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A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part III

As I’ve written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:

Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses… We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history… All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)

A harsh verdict, to be sure. But this doom-and-gloom fatalism raises a puzzling contradiction with statements Hedges makes elsewhere in the book:

The religious figures I studied and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and Daniel Berrigan. (p.3)

and later:

[The atheists’] attacks dismiss those – and there are millions – who found the inner fortitude through religion to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion. It seeks to invalidate the achievement of those religious figures who lost their lives in the defense of humanity. (p.34)

Did you catch it? Hedges speaks of the “achievement” of religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for justice and compassion. Achievement? What achievement is he referring to? Didn’t Hedges just get done telling us that no collective moral progress ever has been or ever can be achieved? Isn’t he thus forced to believe, by his own argument, that the efforts of King and others didn’t make any lasting difference? And if so, what exactly is it that he admires them for?

But it gets worse. For, you see, the truth is far more appalling: Martin Luther King was one of those dreaded utopians!

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

…This is for hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.'”

—Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, 16 August 1967

These statements conflict with the received wisdom of Chris Hedges, who assures us that there is no moral arc in the universe, that no one ever will overcome, and that in fact, nothing will ever get better in any way, so we might as well give up hoping.

What this shows, I think, is that Hedges don’t hold the worldview he says he does. He doesn’t really believe in the impossibility of moral progress. He just hates the way we advocate it – by attacking religious prejudices at the roots, by encouraging people to put aside their superstitions and become rational. (His angry denial that religion played any role in the Bosnian conflict is a good example.) In other words, he too wants a better world – it’s just that he’s deluded enough to believe that religion has no responsibility for the state the world is in, and that there’s no reason we have to give it up. If he instead acknowledged the necessity of atheism, he might see it as a promising solution to some of the problems he regards as intractable, and he wouldn’t be so embittered and pessimistic.

Other posts in this series:

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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...