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When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists [Paperback]

Chris Hedges
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Book Description

10 Mar 2009
From the New York Times bestselling author of American Fascists and the NBCC finalist for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning comes this timely and compelling work about new atheists: those who attack religion to advance the worst of global capitalism, intolerance and imperial projects. Chris Hedges, who graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, has long been a courageous voice in a world where there are too few. He observes that there are two radical, polarized and dangerous sides to the debate on faith and religion in America: the fundamentalists who see religious faith as their prerogative, and the new atheists who brand all religious belief as irrational and dangerous. Both sides use faith to promote a radical agenda, while the religious majority, those with a commitment to tolerance and compassion as well as to their faith, are caught in the middle. The new atheists, led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, do not make moral arguments about religion. Rather, they have created a new form of fundamentalism that attempts to permeate society with ideas about our own moral superiority and the omnipotence of human reason. I Don't Believe in Atheists critiques the radical mindset that rages against religion and faith. Hedges identifies the pillars of the new atheist belief system, revealing that the stringent rules and rigid traditions in place are as strict as those of any religious practice. Hedges claims that those who have placed blind faith in the morally neutral disciplines of reason and science create idols in their own image - a sin for either side of the spectrum. He makes an impassioned, intelligent case against religious and secular fundamentalism, which seeks to divide the world into those worthy of moral and intellectual consideration and those who should be condemned, silenced and eradicated. Hedges shatters the

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (10 Mar 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416570780
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416570783
  • Product Dimensions: 17.3 x 12.7 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 912,675 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Chris Hedges was a foreign correspondent for nearly two decades for The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The 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 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.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rational thought on religion 14 July 2010
By Rodin
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Chris Hedges takes a different approach in the debate between atheists and believers, he avoids dogma and cuts through the false assumptions made by both atheists and religious fundamentalists. Indeed he treats them both as opposite sides of one coin and points out the errors they have in common. This book is refreshingly free of dogma and is a good read for people of many traditions.
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14 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the rise of fundamentalist atheism 28 July 2008
Chris Hedges offers an erudite, eloquent and expansive riposte to the banal offerings of the New Atheists. Parsing through the culture talk that much of the New Atheist critique of religion, in particular Islam, comprises of, Hedges situates the actions in their historical and political contexts, and through ample illustrations challenges the notion of moral progress. In striking contrast to the anti-intellectual platitudes of the New Atheists, Hedges crafts his arguments with admirable intellectual rigour and philosophical depth. This book is a much needed antidote to the apologia for imperialism and the extremism and bigotry that has been peddled by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris disguised as a defence of science and reason. As Hedges points out, what they champion is not science, but the cult of science.
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1 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars God is dead. Get over it 20 July 2013
Silly title. I see an atheist in the mirror every day, but who has seen God? Titled When Atheism Becomes Religion in the US. Crusade would have been more accurate, if less bankable
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Amazon.com: 2.8 out of 5 stars  98 reviews
535 of 650 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What?! Who? 20 April 2008
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I might not be the typical reviewer of this book. I am an atheist, but one who is as annoyed as Hedges over the excesses and irresponsibilities of the more dogmatic of "public figure" atheists. But, wait! I gave this book two stars. Why would I give a book whose message I essentially agree with 2 stars?

Well, for starters, I don't agree with much in this book; suprising, because I thought that I would. Of the scores of things Hedges could have challengd these atheists - Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens - on, Hedges manages to miss most of them and add some that are quite illigitimate. Had I written this book, I would have taken the three authors to task on a few things:

a.) their simplistic and baffling view that not only religious extremists, but moderates, are to be condemmed. (Isn't religion a tool? Just as people can do bad with it, so they can do good, depending on their motive?)

b.) these authors occasional faith-driven zeal, that given enough time, sceince will explain all of the things it has tried and failed to explain (like morality, even though science deals with 'is' rather than 'ought' questions. (And don't get me started on the idea of 'memes' as opposed to the older, more sensical, idea of 'ideas.')

c.) These authors' very frequent exhibitions of the type of fanatical extremism and dogmatism they rightly point out as a flaw of their opponents (fundamentalists).

The only of these Hedges hits on is the third. Hedges is not even primarily against atheism. He is, rather, against dogmatism and fanasticism, which he rightly sees exhibited in spades amongst these new 'public figure' atheists.

But in his zeal - and judging by the redundancy, this was a book written in great haste without the benefit of editing or critical thought - he attributes many things to these authors that they, in fact, never actually say. This, of course, renders his books quite superfluous, irrelevant, and unimportant.

His main argument against these atheists is that they believe in moral progress in a utopian sense. Get rid of religion, they are alleged to say, and the world can be a utopia. Hedges says this of them several times. As one whose read all of the authors to which he refers, I was confused, because I don't remember any of them saying this. At least, I figured, he will quote them on this at some point. He never did.

He suggests that these authors do not believe in any idea resembling original sin; that humans have both a good AND A DARK narure. That is funny in a naive sort of way, because if Hedges had done homework, he would have easily known that the whole idea of evolutionary psychology (to which all of our authors subscribe)is ALWAYS lambasted for recognizing that we - evolutionary creatures - have inherited our predecessors' moral virtues and shortcomings. (Hedges should have remembered the uproar at Dawkins' book 'The Selfish Gene!').

For their parts, Harris and Hitchens are also quite clear in their books on the idea that moral perfection and utopianism should not be seriously taken. Hitchens, after all, is a raging fan of the anti-utopian George Orwell, who makes several moralistic appearances in Hitchens' book. And Harris says repeatedly that once religion is out, humans will just as easily fight over other things; the only difference will be that hopefully those things are more solvable and tractible than are beliefs that God gave this group or that group the holy land. (Religion IS in fact a good, but not the only, conversation stopper.)

Quite simply, Hedges' attribution and scolding of atheists that believe in unbounded moral perfectability is arguing against a ghost. Those atheists died out with Stalin. And as dead as they are, so dead is Hedges 'argument.'

Beyond this, Hedges also condems Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens - quite oddly - for the belief that humans can morally impove AT ALL!! Hedges is a pessimist in the fine tradition of those depressed social thinkers like Reinhold Neibuhr and Soren Kierkegaard. Like them, he reminds us that humans have natures and sometimes, those natures are selfish and devious. As such, we should never try to overcome any part of ourselves; we should simply accept the fact that sin exists.

Of course, anyone whose ever read Reinhold Neibuhr - I have, even as an atheist - knows that he never, ever was that pessimilstic. He simply suggested that moral PERFECTIBILITY was a chimera. Try as we might, there is always going to be an ideal that we fall short of, but that this should not keep us from trying for it and striving for it.

Hedges on the other hand reminds us again and again that "we live in a constant state of war," and that it is no good to try and change it. So how dare the atheists suggest that if we try hard, we may be able to gradually move beyond some of the moral quandaries of the day. Of course, we have in the past. At least in Western countries: slavery is outlawed women are no longer property of men; feudalism is gone; monarchy and dictatorship is more and more rare and looked down on; the first bills of rights have appeared on the planet. One wonders: if Hedges were writing 300 years ago, would any of this have happened? Or would he simply have reminded us of the evil that comes when we try to do better than we have in the past. And how dare the wicked atheists for suggesting that progress is a goal to strive for!!

I write this lengthy review, quite simply, to give prospective readers an idea of how poor this book is both in intellectual quality and message. If one wants to argue against the 'new atheism' for things like their dogmatism, and morally simplistic judgments against all things with the hint of religion, then do that! (I will welcome it myself!) But to suggest that the new atheism is evil because of a belief in moral perfection that none of its authors write about, and for the audacity to claim that humans can be decent if they try hard - what? Who?
156 of 189 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not black or white 14 Mar 2008
By Donna - Published on Amazon.com
Interesting that all of the reviews posted so far are either 5 star or 1 star. It seems that people are rating the book based on whether agree with what the author has to say or not. That is no way to judge a book. A book can be excellent even if don't agree with one conclusion the author comes to, and a book can be poorly written even if you agree with every word in it.

I think the title of "I Don't Believe in Atheists" is plain stupid. Beyond that, Hedges has some very interesting things to say about the interaction of religion (and nonreligion) with politics, and it's worth reading by anyone who has read any of the other recent literature about atheism.

But Hedges did himself a disservice by framing the book as a critique of Dawkins, Harris, etc. because in many cases he's totally misrepresenting what they wrote. He should have just stuck to writing his own ideas on the topic, as he has in his other books, and this book would have been much better. As it is, it just sounds like he's mad because the so-called "New Atheists" don't like what he believes in. Hedges is a better writer -- and thinker -- than that. It's a shame he didn't do his best writing in this book. But, then again, believers tend to become irate when people insult their gods.

I saw a debate between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris on this topic on TV a few months ago, and Hedges was completely incoherent. I had read some of his other writing (books and online) in the past and was hoping he'd do a better job in writing about this topic than he did in debating it.

Oh well. I bet his publisher was pushing him to rush his book to market. Too bad.
217 of 278 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth Reading Even If You Don't Buy Everything He Says 17 Mar 2008
By LindaT - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My interest in this book came from a nasty experience in college some years ago. I was talking about Christianity and its effect on my life. Apparently my views were too conservative and/or orthodox to suit two people I was talking to. They started to get in my face and insist that I was wrong. No matter what I said, they would take turns interrupting me and insisting that I was wrong and that Christianity had "changed," and that I needed to change with it. That I had been raised in the home of an ordained minister and had just about cut my teeth on a Bible didn't matter - to them, I didn't know that I was talking about and they wouldn't listen. I was bothered by this - not so much that they didn't agree with me, but that they wouldn't listen, and at one time they were almost shouting and backing me up against a wall - literally! Later on I thought, "If a so-called "fundamentalist" Christian had acted like that, they would have had his/her head on a platter!"

When I first found this book, I wondered if Chris Hedges had the same type of experience I did. Probably not - but his message rang true.

In my opinion, the title of this book is misleading. Hedges doesn't necessarily disapprove of atheists, if they have reached their position with an honest heart. His issue is with the "fundamentalist mentality" which he claims can happen as much with atheists as with believers in God.

This book contains a badly-needed two-fold message. First of all, that we need to come back to the idea of human corruptibility - a truth that we don't need to be Christians to accept. The other part both religious and non religious people need to reject the idea that we can perfect ourselves. In other words - we need to understand that the biggest evil is not outside of us, but rather IN us. I appreciated his use of quotes about human fallibility from sources who do not claim to be Christians (e.g., Sigmund Freud).

I found the book useful, and Hedges explained some things which I had felt on a gut level but couldn't articulate the way that I wanted to. I also appreciated the background information on how the tension developed between the United States and the Islamic world. I think that the chapter "Humiliation and Revenge" was worth the price of the whole book. He does not try to whitewash either professing Christians or Moslems, showing that both sides did some dreadful things.

As to what Harris, Dawkins, and the other atheists are like as people or what is in their minds and hearts - well, I can't say. I have checked out Dawkins' book and need to read it entirely to know exactly what he says. And in all fairness, I need to do the same with Harris' book. However, the quote on page 122 that Hedges gives from Harris' book THE END OF FAITH makes my blood run cold. I truly hope that . . . "facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else . . . " doesn't consist in forcing something on other societies. The rest of the quote strikes me as implying that in some cases, a benign dictatorship will be necessary, and maybe even from outside. However, I'll need to see the entire Harris quote in context.

Both sides of the argument raise some questions for me:

First of all, is the problem actual religious belief - or is it how some people try to force it on others? Real Christianity does not "force" people to believe.

Second, is the problem Utopianism? Or is it what we feel we have to do to achieve it?

Also, I believe that both sides need to come to a common definition of the following words:

1. FUNDAMENTALIST. When I was younger, a "fundamentalist" was someone who wanted to return to the "fundamentals" or basic ideas of a belief (usually a religion). It did not necessarily refer to a pushy mindset.

2. LITERAL interpretation of a sacred text. A "literal" interpretation can mean that the text says what it means while acknowledging that some passages are poetic, mythical, etc.

3. FAITH. In my opinion, faith does not mean believing something without questioning. In fact, "faith" is what makes me able to get on an airplane and travel even though I can't see the air that's holding it up. The Bible Itself says, "We walk by faith, not by sight." It doesn't say "We walk by faith, not by reason."

We live in a time where many people who claim to be religious are not behaving well. I also remember a time when atheistic governments were mistreating religious people.

For all of us, a big dose of thorough self-examination is in order.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most Reviewers Didn't Read This Book 27 April 2013
By Neal Diamond - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
After reading reviews of this book I was set back from ordering it. But then I read 6 other books by Chris Hedges, all of which were amazing. Based on the reviews I have to say it seems Hedges has angered a lot of atheists that didn't read the first 8 pages of this book. First of all Hedges acknowledges that the New Atheists he's talking about in this book do not represent the views of all Atheists and that atheists can be and often are just as moral as the next person. He also mentions that the new atheists are a group that has little to no power in this country. This book is an extension from debates he had with Hitches and Harris and other New Atheists. He discusses the dangers of fundamentalism in this book and how the ideas of Hitchens, Harris, and the New Atheist, if they were to go mainstream and powerful, are just as dangerous as views from Christian Right extremists that he discusses in his book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

A simple example of this correlation between the 2 fundamentalist groups is this- Both Chris Hitchens, a new atheist, and Pat Robertson, a christian extremist, support war in the name of annihilation, such as the war in Iraq.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but worth reading! 27 Nov 2008
By P. Oski - Published on Amazon.com
This book is far better than its detractors would have you believe, but not for the reasons that Hedges wants us to believe. Having said that, let me explain that first sentence and why I gave the book four stars.

I have great admiration for Hedges the article-writer, Hedges the foreign policy pundit and Hedges the moral/religious thinker. I don't know what it is, but give him a book-length space to fill and he starts to fall apart.

He had the same problem in "American Fascists". There are moments of passion and brilliance in both that book and this one and yet one comes away feeling vaguely cheated. In AF it was because it was never clear to what extent the fundamentalist Dominionists were running things and to what extent they were pawns of the Republican Party. This lack of precision undermined Hedges' thesis that Christianity was any more to blame for creeping fascism in the US than any num,ber of other factors such as exceptionalism, hyper-patriotism, mindless worship of laissez-faire capitalism or any of the social ills more ably described by Joe Bageant.

In IDBiA, Hedges promises a refutation of the current crop of atheists, but never delivers. His criticisms of Harris as simplistic and xenophobic and of Hitchens as a quasi-fascist do not miss the mark in my opinion, but these are characteristics of these authors that I contend exist independently of their atheism. In fact, supporters of torture and pre-emptive war are not hard to find amongst fanatics of all flavours.

He doesn't lay a glove on Dawkins and (my favourite expositor of the case against belief) Victor Stegner, because he attempts to tar Dawkins at least with the same brush that he use to (rightly) paint the other two.

There is a lot of complaining about religious folks all being lumped together, literalists and nuanced believers alike. Hedges bristles under the association, but fails to see that not only has he not answered the epistemological trouble of believing in a deity, but that he has refused to acknowledge that the authority that permits religious terrorism derives from claimed knowledge about this deity, which derives from human writings.

His main beef seems to be with the arrogant tone of the non-believers, which he handily excoriates. He doesn't address the atheists arguments, which he dismisses as "strawmen". After all, atheists do bad things, too and anyway most believers are not dangerous fanatics. He is being deliberately obtuse here, because he is well aware that the atheists' arguments are valid for an important subset of Christians he warned us against in a previous book as well as for an important percentage of Jews and Muslims who sow death in their wake throughout the Middle East, a region he knows better than most.

So, why would I give this deeply-flawed book four stars?

Hedges, while failing in his attempt to critique atheism, hits a home run in identifying perhaps the two most pernicious trends in thinking about how to save us from ourselves. These are that humans are somehow improvable in some fundamental way and that the ideas of "evil" or "sin" are relics of pre-Enlightenment superstition and can be jettisoned with no ill effect.

Hedges correctly identifies the first idea as an Enlightenment creation that came about in part as a reactuion to the doctrine of Original Sin and in part as a natural conclusion that thinkers drew as scientific thought enabled technological achievements that increased the standard of living, life expectancy and options available to the beneficiaries of the Enlightenment, particularily in Europe. It was refined by a mis-application of Darwin's ideas about evolution and other cultural forces and was twisted to serve the ends of racists, eugenicists, Communists and Fascists.

The science-driven improvements in intra-species slaughter and destruction of the planet should be ample evidence that increased scientific competence and human perfectability are unrelated, and it is probable that the improvements in standard of living globally have peaked, at least in the West, and will peak soon all over the planet, if they have not already done so.

Following this line of reasoning, Hedges correctly points out, that even if we were to all become atheists and rationalists overnight, the idea that we would somehow "improve" as a species is naive at best. The conviction that this is so, would lead to forced deconversions and all sorts of oppression of believers in the name of reason.
Although Hedges doesn't state it explicitly our history, both written and evolutionary shows that our aggressive and dominating nature is what has selected us to be the alpha hominids from our possible rivals such as Homo erectus and the Neandethals.

This brings us to "sin" and "evil". I understand, as does Hedges, that these terms are symbolic, metaphorical. The worst human impulses, which lead to torture, genocide, oppression and destruction comprise an inseparable part of human nature and if we wish to better society, we have give up on the Utopian notions that promise us "Ubermenschen", "Rational Man", or "Spiritually Evolved Woman" and come to terms with what we are, rather than how various ideologies tell us we should be. We are not going to solve our problems by trying to force people into a Procrustean bed built on the ideal-du-jour. Down this path lies the totalitarian nightmares of Hitler, the Inquisition and so many others.

People are intrinsically co-operative, loving and empathetic; we are also territorial, aggressive and selfish.We evolved from apes. Our closest relatives are socially manipulative and sexually calculating bonobos and the hierarchical, aggressive chimpanzees. Neuroscience shows us that we are driven by emotion, not reason and that the main function of the latter is to rationalize the social and moral decisions we take because of neural activity in the emotional centres of the brain.

Holding up a mythic "Rational Man" as an ideal to which we should aspire in order to achieve Utopia is as wrong-headed as thinking that we should all convert to Jainism in order to achieve the same goal. In the end, we will still be the same old Homo sapiens with a different set of cherished beliefs to fight and die for.

This is what this book is about, whether Hedges knows it or not and it is that book that warrants 4 stars. As a critique of atheism, it has a misleading title and really doesn't even try.
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