Over the Hedges

by J.C. Samuelson

Chris Hedges comes across as a decent guy. He laments the intolerant demagoguery of some prominent Christians and their Evangelical followers as well as the violence displayed by radical Islamists. He appears concerned about the forces that continue to divide us, and his persona is very nearly that of a journalistic Rodney King saying, "Can't we all just get along?"

It seems almost cruel to offer criticisms of such an apparently forthright, earnest, compassionate, and likeable person's ideas concerning religion. In fact, it would be quite easy to find points on which we might agree. Yet it would be irresponsible not to offer a critical analysis of some of his ideas, most recently expressed in abridged form in an article titled, "The Hitch in Hitchens' Thinking" (see also here).

High on Hedges' list of irksome issues is the proliferation of atheist polemics addressing religion. He has debated both Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens on the topic of God, and continues to take a liberal religionist stance in which he concocts a brew consisting of emotion, metaphysics, and metaphor that exalts the self-actualizing appeal of faith. That is, he champions the type of faith espoused by those who don't take their scriptures too seriously.

From my perspective, religion bashing alone or for its own sake is unlikely to surmount the barriers between believers and non-believers. For that reason, the polemics presently in circulation seem likely to reinforce the views of both sides; atheists can feel empowered while theists can feel affirmed in their perceptions of atheists. To be sure, there will be (and have been) some theists persuaded by the arguments offered by the polemicists, and atheists are a minority that have long been unfairly stigmatized. However, it seems there must be ways to more effectively promote the desired paradigm shift than by merely offering broadsided attacks against faith.

Having said that, Hedges skirts the real issue by criticizing the polemicists' arguments as uneducated or misguided. Authentic religion, he says, isn't "the ossified forms of religious orthodoxy" he dismisses as charlatanry and claims are (or should be) the real target. Instead, he says real religion is merely an impulse related to the human fascination with "mysterious nonrational forces" that imply transcendency. He therefore avoids having to acknowledge that an "authentic religious life" is usually concerned with structuring mysticism into a codified framework by which to distinguish not simply which mystical path might be correct, but who belongs on the path, who is on the path, and what should be done about those not on the path.

Not having read Hitchens's book, I can't speak to Hedges' criticism that Hitchens ignores or fails to concede our profound inner urge for meaning or our yearing for moments of trancendence. However, having read the other authors he criticizes it's clear that these desires are not only acknowledged, but are worthy of exploration and study. Hedges erects a straw man when he implies that atheists are dismissive of love, beauty, awe, meaning, or even faith. He buttresses it with the claim that atheists who criticize religion externalize evil. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my opinion. In fact, it is for the very reason that we recognize our humanity that religion can be viewed as a poisonous idea, admittedly one among many, that can be and is used to manipulate our inner longings for the sake of a mystical being Hedges himself admits is a purely human concept.

It may well be that many people of faith subscribe to a faith in which God is little more than an abstract placeholder, a metaphor for our deepest impulses. These are the people with whom I would willingly join hands to present a united front against extremism and other pressing issues. Yet these same people also tacitly sanction the core beliefs of those whose behavior they condemn along with the rest of us. Seemingly ignored is the fact that it is those very same core beliefs that drives the behavior in the first place. Thus, like any other idea, religion is worthy of critical scrutiny.

One might also ask why it's so important to cling to a god that's nothing more than a variable or a platitude; a convenient shorthand for a human process. If that's all it is, then believers may as well put scripture back on the shelf, beyond the reach of sociopaths and criminals who might use it to give divine license to their actions. As nonrational as it may be, one can just as easily find comfort in the belief that there is a divine presence without the need for dangerous doctrines. Yet I doubt this is what Hedges is recommending. I rather suspect that a religion devoid of scriptural dogmas and a structured framework of tradition - "the ossified forms of religious orthodoxy" Hedges refers to - would soon lose its appeal as something judged to have any real meaning. Instead, it becomes something to do on certain days of the week, no more or less significant than breakfast.

In closing, Hedges' skills in writing, his apparent concern for his fellow human beings, and his willingness to stand by his convictions are all admirable traits, and he does make some useful observations. His major beef seems to be that he dislikes those who challenge his cherished ideals. To this I reply, welcome to the club. We've got jackets.

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