Religion, Fundamentalism, and Killing

How I Continue to Exploit the Norwegian Tragedy for Clicks.

Actually, the subhead is not true and a poor attempt at humor, even around the gallows. But I'm trying to insert a little levity before I admit a mistake.

My first substantive post on the attacks of Anders Behring Breivik included an endorsement of a terrible Chris Hedges article, "Fundamentalism Kills." Hedges has produced many compelling articles on the collapse of liberal institutions, including the church, the media, labor unions and the Democratic Party. However, just because he has cogent thoughts on one subject doesn't mean he will have them on another. 1 This has been true for him on the subject of religion, specifically, his attacks on the New Atheists. Worse, I should have known when I wrote "I haven't read these articles" that I should stop and press the backspace key repeatedly.

So that's my mea culpa. Now to rip Hedges a new one.

I would have known not to link to it if I just read the first few sentences:
The gravest threat we face from terrorism, as the killings in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik underscore, comes not from the Islamic world but the radical Christian right and the secular fundamentalists who propagate the bigoted, hateful caricatures of observant Muslims and those defined as our internal enemies. The caricature and fear are spread as diligently by the Christian right as they are by atheists such as Sam Harris 2 and Christopher Hitchens. 3 Our religious and secular fundamentalists all peddle the same racist filth and intolerance that infected Breivik.
"Secular fundamentalists," granting that dubious construction even exists, are no threat of terrorism at all. Can anyone name a single terrorist act that was committed to further the anti-gods agenda? Just the phrase "anti-gods agenda" shows how silly that possibility is. There is no evidence that such an agenda even exists.

The last sentence of the quote is ridiculous. First, no explicitly atheist critique of religion is racist. It is not targeted at who people are, but at what they believe. 4 For instance, you cannot find atheists slamming Arabs because of atheism, although naturally enough there are racist atheists. Of course, you can't prove a negative either, but the point deserves something overly strong. Second, atheists criticizing religion usually attack the intolerance of the other side. In general, they have a live-and-let-live philosophy. As Hitchens says in the quoted piece:
If belief in heaven was private, like the tooth fairy, I’d say fine. But tooth fairy supporters don’t come around to your house and try to convert you. They don’t try to teach your children stultifying pseudo-science in school. They don’t try to prevent access to contraception. The religious won’t leave us alone. These are not just private delusions, they’re ones they want to inflict on other people.
About the most in-your-face atheists get is billboards and bus ads, which have only popped up in the last couple years.

One error in the rest of Hedges' column is a terrible false equivalency between religious and secular extremists - killing innocent people doesn't exactly match writing books and speaking publicly. Another is his falsehoods about New Atheism being fundamentalists at all. Here's a representative paragraph:
A culture that exalts its own moral certitude and engages in uncritical self-worship at the expense of conscience commits moral and finally physical suicide. Our fundamentalists busy themselves with their pathetic little monuments to Jesus, to reason, to science, to Western civilization and to new imperial glory. They peddle a binary view of the world that divides reality between black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. We are taught in a fundamentalist culture to view other human beings, especially Muslims, not as ends but as means. We abrogate arrogate the right to exterminate all who do not conform.
Can you see any resemblance between Hedges' picture and any public atheist you've heard of? I can't. "[E]xalts its own moral certitude and engages in uncritical self-worship at the expense of conscience." And "[t]they peddle a binary view of the world that divides reality between black and white, good and evil, right and wrong." These are basically the diametric opposites of what public atheists preach: rational discourse about reality, specifically evidence, which can't be inherently good or evil.

There is only one non-fiction example of fundamentalism that Hedges provides. It comes from Sam Harris' 2005 book, The End of Faith. Harris, who used to regularly write for, has been hounded over this example by Hedges since the book's publication. Harris says he wanted to be done with the matter, but he didn't take kindly to being called a fundamentalist and equivalent to murderers, so he quickly typed a great take-down of Hedges and the article. (His blog has even stronger words introducing the piece.) Read the whole thing. I'm running out of gas on this post.

To wrap it up, I don't agree with everything Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens say with regard to Islam. But in this case, I certainly agree with Harris on Hedges. He is sanctimonious. It's just that on "The Death of the Liberal Class," I agree with him. Here, not at all. Actually, it is characteristic of non-fundamentalist people generally, and atheists specifically, to agree with a person or source on one front and disagree on another. Hedges' own criticism of New Atheists is more fundamentalist than they are.

1 A great example of this is Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and a Gnu Atheist, on psychiatry: "Is medical psychiatry a scam?" Well, if that's the question you title your post with, I'm guessing that you're not going to defend psychiatry. He didn't, and actually went completely overboard with it. Psychotropic drugs is a personal topic for me, and I had read the two essays that questioned the entire practice of psychiatry by Marcia Angell that was the inspiration for Coyne's post. When I read it, I was somewhere between in doubt about anti-depressant efficacy and accepting Angell's arguments that they are not helping, but rather causing harm. I had a vague feeling of unease with Coyne's arguments, but I couldn't personally debunk them. Luckily, a commenter there could, and wrote a great post doing so. I added his blog to my reader I liked his stuff so much.

2 The linked articles don't support Hedges' claim at all. Granted, they might have been pulled by the editor, but still. In the first case, Harris wrote in 2006 about Islam news-hooked to the Mohammed cartoons. What does it call for? A strong defense of the freedom of expression over the sensitivity to religious beliefs. That's not very terroristic. One statement of action against Muslims is "It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that 'Muslim extremism' is not extreme among Muslims." Lest you think "obliged" is just a euphemism for something more drastic, he later states: "It is not at all clear how we should proceed in our dialogue with the Muslim world, but deluding ourselves with euphemisms is not the answer." Boy, that sounds violent. His final paragraph could be called alarmist, but the bell he is ringing is reason:
Our press should report on the terrifying state of discourse in the Arab press, exposing the degree to which it is a tissue of lies, conspiracy theories and exhortations to recapture the glories of the seventh century. All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth. Muslim moderates, wherever they are, must be given every tool necessary to win a war of ideas with their coreligionists. Otherwise, we will have to win some very terrible wars in the future. It is time we realized that the endgame for civilization is not political correctness. It is not respect for the abject religious certainties of the mob. It is reason.
3 The Hitchens link is to a 2007 interview that covers all religion, not just Islam. What is his most noteworthy prescription that cries out "secular fundamentalist"?
The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity. No society has gone the way of gulags or concentration camps by following the path of Spinoza and Einstein and Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
Not very extreme, is it?

4 This is a source of much difficulty in debates between theists and non-theists. To theists, what they believe about their god(s) is a part of who they are. Some believers can't even imagine what life would be like without a faith in at least one supernatural being. So they naturally see attacks against their religious beliefs and faith as a personal attack on themselves. Unsurprisingly, non-theists don't see it that way. They equate criticism of a person's religious beliefs to arguments about who is the best baseball player in history. Obviously, who the player is or even whether or not a person has any belief about the best baseball player in history is immaterial to who that person is. That's an extreme example, I admit, but I think it serves to jolt theists out of their "religious beliefs define who I am" mindset. Granted, religious beliefs influence how a person lives their life much much more than having a favorite baseball player. But the two examples are differentiated in scale, not type.