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An article donated by
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

A Review of Chris Hedges book:
“I Don't Believe in Atheists”

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There are a number of books with a title similar or identical to “I Do Not Believe In Atheists.” 1 I picked up a copy of Chris Hedges' book by that name at a used book sale. My first thought after reading just the first chapter was that the title is misleading. Once I reached the end of the book I still felt the same way.

What doesn’t he believe about Atheists? Does he doubt their sincerity? Does he believe that they really believe in God they just don’t know it? This is something some Evangelical Christians have said to me when they refuse to accept that I really don’t believe in God.

He admits in the second paragraph  on the first page that:

“There are many people of great moral probity and courage who seek meaning outside of formal religious structures, who reject religious language and religious ritual and define themselves as atheists.”

He really seems to have a problem with the “New Atheists,” a.k.a. the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism" — Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. In the next paragraph on P. 1 he says:

“The agenda of the new atheists, however, is disturbing.”

Perhaps a better title for Hedges book would have been

Why I Am Against the New Atheists.”

I must point out that the Four Horsemen are NOT representative of all Atheists. Atheists are as diverse a group as Christians. I am also against those “new Atheists”! They turn Atheism into a dirty word.

As you read further he is also against fundamentalist Christians. So another title might have been

“Why I Am Against Fundamentalism of all Stripes.”

The new Atheists are as fundamentalist in their way as some Christians and people of other faith traditions are in their way.

It isn’t until the last paragraph that you get the connection to the title, though he never actually mentions a belief in God. In fact he never addresses the issue of whether God exists or doesn’t exist. The one thing Atheists have in common is that they don’t believe in the Theists' conception of God. Is this why he doesn’t believe in Atheists: He still believes in God though he is no longer active in a Church:

In Page 4, he says:

“I rarely go to church now, and when I do often roll my eyes at the inanity of the sermons and the arrogance of many of the congregants. ...” 

At the end he says:

“Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry. It seeks to unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism.”

ONLY in his dreams!

The “religion” he is talking about in these lines is far from the reality of the Institutional religions that are at work in our world today. That he also finds objectionable. He is as idealistic though in a different direction as those he criticizes in his book! 

I feel that “religion” isn’t the best word to use for what he is thinking about but at first I was at a loss for a better word.

Then it hit me: Transcendentalism! The “religion” he seems interested in is a new and updated form of Transcendentalism.

I describe transcendentalism as a movement that takes a person outside of their self-centeredness to a connection with the wider Universe and all of humanity.

When I think of Transcendentalism I think of the writings of Thoreau and Emerson. The movement began in the late 1820’s and 1830’s in the eastern United States. I see it as an attempt to counter the problems with the Enlightenment without turning back to a belief in the Theists conception of God. (Hedges mentions these problems in his book.)

According to the Wikipedia article on Transcendentalism: “A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature.” 2

The objection I have here is that the natural world is neutral, neither good nor bad. Seeing it as being good is a carryover from Romanticism. 

According to Wikipedia:

“Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism.”

This is to counter the blind belief in rationality and the “objective empiricism” of the Enlightenment with their stress on Science as the ONLY purveyor of TRUTH. 

The objection I have here is that we need both. Subjective intuition and objective empiricism are two parts of one whole -- the Yin and Yang of reality, to use a Chinese Philosophical concept. They aren’t polar opposites but each enhances the other and in some cases balance out the extremism of the other.

This is why I am beginning to think we need a new and updated version of Transcendentalism. We need a word to replace the word religion that is more descriptive and less confusing.

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Part Two: Innate is NOT the same as Inevitable:

One other problem I have with Hedges book is his thinking about SIN. On page 14 he says:

“We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God, we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin.”

He is wrong here. As an Atheist I don’t believe in SIN. I also don’t believe that we are perfect -- there is a good and a not so good or darker side to our nature.

I object to his use of the word “SIN” because it is often defined as a defiance of God and his laws. I think Hedges is using the word in a broader way. He defines it like this on P. 14:

“The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement of our species.”

Mr. Hedges may have jettisoned many of the religious teachings from his youth and seminary education but he hasn’t gotten rid of the idea of “Inherent Sin”. I wrote an essay about the problems with this doctrine earlier.

Either "Innate" or "inherent:" Either word can be used here. They mean that someone has a natural talent for something, it is a part of their very nature. Inevitable means that something is unavoidable, that it can’t be stopped, it is bound to happen.

Every athlete, dancer, musician, scientist, historian, writer, salesperson, business person knows that having a natural, innate ability for something isn’t enough. They still have to work to develop and nurture that ability.

From psychology we know that if people are told something often enough they come to believe it and act accordingly. I suggest that folks imagine what a Doctrine of Inherent Goodness might have produced. And here I am stressing that just because something is inherent or innate doesn’t mean that it is inevitable—they will still have to work to develop and nurture the good side of their nature!

The Doctrine of Inherent Sin doesn’t just claim that we inherited Sin from Adam. It also makes the claim that the ONLY way a person can rise above their sinful state is IF they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They can’t do anything on their own to become a better person. That is a very destructive part of this doctrine. 

Hedges admits in the second paragraph on the first page that:

“There are many people of great moral probity and courage who seek meaning outside of formal religious structures, who reject religious language and religious ritual”

I would add here and they reject any idea of a God, and define themselves as atheists.

How did they get to be this way? They worked at it because being inherently good doesn’t mean that being good is inevitable. There is that darker side to our nature — the recognition from Chinese Philosophy of the Yin and Yang of reality—in everything good there is an element that isn’t good just as in everything bad there is an element that is good. We have to work to develop and bring out the good side of our nature or be lazy and give in to our baser urges.

A new and revised version of Transcendentalism just might be what society needs, a philosophy that accepts the world on its terms while helping people find that connection to something bigger than our selves that seems to have been lost in the doctrines and dogmas of today’s organized religions and in the fanaticism of the religious and atheistic extremists. And a philosophy that offers hope for improvement.

We may never be perfect but we have within us what is needed to become better. We just have to work at it.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Chris Hedges, "I Don't Believe in Atheists," Continuum International Publis (2007), at: https://www.amazon.com/
  2. "Transcendentalism," Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/ as updated on 2019-SEP-06.

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Original posting: 2019-SEP-0
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
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