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Review: Atheist Delusions

Atheist delusionsDavid Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies has a most unfortunate title, and one not of the author’s making (the subtitle is Hart’s original title). Anyone expecting Hart to go toe-to-toe with Dawkins or Hitchens will be disappointed because (although he touches briefly upon them) they are, to put it bluntly, beneath him. He easily and casually dismisses them in the first few chapters in order to set up his main task: understanding the revolution Hart claims Christianity brought to the West.

Hart divided his book into four parts, the first of which sets up the book by using the “new atheists” (like Dawkins and Hitchens) as a foil. The new atheists portray Christian history as one of darkness and superstition, one that Westerners have only recently escaped thanks to science and the Enlightenment. This portrayal Hart calls the “modern myth” or the “myth of secularism.” Far from finding support in history, Hart argues that history cries against it (despite its acceptability in popular culture). Put another way, Hart sees the new atheists' attack a mere strawman: they mischaracterize Christianity and then bash this mischaracterization (Hart laments a culture so coarse as to be unable to produce worthy critics).

Worse still, the new atheists rely on Christian ethical values in their own morality. Hart finds laughable the idea that ethical values appear out of sheer reason or mere thinking—instead, they are products of culture. He says that Christianity gave culture the ideas that charity is the greatest virtue and that all people are created equal, and then created institutions (such as hospitals and orphanages) to put these values into action. Pagan Roman culture saw the worth of a person as determined by their place in a virtual cosmic food chain (hence, a slave’s word in court could never be trusted and counted for next to nothing). Against this view of human worth, Christianity represents revolution, and for Hart, the only movement in the West rightly called a “revolution.”

In contrast to Christian values, Hart argues that secularism has one central value: freedom. Not freedom in the classical sense, but a nihilistic freedom that is freedom for freedom’s sake. In classical philosophy, freedom meant the capacity to actualize one’s essence (that is, one’s true being—what one really is), whereas freedom in modern times means the capacity to act however one wills. The difference is striking. In the former, certain choices could hurt one’s freedom. For example, choosing to indulge in alcohol leads to addictions and behaviors that are more animal than human (not to mention irrational and transitory). However, in secular version of freedom, choosing to be an alcoholic is seen as a part of human freedom (perhaps even a right). Sure it may be unhealthy for the liver, but “it’s my liver and so it’s up to me to decide.” And if the alcoholic lives alone and doesn’t harm anyone, then it belongs to his or her freedom. Such a freedom without any goal or basis other than sheer choice is nihilistic.

Because of this nihilistic freedom, Hart argues, the consequences of the modern, sovereign nation-state are rather unsurprising: genocides, eugenics, chattel slavery, targeting of civilians in war, and so forth. For Hart, the 20th century showed that the secular state knows no limits to murder and destruction. Again, Hart explains this because nations are “free” to choose without any rhyme or reason.

Having laid out his argument, Hart proceeds in Part II to dispel some of the most popular myths about Christian (and more generally Western) history. Since the book contains too much detail and involves too many subjects to cover here, one topic will instead have to suffice to get an idea of Hart’s defensive argument: the myth of an historical conflict between Christianity and science. The notions that the Catholics tortured Galileo and that Christianity somehow halted the inevitable progress of Greek “science” are thoroughly refuted. In brief, Galileo not only did not have good arguments, betrayed his good friend the Pope, and had no patience for the rigorous calculations and observations that one would expect of an astronomer, but even after all of that he at best suffered a slap on the wrist for publishing propaganda instead of what he was supposed to (a scientific argument). Regarding Christianity’s halt of scientific progress, Hart points out that if modern science is the criterion for “science,” then the quicker Greek science can go the better. Aristotle is wrong about just about everything. To work theories around his cosmology is the source of scientific stagnation rather than progress. In fact, one of the most brilliant Christian theologians, John Philoponus, argues against Aristotle’s fifth element (the element the celestial realm was supposedly made of), immutability of the stars, and theory of motion—and each of these objects accords with a more modern scientific understanding of these topics. Unfortunately, this is all too brief a summary, for Hart covers other issues in the history of Christianity and science, as well as book burnings, religious wars, religious intolerance, and a variety of other popular misconceptions.

In the third part, Hart discusses the positive content of Christianity, much of which has already been anticipated. Hart characterizes the pagan culture in which Christianity emerged as a “glorious sadness.” People saw fate as ultimate and ultimately oppressive. Fate determined a person’s place in the universe and this could never change. Hence, masters and slaves worshipped at difference cults (each appropriate to their being) and had different expectations (if any) of the afterlife. Furthermore, Hart continues, pagan cults had no moral obligations. The only obligation belonged to the cult’s rituals, which in the end amounted to loyalty to the emperor, who occupied a key place in the cosmic hierarchy. A master giving charity to a slave would have been considered in violation of the natural cosmic order, and at best would have been absurd and against good taste (and, as mentioned already, the Roman legal system too reflected this inequality).

By contrast, Christianity, according to Hart, introduced the unnatural, absurd, and almost self-evidently false idea that all people are equal. Whereas pagans would leave unwanted children out in the streets or forest (for Fate to decide their fate), Christians insisted on the value of all life, no matter how young. Or how ugly, for that matter. Invalids, the mentally ill, the infirmed, and the diseased all, according to Christian charity, deserved as much respect and had as much worth as the strong, intelligent, and powerful. So successful was this revolution and reversal of values that most modern people take the Christian view of the human person for granted (again, this review almost does an injustice to Hart’s work by omitting so many of the historical details).

In the fourth and final part of the book, Hart returns to the modern era and wonders how realistic it is to think that Christian values can be sustained in a post-Christian world. In a post-Christian world, he argues, nihilism may be the only option, because Christianity was able to take any intellectual culture and any concept into itself, and so when it leaves, it takes everything with it – leaving nothing. Besides of a loss of cultural creativity resulting from such nihilism, Hart primarily expresses concern about morality and magic. In a post-Christian world, the idea that every person is equal loses the intellectual and cultural environment that sustains it, and hence it can readily fade or die. The eugenics programs of the 20th century provide an obvious example of that, but less obvious may be bioethicists who support the breeding of a slave caste, or aborting those with Down syndrome. Hart notes that in a world of nihilistic freedom, collective choice can trump individual choice, leading to massacres of those the collective deems unworthy (see the various genocides—not just the Holocaust—of the 20th century).

Even more intriguing, Hart sees with the end of Christianity a return to magical thinking (in an earlier chapter he made clear how historically the Church has combated magic and superstition because of its belief in an ordered world created by a rational God—as is too often the case, popular imagination believes almost the exact opposite of history). By “magic” Hart does not mean a return to astrology or spellcraft, but of the mistake of equating power with possibility. In other words, the belief that the power to do something means one knows (1) what one is doing, (2) whether one should do it, and (3) whether other truths should take priority over this power. Hart, of course, refers here to science. Science gives humanity unprecedented power over nature and over other human beings—but to mistake this power for full knowledge is to assert dogmatically that the mastery of nature’s hidden causes is the whole of truth. As Hart explains:

…knowing how genes work is [not] the same thing as being authorized to say what a person is or should be. This is one of the many reasons that I suspect that our contemporary “age of reason” is in many ways an age of almost perfect unreason, one always precariously posed upon the edge of—and occasionally slipping over into—the purest barbarism. I suspect that, to a far greater degree than we typically might imagine, we have forsaken reason for magic: whether the magic of occult fantasy or the magic of an amoral idolatry of our own power over material reality (236).

Hart challenges the enchanting narrative we like to tell ourselves as modern people. For better or for worse, by making the changes brought by the Christian revolution explicit, Atheist Delusions asks each person to consider a personal intellectual revolution in their thinking. 

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-5 #3 Physeter 2014-02-21 16:29
Interesting. I came to this website thinking I would find progressive opinions on topics of religion and faith. Instead I find a "review" which is actually just a fawning endorsement of a book which seems to be just a giant screed of "Religion is awesome, science sucks." Thanks guys. This was real helpful.
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+2 #2 Howard Pepper 2014-01-28 15:57
Previous comment con't (was longer than accepted by the system):

It also seems that Hart may be leaving out the progress that the "secularization" of the West/world has also brought (to be consistent, apparently influenced, with other factors); and the typical messiness of transitions that ultimately are beneficial, such as perhaps the "invention" of nation states and now the United Nations (and I'm not for a "one world gov't!).
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+2 #1 Howard Pepper 2014-01-28 15:55
Thanks for the good review. It sounds like a book worth reading, and of some importance. Without reading it, it may not be fair to judge, but the review gives ME the impression (maybe not intended by the reviewer) that the book is perhaps a sophisticated form of Christian apologetics. If Hart is setting up a sort of binary comparison of Christian influences vs. pagan (or secular) ones, then I'd object that he's oversimplifying things that have multiple, very complex "causes"... factors that produce given results. It's extremely hard to tie historical events such as holocausts to just the effects of either a given religious or ethical system, a culture, a political structure, etc.... IF that is what his argument amounts to.
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