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January 20, 2012

To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 3

By Ian Hansen

Part 3 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheists.

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Below is part 3 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheists. Part 1 can be viewed here, and Part 2 here.

Atheists have long had to hide or downplay their atheism if they hoped to be influential figures in national discourse, but now--thanks in large part to the New Atheists--the marginalization of atheists and atheism is eroding [1] .  When lost in the desert you eat and drink what you can, and you become grateful to whomever gave you food and drink, whatever their other flaws.

Indeed, this is what makes some observers of the New Atheist phenomenon--including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges--perceive danger in Harris's and Hitchens' popularity.  For critics like Hedges, the views that Harris and Hitchens expound as "atheist" views could contribute to cretinizing the growing pool of atheists, agnostics and those who check "none" under religion on national surveys.   The fear is that ethically and politically undecided members of the flock might come to adopt the New Atheist comportment and cluster of attitudes as a kind of non-believer's default (one arguably different from the non-believer's default pre-9/11).  Hedges would likely agree, then, that treating Harris and Hitchens as prototypical atheists is a gross injustice to atheists like Ridenhour [2] whose life and work reflect a bold resistance to authoritarianism and to the mass murder of foreigners--the resistance that atheism stands for at its best.

Yet it is misleading to use a phrase like "that atheism stands for at its best" because atheism (much like race, ethnicity and sexual orientation) has no ethical essence.  There is not very much that follows ethically from "There is no God," or from its opposite for that matter (unless God is given a normative definition like "a fundamental existential linkage between sentient beings that makes all of them worthy of humane and loving treatment") [3] .  It is unclear why people have their identities so attached to either of these propositions when neither proposition has many solid normative implications in its most basic form.  In any particular culture or time in history there may be some distinctive attitudes empirically associated with each propositional axiom ("There is no God" or "There is a God"), but if the correlation of the axiom and attitude is what justifies the axiom, then why not center one's identity on the attitude rather than the axiom?  In other words, if what justifies atheism or theism is how kindly, tolerant and non-mass-murderous atheists or theists are supposed to be, then why not just center one's identity on kindliness, tolerance and non-mass-murderousness and cut out the middle man?

Not cutting out the middle man may have rather unsavory consequences in fact, because if the axiom (atheism or theism) is anointed rather than the attitude (niceness, tolerance, peacefulness), then the axiom may eventually find it expedient to wander in its allegiance from the attitudes that justified it to the complete opposite attitudes.  Something like this appears to have happened to the New Atheism.  New Atheists praise atheism's tolerance and peacefulness as marks of its clear moral superiority to violent intolerant religiosity (especially to Islam).  And yet Hitchens and other New Atheists have managed to peddle some very unsettling opinions as views that are consistent with atheism.  And these opinions are on matters of undeniable relevance to tolerance and peacefulness--matters like the validity of religious bigotry, cultural chauvinism, preemptive war, imperial occupation, and torture.

Two of the three major New Atheists--Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens [4] --overtly scapegoat people with Muslim beliefs for the contemporary evils of the world, and Harris, as we have seen, even muses about the moral legitimacy of killing people for their beliefs.  Thus ultimately the New Atheists tend to adopt the same tone of sanguinity towards hatred and atrocity that (in almost the same breath) they accuse religious fundamentalists of being pathologically wedded to.

It is unclear whether their regressive ideological add-ons to atheism will ever disrupt the sales, blogospheric celebrations or shallow media coverage of the New Atheists.   The dark political implications of the New Atheism that Chris Hedges and others have tried to highlight have largely slipped under the radar so far because a thought-numbing dialectic with its own momentum is already underway on "the atheist question."   Perhaps one day this dialectic may morph into something of actual interest or relevance, but for now it is just another culture war distraction.   The vocal supporters of New Atheists are most often ordinary irreligious individuals who appear not to have read New Atheist work very closely (or disassociated while reading the most morally atrocious passages and so forgot them).  The most vocal opponents of New Atheism are generally Judeo-Christians whose tender feelings are hurt by any kind of atheism.  These Judeo-Christians characterize the New Atheists as rigid doctrinaire fanatics who do not truly understand religion.  They are much less likely to object to New Atheists for being neoconservatives-in-atheist-clothing who propagate militarism, fascism, and ethno-religious bigotry to an irreligious liberal demographic that has long been known to oppose these vices.

Chris Hedges, in fact, is one of the only well-known media figures to expose this more bigoted and scary side of the New Atheism [5] . Hedges' writing on this issue is a cry of political sensitivity in a wilderness of frothy faux dialogue.  Yet even Hedges' shrill opposition to the New Atheists, while based in a valid reading of their work and a plausible prediction of their political effect, may not necessarily be salutary if more widely adopted.

The fascist aspects of the New Atheists tend to be like landmines in a rice paddy--most of the rice paddy is quite compelling, endearing and healthy (quite the opposite of fascism) and so the (fascist) landmines in it do not really belong there.  Most fans of the New Atheists are attracted to the lush greenery and wholesome nutrition of the New Atheist rice paddy (which looks very much like their own atheist rice paddies).   These fans tend to bleep over the obvious landmines they see in the rice paddy, if they let themselves see them at all.  Calling attention to the landmines in the rice paddy of New Atheism can thus lead to some interpretive problems.  Chris Hedges, by crying, "there are land mines in that atheist rice paddy!" is potentially offending other cultivators of atheist rice paddies who think he is saying "there are land mines in all atheist rice paddies" or, at the very least, "there's nothing but land mines in the most famous bestselling atheist rice paddies that you admire so much and look up to for inspiration, so you're a dupe."  These interpretations of Hedges' critique could lead to reactance--atheists clinging even more tightly to New Atheist worldviews, perhaps to the point of adopting their most repulsive political and ethno-cultural stances as legitimate and valid, or even as central to atheist identification.

Some subtlety might be more effective, therefore--e.g. noting that many of the 21st Century's bestselling Judeo-Christian ideologues also share the most noxious New Atheist attitudes but argue for them less elegantly and, as people, have fewer redeeming qualities.   In this, at least, New Atheists can claim some legitimate superiority.  In general, though, it is best not to assist bad ideas by pounding on them with hyperbolic opposition.  It is an unwise hater of mercury who pounds on mercury with a hammer; it is an unwise hater of terrorism who pounds on terrorism with military occupation, legalized torture, and evisceration of the legal enshrinement of rights in one's own nation; and it is an unwise hater of New Atheism who screams that it should be combated as vigorously as Judeo-Christian varieties of fundamentalist fascism.

At their best, Hitchens and other New Atheists bring important issues to the attention of a public systematically banalized by sitcoms, video games and infotainment. Outside of the tiresome "You should believe!" vs. "No you shouldn't!" debate, the issues raised by the New Atheism have the potential to inspire genuine thought, inquiry and public discussion into matters of existential and political importance. The very anomalousness of "right wing" qualities grafted into what is supposed to be a "left wing" worldview orientation challenges us to think beyond the stultifying dichotomies of liberal vs. conservative and left vs. right.   There is something invaluably subversive about atheism old and new, as there has always been something invaluably subversive about questioning the supposedly unquestionable.

In addition, New Atheism could have ironically positive effects on the currently stunted American capacity for cultural and religious tolerance.  Fundamentalist religious believers, for instance, might find themselves inadvertently drawn away from their own inclination to religious bigotry when they read New Atheist attacks on all-religions-especially-Islam.  Even though the New Atheists single out Islam and thus treat de facto Western religions like Judaism and Christianity as relatively superior in the pantheon of bad religious ideas, some Judeo-Christians who had once felt infinitely superior might find themselves suddenly reaching out tolerant, rights-and-dignity-respecting hands to Muslims out of their greater offense at New Atheist attitudes.   Judeo-Christians might also be legitimately concerned about the long term consequences of tapping the ethos of New Atheism against Islam.   Who, for instance, is next if Islam gets taken down by neoliberal culture-washing, neoconservative imperial wars and occupations, or perhaps even by the mushroom cloud flames wrought by a button-pusher who reasons like Sam Harris?

The effect on a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian of reading Hitchens' or Harris's attacks on Islam may be much like the effect on a white racist reading the early Malcolm X's attacks on Martin Luther King's liberal pacifism. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend and my enemies are both enemies to each other, then either of them might become my friend--and in either case I will be befriending an enemy.  Following this short train of logic can potentially discombobulate bigots right out of their bigotry, or at least lead to divergent alignments of bigotry that make defeating bigotry easier in the long run.

Of course many fundamentalists would not resolve in a tolerant direction any contradictions that arose from such an intellectual confrontation, and might even end up following the bizarre example of white supremacists who cheerfully attend contemporary Nation of Islam rallies (dryly described in Jon Ronson's excellent Them) [6] .   By similar processes, the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend mentality may lead the most frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobic Judeo-Christians to make their peace with the likes of Harris and Hitchens.  The hope, presumably, would be that they could all be brothers bound together in bellicose ethnocentric hatred of the savage Other.  This is the alliance that Chris Hedges fears, and with some justification.

The nods to neoconservative and Islamophobic themes in New Atheist writings already offer ample evidence for this potential coziness between New Atheism and the more fascistic strains of Judeo-Christianity.  But it appears that some fascistic Judeo-Christians have been willing to drop subtle hints that they too are comfortable with this alliance.  For instance, the laugh-a-minute 2004 documentary George Bush: Faith in the White House claimed preposterously that George Bush is the most Christian president since the Founding Fathers (who, incidentally, were not in fact all that Christian), and yet it cheered atheist Christopher Hitchens as a source of wise authority to debunk scurrilous anti-Bush documentaries (specifically Fahrenheit 9-11, directed by leftist Michael Moore, an increasingly religious Catholic).

More strategically-minded Christian fundamentalists may not be so bold as to sympathetically name drop notorious atheists while soaking the faithful with right wing propaganda, any more than they would buy their children God is Not Great for Christmas. They might instead just try to ensure that publishing patterns distribute many more copies of New Atheist literature to the blue states, where they should dampen the egalitarian environmentalist civil libertarian anti-war spirit that flourishes there, and many fewer to the red states, where they might stir up precisely that spirit as an accident of increased inquiry.

During the early 1960s, strategically-minded white supremacists were probably pleased that Malcolm X and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were divided, as strategic-minded war mongers probably take heart from the fault lines emerging between atheism and liberalism today (which add to the already deep fault lines between theism and liberalism). All these divides to squabble across leave little room for solidarity among peace makers and justice-seekers, and that is good news for those in the business of oppression, war and carnage.

The best laid plans of warmongers and white supremacists, however, often go awry. It did not take long for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to express interest in meeting with each other, and we do not know what might have resulted from their preliminary encounters as Malcolm was assassinated very soon afterwards and King three years later.  Yet among believers in racial equality, Malcolm and King are often mentioned in the same breath, and their differences (including religious differences that today are assigned tremendous significance) are forgotten for the common stand they took on behalf of human rights, dignity and self-determination.  Divide and conquer is often hailed as a shrewd strategy, but divides can lead to constructive and enlightening dialogue as easily as they can lead to intragroup conflict and political cannibalism.  An honest divide can sometimes lay the groundwork for a deeper and more lasting unity.

Perhaps, then, the culture war that now distracts so many Americans from the reality of their gradually disappearing republic could nevertheless ultimately contribute to waking them up in time to save it.  The negative side of the culture war is relatively obvious: both parties to it suffer from the delusion that their ideological disagreements are more meaningful than the terrible courses of action that their squabbling political elites generally agree to (the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, extraordinary renditions to torturing client states, erosion of individual privacy, an ever expanding military-industrial complex, a steadily more entrenched corporate state, etc [7] ).  When two parties that usually pose as mortal enemies agree on something, we naturally assume that what they have agreed to must be undeniably rational and necessary otherwise it would not attract bipartisan support.   With current political elites in the U.S., however, every instance of bipartisan agreement typically moves the country a step closer towards imperial overreaching and corporate fascism.

Harris and Hitchens also contribute to this "bipartisan" agreement on the supposed danger of Islam and the necessity of combating it with the War on Terror.  Their popularity could even reflect a niche marketing approach by which Hannity-Coulter rhetoric is peddled to extinguish rights-respecting peace-loving tolerance in religious conservative communities and Harris-Hitchens rhetoric is peddled to extinguish it in irreligious liberal communities.  And yet this sophisticated cultivation of toxic bipartisanship may yet have some unexpected consequences.  This strategy may ironically lead to more cohesion among those who are tolerant, peace-loving respecters of rights, whether they identify as religious conservatives or as irreligious liberals.  Held together, perhaps, by the glue of the two-spirited religious liberals [8] , these more humane transcenders of the left-right divide could become a powerful bottom-up cultural force [9] , potentially more powerful than the top-down collusion between New Atheist sophisticates and religious fundamentalists, perhaps even more powerful than the top-down collusion between Democrats and Republicans.

It may be overly optimistic to imagine that the heterogenous collection of moralistic cranks who support peace, human rights, accountability, transparency and social equality could ever make their religio-ideological differences complementary and resource-maximizing rather than just a source of strife.  If they can, though, their unity might push the U.S. towards its original (though never actually realized) self image as a place of war-hating torture-free brotherhood, equality and social justice.

If good things like this come to pass, perhaps I should finally buy my own copy of God is Not Great. Insha'Allah, the book may do considerably more work for peace than Christopher Hitchens intends it to do.  And, for all we know, this may be precisely his intention.

Rest in peace, C.H. We'll see to it that your legacy does more good than harm.



[1] Obama's landmark inclusion of "and non-believers" in his diverse list of legitimate American types during his 2008 inaugural address might have been unthinkable without the earlier rise of the New Atheists.  Interestingly enough, both Hitchens and Harris essentially endorsed Obama even before this.   These endorsements are either (a) evidence that they are not, in fact, neoconservatives, (b) evidence that they are very peculiar neoconservatives, or (c) evidence that they are remarkably prescient neoconservatives (as Obama has not strayed far from Bush policy, and in some ways has entrenched it).   Harris and Hitchens too expressed disappointment with Obama after he took office, but this disappointment has taken different forms from that of the anti-war, civil liberties and anti-plutocracy voters who also supported "Hope and Change" in 2008.   Harris, for instance, criticized Obama's support for the 1st Amendment rights of those building the Park 51 community center and his appointment of a scientifically stellar but theistic director of the National Institutes of Health.  

[3] Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides a sardonic illustration of the non-essence of theism and atheism in another (non-ethical) domain:

Recently, in the UK, an atheist group displayed posters with the message: "There is no God, so don't worry and enjoy life!" In response, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church started a counter-campaign with posters saying: "There is a God, so don't worry and enjoy life!"  The interesting feature is how both propositions seem to be in some way convincing: if there is no God, we are free to do what we want, so let us enjoy life; if there is a God, he will take care of things in his benevolent omnipotence, so we don't have to worry and can enjoy life.... [W]e can easily imagine the following (no less convincing) alternative propositions: "There is no God, so everything depends on us and we should worry all the time!" and "There is a God who watches what we're doing all the time, so we should be anxious and worry continuously!" (Living in the End Times, pp. 97-98)

[4] In recent years (see footnote in Part 1 ), Dawkins would also be included. N.B. I wrote the original version of this piece in 2007.   Discussions relevant to years after 2007 are in footnotes.

[5] First during his 2007 debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and then more extensively in his 2009 book When Atheism Becomes Religion.

[6] Yet even this kind of ideological crossover is pregnant with ironic possibility.  White supremacists have grown steadily more opposed to the powers-that-be as the de facto forces of white supremacy in business and government have grown more subtle and public relations conscious (and thus less pure).   Many "purist" white supremacists have thus found themselves in the curious position of taking similar policy stances not only with the Nation of Islam, but with human rights and anti-war activists--and, on the issue of the War on Drugs, with activists like Michelle Alexander who consider this policy to be the "New Jim Crow."   Again, the name of Ron Paul rings an eerie-sounding bell.   To avoid making a Sam Harris-like blunder, however, I will refrain from saying something preposterous like, "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that unconstrained corporate-government power poses to liberty are actually fascists."   This is obviously not true anyway--the fascists generally say confused and contradictory things, in fact. Their occasional support for sensible policies is largely an accident of their toxic ideology going wildly awry as left and right fold in on each other in bizarre and frightening-promising ways.   The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that unconstrained corporate-government power poses to liberty are the anti-fascist protestors of the Occupy movement.   Hopefully this movement can convert the kind of people who sometimes get sucked into fascism, but avoid at all costs aligning with them in their current haze of unreasoning violence-prone hatred.

[7] The most recent example of this kind of bipartisanship was the 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act, passed by a supermajority in the Senate, and signed by Obama in celebration of the New Year.   The bill is a wet dream for lovers of indefinite military detention without trial--extending its reach all around the world and even into the U.S. itself.   The NDAA was also the last nail in the coffin of Obama's promise to close Guantanamo and the CIA black sites.   It is even a poignant reminder of what a tragic loss Hitchens' death is, as his anti-torture anti-Guantanamo stance might have moved him to summon his persuasive powers-cum-media exposure and render this bill before the public as the vile betrayal that it is.   At least we still have Chris Hedges.

[8] And, at the stage of struggle, probably a lot of non-religious "conservatives" too (meaning those who are psychologically conservative--i.e. rigid, doctrinaire, obedient to ingroup authority).  Though the latter are somewhat more prone to intolerance, intolerance can fuel revolutionary energy when properly contoured and harnessed.  Since intolerance can also fuel tyranny and/or mass murder after revolutions are over (the Jacobin-Bolshevik problem), keeping the tolerant at least two or three steps ahead of the intolerant is usually a good idea, e.g. by committing a movement to Gene Sharp-style nonviolent methods and strategies, as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have done.

[9] The emergence of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements fit this model somewhat.   The Egyptian revolution grew from an alliance between the religious conservative Muslim Brotherhood, moderate Coptic Christians, and left-leaning labor unions among others.   The Occupy movements incorporate regular interfaith services and alliances with various houses of worship, as well as extensive cooperation between those with conservative and liberal styles of comportment and even political identification.   Generally, mass movements inevitably have to overcome the cultural and ideological divisions that the political classes exploit to stay in power, though, as noted in footnote 6, some divisions need to remain divisive.





Submitters Bio:

Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

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