Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Chris Hedges is Wrong About Science and Atheism

I’d like to begin by saying that I have a lot of admiration for Chris Hedges. The impulse for this essay did not come from a general dislike for the man but rather out of a deep sense of frustration. My frustration stems from his repeated attempts to demonise science and rational thought while at the same time framing religion as a force for good. His latest attempt, a recent essay entitled The Science of Genocide, lays out his worldview for all to see. In it, he places the blame for much of the slaughter of the 20th century firmly on scientific thinking, portraying science as a reckless monster unleashed by unthinking humans. Scientists themselves are seen as morally inept servants of the war machine, happy to create bigger and better weapons in order to feed their egos and bank accounts.

Behind Hedges jeremiads, one can discern a dangerous romantic appeal to unreason and a kneejerk disgust of philosophical materialism.  One can also make out a borderline fanaticism that attempts to draw lines in the sand and woe betide anybody on the wrong side of that line. Take this little nugget from early on in The Science of Genocide:

…few in the sciences look beyond the narrow tasks handed to them by corporations or government. They employ their dark arts, often blind to the consequences, to cement into place systems of security and surveillance, as well as systems of environmental destruction, that will result in collective enslavement and mass extermination. As we veer toward environmental collapse we will have to pit ourselves against many of these experts, scientists and technicians whose loyalty is to institutions that profit from exploitation and death.

Ignoring for now the blustering tone, the above quote is not only inflammatory, it is quite categorically wrong. Peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change have been in agreement for years about the environmental damage being wrought by humanity. Without these studies, we would be clueless as to the effects of climate change. Why, I wonder, did these studies ever see the light of day, given that scientists apparently exist in a moral vacuum ever ready to appease their corporate or governmental overlords? They saw the light of day because Chris Hedges is wrong. He has painted his overwrought picture with broad strokes that care not a jot for accuracy but instead concentrate on maximum emotional appeal. Scientists are dehumanised and seen as corrupt and evil:

…a world that will protect the ecosystem and build economies that learn to distribute wealth rather than allow a rapacious elite to hoard it, will never be handed to us by the scientists and technicians. Nearly all of them work for the enemy. 

Did you read that? Nearly every scientist works for ‘the enemy”! Producing no data to back up his outrageous and dangerous claim, Hedges condemns all but a few scientists that are now alive, labeling them slaves to an enemy whose actions will ultimately destroy life on earth:

They will relentlessly push forward, exploiting and pillaging, perfecting their terrible tools of technology and science, until their creation destroys them and us. They make the nuclear bombs. They extract oil from the tar sands. They turn the Appalachians into a wasteland to extract coal. They serve the evils of globalism and finance. They run the fossil fuel industry. They flood the atmosphere with carbon emissions, doom the seas, melt the polar ice caps, unleash the droughts and floods, the heat waves, the freak storms and hurricanes.

There’s no room for doubt in Hedges’ world. Science is evil and scientists are almost exclusively malevolent.  On the other hand he holds onto the notion that religious thinking can be a force for good. At the beginning of The Science of Genocide Hedges invokes the bombing of Hiroshima to indicate how destructive science can be. Yet the fact that the crew of the Enola Gay identified as Christian, as did the President who authorized and celebrated the bombing, is apparently of little interest for Hedges. He chides scientific thinking for being morally neutral, which it is, but champions religious thinking for its moral questioning. Religion is not morally neutral, yet it was helpless to stop the destruction of Hiroshima. Science can make a bomb, but it can’t justify its use seeing as it is morally neutral. Religion can justify its use, which makes it much more dangerous. At this point Hedges would no doubt point out that religion inspires people to feed the hungry and to help the sick, ignoring the fact that science almost certainly helped with food production / transportation and with the creation of life-saving medicines. To note these obvious facts would make grand moral condemnations more difficult. Scientists are almost exclusively servants of the enemy. No moral grey areas. End of story.

In another recent essay, How to Think, Hedges lambasts scientific thinking and urges his readers to take a leap of faith and champion the imagination, at the expense of fact if necessary. Early on the essay serves as a warning to society:

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification.

But soon turns into an appeal to unreason: 

The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.” 

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible.

This is where Hedges’ conflicted mode of thought is exposed for all to see. One minute he is lamenting a society that refuses to face the truth in terms of historical and scientific facts, the next he extols us to move beyond materialistic facts and to treasure things unseen and unexplainable by reason. He does not make the connection that people ignore historical and scientific facts by clinging to illusory and unreasonable world-views.  Ignoring climate change, racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, nationalism; all of these things require denial of facts and staunch unreasonableness. Right-wing Christianity is one of the loudest voices denying climate change, as well as evolution. Their faith has ousted fact, and American society (and by extension the entire world) suffers as a result. Hedges’ anti-scientific thinking places him firmly in a strong Christian tradition, as does his championing of unreasonableness in the face of facts.

On the plight of the American LGBT community, he again stealthily endorses religious thinking even as he attacks mainstream religious institutions. His article, entitled The War on Gays, comes accompanied by an image of Jesus walking on water while holding in his arms an LGBT youth. Under the water we see a monster about to attack, a monster that turns out on closer inspection to be a mitre. The image is disingenuous and not a little sickening for many reasons. For one, when it came to homosexuality the Jesus of the New Testament was at best morally neutral. He does not mention homosexuality at all, which many have suggested implies he was just fine with the homophobia of the Old Testament and felt no need to repudiate it. The Bible, New Testament included, is rife with stomach-churning homophobia. Appeals to reason and logic remain at the heart of every modern quest for equal rights, and the LGBT community is no different. Opponents of these rights appeal to unreason, to kneejerk emotional disgust, to fear of the ‘other’. To show an image of a morally neutral, mythological character coming to the rescue of LGBT youth is an outrageous sleight of hand that attempts to position religious thought as the savior of an embattled group of people, when in fact the opposite is true.

The article itself is mainly an extended interview with a pastor who outright states that it is the church waging war on the LGBT community. Hedges’ usage of a pastor to say these words obviously means that the article is not a flat out condemnation of religion.  Seeing as Hedges has a problem when atheists criticise religious thinking, using a pastor seems like a damage limitation exercise on his part. At one point Hedges states:

As the economy unravels, as hundreds of millions of Americans confront the fact that things will not get better, life for those targeted by this culture of hate will become increasingly difficult. Rational debate will prove useless.

Now he wants rational debate. Yet at times Hedges moves himself to the side of frantic emotional appeals to unreason, as when he condemns thousands of hard-working scientists for merely being scientists. His unreason came forth before when he reacted in anger at the rise of New Atheism. Hedges dubbed these new atheists fundamentalists who were the flipside of religious extremists. His evidence? Sam Harris seemed to have a distinctly anti-Muslim streak and Christopher Hitchens supported the war in Iraq. Now, as far as I can see, Sam Harris is effective when listing the dangers of religion but makes for a bad philosopher as his book The Moral Landscape proves. It contains little science and its philosophical outlook amounts to rehashed utilitarianism. His views on Muslims do at times appear to be superficially similar to those of certain right-wing Christians. Hitchens’ support of the war in Iraq was, to my mind, a terrible moral error. It endorsed a western cultural colonialism that Hitchens spent most of his life railing against. Yet for all that, the atheism put forward by Hitchens, Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett was not by any means a united front. For one, both Dawkins and Dennett took very public stands against the war in Iraq. Dawkins added his voice to the Not One More Death book which publicly condemned the Iraq war, and Dennett wrote the following in 2007:

Saddam Hussein was an extraordinarily evil dictator, and the world is well rid of him, but the steps taken by the USA to accomplish this – unilateral, arrogant, and shockingly ignorant about local conditions – have brought shame on the nation.

They have also been stunningly counterproductive. Respect for America has plummeted worldwide, a dangerous development both for us in America and for those around the world whose well-being and security is partially protected by American support for principles of freedom and equality.

Our declarations of good intent are now deservedly regarded with cynicism by our friends and suspicion by those who desperately depend on us.

Hedges insistence in comparing New Atheism with religious fundamentalism is gross stupidity. The words of atheists have prompted no violent actions, have persuaded none to fly planes into buildings, or bomb abortion clinics, or wage war, or mutilate women’s bodies, or force women to cover up their bodies lest they be physically or sexually assaulted, or circumcise males, or execute homosexuals, or any other number of acts carried out by religious fundamentalists. At heart Hedges seems to despise the philosophical materialism implicit in atheism and seeks to condemn high-profile atheists for thought-crimes and for brutalities that they have never, as atheists, endorsed or carried out. As a logical or ethical choice, atheism is no more extreme than vegetarianism, indeed it has less practical implications. Right-wing Christians have more often been the most war hungry of Americans. There is a difference between publicly stating that God is a delusion and endorsing all manner of atrocities and, if Hedges can’t see the difference, then something is terribly wrong. Unfortunately, Hedges is not alone in his thinking.

After the death of novelist David Foster Wallace, a commencement speech he gave became an internet sensation. In this speech, he too casually lumped together religious fundamentalists and atheists, labeling them both as repulsive. Here is his reasoning:

True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

This seems like a common criticism of atheism, one which Chris Hedges and thousands of others (especially in America) uncritically endorse, despite the fact that the “fundamentalism” of atheism, as stated, leads an atheist to no acts of violence. It appears as if simply being an atheist is committing an unforgivable thought-crime. This critique rests on the premise that the answer to all great questions must lie somewhere in the middle, or that one must keep an open mind to both sides of the argument lest one become dogmatic. Let’s take the issue of slavery though. Before its abolition, there were loud and sometimes violent debates about the merits of slavery. Should the mature mind have taken the middle way, refusing to take an extreme stand? That would have been moral cowardice and an act almost as immoral as supporting slavery. Women’s rights: should women get the vote? Still think the middle way is best? LGBT rights? Need I go on? To suggest that finding some kind of middle ground is always the most sensible and mature option is dangerous thinking. Wallace’s speech also does the opposite of what it supposedly intends to do. He goes out of his way to apply a negative label to someone for simply having a different viewpoint from his own. This atheist viewpoint hurts nobody, yet to some it is as dangerous as a murderous religious fanatic. How did we get to the point where this logic is taken seriously, and by people who are seen as serious and intelligent?

The truth is that atheism gets under people’s skin. The idea of the annihilation of the self after death seems so frightening to many that they will shoot the messenger in order to shut out the idea. Atheists are labeled smug, arrogant, repulsive, and all manner of ad hominem accusations are leveled at them. For reasons that can only be personal, Chris Hedges is one of the voices trying to slander atheism and scientific thinking. He wants them to be considered part of the enemy, and he wants religious thinking to be on the side of good.

There is a phrase connected with Buddhism called “The Stink of Enlightenment”, which is meant to convey the idea of a spiritual fascist who believes that they have risen above the mundane and mediocre and exist only in the heavenly realms of deep religious contemplation. Those who fall victim to the stink look on the ordinary person with scorn. They mock their spiritual emptiness and lament their materialistic existence. With this in mind there is a Hedges’ essay from 2010 entitled After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck With Nietzsche which contains his vision of what life without religion will look like, and it stinks. Hedges goes all out to paint a religious-free world as one populated by smug, self-satisfied, mediocre little people who care for nothing more than what’s in front of them. Without religious thought to make us care we will be contemptible sheep, happy with whatever consumer culture gives to us. Taking Nietzsche’s idea of the Last Man to be his vision of a completely secular society, Hedges goes on to say:

The Last Man, Nietzsche feared, would engage in the worst kinds of provincialism, believing he had nothing to learn from history. The Last Man would wallow and revel in his ignorance and quest for personal fulfillment. He would be satisfied with everything that he had done and become, and would seek to become nothing more. He would be intellectually and morally stagnant, incapable of growth, and become part of an easily manipulated herd. The Last Man would mistake cynicism for knowledge.

“The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars,” Nietzsche wrote about the Last Man in the prologue of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” “Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.”

“They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery.” The Last Men indulge in “their little pleasure for the day, and their little pleasure for the night.”

There are several things wrong with this picture (ignoring the fact that it was not a secular society that Nietzsche feared and was trying to paint a picture of). For one, in any open, democratic society individual rights generally increase as religious influence wanes. Hedges refuses to explore the complex relationship between individuality, rights, and capitalism. He credits the great religions with beginning the quest for individual rights (which is most probably partly true) but suddenly laments the vulgar individuality he sees as the end result of this quest. Religious influence must wane in an open society but Hedges imagines a completely secular society to be a worthless, morally bankrupt one. The picture he paints of humanity is a distressing one. His vision of the future is always bleak, while he imagines a past where political dissent was tolerated, or even welcomed, by those in power (as Chomsky points out, this has never been the case). Hedges seems so intent on viewing the secularisation of society as some grand fall from grace he ignores the fact that never in the history of civilization have so many people had their rights protected and guaranteed.

Ultimately, despite my criticisms, I see Chris Hedges as one of the truly vital voices in modern political journalism. He shines a much-needed light on the crimes of Western states around the world, he details the grotesque brutality of globalization and all the misery it brings and he was on the front-line of the Occupy movement and gave it consistent and supportive exposure. In many ways, his ideals are my own. I too detest the corporatisation of our political system and by extension our society, but unlike Hedges I do not connect atheism or philosophical materialism to the rising evil of corporate rule. The influence of corporations and the ruling elite poses a threat to every decent human being. They would gladly debase any democracy, new or old, and reduce the rights of individuals to those of serfs. They exploit the poverty of the Third World and use it as leverage to reduce the rights and expectations of workers in the First World. Yet my atheism and love of science make me feel like I am the enemy of Chris Hedges. The society he describes which blindly  worships science is not the one I see in America. Individual rights were won by appeals to reason and to steer away from that course is incredibly hazardous. Many atheists and scientists are more than willing to be moral voices in the battle against corporate domination and if Chris Hedges can’t see that then he possesses none of the open-mindedness and wisdom which he insists is essential to living an ethical life.

1 comment:

  1. You nailed some of the same contradictions in Hedges'writing that have irked me, expressed in my more narrowly focused blog post, "Dangerous, Illogical Anti-Science Views in Chris Hedges' 'Handmaidens to Barbarity' (http://theglobal99movement.blogspot.com/2012/08/dangerous-illogical-anti-science-views.html)

    You might find my other posts on "War on Whistleblowers/Enlightenment" interesting.

    Excellent article!