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The God Debate
"The shudder of awe is humanity's highest faculty,
Even though this world is forever altering values..."
-- Goethe, Faust
We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species toward a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion (if you are secular) is blamed for genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. "Secular humanism" (if you are born again) is branded as a tool of Satan. The folly of humankind, however, is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors. Institutional religion or the cults of science and reason are not exempt.
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. Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear. We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history. Whether it comes in secular or religious form, this belief is magical thinking. The secular version of this myth peddles fables no less fantastic, and no less delusional, than those preached from church pulpits. The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science; it is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists. It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can master its destiny. This is one of the most pervasive forms of self-delusion, as Marcel Proust understood, but it has disastrous consequences. It encourages us to ignore reality.
"The soldier is convinced that a certain interval of time, capable of being indefinitely prolonged, will be allowed him before the bullet finds him, the thief before he is caught, men in general before they have to die," Proust wrote. "That is the amulet which preserves people -- and sometimes peoples -- not from danger but from the fear of danger, in reality from the belief in danger, which in certain cases allows them to brave it without actually needing to be brave."
The word utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 from the Greek words for no and place. To be a utopian, to live for the creation of a fantastic and unreal world, was to live in no place, to remove oneself from reality. It is only by building an ethic based on reality, one that takes into account the dangers and limits of the human situation, that we can begin to adjust our behavior to cope with social, environmental and political problems. All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. The current "war on terror" by the United States is one such scheme. It is being fought so that evil can be violently uprooted. Its proponents promise a world that will become "reasonable," a "civil" world ruled by the "rational" forces of global capitalism. Those who support the war on terror speak as if victory in any tangible sense is possible. This noble vision of a harmonious world is used to justify violence and war, to turn us into criminals who carry out needless murder and torture in the name of human progress.
The desire for emancipation, universal happiness and prosperity has a seductive pull on the human imagination. It preoccupied the early church, which was infused with exclusivist utopian sects. We are comforted by the thought that we progress morally as a species. We want things to get better. We want to believe we are moving forward. This hope is more reassuring than reality. All the signs in our present world point to a coming anarchy, a massive dislocation of populations resulting from ecological devastation and climate change, multiple pollutions, the weight of overpopulation and wars fought over dwindling natural resources. Science, which should be used to address these looming disasters, has largely become a tool of corporations that seek not to protect us but to make a profit and stimulate the economy. New, potentially threatening technologies, such as genetically modified organisms and nanotechnologies, are being unleashed with no understanding of the impact on the biosphere. The global population is expected to jump from 2 billion in 1927 to 9 billion people by 2045, which means that if this growth is left unchecked, we will no longer be able to sustain ourselves, especially as nations such as China seek the consumption levels of the industrialized nations in Europe and North America. Nearly two thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are already in precipitous decline worldwide. The old wars of conquest, expansion and exploitation will be replaced by wars fought for the necessities of air, food, sustainable livingconditions and water. And as we race toward this catastrophe, scientists continue to make discoveries, set these discoveries upon us and walk away from the impact.
Yet the belief persists that science and reason will save us; it persists because it makes it possible to ignore or minimize these catastrophes. We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.
"For every age," Joseph Conrad wrote, "is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end."
The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention. Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. But the belief in collective moral progress is a seductive one. It is what has doomed populations in the past who have chased after impossible dreams, and it threatens to doom us again. It is, at its core, the enticing delusion that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.
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. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment 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 in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.
We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed -- though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind's most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal natures.
The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. We all encounter this aspect of existence, in love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil and the reality of death. These powerful, non rational, super-real forces in human life are the domain of religion. All cultures have struggled to give words to these mysteries and moments of transcendence. God -- and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes -- is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe. Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence -- the struggle to acknowledge the infinite -- need not be attributed to an external being called God. As Karen Armstrong and others have pointed out, the belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. But the religious impulse addresses something just as concrete as the pursuit of scientific or historical knowledge: it addresses the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence.
Human beings come ingrained with this impulse. Buddhists speak of nirvana in words that are nearly identical to those employed by many monotheists to describe God. This impulse asks: What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?
Science and reason, while they can illuminate these questions, can definitively answer none of them.
This impulse, this need for the sacred, propels human beings to create myths and stories that explain who they are, where they came from, and their place in the cosmos. Myth is not a primitive scientific theory that can be discarded in an industrialized age. We all stoke and feed the fires of symbolic mythic narratives, about our nation, our times and ourselves, to give meaning, coherence and purpose to our lives. The danger arises when the myths we tell about ourselves endow us with divine power, when we believe that it is our role to shape and direct human destiny, for then we seek to become gods. We can do this in the name of Jesus Christ, Muhammad or Western civilization. The result, for those who defy us, is the same -- repression and often death. The refusal to acknowledge human limitations and our irrevocable flaws can thus cross religious and secular lines to feed both religious fundamentalism and the idolization of technology, reason and science.
The language of science and reason is now used by many atheists to express the ancient longings for human perfectibility. According to them, reason and science, rather than religion, will regulate human conflicts and bring about a paradise. This vision draws its inspiration from the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that taught that reason and scientific method could be applied to all aspects of human life. This application would lead to progress, human enlightenment and a better world. René Descartes, David Hume, John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine bequeathed to us this godless religion.
The Enlightenment was a curse and a blessing. Its proponents championed human dignity and condemned tyranny, superstition, ignorance and injustice. Because French philosophers including Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, who influenced the ideologues of the French Revolution, called for social and political justice, the Enlightenment led to the emancipation of Jews in Western Europe, freeing them from squalid ghettos. But there was a dark side to the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that the universe and human nature could be understood and controlled by the rational mind. They saw the universe as ruled exclusively by consistent laws such as Isaac Newton's law of gravity or Galileo's law of falling bodies. These laws could be explained mathematically or scientifically. The human species, elevated above animals because it possessed the capacity to reason, could break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It could make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity. The disparity between the rational person and the instinctive, irrational person, these philosophers argued, would be solved through education and knowledge.
The Enlightenment empowered those who argued that superstition, blind instinct and ignorance had to be eradicated. Kant, in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, published in 1798, asserted that Africans were inherently predisposed to slavery. Thus the Enlightenment gave the world the "scientific racism" adopted as an ideological veneer for murder by nineteenth- and twentieth-century despots. Those who could not be educated and reformed, radical Enlightenment thinkers began to argue, should be eliminated so they could no longer poison human society. The Jacobins who seized control during the French Revolution were the first in a long line of totalitarian monsters who justified murder by invoking supposedly enlightened ideals. Their radical experiment in human engineering was embodied in the Republic of Virtue and the Reign of Terror, which saw 17,000 people executed. Belief in the moral superiority of Western civilization allowed the British to wipe out the Tasmanian Aborigines. British hunting parties were given licenses to exterminate this "inferior race," whom the colonial authorities said should be "hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed." The British captured many in traps and burned or tortured them to death. The same outlook led to the slaughter of the Caribs of the Caribbean, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, as well as Native Americans. It justified the slave trade that abducted 15 million Africans and killed even more. And it was this long tradition of colonial genocide in the name of progress in places like King Leopold's Congo that set the stage for the industrial-scale killing of the Holocaust and man-made famines of the Soviet Union.
Reigns of terror are thus the bastard children of the Enlightenment. Terror in the name of utopian ideals would rise again and again in the coming centuries. The Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags were spawned by the Enlightenment. Fascists and communists were bred on visions of human perfectibility. Tens of millions of people have been murdered in the futile effort to reform human nature and build utopian societies. During these reigns of terror, science and reason served, as they continue to serve, interests purportedly devoted to the common good -- and to vast mechanisms of repression and mass killing.
The belief in human perfectibility, in history as a march toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology. It permits wild, eschatological visions to be built under religious or secular banners. This dangerous belief colors the thought of the new crop of atheist writers. They will tell us what is right and wrong, not in the eyes of God, but according to the purity of the rational mind. They, too, seek to destroy those who do not conform to their vision. They, too, wrap their intolerance in Enlightenment virtues.
"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," Sam Harris writes. "This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."
Any form of knowledge that claims to be absolute ceases to be knowledge. It becomes a form of faith. Harris mistakes a tiny subset of criminals and terrorists for one billion Muslims. He justifies the unjustifiable in the name of civilization. The passions of atheists like Harris, hidden under the jargon of reason and science, are as bankrupt as the passions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists who sanctify mass slaughter in the name of their utopias. Religious fundamentalists pervert and distort religion to serve their own fears and aggrandize themselves. Atheists such as Harris do the same with science and reason.
The dangerous myth that confuses moral progress with material progress permits us to believe we have discovered a way out of the human predicament. It places faith in an empowered elite to guide us toward a new world. Science increases not only our power to protect life and encourage virtue, but also our capacity to inflict death and destruction. The industrial slaughter and genocides of the past century were all products of the Enlightenment and their satellite ideologies, from liberal imperialism to communism to fascism. All preached collective moral progress through exploitation, repression and violence. All were utopian. And all unleashed science and technology, in the service of war and profit, to kill human beings on a scale unseen in human history. The Enlightenment vision, because it renders all other values subservient to reason and science, allows us to divide the human species into superior and inferior breeds. It sanctifies inhumane abuse of the weak to push the human race forward. This corruption was built into the Enlightenment from its inception. The Enlightenment may have encouraged an admirable humanism, but it also led to undreamt-of genocide and totalitarian repression.
Those who offer collective salvation, whether through science, Jesus Christ or Muhammad, promise an unattainable human paradise. They embrace the Christian conception of time as linear, the idea that we are moving toward revelation and paradise. The difference -- and it is a vast one -- is that human beings, rather than God, will make this final victory possible. This Enlightenment religion has dominated the last century. These utopian visions, often after a great deal of death and suffering, always fail. They will fail once again.
Those who believe in collective moral progress define this progress by their own narrow historical, cultural, linguistic and social experience. They see "the other" as equal only when the other is identical to themselves. They project their own values on the rest of the human race. These secular and religious fundamentalists are egocentrics unable to accept human difference. Those who are different do not need to be investigated, understood or tolerated, for they are intellectually and morally inferior. Those who are different are imperfect versions of themselves.
These secular utopians, like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class. They seek in their philosophical systems a moral justification for their own comfort, self-absorption and power. They do not question the imperial projects of the nation, globalization or the vast disparities in wealth and security between themselves, as members of the world's industrialized elite, and the rest of the human race. Philosophy, like theology, is often in the service of power. This creed is no exception.
"And I say to the Christians while I'm at it, 'Go love your own enemies; by the way, don't be loving mine,' " Christopher Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great, said when I debated him in San Francisco. "I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don't make any apology for it. And I think it's sickly and stupid and suicidal to say that we should love those who hate us and try to kill us and our children and burn our libraries and destroy our society. I have no patience with this nonsense."
The rise of religious fundamentalism has been a spur to many decent, skeptical people who find religious bigotry, superstition and intolerance repugnant. This has made them receptive to antireligious polemics. Atheism, unlike Christian fundamentalism, has not wormed its way into the corridors of power or built an alliance with the corporate state to dismantle American democracy. Atheists, unlike the Christian radicals, have not set up frightening systems of indoctrination through television, radio, schools and colleges. Atheists have not mounted an assault against dispassionate intellectual inquiry.
But atheists such as Harris and Hitchens do offer, in place of religious fundamentalism, a surrogate religion. The battle against Christian fundamentalism, however, one of the most important struggles in the United States, is not going to be won by promoting a rival religion that also ignores human nature, is chauvinistic and intolerant, and speaks in jingoistic cant. Only an ethic that faces the reality of the coming decades, one that has already seen us disrupt the geological and biological patterns of the planet, will save us. Environmental catastrophe, and wars fought for water and oil and other natural resources will become our collective reality. Terrorism will not be eradicated. We must accept our limitations as a species and curb our wanton disregard for the interconnectedness of life. We need to investigate and understand the desperation of those who oppose us. If we continue to dismiss those who defy us as satanic, or as religious fanatics who must be silenced or eradicated, we stumble into the fundamentalist trap of a binary world of blacks and whites, a world without nuance. To explain is not to excuse. To understand is not to forgive. Those who look at others as simple, one-dimensional caricatures fuel the rage of the dispossessed. They answer violence with violence. These utopian belief systems, these forms of faith, are well-trod paths of self-delusion and self-destruction. They allow us to sleepwalk into disaster.
An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority, who rejects the violent imperial projects under way in the Middle East, is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.
Atheists, including those who brought us the Enlightenment, have often been a beneficial force in the history of human thought and religion. They have forced societies to examine empty religious platitudes and hollow religious concepts. They have courageously challenged the moral hypocrisy of religious institutions. The humanistic values of the Enlightenment were a response to the abuses by organized religion, including the attempt by religious authorities to stifle intellectual and scientific freedom. Religious authorities, bought off by the elite, championed a dogmatism that sanctified the privileges and power of the ruling class. But there were always religious figures who defied their own. Many, such as the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were branded as heretics and atheists.
The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation.
"We then all just settled into bleak New England mourning," wrote the poet Liam Rector following the funeral of his close friend and fellow poet Jane Kenyon. "For my part, I spent a raging few years questioning how any god could let this happen, which drove me from a skeptical and buoyant agnosticism into a virulent atheism."
No one has a right to question or discredit Rector's atheism. He earned it. It is an atheism that does not try and substitute itself for religion. And it does not attempt to subjugate others who have opposing beliefs.
The concept of God, even within the same religious tradition, mutates as human societies change. The reaction of nonbelievers changes with it. As Karen Armstrong writes in A History of God, "the idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another." There is no immutable concept contained in the word God, "instead the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive." 8 This flexibility is what keeps the concept of God -- of the divine -- alive. As one conception of the divine no longer has meaning or relevance in the shifting sands of a culture, it is discarded, replaced by a new interpretation. Because there is no clear, objective definition of God, the new atheists must choose what God it is they attack. Is it the God of the mystics, the followers of the Social Gospel, the eighteenth-century deists, the Quakers, the liberation theologians, or the stern God of the patriarchs? Are they at war with Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin or Mohandas Gandhi or Thomas Merton or Paul Tillich?
These are not questions these atheists answer. They attack a religious belief of their own creation. They blame religion for the worst of human depravity, superstition and ignorance, and call on us to discard it. And once we free ourselves from religion we will be able to march forward as a species to their sunlit utopia. This is the simplistic utopian vision of human advancement shared by all fundamentalists, all those who are incapable of dealing intellectually, and perhaps emotionally, with human contradictions, limitations and ambiguities. Utopian visions of paradise, including the literal belief in heaven, are always curiously vague. This may be because a world without vice and conflict has little appeal to human beings. The atheist and religious fundamentalists perpetuate their belief systems with fear, fear of the other who seeks to destroy us and our way of life. They go into excruciating detail when speaking about the danger posed by their enemies, but slip into a dreamy vagueness when they attempt to describe their new heaven and new Earth. If we lived in a world ruled by human reason, what would it look like? Would it be a deathless life? Would we be eternally young? Would we live in monochromatic and stifling harmony? Would we all be alike in our desires and our needs? Would human suffering come to an end?
Religious understanding takes time and work. It is, as Armstrong pointed out in an interview on Salon, an art forum: "It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless." Religious thought and scholarship, often belittled within many universities, is difficult and laborious: "You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's not easy to do it well."
Those who teach that religion is evil and that science and reason will save us are as deluded as those who believe in angels and demons. They think education and knowledge will save us -- but because they do not accept human limitations, they would use education as a system of indoctrination. They seek, through education, to make us conform.
Evil, however, cannot be eradicated through education. Evil will always be with us. Science and human reason, like institutional religion, have delivered as much suffering as comfort. The victims of the death camps, those killed at Hiroshima, the tens of millions who died in the Soviet gulags, or those millions of innocents maimed and killed in Vietnam, Angola, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan or Iraq and a host of other wars, know the awful truth: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /But in ourselves..." There are scientists in the United States -- a huge proportion of whom work for defense-related industries -- constructing sophisticated weapons systems that have the capacity to exterminate millions of people. Is this a rational enterprise? Is it beneficial to humankind? Is it a reason for us to place our faith for the future of the human race in reason and science?
The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden is a warning about the danger posed by blind faith in the power of human knowledge. The figure who delivers knowledge to Adam and Eve is the source of evil -- the devil. Knowledge brings with it benefits, including self-awareness and power, but it also tempts us to play God. To act on this temptation, to worship our own capacities, lures us into utopian projects. The Biblical story of the fall conveys fundamental truths about freedom, guilt, our relation to nature and mortality. Those who formulated religious myths imparted an important spiritual truth rather than a historical or scientific fact. Those who created the Greek myths, the Vedas, the Upanishads, as well as the Bible, were trying to explain human beings to human beings.
We carry on a never-ending struggle with "the evil that I would not that I do," as Paul wrote. It is this capacity for empathy, remorse and self-reflection that saves us from ourselves. The struggle for survival, the interplay between prey and predator, does not appear to engender feelings of guilt or remorse among animals. But as human beings, we can imagine and empathize with the plight of others. It is this remorse, this capacity for empathy, which plagues many of those who return from combat. The knowledge that we have the capacity to impose indignities on other human beings is the essence of human dignity. Non sum dignus. When we lose this capacity for empathy, when we see the other as someone who must be "educated" to embrace our values or eliminated, we slip swiftly back into the world of animals.
The call to the moral life, which includes the isolation and anxiety that often accompanies moral responsibility, is built on the human capacity for empathy. Immanuel Kant founded his ethics upon this concept. And Kant's injunction always to "recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means" runs in a direct line from the Gospels.
Those who argue that religion is the product of a time of intellectual darkness ask us to forget the wisdom of the past. They offer a new faith.
Dawkins, who blames religion for stifling human curiosity and intellectual growth, encourages people to transfer their faith to "rational" belief systems to fill the hole left by the obsolescence of religious belief. "If the demise of God will leave a gap, different people will fill it in different ways," Dawkins writes. "My way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world."
Hitchens is rhapsodic about the future world made possible by science and human ingenuity. He writes of the accessibility of scientific knowledge to "masses of people by easy electronic means." Science, he promises, will soon "revolutionize our concepts of research and development." He adds: "Thanks to the telescope and the microscope [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." Dawkins uses the term zeitgeist to describe what he sees as ever-increasing progress, with just the occasional "set back." A glorious future, brought to us by science and reason, is within reach. They have seen the future and it works. Scientific and moral progress, however, are not the same. One advances. The other does not.
"The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge," the British philosopher John Gray wrote. "The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge -- not even in the long run."
The prospects for the human race are bleak. The worse things get in human societies, the more powerful the yearning for illusion and false hope. The reality of what we face as a species is increasingly frightening. We cannot stop the destructive forces we have unleashed. We can hope only to lessen the disasters looming before us. This will require a sober, dispassionate response, one that accepts the severe limitations of humanity and gives up utopian fantasies. It will require empathy, the ability to see the world from the perspective of those outside our culture and our nation. Dreams of fantastic miracles and collective salvation, whether through science or God, will accelerate our doom, for they permit us to ignore reality. Our survival as a species depends on accepting our narrowing possibilities, doing what we can to mitigate disaster and reaching out to the rest of the planet in ways that promote cooperation rather than conflict.
The blustering televangelists, and the atheists who rant about the evils of religion, are little more than carnival barkers. They are in show business, and those in show business know complexity does not sell. They trade clichés and insults like cartoon characters. They don masks. One wears the mask of religion, the other wears the mask of science. They banter back and forth in predictable sound bites. They promise, like all advertisers, simple and seductive dreams. This debate engages two bizarre subsets who are well suited to the television culture because of the crudeness of their arguments. One distorts the scientific theory of evolution to explain the behavior and rules for complex social, economic and political systems. The other insists that the six-day story of creation in Genesis is fact and Jesus will descend from the sky to create the kingdom of God on Earth. These antagonists each claim to have discovered an absolute truth. They trade absurdity for absurdity. They show that the danger is not religion or science. The danger is fundamentalism itself.
"Men seek a universal standard of human good," Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. "After painful effort they define it. The painfulness of their effort convinces them that they have discovered a genuinely universal value. To their sorrow, some of their fellow men refuse to accept the standard. Since they know the standard to be universal the recalcitrance of their fellows is proof, in their minds, of some defect in humanity of the nonconformists. Thus a rationalistic age creates a new fanaticism. The nonconformists are figuratively expelled from the human community."
The new atheists, who attack a repugnant version of religion, use it to condemn all religion. They use it to deny the reality and importance of the religious impulse. They are curiously unable to comprehend those who found through their religious convictions the strength to stand up against injustice. Hitchens writes of Martin Luther King Jr. that "in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian." He disparages the faith of Abraham Lincoln and assures us that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis put to death for resistance, was the product of a religious belief that had "mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism." He declares Gandhi an obscurantist who distorted and retarded Indian independence, and calls the Dalai Lama a medieval princeling who is the continuation of a parasitic monastic elite. All those religious figures who found the courage to live the moral life must be maligned and dismissed as not authentically religious. Their presence speaks of another kind of religion, one these atheists do not comprehend.
These attacks dismiss those -- and there are millions -- who found the inner fortitude through religion to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion. It seeks to invalidate the achievement of those religious figures who lost their lives in the defense of humanity. Religious leaders, such as King or Bonhoeffer, and all those who followed them, are excluded from this version of religion. The new atheists, like all fundamentalists, flee from complexity. They can cope with religion in its most primitive and abusive form. They are helpless when confronted by a faith that challenges their caricatures.
These atheists' knowledge of the Bible, as well as the Koran and other religious texts, is shallow and haphazard. They do not distinguish between religious myth and factual narrative, between a truth expressed through story or art and the truth that arises from a factual investigation into a historical event or a scientific experiment. They are blind to the underlying human truth and reality expressed through religious myth. The Bible, which they are so fond of attacking as incoherent, was never designed to be a coherent book. The word Bible is derived from the greek words ta biblia, "little books." In ancient libraries it was not a unified whole but a collection of scrolls placed in cubbyholes. These scrolls, all read separately, contained wisdom literature, moral treatises, stories, rules, aphorisms, creation myths, letters, fables, polemics, histories and poems. History, as a collection of verifiable facts, was a foreign concept to the writers of the Bible, as it was to the Greek historian Herodotus. The stories about Jesus in the Gospels were meant to convey the essence of a life and a teaching, not facts. The discrepancies in the accounts by the four Gospel writers, as well as the various versions of myths in the Hebrew Bible, including the creation myth, illustrate the indifference these writers felt to factual narrative. Those who wrote ancient texts included reportage, myth, legend, received wisdom and stories in their "historical" accounts. Readers, since the Bible came into existence, have picked and rejected what suited and did not suit the circumstances of their lives. William Blake, who understood this, referred to the Bible as "the Great Code of Art."
"If religion is essentially the inner life," wrote Wilhelm Schmidt, "it follows that it can be truly grasped only from within. But beyond a doubt, this can be better done by one in whose inward consciousness an experience of religion plays a part. There is but too much danger that the [nonbeliever] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colors, or one totally devoid of ear of a beautiful musical composition."
I fear that in a period of instability and crisis, perhaps after another terrorist attack, an economic collapse or an environmental disaster, these secular and religious fundamentalists will merge to call for horrific bloodletting and apocalyptic acts of terror to save us. It does not matter if one billion Muslims are condemned as "Satan worshippers" or irrational religious fanatics. The resulting catastrophe -- for them and for us -- will be the same.
In The End of Faith, Harris, in passages that could be lifted from a sermon by a Christian fundamentalist, calls for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world. He defends torture as a logical form of interrogation. He, like all utopians, has reduced millions of human beings and cultures he knows nothing about to primitive impediments to his vision of a better world. "What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?" Harris asks. "If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime -- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe."
Harris again reduces a fifth of the world's population to a vast, primitive enemy. He argues that we may have to murder "tens of millions of people in a single day." His bigotry, and the bigotry of all who dehumanize others, is used to justify indiscriminate slaughter and atrocity. The people to be killed, we are told, are not distinct individuals. They do not have hopes and aspirations. They only appear human. They must be destroyed because of what they represent, what lurks beneath the surface of their human form. This dehumanization, especially by those who live in a society with the technological capacity to carry out acts of massive slaughter, is terrifying.
Our enemies have no monopoly on sin, nor have we one on virtue. We all stand in need of self-correction. We do not live in a world where we ever get to choose between pure virtue and pure vice. Human actions combine within them the moral and the immoral, no matter how pure they appear to us or to others. We are always like our enemy. Human virtue is always ambiguous.
Niebuhr captured this inclination to paint our self-interested motives as universal virtues when he wrote in The Irony of American History about America's response to communism during the cold war:
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
Niebuhr warned that when we divide the world into darkness and light we take on the attributes of those we oppose. We adopt their language and their binary vision of good and evil, speaking also of a "new enemy" and "perpetual war." Democratic systems function because they begin from the premises that human nature is corrupt, and absolute power, as well as absolute truth, is antithetical to the common good.
"We must fight their falsehood with our truth," Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned, "but we must also fight the falsehood in our truth."
This is what these secular utopians fail to do. They believe that the best human beings, defined by them as "rational" and "enlightened," should become powerful enough to dictate to the rest of the planet a new way of being. They see these "best" human beings in themselves and assume they represent the best of the nation. They fail to see their own irrationality in the irrationality of those they oppose. They have forgotten that they, too, are human. The question is never who shall rule. A democratic state begins from the assumption that most of those who gravitate toward power are mediocre and probably immoral. It assumes that we must always protect ourselves from bad government. We must be prepared for the worst leaders even as we hope for the best. And as Karl Popper wrote, this understanding leads to a new approach to power, for "it forces us to replace the question: Who shall rule? By the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?"
"I am inclined to think that rulers have rarely been above average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it," Popper wrote. "And I think that it is reasonable to adopt, in politics, the principle of preparing for the worst, as well as we can, though we should, of course, at the same time try to obtain the best. It appears to me madness to base all our political efforts upon the faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers."
Those who call on us to carve out a world in our own image and tame and quell "irrational" religious fanatics offer an invitation to despotism. In the name of noble ideals and universal harmony they empower the demons of selfexaltation, greed and lust for power. This utopian vision imbues human history and human nature with a fictitious linear progression toward an idealized future.
"The point is that we have almost moved on, and in a big way, since biblical times," Dawkins writes. "Slavery, which was taken for granted in the Bible and throughout most of history, was abolished in civilized countries in the nineteenth century. All civilized nations now accept what was widely denied up to the 1920s, that a woman's vote, in an election or on a jury, is the equal of a man's. In today's enlightened societies (a category that manifestly does not include, for example, Saudi Arabia), women are no longer regarded as property, as they clearly were in biblical times. Any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse. And if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first-degree murder. Yet, according to the mores of his time, his conduct was entirely admirable, obeying God's commandment. Religious or not, we have all changed massively in our attitude to what is right and wrong."
Dawkins argues that we are "way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s. The whole wave keeps moving, and even the vanguard of an earlier century (T. H. Huxley is the obvious example) would find itself way behind the laggers of a later century. Of course, the advance is not a smooth incline but a meandering sawtooth. There are local and temporary setbacks such as the United States is suffering from its government in the early 2000s. But over the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakable, and it will continue."
Dawkins's hope that George Bush is an aberration on the road to enlightenment is naïve. It dismisses the rise of a militarized corporate state that has slowly cannibalized the democratic system and made the corporations a shadow government. The corporate state will not vanish when Bush leaves office. Dawkins applauds the taming of past evils -- although human trafficking and slavery continue in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe -- and ignores new ones, such as industrial warfare and nuclear weapons, the brutality of totalitarian capitalism, globalization and looming environmental disasters. We do not march toward a rational paradise. We march toward a world where the rapacious and greedy appetites of human beings, who have overpopulated and failed to protect the planet, threaten widespread anarchy, famine, nuclear terrorism, and wars for diminishing resources. The belief that the human animal is evolving morally and will finally become reasonable is possible only when we close our eyes to the human predicament. Human beings prefer hope, even absurd hope, to truth. It makes life easier to bear. It lets us turn away from the hard choices ahead to bask in a comforting certitude that God or science will bring about our salvation.
History, as a meaningful narrative of progress shaped by human beings, is unknown in the traditions of Asia or Africa. This vision of history is a peculiar product of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. This vision was tempered within Christianity, however, by the acknowledgment of human corruption or sin. The Enlightenment myth, which discarded the concept of sin, taught that our physical and social environment could be transformed through rational manipulation. We could advance morally as a species. This belief in rational and scientific manipulation of human beings to achieve a perfect world has consigned millions of hapless victims to persecution and death.
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.
The worst tyranny in human history was carried out by utopian idealists. These idealists plunged their nations and societies into famine, war and genocide for great ideals and laudable virtues. Utopian dreams are always psychotic. They promise that we can achieve what no generation before us has achieved. They ask us to unleash, one last time, acts of horrific violence and repression to make ourselves happy. These dark visions begin with the annihilation of the other, but end with self-annihilation. In the name of beauty, progress, goodness and truth they bring death.
Copyright © 2008 by Chris Hedges