THE RISE OF THE FUNDAMENTALIST ATHEISTS: An Interview with Chris Hedges
For many Americans, the rise of religious fundamentalism rides shotgun in the Republican bandwagon. The Evangelical movement, in particular, has emerged as an influential and lucrative voice throwing considerable weight in the political arena. To appease concerns that a politician lacks “piety,” both Republicans and Democrats, including McCain and Obama, stress their “faith” and “Christian values.” Recently, a growing wave of “anti-religious” texts, most notably those authored by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, has emerged to combat the arrogance of religiosity while making a case for atheism and secularism. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Chris Hedges, who received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, has spent several years researching both groups and concludes that although their ideologies differ, their shared elitism, ignorance and reactionary rhetoric is soaked in bigotry, racism and exclusivity. In his book American Fascists, Hedges tackles the poisonous marriage of extremist, right wing religious narrative with big money politics. In his latest work, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges condemns the “new fundamentalists,” such as Hitchens and Harris, as profiteers who “trade absurdity [religious extremism] for absurdity [fundamentalist secularism]” and justify foreign invasions, the Iraq War, and racism under the guise of secular enlightenment. I discussed these issues in detail with Hedges in this exclusive interview.
ALI:Congratulations on the publication of your new book I Don’t Believe in Atheists. Let’s start off with that and bridge into the themes of your previous book American Fascists.
HEDGES: I spent almost 20 years abroad as a foreign correspondent and 7 of those years in the Middle East as bureau chief of the New York Times. But before I went into journalism, I began as a freelance reporter covering the war in El Salvador. I was a seminary student, having graduated from Harvard Divinity School. And I met a man named James Luther Adam, who had actually been in Germany in 1935 and 1936 working for the so-called “confessing church,” and he was eventually picked up by the Gestapo and thrown out of Germany.
When I was a student in the early 1980’s, it was the beginning of this rise of this Christian movement that wanted to take political power and create a so-called “Christian nation,” which was something going back to 1740. And Adams told us that when we were his age, which was 80, that we would all be fighting the Christian fascists.
I came back to the United States and saw how these groups had moved from the margins of American society to literally the epicentre of power in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. They had set up powerful systems of indoctrination through Christian radio and television as well as Christian schools.
I’ve been primarily a war correspondent and knew that I really had to turn my attention to the Christian right. They reminded me very much of this sort of proto-fascist movements that I covered, for instance, in the former Yugoslavia, the ethnic nationalist movements of the Serbs, the Croats in particular. So I spent 2 years researching this book. I traveled all over the country. I sat in pro-life weekends in Pennsylvania and creationist seminars and conversion workshops and came away with the belief that the radical Christian right is the most dangerous mass movement in American history.
And my book is fierce – it’s called American Fascists. Now, I finished that book as a three-year project and one of the things that disturbs me most about this movement is its racism, bigotry, and intolerance, not only towards Muslims, but towards gays and lesbians, women, and immigrants. The language they use from the inside of the movement is terrifying. It is really an attempt to dehumanize, to take away the legitimacy of people who have other ways of believing or being. And that’s part of my anger towards the movement, that they cloak this in religious language.
When the book came out and I was asked to go, in May a year ago, to UCLA to debate Sam Harris, who had written Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith. Two days later, I flew to San Francisco and went to Berkeley to debate Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God is Not Great.
I hadn’t paid attention to these so-called “new atheists.” They’re not a political threat the way the radical Christian right is. Atheism has a long and honored tradition in Western intellectual thought. Most of the great theological reformers, both philosophical and religious were in their day attacked as atheists and heretics – from Spinoza to Martin Luther. No serious student of religion can ignore the writings of Nietzsche or Sartre or Camus. I mean, Nietzsche, who was a mixture of brilliance and insanity, understood the moral consequences of a world where God was dead – the moral nihilism that it engendered.
So I actually came fairly predisposed to accept that there’s nothing dangerous about people who don’t believe in God. And I have lived in enough cultures to know that there are many people of great moral probity and courage who rise to fight the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed who don’t resort to religious language, religious ritual or religious symbols. Just as there are many people who use religion as a cloak to play out acts of bigotry, oppression, and intolerance.
But when I sat down and read their work, and then of course had to debate them in a public forum, I was appalled at how they essentially co-opted secular language to present the same kind of chauvinism, intolerance, and bigotry that we see in the Christian right.
ALI: Is that why you labeled them the “New Fundamentalists”?
HEDGES: They are. They’re secular fundamentalists. They divide the world into us and them – those who are worthy of moral consideration and those who are not. They externalize evil. Evil is not something that you struggle with within yourself. Evil is embodied in religion. And therefore, once you eradicate religion and religious believers, you take a huge step forward in terms of human progress.
I find that it’s, like the Christian right, a fear based movement. It’s a movement that is very much a reaction to 9/11. The kinds of things that they write about Muslims could be lifted from the most rabid sermon by a radical fundamentalist. I mean, Sam Harris in his book, The End of Faith, asks us to consider carrying out a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. He has a long defense of torture. Christopher Hitchens is an apologist for preemptive war and also speaks in the crude, racist terms that Harris uses to describe 1 billion people – one fifth of the world’s population.
ALI: You’re right, and yet they’re deemed the new intellectuals of the 21st century by certain proponents. Why have they emerged as these “intellectuals” who defend what many say is a defenseless war?
HEDGES: Well, they’re not intellectuals, that’s the whole point. They’re culturally, historically, linguistically illiterate. They don’t know anything about the Middle East. They don’t speak Arabic. They don’t know anything about Islam. They have a cartoonish vision of Islam and the Muslim world that is, from somebody who spent 7 years living there, is untrue. Of course, this is a quality they share with the fundamentalists. They don’t need to investigate other ways of being, thinking, other cultures, because they have adopted this repugnant moral superiority that our way is the best and either you are converted to our way of believing and thinking or you should be eradicated. And that’s what the Christian right does.
So you have, within these new atheists, a convergence, a political convergence with the Christian right who, supposedly, they’ve set themselves up against. If you look at the kinds of things that Christopher Hitchens writes and says about the Muslim world, it could be lifted from the most rabid sermon from a Christian fundamentalist.
It’s appalling. What stunned me was how they have seduced so many people on the secular left with what is garbage. They even corrupt science, saying to the proponents of science that what they have done is corrupt evolutionary biology. I mean, Darwin never argued that we were morally advancing as a species. In fact, Darwin argued the opposite and, I think, correctly that humans are victims of our irrational, animal nature. Darwin was just too good a scientist. He knew the species accrued mutations, but never knew where it ended up.
Well, these people have distorted evolutionary biology to argue that we can morally advance as a species and that there are human impediments to progress -in this case, they go after Muslims, in particular – and that we have to remove these impediments to advance forward. It’s just a naive, utopian vision that is embraced by the radical Christian right and the reason it’s so frightening is because they think they have a right to use violence in order to achieve this form of self-delusion, which is a more perfect world.
And that’s what terrifies me. These people are apologists for catastrophic, apocalyptic violence wielded against people that they have dehumanized, people who no longer have human qualities, people who are just abstractions of hate and evil who have to be done away with. And while I don’t see that the atheists as a political threat the way that the radical Christian right is a political threat, what worries me is that – I spent a year of my life covering Al Qaeda for the New York Times and every intelligence team I ever interviewed never used the word “if” we would suffer another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, but “when.”
So when we suffer another attack, what I worry about is a convergence of two apocalyptic, fundamentalist movements within American society who call for horrific bloodletting, especially against the Muslim world, if it’s deemed that this terrorism came out of the Muslim world. As well as I believe that a persecution of 6 million Muslims who live in the United States. I think my anger towards the Christian right and my anger towards these new atheists is at its core really a plea for complexity, for more understanding, for empathy, and for an understanding of our own complicity in acts of atrocity.
I mean, the idea that someone reads the Quran and becomes a suicide bomber is naive and frighteningly ignorant of the reality of oppression. What is it that goes into creating an act that desperate? It’s the long, slow drip of abuse, repression, indignity, collective humiliation and until we understand what it is that creates these kinds of activities, we won’t be able to deal with them.
I think we also have to understand – as someone who has stood in Gaza as Israeli pirated F-16 jets dropped 1,000 lb iron fragmentation bombs on refugee camps – that even the apartheid regime in South Africa didn’t do: we have to begin to face the fact that we do not represent virtue and good and nobility many times. Certainly we don’t in Iraq.
Iraq, by the way, is a perfect example of the danger of utopian vision. If you took the 1,000 to 10,000 Arabists in this country – and by that I mean people who speak Arabic and who have lived for a long period of time in the Middle East – you could not have found probably more than 10 that thought invading and occupying Iraq was a good idea. The idea that we would be greeted as liberators, the idea that the oil revenues would pay for reconstruction, the idea that democracy would be implanted in Baghdad and emanate outwards to transform the Middle East was a non-reality based belief system.And that’s why utopian visions backed by violence are dangerous. They’re not connected with reality. Atheists and the Christian right are essentially violent, utopian movements.
ALI: As a Muslim-American who actually went to an all-boys Catholic school, believe it or not, for four years and read the Bible… after reading the Bible, I always felt perplexed by the actions and rhetoric of those who claim that America is a “Christian” nation or a “secular” nation. Why are humbleness, conciliation, apology, admitting ones mistakes – even with the new foreign policy in Iraq – seen as such signs of weakness when in the Bible, these are seen as acts of virtue?
HEDGES: Well, let’s be clear. There are passages in the Bible that are morally repugnant. You know, God blesses acts of righteous genocide in Exodus. The Gospel of John has very raw anti-Semitism. Paul’s letters are filled with misogyny and homophobia. There’s a great line by the theologian Reinhold Lieber, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.” You can find anything you want to justify any moral action you want. That’s true of every religious text, from the Quran to Bible to the Bhagavad Gita. That’s true.
And so, the Christian right will pull these repugnant passages from the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelations – which are bloody books about apocalyptic violence – and use it to promote an ideology that is immoral and, I think, deeply at its core, anti-religion.
But I’m not naive about the Bible. I spent many years studying it. I think what’s most frightening is what this movement has done – the Christian right – is that they have fused the iconography and language of Christianity with the iconography and language of American nationalism. Once you do that, you essentially create a fascist ideology, which is what they’ve done.
And what’s fascinating about the new atheists is that while they hate the Christian right, their ideology is no different. It is an ideology that really seeks to dehumanize everyone who’s not like us. Is it anti-religious? Of course. It’s anti-Muslim, it’s anti-Christian, it’s anti-Hindu, it’s anti-Jewish, if you look at what are the core values of authentic religious belief. But there’s no shortage of people who have used religion – in the Islamic world, in the Christian world, in every religious tradition – to countenance abuse and violence.
The Christian right talks often about acculturating America with the Christian religion. What they’ve done, in fact, acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of American capitalism and American imperialism. Whatever you think of Jesus, he was clearly a pacifist. I’m not a pacifist, by the way, but Jesus clearly was. The idea that Jesus would somehow exhort us on to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq is, as you frankly point out, a phenomenal misreading of the Four Gospels.
ALI: Why does religion seem to be such a susceptible and successful vehicle for selfish political ideologies to hijack?
HEDGES: It’s not just religion. I think any essentially fundamentalist view that divides the world into us and them and externalizes evil – evil is embodied in those who are outside of us – you can do that through communism, fascism, Baathism – any system can do that. Religion has certainly been used like that many, many times. I think what is effective about it is that you sanctify yourself, you sanctify your group. And by sanctifying your group, you give yourself the right to carry out sacred violence. That’s why the mixture between religious belief and violent utopian projects is so frightening. We see it here and we see it in the Middle East. These people are, frankly, cut from the same cloth.
ALI: We’ve heard again and again – religion is the opiate of the masses or without religion there would be no global warfare, separation, and hatred. Yet we all see examples of widespread chaos with “secularists” such as Mao, Stalin….
HEDGES: Of course. But the danger is not religion, the danger is the human heart. People will misuse a religious system to commit genocide and if it’s not religion, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot will find other religions. That’s part of my anger with the new atheists. The idea that religion is the core of these acts of evil is just childish and stupid. Religious institutions have certainly lent themselves enthusiastically often to these projects.
But it’s not the fault of religion; it’s the fault of human nature. There’s frankly nothing in human history or human nature to suggest that we’re advancing morally as a species. I’d argue it’s the opposite. Certainly, technology, science, and industry made advances and they have been used to preserve and conserve and nurture life in many ways, but it’s also creative forms of industrial killing that have never been seen before on the planet. It is science and technology and industry that is destroying the very ecosystem that sustains the human species.
The tools change, human nature remains the same. That is something that neither the Christian fundamentalists or the new atheists understand. They adopt this vision that they can reform human nature into something that it’s not. And what it doesn’t reform into ways they deem to be moral and good, they abrogate for themselves the right to use violence.
ALI: I want to discuss the bridging of religion and intellectualism in an age of, what I’ll just call, materialism. You’ve heard that religion is a “crutch” for the weak, but why is the spiritual crutch so mocked by those who consider themselves enlightened or “progressive” when it seems that all human beings use some semblance of a crutch to make sense of the complexities of life?
HEDGES: I don’t look at religion as a crutch. I look at fundamentalism as a crutch. But the religious impulse is like the artistic impulse – and let’s separate religious institutions, which are about their own power and their own perpetuation. To be religious is a way of looking at the world. Great religious thinkers out of all traditions have called us to a kind of humility, a kind of introspection, self-criticism, an acceptance of mystery. When one accepts the mystery of the Divine, the strangeness of life, the fact that there are so many things that we will never control, our place as infinitesimal beings in this infinite universe – this is not about self-aggrandizement.
Certainly, religion has been used to self-aggrandize. But I think religion is a way of stripping away the crutches and exposing our meekness and our human flaws and, to use a religious term, to expose sin. The fact that we are – all of us – captive to irrational, subliminal forces, many of which we don’t understand. The narratives we tell about ourselves are fictions and the narratives we use to explain ourselves to others are fictions. That’s what religion at its core does. Religion is an attempt to deal with non-rational forces. Not the irrational, but non-rational. By that I mean love, beauty, grief, alienation, our own mortality. These are all real and powerful, but they’re not quantifiable. We can’t measure them. It’s why Freud could never write about love.
At its best, religion – like art – is an attempt to create wisdom. In the Buddhist tradition, you can memorize as many sutras as you want, you will never be wise. Wisdom doesn’t come through knowledge. It comes through intuition. It comes from that ability to lead human nature, human society, and the world around us.
ALI: In all the polls, compared to European nations, everyone is amazed at how religious the US population professes itself to be. And now, with the upcoming 2008 election, Democrats – who were apparently lagging in the religious card – are now amping up their own religiosity. What’s the sincerity of both – the US population and the political parties – in professing “piety?”
HEDGES: What surprises me is that most Americans who profess a kind of piety are Christian fundamentalists. There’s no shortage of great theologians who describe piety as a belief system as a form of idolatry – essentially a form of self-worship. And that’s what I believe this movement is about. I think, in fact, it’s deeply anti-Christian. It is about self-exultation. It is about embracing the darkest aspects of American imperial power and sanctifying that.
And so, when I read those polls… I’ve debated Christian fundamentalists, I’ve debated these new atheists, and they both seek to de-legitimize my own religious tradition, which is one that comes out of real social activism. My father, who was a Presbyterian minister, worked in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, even though he himself had been a veteran of World War II, and the gay rights movement.
They may not like it, both the Christian right and the new atheists, but it’s a real tradition. But of course the Christians describe me as a secular humanist who wants to destroy Christian America. And the new atheists say that’s not really religion, because they argue against their own narrow definition and are incapable of discussing religious complexity. Religion is like art. It takes a long time to do well. I spent many years of my life studying Christian ethics and the notion that grappling with moral ambiguity is somehow easy is possible only when you are as ignorant as these people are.
ALI: What do you think about this whole Democrats and Republicans- the candidates Clinton, Obama, and McCain – bending over backwards to prove to everyone that we are indeed truly religious? Why the need to profess their piety?
HEDGES: They’re pandering to the movement, which I find frightening. It’s a very peculiar form of religion and one that I detest. They’re not trying to reach out to people like me. They’re trying to reach out to a bunch of homophobic, bigoted racists. That’s what constitutes the core of Bob Jones University. These people rose out of racism, first primarily towards African Americans. The kinds of stuff that they say on Christian radio and television and within their own gatherings about Muslims is deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, that kind of demonization of Muslims has infected mainstream discourse. What terrifies me about it is that when you get people to speak in the language of violence and hate, it’s a short step to get them to act in the language of violence and hate.I saw it in the former Yugoslavia. There are too few people standing up and confronting these people with their racism, which is a cancer. It’s poisoning our civil and political discourse.
ALI: Last question, Chris. Something on a hopeful note. You’ve been a reporter who actually has lived in the Middle East and actually talked to Muslims and seen them first hand. You have this rich tradition of learning Christianity, Christian morals, Christian ethics and seen the rise of the American Christian fascist movement. What can be done, on a global scale, perhaps, for Muslims and Christians – well-intentioned ones – to wrest away the control of their religiosity and religions by self interested political individuals, like the ones you’ve mentioned. What can be done to reclaim the faith?
HEDGES: Well, I think the churches have failed us in that they don’t stand up and confront this racism. The media has failed us because it no longer reports how others see us or other ways of being. It’s all trivia, gossip, it’s news for entertainment. The kind of war hysteria that grips the country makes a voice like mine very difficult to be heard. You know, my opposition to the war in Iraq saw me receive death threats on my phone system at the New York Times. I was shouted down, heckled. And I wasn’t offering a political position; I was trying to offer the accumulation of knowledge of someone who has spent a lot of time in Iraq and many, many years in the Middle East. It was very difficult to be heard.
So, I think the major institutions that are tasked with defending powers that be and offering to Americans different viewpoints have failed us. And we’re paying a huge price for that. These institutions are largely bankrupt and we are becoming a country of children with vast weapons systems. I don’t have to tell you or many of your readers but turn on the television and hear the kind of crap people spew out on the Muslim world. They’ve never been there, they’ve never lived there, they don’t speak Arabic – only 20% of Muslims speak Arabic anyway. It’s as if I would get up and start talking about China, a country I’ve never been in.I think the kinds of things we say about Muslims now – and I’m not talking about the fringe – would not be acceptable to say about any other ethnic or religious group in the United States.
Having seen what happens when you demonise a group in, for instance, the former Yugoslavia – I was in the Balkan territory for the New York Times during the war there – this kind of language. Language is not benign. This kind of language is terrifying and there has to be a concerted effort on the part of institutions that are tasked with defending democracy and plurality, and they’re not doing it.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law.