Fundamentalist Atheists

Journalist Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans and has reported from more than fifty countries. He is senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City, a lecturer in the Council of the Humanities, and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. He has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times, where he spent fifteen years. He is the author of a number of books, including American Fascists. He recently discussed his new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.


Free Inquiry: You liken the New Atheists to the fundamentalist religious extremists you attacked in your previous books.

Chris Hedges: Correct. I have nothing against atheism. It has an honored place in the Western intellectual tradition. I don’t think any serious student of theology or religion can consider themselves educated without studying Nietzsche, who was a mixture of brilliance and insanity but who understood the moral consequences of the Death of God. Sartre, Camus, and most of the great philosophical and theological reformers in their day were considered atheists—as were people like Spinoza and even Martin Luther. So, I actually came to the New Atheists fairly predisposed to accept their position. I was stunned to find that what they had done was replicate the belief system of Christian fundamentalists in secular garb, including complete corruption and misuse of science.

FI: So your problem isn’t with atheism but with what you term fundamentalist atheism. We all agree that fundamentalism is a bad thing, but tell me what is “fundamentalist” about a Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens when they are just being outspoken about their atheism.

Hedges: It is how they define themselves and the worldview that they adopt that, like that of the radical Christian Right, entails a fundamentalist mind-set. What is that? A binary worldview of “us versus them.” It is elevating ourselves to a higher moral plane and relegating others to positions of moral inferiority. It is an embrace of catastrophic, even apocalyptic, violence as a cleansing agent to remove human impediments toward, if not a perfected world, a world made more perfect. Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, asks us to consider carrying out a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world. That’s not a rational opinion—that’s insanity.

FI: Obviously, you disagree with Harris and Hitchens. But just because you think they are wrong doesn’t mean they are fundamentalists.

Hedges: I disagree with a lot of people. I disagree with Nietzsche, but I don’t think he is a fundamentalist. It’s not just a matter of who I disagree with; it is a matter of the ideological structure that they embrace. Let’s take an example from the Arab world’s fundamentalists: they are linguistically, culturally, and historically illiterate and make grand pronouncements about people’s cultures and ways of being that they know nothing about. Before I wrote I Don’t Believe in Atheists, I spent two years writing a book on the Christian Right, so the fundamentalist mind-set is something I am very familiar with. And fundamentalism does not have to be just a religious phenomenon. It is a way of viewing the world. It is a form of self-exultation. It is utopian in that it believes that human history is linear and that there is such a thing as collective moral progress, which I don’t think either human history or human nature bears out. In the case of the New Atheists, it embraces not science but the cult of science. By that I mean that they talk about evolutionary biology and then use it to make a leap of faith to talk about collective moral evolution.

FI: You have a problem with the intensity with which the New Atheists criticize Islamism. But there is intensity in many public debates, and this is hardly the hallmark of a fundamentalist mind-set.

Hedges: I would substitute the word intensity with racism. I spent seven years in the Middle East. I am a speaker of Arabic. I was the Middle East Bureau Chief for The New York Times. The Islamic and Muslim world is something I know very well. The New Atheists are attacking a stereotypical, racist, cartoonish vision of one-fifth of the world’s population whom they know nothing about. The world is a complex place, and what goes into making a suicide bomber has nothing to do with the Qur’an but a lot to do with the long, slow drip of repression, collective humiliation, abuse, indignity, and foreign occupation.

To listen to D.J. Grothe’s entire extensive interview with Chris Hedges, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.


Journalist Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans and has reported from more than fifty countries. He is senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City, a lecturer in the Council of the Humanities, and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at …

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