us who spent a prolonged period of time in the Middle East and spoke the language never felt that the war in Iraq or the occupation of Iraq was a good idea. I include those in the State Department, in the intelligence community and the Pentagon.

JW: We now know that it was not a good idea.
CH: At the time, those of us who were well versed in Iraq and in the Arabic world didn’t think it was a good idea. But that utopian vision of democracy being implanted in Baghdad, being greeted as liberators and the oil revenues paying for wonderful reconstruction was utopian. When utopian visions are backed by violence, they are very dangerous.

JW: But don’t we Americans believe we can go about the globe sprinkling seeds of truth, honesty, decency and democracy?
CH: Having spent 20 years abroad as a foreign correspondent, I watched it from the other end. Joseph Conrad got it right. Noble virtues, civilization and high ideals are more often a mask for a sort of rapacious theft of natural resources in the blunt and brutal colonialization and extermination of those who will not be subjugated. That is a much more accurate picture of what western society has done and has been doing for several centuries in the developing world. That is why Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is such an important piece of work. It exposes the kind of reality that most of us who live in these industrialized zones of safety don’t want to see or acknowledge.

JW: Movie theaters and television movie channels are flooded with horror movies that pose people as driven by deep, dark urges. This is epitomized by Stephen King’s statement, “We make up the horror to help us cope with real ones.” The horror is there. People are still viewing it. Is it just fiction now in a different form? What do you think?
CH: This is an interesting question, but I don’t watch horror movies. 

JW: Horror films are popular with young people. In fact, that is their audience.
CH: One could argue that a lot of video games are horrific in terms of their violence and moral depravity. I’m more worried about what the virtual world does in terms of creating isolated individuals. The more isolated you become, the more unbalanced or psychologically disturbed you become.

JW: Why can’t Americans see the fact that there is a really dark side to this country? It speaks to the true reality of human nature. The average American cannot see it. What’s happened to us? Why can’t we see the truth?
CH: We’ve learned to speak and think in the epistemology of television, which is one essentially filled with thought-terminating clichés. Television is really anti-thought and anti-self-reflection. This is what a consumer society is all about. It is about achieving this distorted notion of happiness and personal contentment, which, of course, you can never reach. That is what consumer societies are built upon. There is a kind of war against self-reflection, self-criticism and real introspection. We live in a society that regularly confuses our emotional response with knowledge. You can watch the election campaign to get a good example of that. Take Barack Obama as an example. Obama talks about hope and change. This is just an updated version of a Pepsi commercial.

JW: We’re a society based on clichés.
CH: But it’s not just Obama. The other candidates are not any different. This is very dangerous because it is all about how we’re made to feel, which means that we can be very easily manipulated. The media plays a role in all this. With the loss of foreign bureaus and the loss of serious reporting, which has virtually vanished from the electronic airwaves, we have been reduced to celebrity gossip and trivia which is now passed off as news. Having come out of the world of journalism, this is very frightening because what you do is essentially replicate the dying dynamic of any empire that falls in on itself. One thinks of Cicero writing about the Roman arena and the way the spectacle in the arena had consumed the emotional life of ordinary Romans and corrupted the civil and political discourse. Look at our own entertainment industry. It is really about bread and circuses. We exhibit many of the qualities of a dying empire. One of the most disturbing is this willful flight into fantasy about ourselves and the world we live in. It is a failure to confront reality—not only the reality of human history and the world around us, but even the reality of human nature. 

JW: I’m often asked, “What is the biggest danger sign you see about America?” My response is that Americans are no longer analytical thinkers because they no longer read. Of all the industrialized nations of the world, America rates low in terms of literacy rates. We spend more per capita on education than all the other industrialized countries combined. We no longer think. We no longer read, and that is a large part of it. When Obama, Clinton or McCain speaks, people don’t analyze it. They think emotionally. They don’t think analytically.
CH: That is characteristic of an image-based culture. That is what we have become. We’ve moved from a print-based culture to an image-based culture. When you live in an image-based culture, one responds emotionally, not intellectually. That is precisely what’s happening.

JW: We are the children of the Enlightenment.
CH:  Unfortunately, we are the children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing. It bought into the notion of progress and Christian linear time and the Christian notion of redemption and salvation through time.

JW: But without the doctrine of original sin.
CH: That’s the great failing. The Enlightenment thinkers dropped the notion of original sin and placed their faith in humankind, knowledge, education, reason and science to create the new heaven and the new earth. That is the great failing of the Enlightenment. I don’t want to disparage totally the Enlightenment because it was a reaction against the intellectual and the intellectual campaigns of the church, superstition, tribalism and repression. Many of the Jews were freed because of campaigns that grew out of the Enlightenment. But, at the same time, it is a very short step. We saw that first in the French Revolution with the Jacobins. They believed that we have to raise certain segments of the human race that are unenlightened to their level and where they won’t be raised because they are irredeemable and intractable and they have to be eradicated. That is what led to the committee of virtue and the reign of terror that left 80,000 French people dead.

JW: The utopian vision gave us a blood bath.
CH: Utopian visions wedded to force or a lust for violence have created more mounds of corpses than any other ideology or belief system in human history. Look at the twentieth century. The Fascist and Communist movements were utopian belief systems and were  heirs of the Enlightenment.

JW: More people died in the wars of the twentieth century as a result of the belief that science and technology could usher in a utopia.
CH: More people died because of the methods of killings. The forms of industrial slaughter made it possible to kill on a scale unimaginable in human history. But it was wedded to this disastrous belief that human nature, and in essence human history, could be changed by humankind. And as that proved harder and harder to do because it never works, more and more people had to die. The tools, methods and technology advance, but human morality remains static. Certainly industry, technology and science have nurtured and protected and, in many ways, enhanced life. But in equal measure, they have destroyed life. They serve human ambition, some of which is good and some of which is bad. It is science, technology and industry that are destroying the eco system that sustains the human species and that has unleashed forms of warfare that primarily target civilians and have left tens of millions dead in the last century. The failing of many of these atheists, which I think is at the core utopian vision, is that they believe human beings can progress morally in the same way that science has. That is a disastrous belief system. 

JW: These are the new atheists.
CH: That is the term they use to describe themselves. It is important to distinguish them from people like Nietzsche, who are very different. This includes Bertrand Russell, who right after World War II called for the United States to nuke the Soviet Union in defense of civilization. He later became a great anti-nuclear campaigner. This is just a whiff of how dangerous this belief system can be, even in the hands of somebody as moral as Russell. The new atheists are very different. Most of the great theologians and philosophers who in their day were reformers were branded as atheists. People like Spinoza and Martin Luther were branded as heretics. Atheism has an honored and important place in the western intellectual tradition. It has often been a spur to serious theologians in terms of thinking about reality in a new way. Nietzsche is the classic example. Nietzsche raised the concept of the death of God and a society that no longer believes in God. The moral consequence of the resulting moral nihilism is the will to power. Any serious student of theology cannot walk away without a great deal of respect for Nietzsche, who was a mixture of brilliance and insanity. But he is an important writer. The new atheists are intellectually bankrupt. They have nothing to offer in terms of serious moral, theological or even scientific debate. They are very much a product of the television age. They celebrate their own ignorance. The kinds of things they write about religion are religiously illiterate. I am very disturbed by the racist cant that they have unleashed toward the Muslim world. These people know nothing about the Islamic world. They don’t speak the language. They have never lived there.

JW: There is this idea that America can go anywhere in the world and basically wipe people out. Isn’t this the idea of people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris?
CH: Harris in his book The End of Faith calls for the U.S. to consider carrying out a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. This isn’t rational. This is insane. 

JW: This would mean annihilating a whole class of people.
CH: Harris even says this in the book. It would kill tens of millions of people and would be an unspeakable crime. He says that it may be our only option, given what these people believe. That kind of garbage is what you get from utopians and fundamentalists—Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. This is a fundamentalist mindset. One of the fascinating things about going after the new atheists is that it is exactly the same as going after radical Christian fundamentalists, as I did in my book American Fascists. The rage that is directed towards me emanates from the same source; that is, that I am going after their own form of self-exaltation in both cases. What I am saying to them is, “You are just as messed up as the rest of the human race.” They can’t hear that. The new atheists through secular language have created essentially a fundamentalist belief system that elevates them. In theological terms, it’s a form of idolatry. In the same way, the Christian Right often engages in a gross form of idolatry. The parallels between their belief system and the radical Christian Right is fascinating because it constantly twins. This includes the frightening belief that apocalyptic or catastrophic violence can be used as a kind of cleansing agent to purge the world in order to remove human impediments towards progress.

JW: Why do you believe that is true? Why do you believe they merge? Why does the philosophy of James Dobson or Pat Robertson, who are appalled by what Christopher Hitchens would have to say, merge?
CH: It is because they both offer a utopian vision—one in religious form and one in secular form. That is why their political agenda converges completely. That is not accidental.

JW: Are you saying they have the same goals in mind?
CH: They have the same intolerance. There is only one way to be, and that is their way. And one either speaks like them, looks like them, acts like them and thinks like them or one is relegated to a lower moral plane. People like James Dobson do that, and people like Christopher Hitchens do it. They are the same animal. They are both born out of the same distortion and anti-intellectualism. It’s a frightening self-worship that is bringing American culture to its knees. 

JW: You said earlier that the Enlightenment was in large part a reflection of and response to the church. Voltaire writes about some of the torture and other things he saw that really bothered him. Could you not argue, though, that this new atheism is more or less a reaction against what has been going on in the Christian Right for the last 30 years in this country?
CH: The new atheism is a reaction, and it has seduced many people on the secular left. Unfortunately, they are offering these people essentially a secular form of the same disease. One has to distinguish between religious institutions, which are human creations, and those who run them. Those who run such institutions are often interested more in the perpetuation of those institutions and their own power than anything else. The great religious figures have not only been at war with the society around them but often with the hierarchy of their own religious institutions. That was true of St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King. The list goes on and on. That is a distinction that neither the new atheists nor the Christian Right makes.   

JW: Both of these fundamentalisms work because people don’t think?
CH: They work because they invite people not to think. They tell people or their own followers that they are better than everyone else. That is what the new atheists do. I’ve debated Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Christian fundamentalists. It is the same.  They throw out empty, insulting clichés. The kinds of things the new atheists say about religion don’t characterize my religious tradition or belief system. But that is irrelevant. It delights their followers. It is their school-boyish putdowns. Whether it is against religion or, in the case of when you’re debating fundamentalists, they will tar me with being a secular humanist trying to destroy a Christian America. It is irrelevant what you say. When I debated Sam Harris, we had 1,500 people at UCLA. The people who came to hear Sam Harris didn’t hear a word I said. The same thing happens with Christian fundamentalists. I can talk about my own religious tradition. My father was a minister, my mother a seminary graduate. I grew up in the church and graduated from the seminary, but that is irrelevant. I am part of the war against Christians. Their followers hear exactly that, and it is very frightening.

JW: The new atheists have their own faith and their own religion.
CH: Of course. It is a malformed theology. It is really a blind religion and science.  Science is going to save us in the same way that Christian fundamentalists believe Jesus is going to come down from the sky and lift believers up into heaven. It is no more real than alchemy and just as intellectually shallow. To place a blind faith in science is to ignore the fact that most scientists in this country work on behalf of corporations and the defense industry.

JW: Science gave us the A bomb, the H bomb, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
CH: Yes, and the multiple pollutants that are destroying the planet. Not that there aren’t great and moral scientists. Einstein was one, although he came to it after the atomic bomb, in whose creation he played a large part. Science isn’t going to save us any more than a mythical Jesus descending from the sky is going to save us. And to somehow place your faith in this abstract notion is to relinquish ethical and moral responsibility. It is to fall into a kind of dreamy utopian vision that everything will be made alright. But everything isn’t going to be made alright. The warning signs are all around us. Fuel prices are going through the roof. American society, because of its militarism and the military industrial complex, is being hollowed out from the inside. Globalization is reducing the working class to a kind of global serfdom. The dire warnings about CO2 emissions, droughts and over-population—we are facing this and much more.

JW: We’re creating an amazing class of upper and very lower. The middle class is dwindling. At the same time, since 9/11, our government has become more centralized and authoritarian.
CH: If you go back and study how despotic systems or totalitarian systems come into play, the first thing they do is rewrite the legal code so that tyranny essentially becomes legal. We’ve already done that, although we haven’t implemented it yet. But in a moment of fear, panic and instability with a populace egged on by rapacious electronic media clamoring for safety, I believe we’re doomed. 

JW: Apparently the new atheists and the Christian Right are working hand-in-hand in offering their solutions to the problems.
CH: This is what frightens me. The new atheists don’t constitute a political mass movement the way the Christian Right does. They haven’t wormed their way into the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. But they are very popular in the universities.

JW: Books by the new atheists sell well in college towns.
CH: I don’t think they actually read them. They sympathize with them. I don’t know exactly what they read. I don’t actually speak at a lot of universities, but you’d be surprised at how little they read. They certainly sympathize with the new atheists. That’s why I believe the universities haven’t been more critical of the new atheists, which is fascinating. What worries me is that when we suffer another terrorist attack, these two essentially fundamentalist strains will come together. One is a secular fundamentalism, and one is a religious fundamentalism, both of which will call for horrific bloodletting. This is especially true if it is deemed that the terrorist attack came from the Muslim world. These attacks will not only be aimed at Muslims beyond our borders. I worry about the six million Muslims who live within our midst. To allow these two apocalyptic extremes to dominate the debate within the country makes it difficult and almost impossible for voices of moderation and those who have a respect for plurality to be heard.

JW: In your book, you emphasize that American culture is intellectually bankrupt and is a dying culture. Where is American culture headed? Is there any hope? 
CH: To use the phrase “American culture” is an oxymoron at this point. Both intellectual and religious culture have become grossly hedonistic and frighteningly violent. We have become a country of large, lumbering children with bombs. We no longer understand the world. We no longer understand ourselves. And yet we have tremendous power and capacity for destruction. Ultimately, while we can create a lot of havoc and unleash a lot of violence, what we are really doing is committing collective suicide. It’s the annihilation projects that we embark upon in places like Iraq that greatly concern me. Iraq is a perfect illustration of this sort of self-annihilation. That is what happens with dying cultures. Is there hope? Ultimately, there is hope, but I don’t place my hope in the national state. The failure of the secular left in this country is that they forgot their Bible.  They forgot that there are moral imperatives to which they must remain steadfast, regardless of what happens around them. Whatever you think of figures like Daniel Berrigan, at 87 years old, he is still practicing his faith and applying it to his activism. Berrigan is heavily influenced by Thomas Merton, who emphasized that it is your faith that makes it possible for you to endure and sustain yourself in America. If you lose that, you lose the capacity to lead the moral life and the religious life. 

JW: This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was all about.
CH: King is a great figure for me. My father was very active in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Thus, it is about remaining true to yourself. It is about remaining true to the religious tradition that you come from. The world may not get better around you. Society may not advance. In fact, things may get worse, but it keeps you human. We live in a society that is about making sure a lot of us are not human.

JW: It’s about speaking truth to power and all the consequences, whether positive or negative, that flow from it.
CH: The fundamental lesson of the resurrection, which is the crucifixion, is that if you don’t love, you die. And if you do love, they kill you. Primo Levi wrote about concentration camps. He said the worst survived, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a moral choice. It just means that in extreme conditions, to remain true to the moral life meant that you died. But you did have that choice, and some people died. Not many, but some. The cost of the moral life or the religious life is a high cost. That is really what I believe the crucifixion is about. Living in a society where it is all about us and about how we feel and about whether we are happy is just unadulterated narcissism. It is really a road that leads us away from the possibility of living a life with real richness, integrity and meaning.