UPDATE: I’ve added some additional reflections on this post here.
Christians and atheists have something in common.
I just heard this from author, journalist, and divinity school graduate Chris Hedges at the Northshire Bookstore. He was giving a talk on his latest book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, a challenge to the new atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. After spending two years researching the Christian right for his book American Fascists, Hedges was asked to debate one of these authors and in the course of his preparation he was deeply disturbed by what he found.
While Hedges has no problem with atheists, and actually has a liberal Christian background that he is very proud of, he is taking aim at the philosophy behind these scientists who espouse a philosophy that is dangerous to our society, much like the religious right. Before I dig into that, I would first like to give a little background on Hedges.
Chris Hedges has a liberal theological background. In his talk tonight he shared that he agrees with Einstein’s view of God, namely that God exists, but is not personal in the traditional Christian sense. He graduated from Harvard with a Divinity Degree and has been all over the world for the past 20 years covering numerous military conflicts and global terrorism. His interaction with war and the influence of religion has proven quite instructive in his evaluation of atheists and the Christian right.
So what exactly do atheists and Christians have in common?
For starters, Hedges spent two years embedded in the Christian right. He speaks of Evangelicals and the more isolated Fundamentalists in the same breath, pushing them into the same camp. Out of his time among Christians on the right, Hedges found a culture of fear that has fused together religion with nationalism, a very frightening prospect. Keep in mind that Hedges believes reading the Bible with any sort of literalism as the word of God is ridiculous. He dismissed that possibility by hammering on the genocide in Joshua, the anti-Semitism in John, and the bigotry of Paul in Romans 1. We’ll get to those issues another time. He also attacked the right’s utopian vision of a Christian nation, chauvinism, anti-intellectualism, pride, sloganeering, character assassination, and racism (especially in attitudes toward Arabs).
So, uh, he didn’t like what he found.
When Hedges encountered the new atheists, he found a very similar problem. I can’t remember if it was Hitchens or Harris, probably Hitchens, but during a debate one of these guys kept attacking, labeling, interrupting, and resorting to sound bites to get his point across. The new atheism Hedges encountered is haughty, chauvinistic, anti-intellectual, there is no understanding of history or progress or how to deal with people who disagree. They hold to a blatant, crass racism that is intolerant of those who disagree. They react in fear to what they don’t understand, while holding to their own beliefs as absolutes. It’s as if they have been preserved in the Enlightenment, as they could almost be described as colonial in their drive to promote their own ideas to the ignorant masses. Hedges also claims the new atheists rose from the attacks of 9-11 and a reaction to the bigotry of the Christian right. The new atheists have created a cult of science where evolution is used to describe far more than humanity’s origin and the survival of the fittest, but have extended it to morals, creating a strangely utopian vision.
And so there are some fascinating connections that Hedges draws between the two groups. His most powerful statement of the evening was “We have a lot to fear from people who do not believe in sin.” That was applied to the atheists, but for Christians who believe they have been forgiven of their sins and can now interpret the will of God, there is a similar threat. Overall, both groups focus on self-affirmation and upholding their own moral authority.
The alternative vision of Hedges is to move away from these two opposing visions into the work of ending poverty, cutting military spending, and providing health care. In other words, instead of empowering people with just religious or scientific ideas, he wants to see real, physical progress.
What should we do with all of this?
So, I’ve just laid a lot on you right there. That’s my best presentation of Hedge’s thoughts based on my notes for the evening. Now it’s time to react a little.
First of all, I have not read his books, so I’ll have to limit my thoughts to what he said tonight.
I actually managed to ask Hedges a question during the Q and A time. I first of all mentioned that the Christian right, the more extreme Fundamentalist end of things, thrives on fear: fear of losing our religious freedom, fear of losing the Bible, fear of losing our churches, fear of losing our tax exempt status, fear of losing our right to meet in public schools, and fear that not enough people are afraid. I also asked if there is any hope in the Christian middle where people like Jim Wallis have shunned the agenda of the right and dropped the Enlightenment project.
He agreed on the fear part, but picked apart Wallis because Wallis believes the Bible is God’s word. In the process he misquoted a verse in a lame attempt at saying the Bible says nothing about abortion. He also doesn’t take Wallis that seriously because he is trying to woo other Christians on the right to join his cause. Hedges thinks the right is going to shut his program down. Sadly, Hedges had no idea that Wallis has been involved as an activist for just about his entire life, is deeply committed to serving the poor, and has advocated for peace–the very things that Hedges thinks are important. So even if Hedges is critical of Wallis’ theology, they are actually very similar on policy.
As far as Hedges on Christians, I think it’s important to understand that while there are differences between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, Hedges is concerned with the bonding of Christianity and nationalism and that is what he calls Fundamentalism. Even if there are Evangelicals who are more to the center or left, I think his overall terminology is roughly correct of the majority. Hedges fears that when the next terrorist attack hits, the hawks in America will push for drastic measures. It’s bad enough that some from the atheist camp actually think we should nuke Arab lands as a preemptive strike, but the Christians have not been much better as a moderating voice, especially when patriotism gets connected with being a good Christian. We all know this is happening in churches across America. The irony is that Hedges saw a ton of sympathy in Arab lands for America in the wake of 9-11. It was a key time to work with these nations to corner the terrorists whom the Arab nations disdained. They did not believe the terrorists spoke for them just as anti-abortion activists who gun down abortion doctors do no represent the pro-life side. Unfortunately we bought into Bush’s distorted theology where the good people had to go out and fight the evil-doers out there, never realizing that we are just as capable of committing evil ourselves.
Let’s face it, Christians can be easily seduced by power. Christians can also easily mix their religion with their culture. It’s been done, we’re doing it now, and we will continue to do it. I still wonder however if there is real hope for us in the middle where more moderate voices prevail, where we have stopped talking about ourselves as “soldiers” for Christ, where we drop the charade of America as a Christian nation, where we embrace tolerance even if we don’t approve of all that we tolerate, where we believe God is coming into this world to bring justice and it’s our role to join in that mission today, where we teach the meek and lowly way of Jesus that offers the other cheek, where we provide a counter-narrative of hope, restoration, and healing in the midst of suffering, brokenness, and moral depravity. Where we stop fighting for power in the government and take our place among the margins.
And I have saved the best for last.
I really felt like Hedges needed to know more about Christians who are breaking away from the right. His characterization of Wallis showed that he didn’t know enough about the rumblings of the emerging church, emergent, and Brian McLaren’s latest book Everything Must Change. I decided that part of the “everything” that must change was Hedge’s awareness of his book. Hedges did not know about it, but was very interested. Of course he believes the right will stomp out anything McLaren tries to do. They don’t seem to have stopped him yet…
Now keep in mind that I have a book of my own coming out this fall. A book that actually addresses some of Hedge’s fears and concerns. I could have plugged it hard, but no, I plugged Brian’s book. So Brian, if you ever read this, you owe me! Actually, I was more than happy to give Brian a plug. Besides, I wrote the title of his book on the back of my freelance writing business card.
I’m sure Chris Hedges will be stopping by my web site as soon as he gets back to his hotel…
But back to McLaren. Brian offers that vision of hope that Hedges is looking for, but Brian sticks to the Christian perspective, even if his critics spit venom at him, fully living up to Hedges’ critique of the Christian right.
While driving home I was convinced that if there was ever a time to promote Brian’s book, now is the time. Right when Hedges reports that Christians are going to ruin America and the atheists are doing all they can to help, here comes Brian with a fresh vision for the church. I’ve said that Brian doesn’t cover everything, and even so his book is too much for my little brain to absorb. But while many left the book event tonight shaking their heads, wondering when our world will go up in smoke, I had hope.
Everything will have to change. I can see that now more clearly than ever. Our God is present in this world and we are God’s ambassadors. We have work to do.