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College Quarterly
Winter 2012 - Volume 15 Number 1
I Don't Believe in Atheists
Chris Hedges
New York: Free Press, 2008
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Chris Hedges has been on my mind a lot lately. He is a political activist, a moralist and a keen observer of what Hannah Arendt was pleased to call the human condition. He has become, to the extent that such a thing is possible, the voice of the "Occupy" movement. He, with others among the usual suspects, has successfully sued Barack Obama over the curtailment of civil liberties under the National Defense Authorization Act (signed quietly by the president last New Year's Eve). Hedges said this about the victory (likely to be overturned by a higher court and certainly by the right-wing Supreme Court): "None of us thought we would win. But once in a while the gods smile on the damned."

I thought it intriguing that Hedges used words like "the gods" and "the damned." Then, I remembered that he was a Christian. I decided it was worth learning a little more about his religious commitments. The book I chose to examine is called I Don't Believe in Atheists. I still like Chris Hedges a lot, but I have concluded that it is flying under false colours.

There are two probable meanings in the title. The first is that Mr. Hedges does not believe that atheists exist, in the same way that I do not believe in unicorns and vampires. This is clearly not so. Mr. Hedges devotes almost his entire book to atheists and what he thinks that they do or do not believe. So, he plainly believes that they exist. The second is that he doesn't like, support or respect what atheists have to say, much as I, for example, don't believe in faith healers or e-mails scammers who tell me that a million dollars awaits me if I will just contact some office in Nigeria. I don't doubt that such people exist, but I don't believe what they say. But here, too, there's a problem. On the first page of the book he makes this declaration:

"…there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever. There are many people of great moral probity and courage who seek meaning outside of formal religious structures, who reject religious language and religious rituals and define themselves as atheists. There are also many religious figures that in the name of one god or another sanctify intolerance, repression and violence."

So, it is clear to me, Chris Hedges acknowledges the existence of both religious people and atheists. He admires, praises and shares moral beliefs with at least some in both camps, and he also disapproves of the beliefs and practices of others on both sides of the theistic fence. His ideas merit exploration.

By page three, matters become clear. We learn that Chris Hedges is mainly upset with four specific atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. What he dislikes about them (and plainly doesn't believe in) is their absolute certainty about the non-existence of God. He says that they have "a following among people disgusted with the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists. I share this disgust," he adds. Nonetheless, he strongly opposes their views and disapproves of the implications that he draws from them. He thinks that they are unhealthy for our society. For Hedges, it seems OK to be an atheist, but not an atheist who is 100% sure that God doesn't exist.

It turns out that Hedges' real opponent is "fundamentalism," both of the godly and of the godless variety, the political right and the political left, conservative and liberal social values, etc. This much is made clear by the end of his eight-page prologue: he objects to rigid and doctrinaire opinions, especially if those holding such opinions are intolerant of the contrary beliefs and behaviour of others.

If that was all there was to the book, it would be possible to write it off as no more than a mushy liberal platitude. So, remembering that Hedges also took a harsh swipe at "liberals" in his The Death of the Liberal Class in 2010, which I favourably reviewed in The Innovation Journal 16(1), 2011, I decided to push ahead; I was confident that something of greater interest would turn up.

Something soon did, and it is certainly worthy of comment and criticism. I think Hedges' arguments are somewhat flawed, and not only because he seems too hastily to conflate atheists and atheism into the persons and the positions of his four specific opponents, though that is important and I will return to it later.

To understand how and where Hedges has gone wrong, it's important to step back a bit and consider the main topics that Hedges raises: they include God, the European Enlightenment and the idea of progress, the "cult" of science, and what he calls a "fixed and irredeemable Human Nature."

God should come first (or at least God as He appears in the minds of many members of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This particular God has certainly been going through a bit of a rough patch lately, and by "lately" I mean the last four hundred years.

In early modernity, Galileo showed anyone who cared to look through his telescope that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. This made us, God's privileged children, seem a lot less special. Then, in the mid-1800s, Darwin showed that human beings weren't exactly created in "His image." In fact, we were not all that exceptional even among our fellow terrestrial creatures. Instead, like Pterodactyls, pachyderms, paper wasps, parsnips and Portobello mushrooms, people are the more or less accidental products of a very complex and evidently capricious evolutionary process. Still, both Earth's location on the outskirts of a rather mediocre galaxy and human biological evolution on that second-rate planet could be managed in most theological traditions ("God works in mysterious ways …" and all that). Albeit belatedly but nonetheless forcefully, Pope John Paul II absolved Galileo in 1992. Then, in 1996, he more-or-less endorsed Darwinism. So, at least Roman Catholicism seems to be coming to terms with the elements of modern science.

The challenges, however, have been accumulating and the religious among us remain fretful. Freud, of course, didn't help when he deprived us of our confidence in our own rationality. Although many of his ideas have been effectively discredited, Freud certainly put the kibosh on our optimistic belief in the power of human reason. Moreover, although their words have more often been misinterpreted than properly understood, the fate of God seemed all but sealed when Marx identified religion as the "opiate of the masses," and Nietzsche, though admittedly a trifle prematurely, pronounced that "God is dead, and we have killed him." Indeed, it got so bad that Albert Camus, a long standing atheist, became known as the "conscience" of his generation by arguing that, although life was absurd, it was worth living anyway, and that although morality had no divine origin, it could nonetheless be found, formulated and followed. Camus made it possible to live with decency and dignity in a universe without God. (It's one thing to be assassinated, but perhaps worse to be declared merely redundant.)

It wasn't all God's fault, of course. The history of humanity has largely been a narrative of fear, hatred and slaughter. Students of human nature—whether evolutionary psychologists or classical theologians—have no trouble understanding that ours is a troubled and troubling species. We are clearly capable of all manner of murder and mayhem, and we are now technologically advanced to the point where military officers in a bunker in the western United States can and do guide "drone" aircraft to bomb targets in Afghanistan with (almost) complete precision. Our ancestors may have been vicious with sticks and stones, clubs and claymores, but we now have biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. No less than in the mythical "state of nature," our lives can easily be made "nasty, brutish and short."

Whereas ancient Abrahamic moralists and scribes used to put the responsibility for such malevolence on some version of "original sin" (i.e., it was somehow our fault), more recent thought has transferred the blame to our distorted ideas. In the accounts of Harris and Hitchens, especially, much of the evil we do is directly attributable, not to God, but to our belief in God.

It's hard to dismiss their claim, for much of the unpleasantness that we have visited upon ourselves has been perpetrated "in the name" of God. It has been justified in the main by people who claim to be His biggest boosters. Some people noticed a small disconnect between the admonition that "Thou shalt not kill," and the enthusiasm and ease with which believers became killers. So, at least a few decided to keep on believing in God, but to advocate an end to the slaughter of the guilty as well as of innocents. They were, of course, dealt with harshly by the authorities.

God also got into a spot of bother when people developed natural science and came to understand that much of the content of their sacred texts was "literally" false. This caused some of the more adventuresome believers to lose faith, though this did not immediately reduce the number of homicides. Many of the others decided that a war had begun between religion and science. People chose up sides. Scientists tended to back science. Non-scientists tended to back religion, but not so much that they abandoned their electric can openers, air conditioners and lap-top computers. Oddly, they wallowed in the luxuries of a technological empire while simultaneously denying global warming and evolution. They also watched missiles blowing up buildings in Baghdad as though they were enjoying a video game.

So, after millennia of human carnage "in the name of God," it finally dawned on Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins that religion might have been not a fanciful daydream or a relatively harmless opiate, but an especially cruel curse. Religion seemed to support butchery on the one hand and humourless ignorance on the other.

In case anyone is sceptical, let's remember what we've done in the time since we congratulated ourselves on becoming civilized and began to organize our religious beliefs and behaviour. To my knowledge, the first recorded act of genocide is recounted in the thirty-first chapter of the Fourth Book of Moses, called Numbers. It is located what Christians call the Old Testament. Therein, we learn that armies serving under Moses himself annihilated the Midianites (except for the young girls who were kept alive as sex slaves). The Midianites were said to have annoyed God and therefore forced to feel His wrath (and the wrath of Moses as well). Thereafter (and no doubt long before), a vast narrative of torture and death follows religious leaders and followers as heretics are slain, witches are burnt and whole nations war with other nations. The carnage is evident for all to see.

The four-man atheist perspective that upsets Hedges attaches much blame to religious beliefs themselves; God, of course, cannot be held accountable since, in their view, He doesn't exist in the first place. Therefore, they hold human culture culpable. Personally, I am not convinced that religion is ultimately at fault. It is important, of course, but more as an enabling ideology than a root cause. It is useful for whipping the troops into a homicidal frenzy before setting out to destroy others with fire and sword or, currently, with Kalashnikov rifles and smart bombs. There are, however, those who think otherwise, and they are Hedges' principal targets. Hedges, again, regards fundamentalism—whether religious, political, moral or intellectual—as "the beast." His notion of a valid religion excludes those that seek to exclude others. Chris Hedges is an admirable and deeply humane man.

In his view of the world, Chris Hedges is not wholly preoccupied with the foundational atheist postulate that God is a human creation, an alienation and projection of our own virtues (and sometimes vices) onto a supernatural entity. The atheist perspective often irritates him, but he spreads the blame around. So, although I parted company with God about a half-century ago and have not quite kept up-to-date, I think I know this much. On at least one issue, Hedges is right: God (or any god worthy of the name) is not a fundamentalist—Christian, Muslim, Hindu or any other. Anything approaching a loving God must surely be more compassionate than that, and I suspect He would want His loyal followers to display similar generosity.

To be a fundamentalist, in the alternative, is to invite and often to demand a special kind of small-mindedness, often descending into hatred. Fundamentalism inspires insularity and the evil that comes from self-importance, arrogance and what the Greeks called hubris—no matter where you think evil originates and resides. I don't want to put words into the mouths of either God or Hedges—especially words that might meet someone's test for blasphemy and thus put me at risk of violence, threat of violence or a lawsuit for slander—but I think that Chris Hedges would generally agree with me. He states quite bluntly that anyone who insists on killing someone because of differences in theological persuasion is no friend of the God that he has served throughout his life. In fact, Hedges even wrote a damning book about some of his co-religionists. It was called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. 1 It's pretty clear that it is not what people think, but how they think that he considers primarily important. The idea that the method of thinking is more important than the content of thought, incidentally, was originally one of Christopher Hitchen's favourite dicta. Somewhere on the road to Baghdad in the company of President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, he seemed to have mislaid it. Chris Hedges stays true to the principle.

Mr. Hedges should know about such matters. He is a thoughtful American who spent almost twenty years as a foreign correspondent, mainly for the New York Times. He was that newspaper's bureau chief in the Middle East and worked in other war zones—in Africa, Latin America and notably in what we euphemistically call "the former Yugoslavia." He performed his duties assiduously and courageously. He brought the news of the world to North America. He did so honestly, even when we didn't want to hear the truth, or simply didn't care. Unlike people who speak foolishly about a "war on terror," or a "war on drugs" or a "war on obesity," Chris Hedges witnessed real war up close. He regards it with a seriousness that is seldom evident in politicians and pundits who speak about its necessity or, worse, its glory. He also knows something about God. He graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, but declined to receive ordination into the clergy, choosing to go to places like Bosnia and Beirut instead.

Chris Hedges is a man of strong opinions—not something that is recommended for anyone wishing to live comfortably as a professional journalist in the corporate print and broadcast media—or a teacher. In 2003, for instance, he spoke to the graduating class of Rockford College in Illinois. This is what he said to them: "We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security." Chris Hedges talks like that. He uses words like "souls," and even "sin," without irony. The New York Times formally reprimanded him for his comments at Rockford College, and warned him against making "public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper's impartiality." The newspaper didn't mention that its cheerleading for the attack on Iraq had already severely undermined its credibility, at least among people old enough to remember the Vietnam conflict and the crucial role that the New York Times played in revealing the truth behind that debacle when it, along with the Washington Post published Daniel Ellsberg's gift of The Pentagon Papers. Soon afterward, Chris Hedges was a former Times employee.

For the most part, I find myself in agreement with Hedges' political opinions. I admire him for the strong voice he has lent to the "Occupy" movement. I admire his forthrightness and bravery. I also believe that his criticisms of US foreign policy and of corporate capitalism are well-considered, well-argued and substantially correct. I Don't Believe in Atheists is not primarily a political book. It is mainly about God and matters relevant to religion. There is, however, nothing in our conscious lives that—whether we know it, like it or admit it—is not somehow political. So, when Chris Hedges talks about Christianity and atheism, politics isn't far away.

I have also watched Chris Hedges closely. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to listen attentively at the University of Toronto when he and Christopher Hitchens reprised their earlier debate about God. Each man displayed charm and (mostly) civility. They seem to have their performances and occasional clashes nicely scripted, orchestrated and choreographed; it was a good show. Sitting in the audience, I found that my head was (mostly) with Hitchens, but my heart was (somewhat) with Hedges. What appears in this book is largely an extension of the arguments he made in an effort to convince the atheist Hitchens that he didn't "believe in" him. He did not entirely succeed. Nevertheless, if I may be so bold, I suspect that God would have been proud—perhaps of both of them.

In the variation and extension of the Hedges/Hitchens and Hedges/Harris arguments that appear in I Don't Believe in Atheists, there is a main theme with which, as I intimated, I have no quarrel. Chris Hedges is right to say that people should not succumb to fundamentalist, dogmatic, authoritarian and ultimately totalitarian beliefs. It is, he avers, possible to be a believer and to be open-minded and tolerant of others at the same time. Whatever theological truth might be, our capacity to know and understand it is limited and partial. We must therefore be humble in our attitudes and tentative in our truth claims—whether we subscribe to one or another organized (or disorganized) religion or remain free thinkers. What goes for believers goes equally for non-believers, and this is where Hedges takes his stand. As an agnostic on good days, and an atheist on bad ones, I cannot disagree. Forbearance in the face of contrary opinion is, it seems to me, a critical element in the maintenance of any set of social relations that deserve to be preserved and defended. At the same time, there are crucial points on which I think Hedges oversteps himself and thereby weakens a perfectly sound argument. It is time now to identify more precisely what worries me about Hedges' argument.

Did I say he and I grew up in the same church? Well, we did: he in the United States of America and I in Canada were both raised in the Church of Scotland. It is broadly Calvinist and generally as dour as are, I am told, the Scots themselves. In my case, entry into the "wee Kirk" was mainly due to the fact that it was the closest Protestant church in an otherwise thinly populated rural part of southern Ontario. My parents weren't much bothered about the specific denomination, but were pretty sure we were Protestants rather than Catholics (as it turned out, the matter was far more ambiguous, but that's another story).

So, the choice was made. As for the particular church (Melville Presbyterian in West Hill, Ontario), its personality as much as its doctrine suited the farmers and blue collar workers who lived nearby. Nobody cared much about doctrinal details. Few had read either the Shorter Catechism or the Longer Catechism, and some were flabbergasted to discover that they were somehow obliged to believe in "the predestination of souls." This revelation came when I confronted a number of the elders and read the pertinent passages aloud to them. As red-meat-and-root-vegetable rubber-booted Cold Warriors, such a notion sounded vaguely "communistic," so they promptly flushed it down their personal memory holes and sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" with greater gusto for at least a few weeks after they'd at last learned what they were expected to believe. I shrugged and left the church.

Chris Hedges was born in Vermont, grew up in rural Schoharie County, New York, earned a BA in English Literature from Colgate University and studied theology at Harvard. He took religon a tad more seriously than I did. He had little choice, for his father was a Presbyterian minister. He also says that his father "spent his career speaking out, often at some personal cost, in support of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement and the gay rights movement." I can understand why the elder Hedges might have had trouble. From my vantage point there wasn't much about Presbyterianism that seemed directed toward social activism. Rather, it promoted a rather cosmic pessimism, urged compliance with the authorities more than the quest for justice. For Chris Hedges, there appears to be a bit of a blend: Christianity is all about striving for social justice—but not expecting to achieve it.

The limits on human moral progress, he seems to say, are partly the fault of the liberal churches themselves. He describes them as variously self-righteous, smug and possessed of a suffocating piety. A typical liberal Christian, he says "likes the poor, but doesn't like the smell of the poor." The liberal church is a "largely midddle-class, bourgeois phenomenon, filled with many people who have profited from industrialization, the American empire, and global capitalism." Christopher Hitchens would not have disagreed

To Hedges, conservative Christians—the fundamentalists—are worse. They are possessed by "chauvenism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness." The common bond between insipid liberals and mindless conservatives appears to be self-righteousness. Christopher Hitchens would not have diagreed.

So, what divides Hedges from his atheistic quartet? It is, I think, what Hedges might call the idolotry of hope. Hedges is enough of a Presbyterian (or at least of the sort that I knew) to have a pretty low opinion of humanity. "There is," he says, "nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature." He goes on: "It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency—this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit [that must be confronted.]"

So it is all of them—sanctimonious liberal Christians, fanatical fundamentalist Christians and atheists in thrall to the cult of rationalism and science—who pose the largest threat to humanity.

I was taken aback by Hedges' mention of a "morally neutral universe" (is it a universe without God?), but he does not belabour the point. Instead, he calls upon all of us to engage in a politics of witnessing. It may not and, indeed, probably won't do much good: the next few decades, he says, are "going to be bleak and difficult." To be blinded by "utopian visions" will make matters even worse. Arrayed against him on the one side are Christians who are either too vapid for their own or anyone else's good or so demented in their zealotry as to be monstrous, and on the other side is "the recent crop of atheists [who] offer… a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is," he says, "one that we have seen before. It is one we must fight."

In such a homily I hear the echo of George Grant, who once pronounced, in full threnody, that "moral fervour … is too valuable to be wasted on anything but reality." 2 Like Hedges, Grant understood that "democratic citizenship is not a notion that is compatible with technological empires." 3 Like Hedges, Grant understood that the difficulty or even the futility of our efforts does not lessen our obligation to do what is required of all of us by moral obligation; namely to promote good and obstruct evil. To do so properly, we need to understand what's really going on. We must relentlessly interrogate those who have blind faith, whether in the redemption promised by some religious eschatology or that promised by the General Electric company when its spokesmans, Ronald W. Reagan, encouraged us to believe that technology would define progress and that, at GE, "progress is our most important product."

Chris Hedges sees in the technophilia the capacity to add power to whoever is nominally in charge. To make their squalid little fantasies of domination more fully realizable, we have made science the repository of our hopes and dreams. Rather than seeking divine grace, we put our faith in human reason, scientific method and the extension of our knowledge into technology, all in the interest of creating a Heaven on Earth.

Hedges wants us to settle down. "The folly of humankind," he says, "is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors." It is inherent in chemistry labs and in physics experiments as much as in witch-burnings and lynchings. His cry for tolerance, then, is not some prissy attempt to get the children to play nicely together, but a demand for serious thought about the ubiquity of sin. The sandbox, in other words, is irredeemably fouled.

Such a cry is inconsistent with the main themes of modernity which imagined, from the European Enlightenment onward, that the path to perfection was open, that science would eliminate ignorance, democracy would put an end to tyranny, capitalism would remove poverty and we would soon live for the best in the best of the very best of all possible worlds. Racism would be eliminated by human rights commissions, "bullying" would be overcome by corporate happy faces, and the Internet would bring knowledge and wisdom to anyone with a keyboard. Chris Hedges will have none of it.

So far, so good … but only so far.

I question Hedges' attack on the so-called cult of science—the belief not only that scientific and technological progress will enhance human life in all its dimensions, but also that there is a broad consensus among scientists and their substantial following in the public that this progress is not only possible and desirable, but even inevitable. It's not that I think that the cult of science as Hedges describes it is praiseworthy, but rather that it doesn't really exist. I don't believe in it. If Dennett and Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens believe(d) such a thing, then I will cheer Hedges on as he seeks to restore them to sanity. What I dispute is the ubiquity and extent of their madness. The overestimation of scientific inquiry and the optimism of those who saw it as an adequate instrument of secular salvation was, for a time, a large part of the legacy of the Enlightenment. I think, however, that we have gotten over it.

Back in about 1857, the revered French historian Ernest Renan predicted that all scientific questions of importance would be answered by the end of the nineteenth century. All that would be left to do would be to fill in a few gaps and come up with strategies for the most expeditious application of scientific principle to the technological apparatus needed to usher in an era of unprecedented human happiness. We have, I think, gone beyond such preposterous talk.

This is not to say that contemporary scientific discoveries and technological inventions aren't tremendously impressive. They are. From inquiries into cosmology and the origin of the universe to inquiries into genetics and the origins of life, there is far more dramatic work underway today than at any other time in the history of our species. As well, in everything from nanotechnology to supercollider superconductors, our ability to parse and probe the physical universe is plainly unprecedented. Machines now perform surgery, fly aircraft, manufacture everything from golf clubs to artificial body parts at the press of a computer keyboard. So, Hedges is right to see these investigations and innovations as powerful means to develop or destroy life.

There is also an immense debate about the relationship between ethics and technology, but it is not the result of a cohort of mad scientists prosetyzing on behalf of a technological utopia. For one thing, science itself has been instrumental in undoing myths of its own potency. Contrary to Renan, twentieth-century science came to understand the enormous gap between the world as we know it and the world as it is (or is theorized to be). From Heisenberg's confidence-shattering "principle of indeterminacy" (1929) to Kuhn's reformulation of the "structure of scientific revolutions" (1962), the old mechanistic world of Newton has been relativized and the entire scientific project has been compelled to deal with its own inherent limits. Scientists have come to understand that "science never proves anything." At its best, science falsifies some hypotheses and refines others to the point where we may declare that it would be perverse to withhold at least tentative assent to propositions such as the facticity of biological evolution, but without the absolute certainty with which we may speak of, for example, mathematical propositions or rules of logic that are considered true in the absence of empirical evidence (often because they are basically tautologies).

It cannot be denied, of course, that amateur science "buffs," hyperenthusiastic journalists and public relations specialists for chemical companies and engineering firms occasionally engage in hyperbole, but mostly about technology as present in high-tech corporations' most recent or newly anticipated products and services. At best, however, these amount to commercial copy and advertising campaigns. Serious scientists do not play such games; or, if they do, they betray their disciplines—perhaps in aid of promoting mass market paperbacks through which they hope to win fifteen seconds on fame on CNN.

For self-respecting scientists, however, the purpose of their profession is always more to generate interesting questions than to provide indisputable answers. Science is the domain of inquiry; religion is the domain of faith. Unfortunately, though the truth may set us free, truth-seeking is expensive. So, it is plain that funding for scientific research is increasingly provided by for-profit corporations, and that working scientists are more and more dependent on sources that set agendas intended to commercialize scientific inquiry. Never mind that much of contemporary science is sponsored by the military, with obvious aims and ambitions in mind, and that much more is performed in the interest of firms in fields such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals and energy production which have not always lived up the the highest ethical standards. Even apparently benign research is nudged in the direction more likely to improve private sector profitability rather than the public good more broadly defined. The result is the necessary loss of academic autonomy upon which pure science depends. It is, however, one thing to say that the political economy of scientific research is distorted and compromised by corporate pipers—both private and public—who call the research tunes, and quite another to conclude that scientists are at the centre of a "cult" dedicated to the myth of progress and the nefarious politics of social control.

In taking the often exaggerated claims of men such as Dawkins and Dennett as representative of science itself is to engage in something dangerously close to "straw-man" tactics. Chris Hedges is not wrong to condemn hyperbole in support of scientific utopias, or utopian thinking in general. We are (or should be) all too aware of what happens when scientific inquiry is sullied by political ideology and put in the service of political movements such as Nazism (eugenics) and Stalinism (crude Lamarckian biology). We are also (or should be) sceptical of, for example, profit-driven efforts to market livestock hormones, toxic pesticides and harmful food additives that their manufacturers claim will solve the problems of world hunger. And, we are (or should be) aware of the host of ethical issues inherent in the biological sciences that have so outstripped our moral discourse that we can barely frame important questions about, for instance, genetic modification of plant seeds, much less of people.

All these are legitimate concerns, but to posit a self-conscious and aggressive utopianism and insist that it fairly represents contemporary science does not advance Hedges' position as much as it threatens his credibility. So, while I am wholly supportive of his critique of corporate capitalism, it is the political economy of technological greed, and not the theological musings of four men with frankly self-promotional interests that should be the object of his ire.

Chris Hedges is upset and angry at the simplistic and sophomoric rants of a few celebrity atheists. He says that their atheism or, worse, their anti-theism is superficial and that their alternative, a paean to human reason already under suspicion, is just as bad as the religious fundamentalism they condemn. He ties the scientific and technological myth-dreaming that should have disappeared when Walt Disney's "Tomorrowland" under the watchful eye and the imposing voice of Nazi "buzz bomb" engineer Werner von Braun faded from the black-and-white television sets of the early 1960s. to the aims and aspirations of science today. He would do better to promote the academic freedom of scientists to explore outside the intellectuals shackles imposed by grants agreements—at least to the modest right to publish their results, even when they are not what funding agencies want to hear.  

There are deep philosophical and crucial ethical problems to ponder, and Chris Hedges is right to say that they have been raised by the extraordinary expansion of science since the European Enlightenment. There are profound ecological and environmental problems that have been posed by the globalization of industrial pollution and a mass consumption culture. These are worthy of the scrutiny of Chris Hedges and the legion of thoughtful scientists and non-scientists who are engaged in public debate about such matters. I truly hope that Chris Hedges will take up these acute and historically unprecedented issues and will inspire others to do so. I Don't Believe in Atheists delivers a glancing blow at shallow pop-theology and anti-theology. It should encourage us all to reflect deeply upon these issues, but, it is not quite an example of the deeper reflection we need.


1. Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).

2. George Grant, "Protest and Technology," in Charles Hanly, ed., Revolution and Response: Selections from the Toronto International Teach-in (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), p. 123.

3. Ibid., p. 122.

Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at