I recently read When Atheism Becomes Religion under its more provocative original title: I Don’t Believe in Atheists.
The author, Chris Hedges is becoming one of my favorite authors. The first book that I read of his, The Death of the Liberal Class was a great history of classical liberalism — something that all political ideologies today could learn from.
Chris Hedges is a fascinating writer and the perfect author for a book that offers a critique of the modern Cult of Reason. (It is important to note that the use of the word “cult” here reflects the thinking in this footnote of that article: The word “cult” in French means “a form of worship”, without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English; its proponents intended it to be a universal congregation.)
In fact, although I had this blog post in mind, it wasn’t till I started looking for a picture to accompany it (the Alter of Reason was perfect) that I learned about the Cult of Reason from the time of the French revolution.
That period of time is a great precedent for what happened since September 11, 2001 in the New Atheist movement.
Some people saw religion itself as the cause for the violence inherent in the terrorist attacks. If religion didn’t exist, the movement seems to say, no one would have an excuse to slaughter any group of people.
Chris Hedges’ book is a powerful antidote to this fantasy. Not only does he remind us that the greatest genocides of the 20th century were secular in nature, but he also asks us to consider human limitations in any solutions we propose: No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations.
Humans — whether created by God 6000 years ago, or just some random chance of the universe — have some very stark limitations. Making religion a demon while deifying reason will not solve anything.
I came across another book today while browsing the bookstore, You Are Not So Smart, that really began to drive home the point of our limitations. As the book points out, Even when we think we’re being rational and thinking things through carefully, our emotional brain, our subconscious, is the one really running the show. (I’ve requested a copy of the book from my local library, so I’ll post more about it after I’ve read more.)
Amusingly, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was nearby and I had time to read the introduction where he talks about the humility of Atheism. He’s right: we should all be able to say “I don’t know”.
But he says that saying “I don’t know” makes you an atheist and here I disagree. I know we haven’t done a great job of celebrating doubt, but even as great a Christian as Mother Teresa had doubts. That didn’t make her less of a Christian — it was simply part of her humanity. You have the chance to say — like Christopher Hitchen’s did — that this makes her a fraud, but I prefer the title “human.” Not knowing, doubting is a fully human thing to do.
It is fine to celebrate everything that reason gives us — and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot through the use of the rational mind — but, as Hedges rightly points out in When Atheism Becomes Religion, as much as reason has helped us reach new heights, it has empowered evil to new depravity.
There is no scientific utopia and efforts to create one only end in destruction. Achieving Utopia must mean destroying everyone that you can’t convince to join you. St Isaac the Syrian put it this way: “If zeal [using passion to convince others of the truth] had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did Jesus use gentleness and humility?”