A few weeks ago, I gave a resoundingly favorable review to Chris Hedges’ book, American Fascists. I see it as a shining example of the bipartisanship that can exist between atheists and theists in America. And for the record, no, I do not consider myself a part of the camp that believes faith-based worldviews and reason-based worldviews are compatible. I don’t think they can peacefully coexist philosophically. But I do believe in pluralistic, free society, and so I must recognize the necessity of coming together with people of different beliefs for the purpose of political power and expediency. So when it comes to calls for moderate and liberal theists to oppose the Christian Fascist movement in America, I am 100% on Chris Hedges’ side.
Having said that, I’d consider it a moral failing if I didn’t address his claims about religion and society in a recent Truthdig article. For convenience, I will quote the article at length here, but I recommend reading the whole thing in its entirety first, then returning to read my criticism.
Hedges begins with a staunch disavowal of “organized religion” and its trappings.
“These institutions were passive as the Christian right, which peddles magical thinking and a Jesus-as-warrior philosophy, hijacked the language and iconography of traditional Christianity. They have busied themselves with the boutique activism of the culture wars.”
This is all well and good. I think these are factually accurate statements. He goes on to left-handedly critique the more “moderate” incarnations of organized Western religion.
“And while the Protestant church and reformed Judaism have not replicated the perfidiousness of the Catholic bishops, who protect child-molesting priests, they have little to say in an age when we desperately need moral guidance.”
I’ll admit that I usually feel trepidation whenever someone prefaces an argument with this kind of statement. Though he does not explicitly say so, Hedges is implying that the church ought to be the voice of moral guidance in society. This is one of the myths I try to dispel with this blog. I believe that science and reason can give us the tools for sound moral reasoning. I believe that with or without religion, people are moral. We are social animals, and morality is built into our genes.
We are in the infancy stage of what I believe will be an exciting and revolutionary approach to the human animal. Evolutionary principles, Game Theory, sociology and psychology offer us powerful tools for uniting the social sciences and viewing ourselves through the relatively un-tinted lens of genuine scientific inquiry into the human condition. Current findings on social animals as diverse as ants and primates give us powerful insights into our own collective functioning.
After more criticism of organized religion, Hedges gets around to the predicted point:
But I cannot rejoice in the collapse of these institutions. We are not going to be saved by faith in reason, science and technology, which the dead zone of oil forming in the Gulf of Mexico and our production of costly and redundant weapons systems illustrate. Frederick Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or “Superman”—our secular religion—is as fantasy-driven as religious magical thinking.
What is it with theists and the myth of “secular religion?” It’s been a long time since I believed, and I honestly don’t think I ever gave “secular religion” much thought, so I’m having a very hard time coming to grips with this. I do recall that “worship” was often considered a ubiquitous human practice. I was taught that people have a “need” to worship something, and when they do not worship the proper and true creator of the universe, they will misplace their worship and idolize money, sex, power, or some other vice.
I think this idea needs to be considered before tossing it out the window. “Worship” is a tough word to wrap our brains around. Wikipedia cites this quote: “The adoring acknowledgment of all that lies beyond us—the glory that fills heaven and earth. It is the response that conscious beings make to their Creator, to the Eternal Reality from which they came forth; to God, however they may think of Him or recognize Him, and whether He be realized through religion, through nature, through history, through science, art, or human life and character.” If that’s accurate, then there’s no point in even talking about “secular worship.” It’s an oxymoron. An atheist is literally incapable of worship, since he does not believe in a creator.
But in a broader context, worship often means something closer to veneration of and devotion to a particular person, concept, or activity. If we go with this definition, it’s probably fair to speak of secular worship. We have to take a certain liberty with veneration, since it is a religious term, but we can easily say that we idolize and venerate non-religious figures. Here’s a funny example. While I was recovering from surgery over the weekend, a friend brought me a present — a St. Louis Cardinals jersey with “Smith” and the number 1 on the back. I’m a Cardinals fan by birth and upbringing, and I had the pleasure of meeting Ozzie Smith once. I freely admit to idolizing him and placing him on a pedestal. It was one of the best gifts I’ve received in a long time, and I guarantee that the first time somebody disses my Cardinals while I’m wearing it, they’re going to get an impassioned earful from me.
But even having admitted to the reality of secular worship, from whence comes the connection between the disappearance of organized religion and worship of Nietzsche or the Ubermensch? On the surface, this feels an awful lot like Godwin’s Law rearing its ugly head. It’s certainly a false dichotomy and a non-sequitur. Sure, Nietzsche believed that the death of God would lead inevitably to the veneration of Ubermensch, but is there any evidence that this is true? For that matter, is there even a philosophical consensus on what Ubermensch means?
I contend that there is neither. There are plenty of secular societies and cultures in the world, and to my knowledge, there are no prominent Ubermensch statues in any of them. On the contrary, there is a rather wide variety of societal ideals and cultural values. I suppose that — like the Bible — Also Sprach Zarathustra could be interpreted to include all secular societies in some metaphorical way, but I will leave such postmodernist claptrap to the postmodernists. It seems redundant to point out that postmodernism is not the only philosophical paradigm available to non-believers.
There remain, in spite of the leaders of these institutions, religiously motivated people toiling in the inner city and the slums of the developing world. They remain true to the core religious and moral values ignored by these institutions. The essential teachings of the monotheistic traditions are now lost in the muck of church dogma, hollow creeds and the banal bureaucracy of institutional religion. These teachings helped create the concept of the individual. The belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that can defy the clamor of the nation is one of the gifts of religious thought. This call for individual responsibility is coupled with the constant injunctions in Islam, Judaism and Christianity for compassion, especially for the weak, the impoverished, the sick and the outcast.
Again with the naked assertion that religion is responsible for the advancement of human morality. I have to admit, I just don’t see it. And frankly, I think it’s disingenuous at best to claim that until humans invented religion, they weren’t moral creatures. How, pray tell, did we live in tribes if we did not already have rudimentary morality? Did religion predate tribes? The evidence says no.
The fact is, there are non-religiously motivated people toiling in the inner city and the slums of the developing world. They remain true to the core human values ignored by these institutions. The essential truths of reciprocity and altruism are now lost in the muck of church dogma, hollow creeds and the banal bureaucracy of institutional religion.
Furthermore, I can’t understand how any student of religious history could keep a straight face while claiming that the “core values” of monotheistic religion fostered the belief that we are individuals capable of making moral decisions that defy the clamor of the nation. For crying out loud, the nation was the religion for most of Western history. And defying the religion was most certainly not encouraged by the religion. At the risk of being trite… duh.
We are rapidly losing the capacity for the moral life.
No, we are not. This, my dear Chris Hedges, is more claptrap from organized religion. You are falling prey to the dogma of the church, which literally created the existential problem of human depravity in order to sell its own solution. One of the unifying principles of the Big Three monotheist religions is the belief that man is inherently evil. This is not a foundational principle of the social sciences, nor is there any legitimate evidence to suggest that it is true. Rather, science shows us that the human animal is generally kind to his family, friends, and neighbors, and generally seeks social approval. Punishment is built into the human animal as a means of maintaining social order.
We reject the anxiety of individual responsibility that laid the foundations for the open society. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience was the starting point of the great ethical systems of all civilizations. Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus, fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism.
This is not quite so cut and dried. I suppose it’s true to some extent that Americans have abandoned the doctrine of individual responsibility, but then again, the extent of our litigiousness belies that statement. If we do not believe in personal responsibility, why do we sue anyone who causes us harm, and demand that they pay us for their misdeeds?
Furthermore, there is a lot of cultural mythology tied up in the idea of individualism. (Read about it in detail HERE.) It is possible to take an entirely opposite point of view and claim that Americans have embraced individualism to the extent that we have severely weakened the power of social cohesion.
Finally, is Hedges speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Doesn’t the image of Jesus as a liberal bringing empowerment to the individual require subjective interpretation? Cannot the Bible also be read in a way that paints Jesus as an authoritarian bringing “freedom” through subservience to God? To reject organized religion is a matter of interpretation of holy documents, and is no different in kind from the acceptance of organized religion. If one is going to propose a real causal chain between organized or disorganized religion and morality, he needs to bring more than his personal bias to the table.
They initiated the separation of individual responsibility from the demands of the state. They taught that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to often oppose and challenge those in authority, even at great personal cost. Immanuel Kant built his ethics upon this radical individualism. And Kant’s injunction to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means” runs in a direct line from the Socratic ideal and the Christian Gospels.
Well, that’s one interpretation of the Gospels, isn’t it? But frankly, I can’t help but notice that the whole argument seems to be a naked assertion. Ok, so author and critic of religious fundamentalism, Chris Hedges, feels like individualism is the cornerstone of egalitarian ethics. He further believes that if it weren’t for the “core values” of “proper” religion, we wouldn’t have stumbled upon the notion of individualism. Fine. So… there’s some sort of evidence for this, right?
Or… is it just your subjective interpretation of your version of the value of religion?