Harris Hedges Debate

Truthdig and UCLA recently hosted an interesting debate between Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) and Chris Hedges (American Fascists:The Christian Right and the War on America) about whether religion, in the hands of ordinary humans, is inevitably divisive and violent.

I'll confess that I was disappointed in Hedges. Like so many really good people when they are defending faith, he obfuscated. He gave words idiosyncratic meanings and did a bit of character assassination rather than responding directly to what Harris was saying. He even rolled out the old canard that Pol Pot and Stalin and Hitler were godless. (Oh, please!) In doing so, he demonstrated an utter failure to understand Harris's premise, which is that unquestioned dogmas are dangerous; that our beliefs need to be morally, rationally, and empirically accountable in spirituality as in all spheres of life.

But that in and of itself is informative. As a war correspondent and investigative journalist, Hedges has been undercover in fundamentalist and dominionist subcultures. He describes these subcultures with complexity and clarity. Yet even he, when faced with an outside challenge, displays our remarkable and almost universal human instinct to defend the religious impulse against all comers! He insists on seeing fundamentalism as a corruption of religion rather than simply one of its faces, one that comes to the front cyclically when cultural conditions are ripe.

As a psychologist, I find it fascinating that so many smart people refuse to admit in public (or perhaps to themselves) that we need to scrap our tribal traditions and rework our sacred texts if we are to serve peace, love, and life itself. Rather, they try to redefine Jehovah or Allah or Christianity or Islam, so that the evil flows not from these constructs but from something outside of them. They sing the praises of belief while denying its power.

In the end, such attempts to make our religious traditions benign while leaving them intact fail because they are psychologically flawed. They require a level of abstraction that doesn't interest the general public. They are the work of smart people, lovers of complexity and mystery, remaking God in their own image and refusing to acknowledge the mental life of most humans. Chris Hedges' remarks illustrate this beautifully. But he is not alone. Rather, he stands with the tolerant, modernist progressive majority, Christian and not, who are more easily aroused to defend religion (in the abstract) than to challenge it (as it exists in the real world).