Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Nature of Human Nature

Recently, I have been reading Chris Hedges book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges has already distinguished himself by writing several brilliant books. He is especially adept at taking on fundamentalism (see esp. American Fascists). Hedges has produced an insightful look at the craziness and scariness of Christian fundamentalism. Now he sets his sights on atheist fundamentalism. This short series will take a chapter by chapter look and offer some commentary on I Don't Believe in Atheism.

Chapter 5: "The Myth of Moral Progress"

Hedges prefaces this chapter with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr. Embedded within that quote, one finds the words, "The idea of progress is only possible upon the ground of a Christian Culture." Of course, non-absolutist that I am, I'd have to argue with Reinhold on that one. But, Hedges isn't quoting it to assert the absolute superiority of the Christian religion. He, too, rejects absolutism. What is a most positive aspect about the Judeo/Christian epistemology is that it takes "human fallen-ness" (human "flawen-ness") so seriously.

The Enlightenment changed everything about western culture-- even that of those who claim to be Enlightenment rejectors. At the heart of the Enlightenment was a positivism that was (almost?) cocky. The certainty flowed out of Enlightenment faith that science would solve our problems and make our twisted world turn round right. In short, it was a utopianism that was, in some manner, replacing the millenarian views of religion. Yet, at the end of the Enlightenment road that Europe traveled was WWI which killed eight and half million soldiers, ten million civilians, and wounded millions upon millions more.

As the belief in the perfectibility of humanity marched on, WWII killed some sixty millions-- well over half civilians. Behind it all stood a maniac with plans of making a thousand year empire, populated by perfected, master-race people. Utopia. Since that time, at least fifty million more have been slaughtered by various other wars and ethnic cleansings.

In War a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges discussed at length how killing and, perhaps, ultimately killing ourselves-- everything even-- is our collective human neurosis. Freud, certainly no religionist, made a case for a deep struggle of the life force, Eros, forever engaged in battle with a death instinct, Thanatos, in the innermost being of all people. Freud sounded a warning that something like WWII was surely in store for a world that saw itself as the current pinnacle of the path to perfectibility as opposed to product, and part (and an active part at that) of the flawed nature of humanity's past that will ever live on.

Hedges points out that the basis of all totalitarian regimes is the idea of the perfected society. This is true in the case of the fascists and the communists. Hedges points out that it was also true of the pacifist movement following WWI. It was based on a utopian belief that humanity could be educated to reject war. He feels that steps certainly could have been taken to stop Nazi Germany, but pacifiers who believed in the innate goodness of humanity often stood in the way.

Of course, one might argue that point a bit. As St. Paul asks, "Shall we do evil that good may come?" As many of the old Mennonite peace folks I deeply respect have said, "Better be wronged than do wrong." Yet, as a national policy, pacifism would hardly stand as a workable plan of deterrence. The issue is this: What do I do when my personal beliefs conflict with my national obligations? I guess, for me, taking the life of another is a solution I would have great trouble accepting. Bonhoeffer struggled with this and finally decided there were times that "doing evil that good may come" was acceptable. Who are we to judge? Have we faced the evil he faced?

Still, Hedges' point is well taken. Both the absolutist Christian and the fundamentalist atheist deny the notion that humans are not inherently perfectible. Many religious pacifists also deny the notion of, let us say, "original sin" and keep hoping for a perfection of the human race they are never going to achieve. The conflict is played out, says Hedges, not between pacifism and militarism but, rather, between accepting the notion of a human utopia or admitting humans will always be limited and flawed.

The perfectionists will tend toward totalitarianism. Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists," believes the salvation of the world lies in a "benign dictatorship" that must be imposed from without via economic sanctions and military options. Hitchens agrees with the idea of endless military occupation to bring about utopia.

All of this sounds as nuts as the the ideas of our former fundamentalist president, "W." He authorized (commanded?) destruction in Iraq that rivals anything that Saddam imposed. In so doing, his stated intent was to bring about US style democracies in Iraq and the rest of the middle east. In true utopian fashion, the ends were believed to justify the means-- even if it means that Americans would lose their political heritage of freedom and rule of law-- their national soul.

Hedges believes that it is impossible to have an ethical/moral stance without the acceptance of human limitations. I would amplify that statement to say, "...human limitations and fallibility, including our own." In fact, in our analysis of the situation, maybe the place to start is within.

1 comment:

  1. James,

    There seems to be a desire in many people to assume that basically everyone has good intentions, and if we can all just sit down together and talk as reasonable adults, we can come to mutually acceptable solutions to our differences. This was Chamberlain's approach to Adolf Hitler. Of course, Hitler told Chamberlain what he wanted to hear, even as preparations for the invasion of Poland were moving forward.

    Some historians believe that a limited use of force at the right moment could have prevented the entire WWII. But the extreme desire to avoid war by the English and Americans (except Churchill and FDR) created the milieu to accept the idea that Hitler could be reasoned into compliance. Though he had clearly stated his intentions in Mein Kampf, the desire to believe he was basically a good guy overrode all the evidence to the contrary.

    The biblical truth that there is evil in the world, and there are individuals and groups whose only goal and purpose is to harm and dominate others, is often rejected. Yet history has proved the validity of this truth.

    Perhaps we want to stay in denial because to face this truth forces us to look at the evil in our own hearts and lives. This is difficult and very uncomfortable. When we face evil in ourselves, then we are confronted with the need for a savior, someone outside of ourselves who can effectively deal with that evil. Not many want to come to that point, so it is easier to avoid the whole thing by denying evil in people.