Friday, November 19, 2010

When atheism becomes religion - Chris Hedges (2009)

Hedges, Chris. 2009. When atheism becomes religion : America's new fundamentalists. New York: Free Press.

Actually the title of the book (originally, I don’t believe in atheists, in 2008) summarizes what the author wants to argue in the book. The core is clear: The arrogant pseudo-scientific atheism is actually the same as any arrogant religious fundamentalism. In other words, atheists and religious bigotry are the same because of their philosophical foundation, i.e., fundamentalism contaminated by violent utopian ideas.

Hedges argues that this pseudo-scientific fundamentalists are originated from the legacy – specifically bad legacy of Enlightenment in Western Europe. Blind obedience to the progress of human moral. As far as I’ve understood, this type of naïve optimism about the reality is the enemy that he wanted to accuse in the previous book. Specifically he mentions Harris, Dawkins, Wilson, Blackmore, and others as examples of pseudo-scientific atheists.

The biggest virtue of this book is the beautifully wedded couple of “common-sensical ethical arguments” and “ethics based on REAL experience of the author (as a war correspondent).” Scientists, especially arm-chaired scientists studying and researching in the library or office, are easily distracted or tempted by seriously abstract thoughts that are sometimes sur-real. Those arguments frequently are based on hypothetically assumed person, rather than a real person who is crying, sweating, or bleeding. Actually criticizing religious creeds is so easy because I believe any bibles (of course, including Christian Bible) have very very contrasting and conflicting teachings. In one page, it teaches endless altruism or self-sacrifice, but suddenly it orders its believers to kill others without any mercy. The evil teaching can be easily mobilized for the justifications of genocide, adultery, illegal polygamy and the like. However, it is also similarly easy to criticize bad consequences contrived by modern science (or scientific devices) like atomic bombs and MDW.

From the ordinary mind (at least my mind), it is not fair to compare good science with bad religion, as pseudo-scientists do. (the exactly opposite case would be true, either). I believe the author’s critic on pseudo-scientific atheists is not critics on all modern science. He, I assume, simply warns the arrogance of such atheists and the danger such arrogance would result, as blind religious fundamentalists do.

Some limitations are observed. First, this book is very thin, compared with the previous one (American Fascists). I assume the reason might be the author’s hastiness, in order to reply to people who may misunderstand him as one of such atheists. Second, his critics are mainly about the attitude or viewpoints of such atheists, rather than their over-interpretation of scientific findings (especially, evolutionary biology). While he mentioned Charles Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and other so-called orthodox scientists, his study does not cover recent achievements in such field. Of course, it is not the author’s duty to do that because it is not his speciality. However, it is a little bit disappointing not to analyze why such writers show such seemingly arrogant “over-confidence” over the findings… Finally, when analyzing meme theory, I assume he seems to over-generalize the implications of meme theory. While it is actually true that meme theory is too much contaminated by misguided evolutionary biology, it is also true that it is simply a way to explain social or cultural phenomena, based on biological explanations. I have to disagree with some analyses about meme theory. All types of knowledge are inter-influenced by other types of knowledge. For example, is it true that Aristotelian philosophy influences St. Aquina’s theology?

Despite some limitations (actually my dissatisfactions), I am satisfied with the book (as one of the general and ordinary readers)

PS: As a ph.d student, this book taught me many lessions about knowledge, especially so-called scientific knowledge. At least, it tells that precise theory at the level of high abstraction is bad theory at the mundane level. Especially, social sciences… Society is not abstract, it is real. (Unless you live in a place of full anarchy).

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