I read the interview with Chris Hedges (Leading Questions, “Fundamentalist Atheists,” FI, August/September 2008) and was left sorely disappointed that someone with his experience could so easily fall into the trap o f becoming a victimologist. He spent seven years in the Middle East (not continually, I suspect). I spent ten years there. He concludes his interview with the typical apologist words: “The world is a complex place . . . [with a] long slow drip of repression, collective humiliation, abuse, indignity, and foreign occupation.” I then realized that this is not a man worth listening to, let alone spending my money on a book of presumably the same self-adoring blather.
Treasure Island, Florida
In reading the interview with Chris Hedges two words, hubris and hypocrisy, come to mind. Mr. Hedges says, “I have nothing against atheism. It has an honored place in the Western intellectual tradition.” This same person has written a book titled I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he lambastes atheists and the recent renaissance in atheist discourse. Moreover, the man who “spent two years writing a book on the Christian Right,” spent seven years in the Middle East, speaks Arabic, and was The New York Times Middle East Bureau chief actually claims that “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.” Nothing to do with theQur’an? Give me a break. Yes, foreign occupation is certainly a motivating force behind those who become suicide bombers, and I would concur with the other motivating forces he lists, but they are undoubtedly largely rooted in the Qur’an and the Hadith, an extreme interpretation if you ask many Muslims, but the Qur’an nonetheless. Regardless of how loathe he may be to admit it, suicide bombers are products of not only the geopolitical forces that give rise to social and political desperation, but,indeed,they are also products of religious indoctrination. For Hedges to deny this is simply ludicrous. Many Muslimsthe world around, both devout (perhaps of the “buffet” variety, if you ask some) and apostates (under fatwah required by the Qur’an and the Hadith) have concurred with this, including some of the distinguished writers who have contributed to Free Inquiry.
Hedges also condemns the “New Atheists” for racism, saying they “are attacking a stereotypical, racist, cartoonish vision of one-fifth of the world’s population whom they know nothing about.” He says this having just made a blatantly racist statement in his previous answer, a comment such as I have never heard from any of the “new atheists.” The man who claims to know the Islamic and Muslim world so well has the audacity to claim that “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.” Does this mean all of them, Mr. Hedges, or just the suicide bombers? Put these two statements together and you have the epitome of hubris and hypocrisy. The atheists I know and those whose writings I have read do not engage in this type of racistvituperation. Their—our—concern is not with the “race” but the religion. I think it is safe to say that most us don’t believethe Arab world’s fundamentalistsare a separate race at all. From his statements, it sounds as if Mr. Hedges does.
I believe Hedges’s interpretation of the current wave of writings on atheism is incorrect and misguided. Calling for a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world is indeed irrational. But so much of the rest of what Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others have to say regarding the dangers of religious indoctrination in this world is right on the money. It’s a compelling reality check. I also don’t believe that we who have the temerity to call ourselves atheists consider ourselves to be on a “higher moral plane . . . relegating others to positions of moral inferiority.” We believe strongly in a morality based on ethical behavior and not on a system of supposed divine rewards and punishments, and that’s all. Most atheists I know, and I know quite a few, are content to live and let live, when religious people claim to actually live the moral life they preach. We are concerned about their silence when they refuse to be critical of those who use their religion as an excuse for immoral behavior cloaked in the garb of piety. This silence fosters a social climate that gives undue deference to religious beliefs of all kinds and the behaviors they engender.
Hedges is also incorrect regarding the use of science. I know no atheists who corrupt and misuse science replicating the “belief system of Christian fundamentalists in secular garb.” This is sheer nonsense. Science asks questions, and the scientific method seeks to find answers based on observation and analysis of data. It is not a religion, and no atheist I know considers it to be such nor behaves as if it were. When scientific research corrects previously believed misconceptions, atheists gladly correct their viewpoint. That is rational. This is not the case with religious belief. The history of religious denial of scientific reality is long, deep, and full of violence and oppression. Atheists rightfully challenge religion’s irrationality and hypocritical immorality in its denial of scientific fact. That does not constitute creating a new religion based upon science.
Hedges may well be, as he claims in his hubris, a vastly more experienced and better-educated person regarding Islam and fundamentalism than the rest of us, but his misstatements, racist remarks, and hypocrisy in this short excerpt of his interview certainly go a long way to undermining his credibility as a critic of atheists and atheism.
By the way, if Hedges doesn’t think Nietzsche fits the description of “fundamentalist” that he has outlined in his interview based on his condemnation of the other critics of religion to whom he refers, he has missed something that most everyone else who has ever read Nietzsche knows. He should go back and read Nietzsche again.
Middleburgh, New York
The idea of the “New Atheist” is a chimera, invented by the religious moderates as a result of their discomfort with nonbelievers who speak their minds freely. The outspoken atheists are part of a proud tradition of doubt that dates back throughout known human history; the only thing “new” about these atheists is that they have resurrected the proud tradition of criticism that was common a hundred years ago, in the days of Robert Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, and D.M. Bennett. Most of the current moderate believers have grown accustomed to having their beliefs unchallenged and do not like the fact that the atheists who have for so long remained essentially closeted are now speaking out fluently and lucidly to challenge traditional views of faith. The concept of the “dogmatic atheist” brings to mind other epithets that have been leveled at individuals who have dared to speak out and have refused to “know their place”—such as the ugly phrase “uppity nigger” for those who insisted that black citizens should have equal rights with white citizens and, of course, “castrating bitch” for all those feminists who refused to recognize their rightful place at the kitchen sink and insisted on invading seats of industry and government in pursuit of equality with their ma
le counterparts. These terms are pejorative and derogatory, designed to intimidate those who speak out against the status quo by those who feel uncomfortable when their views of their own innate superiority are challenged. The general idea is to continue to marginalize an already despised group. Few of my believing friends are as tolerant as they believe themselves to be; most tolerate their nonbelieving friends and acquaintances only when they do not openly speak of their nonbelief. Hedges is speaking up for those who would maintain a rigid, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” nonfreedom position, because he, too, is uncomfortable with the specter of nonbelief that has been growing stronger and bolder in the past few years.
Why Is There a Universe?
In a letter to the editor, humorously entitled “Much Ado About Nothing” (FI, August/September 2008), Tibor R. Machan purports to supplement much more concisely my fundamental deflation of Leibniz’s renowned query “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” a question that I labeled “PEQ” (“Why Is There a Universe at All, Rather than Just Nothing? Part 1,” FI, June/July 2008). As Machan sees it, Leibniz’s explanatory demand simply begs the question self-stultifyingly, because any premise that might serve to explain the existence of something would itself have to presuppose just such an existence on pain of vicious circularity.
But this supposedly expeditious disposition of PEQ is off the mark, because it overlooks my explicit reasons for pointing out (on p. 33 of FI June/July, upper-left column) that a nontrivial, nuanced reading of Leibniz’s own construal of PEQ would read as follows: “Why is there something contingent at all, rather than nothing contingent?” Thus, precisely because Leibniz argued (in his 1714 paper, Section 8) that no contingent entity could provide a noncircular answer to PEQ, he contended: “Now this sufficient reason of [i.e., for] the existence of the universe . . . , which needs no further reason, must be outside this series of contingent things, and must lie in a substance which is the cause of this series, or which is a necessary being, bearing the reason of its existence within itself; . . . And this final reason of things is called God.” In short, for Leibniz, the assumption of a necessarily existing divine being provides a noncircular answer to a properly construed, articulated version of PEQ.
Thus, in effect, Leibniz has parried Machan’s charge of vicious circularity, because this charge assumes tacitly that any explanatory answer to PEQ would have to invoke the existence of something contingent, an answer that Leibniz disavows.
Evidently, to come to adequate grips with PEQ, and to undermine it cogently and successfully, it just won’t do to try, á la Machan, to short-circuit my attack on Leibniz’s case for it.
Lactation and Birth Control
As a new subscriber, I missed Dr. John A. Frantz’s observations on birth control (“Major Nuances in Population Control,” FI, June/July 2008), but Sue Hall’s response (Letters to the Editor, FI, August/September 2008) must be addressed. She uses the words prevent and inhibit as though they mean the same. It is perfectly correct to say, as Dr. Frantz did, that lactation inhibits but does not prevent conception.
The utility of lactation as a method of birth control is inversely proportional to the availability of more reliable methods. My grandmother made regular use of that method. What else was there in the 1880s and 90s? She nursed each of her babies for two years and was able to space her pregnancies effectively. I have not recommended this as a useful method.
I have throughout my career advocated for the most reliable methods, up to and including performance of surgical sterilization on both sexes.
Thomas F. Higby, M.D.
The association of breast-feeding with reduced fertility is not controversial, and I agree that interference with ovulation does not prevent ovulation. To my way of thinking, inhibiting ovulation also means (and the dictionary agrees) interfering without preventing—delay is obviously not good enough for lactation to be effective for preventing excess human population. It is quite clear to me that my article, taken in its entirety, can scarcely be conceived of resulting in unwanted pregnancies.
John A. Frantz, M.D.
Islamofascism or Islamophobia?
Mazel Toff to Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn for finally providing the venue for hopefully the last serious discussion in Free Inquiry of Islamofascism (“Islamofascism: Fiction or Threat?,” Point/Counterpoint, August/September 2008). Now maybe we can get past the battles between atheists and humanists over the legitimacy of the term.
Clearly Ibn Warraq (“Islamofascism Is an Apt Descriptor”) couldn’t have cited more sources in his dubious attempt to make his claim that the oxymoron is indeed a valuable term for those of us who aren’t neoconservatives or working on behalf of the neoconservative ideology, as he himself seems to be in the guise of “defending the West,” along with the American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose image fits all too well in the montage on the cover. Sadly, however, all the citations in the world could not help Warraq make the leap he wishes in order to save the term from absurdity, while Laurence Britt’s far less referenced article (“Islamofascism Is a Gross Misnomer”) makes clear that the term’s only value is when it is used to defend the American empire and Western imperialism from a reality that points out the emperor has no clothes.
Now perhaps Free Inquiry’s many essayists can get on with the more important and necessary business of looking for humanistic ways to deal with political Islam without resorting to the racist, overgeneralizing demonization of “the other” that terms like Islamofascism signify.
Barry F. Seidman
Boonton, New Jersey
While I myself squarely concur with Ibn Warraq that radical Islam does possess all the significant properties and functions of fascism as we commonly understand that phenomenon, I also find it compelling that Laurence Britt argues for a kinship between fascism and any authoritarian, exclusivist religion, certainly including Christianity. The difference, of course, is that in Western society we have had the wisdom to make our governmental structures (largely) secular, preventing adherents to delusional belief-systems from wielding the kind of totalitarian influence they routinely wield in the Islamic world. At any rate, the nexus between Christianity and fascism is all the more arguable considering the extent to which the Catholic Church saw fit to cozy up to Hitler. Let’s face it—religion is inherently fascistic in its potential for repression and irrational power-brokering. God is just too fetching an excuse for exerting power over others without having to take responsibility for that behavior oneself. A world without fascism in any form whatever would, of necessity, be a world without God.
Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.
Roswell, New Mexico
Paul Kurtz avers in “The Ethics of Secularism”: “I do not think that human motivation is simply based on egoism or selfishness, for there is abundant evidence of altruism in human conduct” (FI, August/September 2008). I’ve been a stone-cold atheist since 1954. Ironically enough, my escape from piety began with the introduction in my fourth grade of “under God” in a pledge of allegiance that I had already begun to think tedious and silly. “What the hey,” thought I, “why would God need the assistance of Congress?” (I must have been an awful brat.) I have been, over these many years, and if I do say so myself, quite an altruistic fellow, and I’ve long thought about why this should be. My parents, decent people, taught me that it is some sort of duty to be nice to other people. I’ve never seen it as a duty, however, but as a great pleasure. When I give to charity or help my fellow man, I feel good about doing so. If I do not seize an opportunity to help when I can, I feel lousy. I would (being a strong swimmer) plunge into a river to save a drowning child, not because I care much about the child, but because I would feel dreadful if I did not. I don’t know where this “altruism” came from. Evolution? I do know it is totally selfish.
Brian F. Wood
Buffalo, New York
The Will to (Dis)Believe
It is curious that Jason Gersh (“A Humanist in God’s Country,” FI, August/September 2008), in his interesting discussion of potential conflict when secular humanists study and value musical works that incorporate religious texts, fails to consider the time-honored principle of the suspension of disbelief. This process, so essential to the success of theatrical productions, films, and novels, is applicable when we reject the content, if taken at face value, of a musical work’s text. We need not take the words as empiricalassertions about how the natural world works (the province of science) or as an apologia for a particular religious creed (the domain of theology). They have been subsumed into a larg-er entity—the musical composition—having the purpose to engage and move us through musical excellence and inventiveness. Ghost-story aficionados do not have to believe in the existence of ghosts and science-fiction buffs need not think aliens from outer space are actually taking over our bodies to revel in their favorite pastimes. A temporary and sufficient suspension of disbelief is all that is required. Music is also a species of fiction, so secularists needn’t feel any pangs of conscience when they surrender themselvesto the glories of Bach’s B-minor Mass orBeethoven’sMissasolemnis.
Flushing, New York