Ya Know What? Atheists Can Also Be Nutty Zealots

By Chris Hedges
Free Press, 185 pages, $25

Poor Einstein. Long after his death, atheists and agnostics, Jews and secular Jews are still trying to claim him for their side. Einstein was remarkably coy—you can interpret his quotes on God and religion in many contradictory ways. But reading Chris Hedges’ new book, it’s not hard to believe the well-circulated rumor (which has even popped up in Richard Dawkins’ chat rooms) that during his life Einstein was more wary of one group claiming him than all the others: the atheists.

Proselytizing atheists have been very busy recently writing religion-bashing best sellers, from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2005) to Mr. Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) to Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007). Mr. Hedges’ book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, is a deep investigation into the historical and intellectual failings of these atheists’ ideas.

The new atheists see science and reason as the keys to human progress. They believe that only when we reject irrational religious forces can we move forward as a society. Mr. Dawkins thinks that we’ve come a long way since Biblical times. “In today’s enlightened societies,” he writes, “any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse.” Of course, he allows, there are “local and temporary setbacks” to this forward march—like, for example, the current occupant of the White House. Mr. Hedges disagrees: “Dawkins’ hope that George Bush is an aberration on the road to enlightenment is naïve.” There will always be human fallibility, he insists, and anyone who believes that we can attain “collective salvation, whether through science, Jesus Christ, or Muhammad” is ignoring human history and human nature.

Mr. Hedges confesses that at first he paid little attention to the atheist new wave. He started Mr. Harris’ book shortly after it was published but soon “put it aside.” As the son of a Presbyterian minister, a graduate from seminary and a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, Mr. Hedges found Mr. Harris’ arguments about religion and world affairs “childish.” “I did not take Harris seriously,” Mr. Hedges writes. “This was a mistake.”

Then last May, Mr. Hedges debated Mr. Harris and then Mr. Hitchens. During the first debate, Mr. Hedges was asked about a Pew poll about suicide bombing. He tried to give a nuanced explanation of the driving forces of fundamentalism, arguing that repressive political systems and “personal and economic despair” are what propel all fundamentalists.

Mr. Harris replied: “O.K., well, let me deal with your taking measure of the Muslim world. Happily, we do not assess public opinion polls by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe.” He went on, “How many people did you ask whether they supported suicide bombing?”

I Don’t Believe in Atheists was written in response to those debates. Mr. Hedges concedes that the new atheists can be witty and amusing, but the danger, as he sees it, is that they’re just as much fundamentalists as the God-struck zealots they oppose.

“Any form of knowledge that claims to be absolute ceases to be knowledge. It becomes a form of faith,” Mr. Hedges writes. The atheists believe their ideas are the only right ones and those that disagree “are ignorant at best, and probably evil.” Just ask Mr. Hitchens, who declared during his debate with Mr. Hedges, “I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated and I don’t make any apology for it.”


EINSTEIN ISN’T THE only dead cultural icon the atheists want on their team. In God Is Not Great, Mr. Hitchens seeks to “own” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He argues that King was a humanist—“in no real as opposed to nominal sense … was he a Christian.” Mr. Hedges vehemently disagrees; for him, King is evidence that religious inspiration can act for good, moving millions “to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion.” But the atheists, he writes, “are helpless when confronted by a faith that challenges their caricature.”

Ultimately, Mr. Hedges believes that atheism is fine as long as it does not try to “substitute itself for religion” or “subjugate others who have opposing beliefs.” The new atheists do both—and try to claim the dead.

Maybe Einstein was even smarter than we thought.


Julia Simon is studying Middle Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Ya Know What? Atheists Can Also Be Nutty Zealots