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A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part I

At the beginning of chapter 2, Chris Hedges says that science is a “morally neutral discipline” (p.45) which offers potential for both good and evil. He goes on to assert:

Evolution is a biological theory that helps us grasp descent, with modification, within living species. It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics or the behavior of nations. [p.46]

So far, so good – there’s nothing in that paragraph that I disagree with. But a little later on that very same page, Hedges excoriates people who believe in moral progress as follows:

Darwinism sees our animal natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise. It infers the opposite. The belief in collective moral progress is anti-Darwinian. [p.46]

So, evolution isn’t a theory about morality, and yet belief in moral progress is contradicted by evolution. I scarcely need to point out that these statements can’t both be true.

This sloppy, careless self-contradiction reminds me of Francis Collins and John Haught, both of whom said that it’s a misuse of science to make statements about whether the universe has purpose – unless you’re arguing for purpose, in which case appealing to science is totally legitimate. It’s only the conclusions they disagree with that they think science can’t legitimately be used to defend. Hedges is doing the same thing.

So, who are these evil scientists who misuse Darwinism to argue for moral progress? Hedges’ villain of choice is Richard Dawkins, whom he quotes as follows:

He writes that the human species, unlike other animals, can transcend its biological map: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

…Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. (p.53)

Hedges is sparring with his own fantasies, since none of the atheists he quotes ever use the word “perfect”. That was his choice of words, not theirs. It’s a bad sign when the linchpin of your argument depends on putting words in your opponent’s mouth.

What Dawkins was actually saying, and which should be obvious, is that human beings can evaluate the reasons for or against acting in a certain way and then choose on that basis – even if those choices contradict the instincts instilled in us by our evolutionary past. For example, we can choose to never have children – or adopt and spend our lives caring for a genetic stranger’s children – in spite of the overriding evolutionary imperative to pass on one’s genes. We can choose not to eat sugary and fatty foods, despite our appetite’s subconscious promptings to store up calories for the next dry season. We can choose to suppress territorial and xenophobic urges and settle conflicts peacefully with diplomacy. Atheists’ pointing out these incontrovertible facts of human nature become, to Hedges, further proof of our complete depravity.

The interesting follow-up question this raises is, what does Hedges believe we should do? Later in the chapter, he declares his opposition to “memetic engineering”, which he defines as the process of “disseminating good memes and curtailing bad ones” – i.e., trying to teach people to behave morally. He calls this plan “a new variation of thought control” and fulminates that “it would result in anti-intellectualism, a war on science and democratic freedom, and a silencing of those who fail to conform” (p.66). We should steer clear of it because evolution teaches us that “human nature is fixed and irredeemable” (p.67).

The idea that anything about us is “fixed” is a laughable distortion of evolution, and “irredeemable” is one of those value judgments which Hedges earlier told us has no place in science, though he seems to have forgotten that. But what he’s really saying, it seems, is that people will never be any better than they are now, so we should give up trying. Moral education, in his eyes, is “thought control” and “anti-intellectualism”, and it’s more important that we not silence those who urge us to do evil. Is this man an exemplar whose views we should prefer to those of the New Atheists?

Other posts in this series:

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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