Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheism”

Posted on December 18, 2011


The death of Hitchens stirred a handful of pro and con commentaries, which suits well the style of his own interventions in political and cultural matters. Two of his traits seem to gather coincidence: the quality of his English writing (which I’m not able to judge) and the integrity  of his adherence to his atheism in the face of the coming end.

To me his parable, from the extreme left to the support of the genocidal intervention in Iraq, posed a conundrum. The same I found in the “New Atheism” in general and the militant Darwinism in particular. Some time ago I received an aggressive reaction to a post with mischievous remarks on the Third Culture and the Edge cultural enterprise. Such reactions forced me to try to understand a phenomenon absent of the cultural debate in my country (Argentina) where the Theory of Evolution has no religious defiance in the public educational system. It should be something linked to the political role of the North Atlantic countries and the Global Capitalism model.

After a while I found the answer in a series of lectures given in Chile celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin. The most transparent expression came from the “evolutionary psychologist” Leda Cosmides who, after describing the human behavior in modern capitalism (and pretending it reflects our hominid origins), concluded with an advice to the audience: follow after Adam Smith’s steps instead of Marx. Darwin, I realized, was instrumental.

Alongside the century after “The Origin of Species”, the Evolutionary Theory was embraced by the socialist movement as a scientific foundation for its commitment with progressive change in human society. Religion remained the cover for the reactionary demagoguery of the hypocrites. With the imperialistic colonial expansion a change occurred: increased benefits could be dripped onto the working class of the North while pretending to comply with a civilizing mission towards the “backward peoples”. A privileged elite in the colonies benefited from the compulsory modernization at the expenses of their exploited peoples.

In time, intellectual groups in those countries developed transactional ideologies aimed to re-appropiate the technological advantages with nationalistic aims. Two ways where open to oppose the servitude imposed by the ruling capitalistic elites: a socialism of some sort or a religious control over modernization. Nowhere those options  clashed more clearly than in the Middle East. During the 50’s and 60’s the secular nationalism of the sort of Mossadegh and Nasser was battled and defeated by the Western intervention; in some cases, religious radicalism was encouraged against it (e.g. Israel founded “the brotherhood” clerics, which form Hamas now). The offspring of the defeat of the secular nationalism was the rise to power by Khomeini, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, etc. In turn, the new “menace” gave the excuse for a “Clash of Civilizations” ideology of entrenchment in the West.

People like Hitchens and the “New Atheists” became honestly horrified by the perspective of being engulfed by the wave of religious fanaticism arousing in the West, struggling to rescue the Enlightenment promise of the early days of Capitalism, while taking sides in practice with the imperialistic offensive. That’s the rationale after Hitchen’s opposition to the first Gulf War against Saddam (when he seemed to be the dam against the Ayatollah’s expansion) and his approve, later, of the Neocon’s Grand Plan of a complete redrawing of the M.E. with the excuse of reinforcing Democracy. He personified the impossible intellectual’s dream of battle “islamofascism” while keeping their own society safe from religious fanaticism.

The failure of the “New Atheists” is that of those who want to eat cake while keeping it whole. That is: to enjoy the privileges of Global Capitalism without losing their own freedom of thinking in the process.