“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
(An old proverb)
RELIGION POISONS everything, or, at least that’s the contention of a new crop of proselytizing atheists (writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris), who have condemned not just organized religion but also the very idea of belief in God.
But what if those atheists are really just the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise? That’s precisely the thesis of an intriguing and ingenious new book by long-time foreign correspondent Chris Hedges. His wittily titled I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free Press, 2008) makes a persuasive case that atheists and fundamentalists are more similar — and more dangerous – than either camp would care to admit. Both tend to be intolerant and chauvinistic. Both dream of a perfect society and of a perfectible human being. Both claim a monopoly on the truth and both are impatient with opposing views. Both tend to disregard human fallibility; and both neglect nuance and understanding in favour of a blind certainty born of ignorance and dogma.
For Hedges, a central fallacy at the heart of atheists and fundamentalists alike is the myth of inexorable human progress, the notion that mankind is steadily advancing – morally and ethically.
For atheists, blind faith in reason, science, and technology is the holy grail that propels our moral advancement. But glowing reports of our supposed progress fly in the face of frequent reminders that the irrational (and often dark and destructive) side of the human psyche is as active as ever it was. That flaw in our nature – call it sin – is hardly something we are outgrowing.
[pullquote]For Hedges, utopians – be they secular or religious – have an even worse habit: Once they espy a glorious tomorrow, they use its tantalizing proximity to justify every sort of cruel savagery in the name of reaching their ever-elusive earthly paradise. Such utopians “see only one truth: their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them, and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society.”
Hedges contends that that is the greatest danger posed by the delusion of utopia – the certainty among true believers that they see the promised land ahead and their willingness to use any and all measures to attain it. No one is immune from that tendency – least of all those who eschew humility and self-questioning for the false sense of security that comes from embracing shallow, self-justifying certitudes: “This world is escapist. We are bombarded, thousands of times a day, with the emotional simplicity and terrible beauty of lies. And we believe them. We believe them because they make us feel, at least for a moment, better and empowered.”
Atheist utopians distort science to support their beliefs in ways that mirror the ways fundamentalists manipulate religion to support theirs. For one thing, they superimpose the theory of evolution, which is only about biology, onto matters that are far beyond its purview: “It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics, or the behavior of nations,” despite efforts of Darwinists to have us believe otherwise.
Hedges is pessimistic about the future, predicting environmental catastrophe and unending conflict over resources in ways that sound a tad dogmatic. But Hedges is dead-on when he says that our hope lies not in utopians, but “in those who are broken, those who… speak to our common humanity…[and] to our humility.” It is those men and women who embrace the words of the American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr: “We must fight their falsehood with our truth, but we must also fight the falsehood in our truth.”
John Arkelian is a former diplomat, a writer, lawyer, international affairs analyst, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2008 by John Arkelian.