The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science. It is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists. It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can perfect itself and master its destiny.
We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species toward a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion, if you are secular, is blamed for genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. Secular humanism, if you are born again, is branded as a tool of Satan.
The folly of humankind, however, is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors. It has not exempted itself from institutional religion or the cult of science and reason. The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists. It comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species.
Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is nothing in science or human history or human nature to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear. We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the endemic flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history. This belief in inevitable moral progress, whether it comes in secular or religious form, is magical thinking. The secular version of this myth peddles fables no less fantastic, and no less delusional, than those preached from many church pulpits.
The word utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 from the Greek words for no and place. To be a utopian, to live for the creation of a fantastic and unreal world, was to live in no place, to remove oneself from reality. It is only by building an ethic based on reality, one that takes into account the dangers and limits of human nature and human power, that we can begin to adjust our behavior to cope with social and political problems. All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in moral squalor, criminality and fanaticism.
The current "war on terror" by the United States is a utopian vision. It is being fought so that evil can be violently uprooted. Its proponents promise a world that will become "reasonable," a "civil" world ruled by the "rational" forces of global capitalism. Those who support the "war on terror" speak as if victory in any tangible sense is possible. This noble vision of a world in harmony is used to turn us into criminals, beasts who carry out needless murder and torture in Iraq and our offshore penal colonies in the name of human progress.
The desire for emancipation, universal happiness and prosperity has a seductive pull on the human imagination. It preoccupied the early church, which was infused with exclusivist, utopian sects. We are comforted by the thought that we progress morally as a species. We want things to get better. We want to believe we are moving forward. This hope is more reassuring than reality. But all the signs in our present world point to a coming anarchy, a massive dislocation of populations that will result from ecological devastation and climate change, multiple pollutions, the weight of overpopulation and wars fought over dwindling natural resources. Science, which should be used to address these looming disasters, has largely become a tool of corporations that seek not to protect us but make a profit and stimulate the economy. New technologies that are potentially threatening, such as genetically modified organisms and nanotechnologies, are being unleashed with no understanding of the impact on the biosphere. The global population is expected to jump from about 2 billion in 1930 to 8 or 9 billion in the mid-21st century, and this means that if growth is left unchecked we will no longer be able to sustain ourselves, especially as nations such as China seek the consumption levels of the industrialized nations in Europe and North America. Nearly two-thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are already in precipitous decline worldwide. The old wars of conquest, expansion and exploitation will be replaced by wars fought for the basic necessities of air, food, sustainable living conditions and water. And as we race toward this catastrophe scientists continue to make discoveries, set these discoveries upon us and walk away from the impact.
The belief that science and reason will save us makes it possible to ignore or minimize these looming catastrophes. We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. It is dispiriting to live in a world where things are not moving forward and will most probably get worse. We prefer to believe that we are the culmination of a process, the end result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures trapped in the irrevocable limitations and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress gives us comfort in times of turmoil. It allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves above others. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is morally irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and place our hopes in an absurdist faith.
The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention. Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. But the belief in the possibility of collective moral progress, in our ability to advance as a species spiritually and ethically, is seductive. It is what has doomed populations in the past that have chased after impossible dreams, and it threatens to doom us again. It is, at its core, the enticement that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.
We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God. We have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the human species makes moral advances along with the material advances in science and technology. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris to Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens have also forgotten they are human. Both they and religious fundamentalists peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.
The belief that human nature can be improved and perfected, that we are moving throughout history toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology. It permits wild, eschatological visions to be built under religious or secular banners. It is this belief that is dangerous. And it colors the thought of the new crop of atheist writers. They will tell us what is right and wrong, not in the eyes of God, but according to the purity of the rational mind. They too seek to destroy those who do not conform to their vision. They too wrap their intolerance in Enlightenment virtues.
"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them," Sam Harris writes. "This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."
Any form of knowledge that claims to be absolute ceases to be knowledge. It is a form of faith. Harris and the other atheist authors mistake a tiny subset of criminals and terrorists for 1 billion Muslims. They justify the unjustifiable in the name of civilization. The passions of these atheists, hidden under the jargon of reason and science, are as bankrupt as the passions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists who sanctify mass slaughter in the name of their utopia. Religious fundamentalists pervert and distort religion to serve their own fears and self-aggrandizement. Atheists do the same with science and reason. These two groups peddle the myth that we can conquer human nature, overcome our imperfections and build the perfect society.
These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism, are an unquestioned good. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.
We must accept the severe limitations of being human. We must face reality, a reality which in the coming decades is going to be bleak and difficult. Those who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals real. They believe that the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. They ask us to inflict suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth. The atheists, in the end, offer us a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is one we have seen before. It is one we must fight.
This essay is adapted from the book I Don't Believe in Atheists, which was inspired in part by Hedges' debate with Sam Harris.