A Strange Salvation
One of the dangers of choosing a thesis topic related to a relatively recent (and controversial) socio-cultural phenomenon is that there is invariably a lot of material produced on the subject that one should at least attempt to keep abreast of while writing. In the case of the phenomenon that is the new atheism, this is proving to be a monumental task.
It seems like every two weeks another book comes out in response to the recent attacks on God and religion—many, unfortunately, doing their best to cleverly work into their title the word “delusion” in a rather pathetic playground-esque attempt to one-up Richard Dawkins (“you’re deluded about God,”… “no you’re deluded about atheism“… “in fact, you’re so deluded that you’re probably from the devil“… and on and on we go). I’m getting close to the finish line here, so I’ve more or less given up on the attempt to keep up with the backlash, but I did sit down and read Chris Hedges I Don’t Believe in Atheists (another unfortunate title choice) last week. It was enough to convince me that I’ve read enough reactions now.
It’s not that it’s a terrible book—Hedges has some good insights, and properly challenges the new atheists on their conviction that scientific rationality is poised to usher the planet into a future of untold bliss and religionless harmony. But it seems like every time Hedges makes a valid and necessary critique, he follows it with a prolonged rant against the view (from the new atheists or from right-wing religious fundamentalists—Hedges seems just a little too desperate to distance himself from American Christianity) that history is a story of progress toward a fixed end. For Hedges, this belief is not just mistaken, but evil, in and of itself. It has led to too much violence and misery over the years, as those who claim to have an exclusive vision of this utopic future, be they religious or atheistic, impose their vision on others. Here’s a sample:
The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists; it comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species.
We are not saved by reason. We are not saved by religion. We are saved by turning away from projects that tempt us to become God, and by accepting our own contamination and the limitations of being human.
Human history is not a long chronicle of human advancement. It includes our cruelty, barbarism, reverses, blunders and self-inflicted disasters. History is not progressive. The ancient Greeks, like Hindus and Buddhists, saw human life and human history as cyclical. We live, they believed, in alternating stages of hope and despair, of growth and decay. This may be a more accurate understanding of human existence. To acknowledge the purposelessness of human history, to refuse to endow it with a linear march toward human perfection, is to give up the comforting idea that we are unique or greater than those who came before us. It is to accept our limitations and discard our intoxicating utopian dreams. It is to become human.
As I was reading this book (which might have been more appropriately titled I Don’t Believe in Utopias), I found myself frequently writing in the margins “yes, but…” Yes, a measure of historical humility is obligatory; yes, it’s a good and necessary thing to recognize human limitations; yes, human beings are not going to “perfect” themselves.
…in light of our predicament, what ought we to do? Is the answer really moving back to a cyclical understanding of human history? Is recognizing human limitation and acknowledging the purposelessness of history really salvific? Is giving up our “intoxicating utopian dreams” really what it means to become human? In his haste to condemn the new atheists for imposing their vision of the world on others, Hedges seems to default to a bleak pessimism that, at least to me, is difficult to square with the human need for hope.
I think that Hedges is misguided in his approach to new atheists. Rather than attacking their deeply flawed means of achieving legitimate and irreducibly human ends, Hedges simply labels the ends themselves as illusory. It’s one thing to say that this or that tool is not up to the task of fulfilling human longing or that, ultimately, human beings are incapable of manufacturing the conditions that would fulfill our “utopian” desires. It’s quite another to simply label the desires themselves illusory and call this understanding salvific. The problem with the new atheists is not, from my perspective, the illegitimacy of the ends they have in mind; rather, it is with the theoretical justification they offer for these ends and the unwillingness to acknowledge their religious character.
According to the Christian vision, we do not become human by recognizing our limitation and adopting a posture of resignation to a fatalistic universe in the present, nor does salvation consist in turning away from “projects that tempt us to become like God.” In a sense, becoming “like God” is exactly what we are called to do as image-bearers—not in the idolatrous sense of believing that the task of ushering in God’s future falls exclusively to us, but in the responsible sense of understanding that God has called us to represent him well, to do our part in allowing, however incrementally, his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
A central component of the Christian faith is the idea that this history is not a purposeless cyclical meandering with no fixed end in sight, that it is governed and guaranteed by a “God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom 4:17). The goal and the hope of a future unlike the present can be and has certainly been a dangerous one and the source of much suffering throughout history. But it has also produced an awful lot of good—indeed, it is largely responsible for the very shape of Western history itself. The answer for the dangerous “side-effects” of our religious and irreligious hopes is not to declare their object illegitimate, but to orient it within a proper framework which validates it and gives it shape, and which provides the resources and motivation to work toward its fulfillment.
To suggest that the solution to the conflict between religious and atheistic approaches to understanding and living in the world is to simply discard our “absurd hopes” is just as simplistic as the views Hedges is criticizing. Our best hope is to stop hoping? Sounds pretty sterile (and hopeless) to me.