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Critic of US ‘religious right’ takes on a new worry: Atheists

Having addressed the issues of humanity’s love of war and the dangers he believes are posed by the "religious right" in the United States, author and former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges has now taken on a new generation of atheists who are questioning the need for religious faith.

"They’re as deeply anti-intellectual as the Christian right," Hedges said at a 30 April public forum at New York’s Union Theological Seminary on his recently published, I Don’t Believe in Atheists. In the book he takes aim at those who, in criticising the various faults, even absurdities, of organized religion, are denying humanity’s capacity for sin.

Atheism, Hedges noted at the forum, has an "honoured place" in the Western tradition.  He even acknowledged that, given his intellectual interests, he has felt a kindred spirit with such famous non-believers as French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

But Hedges said he believes the current public exponents of atheism – including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – are no match for those giants because, Hedges argues, they are not committed to making moral arguments about religion.

Instead, Hedges believes the newer group are so bent on criticising religious fundamentalism that they have substituted another type of fundamentalism in its place, one that relies heavily on scientific rationalism and denies the capacity for sin.

"The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science; it is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists," Hedges writes in the first chapter of his book.  "It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can master its destiny."

Hedges acknowledges the irony of his situation as a self-proclaimed "Christian progressive", who has been criticised by the "Christian right" for being a "secular humanist".

Unlike the Christian right, Hedges argues, atheists are not committed to explicit political goals.  Still, he said in his remarks at Union, both groups are prone to utopian thinking.

Hedges, 51, who holds a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School and is the son of a Presbyterian minister, believes both sides "are trying to de-legitimise" the religious tradition "we [progressive Protestants] come out of".

Christopher Hitchens, a native of Britain who writes social and political commentary for the magazine Vanity Fair, argues in his book, God is not Great, that his and his fellow doubters’ unbelief in God "is not a belief".

"Our principles are not a faith," Hitchens writes. "We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason."

To Hedges, whose first book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, was a moral reflection on the costs of war and violence, such explanations are troublesome because they can ultimately lead to a belief in absolutes.

"To turn away from God is harmless," Hedges writes in I Don’t Believe in Atheists.  " To turn away from sin is catastrophic.  Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations.  They act as if they are free from sin.  The secular utopians of the 21st century have also forgotten they are human.  These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication." 

Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1416567950.

Ecumenical News International