While speaking out against the Christian fundamentalist movement and its political agenda, Hedges noticed another group—this one on the left—conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America’s role in world politics. The New Atheists, as they have been called, include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and bestselling author and journalist Christopher Hitchens—outspoken secularists who depict religious structures and the belief in God as backward and anti-democratic.
Though Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate and the son of a Presbyterian minister, considers himself a religious man, his quarrel with the New Atheists goes beyond theological concerns. In “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” he accuses Hitchens and the others of preaching a fundamentalism as dangerous as the religious fundamentalist belief systems they attack. Strange bedfellows indeed—according to Hedges, the New Atheists and the Christian right pose the greatest threat facing American democratic society today.
Hedges spoke to Salon by phone from his home in New Jersey.
You say that “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” is a product of confrontations you had with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. How did those debates inspire the book?
In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.
In December, I interviewed Sam Harris for UCLA Magazine about some graduate research he had done on belief and the brain. He said his hope was that eventually belief in God will carry the same social stigma as, say, being a racist, that it will “be embarrassing for somebody to know something he obviously does not know.”
“You can be called a fundamentalist atheist. When you unpack the statments, they are entirely vacuous,” he told me. “You don’t have to presume anything on insufficient evidence to reject somebody’‘s claims about magic books. We cannot prove the absence of Zeus from this universe. And the burden has never been on us to prove the absence of Zeus.
“We have done that with 1,000s and 1,000s of “dead gods” who are no longer a part of religious mythology. We don’t apply the same scrutiny to the God of Abraham, even though he has exactly the same status, which is not to say he doesn’t have value as literature or philosophical thought.”