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I might not be the typical reviewer of this book. I am an atheist, but one who is as annoyed as Hedges over the excesses and irresponsibilities of the more dogmatic of "public figure" atheists. But, wait! I gave this book two stars. Why would I give a book whose message I essentially agree with 2 stars?
Well, for starters, I don't agree with much in this book; suprising, because I thought that I would. Of the scores of things Hedges could have challengd these atheists - Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens - on, Hedges manages to miss most of them and add some that are quite illigitimate. Had I written this book, I would have taken the three authors to task on a few things:
a.) their simplistic and baffling view that not only religious extremists, but moderates, are to be condemmed. (Isn't religion a tool? Just as people can do bad with it, so they can do good, depending on their motive?)
b.) these authors occasional faith-driven zeal, that given enough time, sceince will explain all of the things it has tried and failed to explain (like morality, even though science deals with 'is' rather than 'ought' questions. (And don't get me started on the idea of 'memes' as opposed to the older, more sensical, idea of 'ideas.')
c.) These authors' very frequent exhibitions of the type of fanatical extremism and dogmatism they rightly point out as a flaw of their opponents (fundamentalists).
The only of these Hedges hits on is the third. Hedges is not even primarily against atheism. He is, rather, against dogmatism and fanasticism, which he rightly sees exhibited in spades amongst these new 'public figure' atheists.
But in his zeal - and judging by the redundancy, this was a book written in great haste without the benefit of editing or critical thought - he attributes many things to these authors that they, in fact, never actually say. This, of course, renders his books quite superfluous, irrelevant, and unimportant.
His main argument against these atheists is that they believe in moral progress in a utopian sense. Get rid of religion, they are alleged to say, and the world can be a utopia. Hedges says this of them several times. As one whose read all of the authors to which he refers, I was confused, because I don't remember any of them saying this. At least, I figured, he will quote them on this at some point. He never did.
He suggests that these authors do not believe in any idea resembling original sin; that humans have both a good AND A DARK narure. That is funny in a naive sort of way, because if Hedges had done homework, he would have easily known that the whole idea of evolutionary psychology (to which all of our authors subscribe)is ALWAYS lambasted for recognizing that we - evolutionary creatures - have inherited our predecessors' moral virtues and shortcomings. (Hedges should have remembered the uproar at Dawkins' book 'The Selfish Gene!').
For their parts, Harris and Hitchens are also quite clear in their books on the idea that moral perfection and utopianism should not be seriously taken. Hitchens, after all, is a raging fan of the anti-utopian George Orwell, who makes several moralistic appearances in Hitchens' book. And Harris says repeatedly that once religion is out, humans will just as easily fight over other things; the only difference will be that hopefully those things are more solvable and tractible than are beliefs that God gave this group or that group the holy land. (Religion IS in fact a good, but not the only, conversation stopper.)
Quite simply, Hedges' attribution and scolding of atheists that believe in unbounded moral perfectability is arguing against a ghost. Those atheists died out with Stalin. And as dead as they are, so dead is Hedges 'argument.'
Beyond this, Hedges also condems Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens - quite oddly - for the belief that humans can morally impove AT ALL!! Hedges is a pessimist in the fine tradition of those depressed social thinkers like Reinhold Neibuhr and Soren Kierkegaard. Like them, he reminds us that humans have natures and sometimes, those natures are selfish and devious. As such, we should never try to overcome any part of ourselves; we should simply accept the fact that sin exists.
Of course, anyone whose ever read Reinhold Neibuhr - I have, even as an atheist - knows that he never, ever was that pessimilstic. He simply suggested that moral PERFECTIBILITY was a chimera. Try as we might, there is always going to be an ideal that we fall short of, but that this should not keep us from trying for it and striving for it.
Hedges on the other hand reminds us again and again that "we live in a constant state of war," and that it is no good to try and change it. So how dare the atheists suggest that if we try hard, we may be able to gradually move beyond some of the moral quandaries of the day. Of course, we have in the past. At least in Western countries: slavery is outlawed women are no longer property of men; feudalism is gone; monarchy and dictatorship is more and more rare and looked down on; the first bills of rights have appeared on the planet. One wonders: if Hedges were writing 300 years ago, would any of this have happened? Or would he simply have reminded us of the evil that comes when we try to do better than we have in the past. And how dare the wicked atheists for suggesting that progress is a goal to strive for!!
I write this lengthy review, quite simply, to give prospective readers an idea of how poor this book is both in intellectual quality and message. If one wants to argue against the 'new atheism' for things like their dogmatism, and morally simplistic judgments against all things with the hint of religion, then do that! (I will welcome it myself!) But to suggest that the new atheism is evil because of a belief in moral perfection that none of its authors write about, and for the audacity to claim that humans can be decent if they try hard - what? Who?
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This book is far better than its detractors would have you believe, but not for the reasons that Hedges wants us to believe. Having said that, let me explain that first sentence and why I gave the book four stars.
I have great admiration for Hedges the article-writer, Hedges the foreign policy pundit and Hedges the moral/religious thinker. I don't know what it is, but give him a book-length space to fill and he starts to fall apart.
He had the same problem in "American Fascists". There are moments of passion and brilliance in both that book and this one and yet one comes away feeling vaguely cheated. In AF it was because it was never clear to what extent the fundamentalist Dominionists were running things and to what extent they were pawns of the Republican Party. This lack of precision undermined Hedges' thesis that Christianity was any more to blame for creeping fascism in the US than any num,ber of other factors such as exceptionalism, hyper-patriotism, mindless worship of laissez-faire capitalism or any of the social ills more ably described by Joe Bageant.
In IDBiA, Hedges promises a refutation of the current crop of atheists, but never delivers. His criticisms of Harris as simplistic and xenophobic and of Hitchens as a quasi-fascist do not miss the mark in my opinion, but these are characteristics of these authors that I contend exist independently of their atheism. In fact, supporters of torture and pre-emptive war are not hard to find amongst fanatics of all flavours.
He doesn't lay a glove on Dawkins and (my favourite expositor of the case against belief) Victor Stegner, because he attempts to tar Dawkins at least with the same brush that he use to (rightly) paint the other two.
There is a lot of complaining about religious folks all being lumped together, literalists and nuanced believers alike. Hedges bristles under the association, but fails to see that not only has he not answered the epistemological trouble of believing in a deity, but that he has refused to acknowledge that the authority that permits religious terrorism derives from claimed knowledge about this deity, which derives from human writings.
His main beef seems to be with the arrogant tone of the non-believers, which he handily excoriates. He doesn't address the atheists arguments, which he dismisses as "strawmen". After all, atheists do bad things, too and anyway most believers are not dangerous fanatics. He is being deliberately obtuse here, because he is well aware that the atheists' arguments are valid for an important subset of Christians he warned us against in a previous book as well as for an important percentage of Jews and Muslims who sow death in their wake throughout the Middle East, a region he knows better than most.
So, why would I give this deeply-flawed book four stars?
Hedges, while failing in his attempt to critique atheism, hits a home run in identifying perhaps the two most pernicious trends in thinking about how to save us from ourselves. These are that humans are somehow improvable in some fundamental way and that the ideas of "evil" or "sin" are relics of pre-Enlightenment superstition and can be jettisoned with no ill effect.
Hedges correctly identifies the first idea as an Enlightenment creation that came about in part as a reactuion to the doctrine of Original Sin and in part as a natural conclusion that thinkers drew as scientific thought enabled technological achievements that increased the standard of living, life expectancy and options available to the beneficiaries of the Enlightenment, particularily in Europe. It was refined by a mis-application of Darwin's ideas about evolution and other cultural forces and was twisted to serve the ends of racists, eugenicists, Communists and Fascists.
The science-driven improvements in intra-species slaughter and destruction of the planet should be ample evidence that increased scientific competence and human perfectability are unrelated, and it is probable that the improvements in standard of living globally have peaked, at least in the West, and will peak soon all over the planet, if they have not already done so.
Following this line of reasoning, Hedges correctly points out, that even if we were to all become atheists and rationalists overnight, the idea that we would somehow "improve" as a species is naive at best. The conviction that this is so, would lead to forced deconversions and all sorts of oppression of believers in the name of reason.
Although Hedges doesn't state it explicitly our history, both written and evolutionary shows that our aggressive and dominating nature is what has selected us to be the alpha hominids from our possible rivals such as Homo erectus and the Neandethals.
This brings us to "sin" and "evil". I understand, as does Hedges, that these terms are symbolic, metaphorical. The worst human impulses, which lead to torture, genocide, oppression and destruction comprise an inseparable part of human nature and if we wish to better society, we have give up on the Utopian notions that promise us "Ubermenschen", "Rational Man", or "Spiritually Evolved Woman" and come to terms with what we are, rather than how various ideologies tell us we should be. We are not going to solve our problems by trying to force people into a Procrustean bed built on the ideal-du-jour. Down this path lies the totalitarian nightmares of Hitler, the Inquisition and so many others.
People are intrinsically co-operative, loving and empathetic; we are also territorial, aggressive and selfish.We evolved from apes. Our closest relatives are socially manipulative and sexually calculating bonobos and the hierarchical, aggressive chimpanzees. Neuroscience shows us that we are driven by emotion, not reason and that the main function of the latter is to rationalize the social and moral decisions we take because of neural activity in the emotional centres of the brain.
Holding up a mythic "Rational Man" as an ideal to which we should aspire in order to achieve Utopia is as wrong-headed as thinking that we should all convert to Jainism in order to achieve the same goal. In the end, we will still be the same old Homo sapiens with a different set of cherished beliefs to fight and die for.
This is what this book is about, whether Hedges knows it or not and it is that book that warrants 4 stars. As a critique of atheism, it has a misleading title and really doesn't even try.