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You must read 'I Don't Believe in Atheists'

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • March 7, 2008

{mosimage}I Don’t Believe in Atheists, by Chris Hedges (Anansi, 224 pages, $24.95 hardcover).

It’s the emphasis on sin and the direct link with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that makes you sit up with a start while reading Chris Hedges' new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists. The honest and exquisitely argued linkage creates that magical compulsion to seek out others so you can read them an excerpt. It is a pleasure too seldom found in a book, let alone one that wants to argue that scientists can be more fundamentalist than arch creationists.

Normally, Hedges, the former divinity school student and New York Times reporter, is lumped in with the Dawkins and Hitchens of the world. After his last book was published, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Hedges toured the continent debating every evangelical he could find. They were the enemy, the destructive force in Western society, the anti-science bigots intent on creating a world too dangerous.

The media loved him. He was the newest practitioner of that most popular genre, the politico-religious screed. And then he got religion.

{sa 141656795X}His own personal road to Damascus occurred while engaging in public events with Hitchens about his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Sam Harris about his books, Letters to A Christian Nation and The End of Faith. He found Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins glib, unstudied, ignorant and ultimately indifferent to, and as a consequence enslaved to, a very ancient and very modern form of sin. They believe that they can make human beings and human society perfect, and the power to do so is through reason and science and the end of religion.

One of the most enduring of the aftershocks of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been the outpouring of essays, polemics and books attempting to situate the horror of that day squarely in the realm of religious extremism and religion generally. The reasoning is simple and simplistic. Osama Bin Laden and his followers are Muslim fanatics intent on bringing down Western civilization. Since their hatred and fanaticism is self-attributed to their understanding of the Koran, by extension religion was to blame for the attacks. If a fanatical reading of the Koran could result in such carnage, then all extreme religious fervour must be suspect and, therefore, is dangerous and needs to be contained if not eliminated.

For mainstream media this is extremely seductive reasoning. Secular institutions are almost by definition suspicious of religious experience and motivation. When Hedges came along arguing that the religious right was creating a fascist state it was just one more juicy, provocative narrative tailor-made for great headlines, glib commentary and easy conclusions. So if Hedges attacks right-wing religious movements, he’s in the good camp, right?

If fact the easy assumption couldn’t be more wrong. I Don’t Believe in Atheists is a layered treatment of the notions of transcendence, awe, temporal reality and eternal possibilities. What Hedges skilfully does is demonstrate that fundamentalist thinking is not the sole preserve of religious fanatics but is also shared by virulent secularists and that both have lost sight of what it means to be human.

The book was published on March 4, facing mainstream media with a conundrum. What to make of this Hedges, the one who argues with nuance and deep respect for the impulse towards and the reality of religion? No longer easily slotted into the compelling narrative of reason vs. faith, Hedges risks being ignored by the very media that celebrated him so munificently less than two years ago. It may well be his loss but there is something larger at stake, something he himself hints at in the book.

We live in a time of glib superficial media treatment of most stories, not just the story of the role of religion, the role of science and the interaction between the two. Hedges, by being complicated, by demanding attention to faith and its role in personal salvation, may well be denying himself the very attention he and the issues he addresses deserve. That he predicted the same makes it no less wrong.

(Kavanagh is a Senior Producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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