A Review of David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, xiv + 253 pages, 2009.
To recommend a book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian I would have to be thoroughly impressed by its content and its long-term worth. Since both of these personal criteria are well met by the title under review I am happy to declare my full endorsement of its main thesis.
The author is one of the best polemicists in the Christian tradition writing today. He is, at turns, witty, ironic, level-headed, theological, and disdainful of false pretensions. He deals with the big picture and asks what it looks like from believing and unbelieving perspectives. He does not like shoddy argumentation, and he does not like misrepresentation.
David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is a book that seeks to address the arrogant dismissals of the positive influence of Christianity upon the world. Because it aims to correct the whinging about the evils of Christian belief of modern atheistic tractarians the book concerns itself with history. Was the Roman world and its pagan forerunners really superior to the reshaped world of the Church? Would it have arrived in the present in a better condition had Christian-theism and ethics been lost in the rubble of the ancient world? Is Christianity bad at its core or are its sometime professors just adept at not practicing what they preach?
These are the sorts of questions with which this book deals, and one wonders at one level why it should need to be written. Shouldn’t a little determined historical research and a few moments reflection deliver the proper verdict in favor of the accused?
Sadly, that is not the world we live in. We live in a world suffering from historical amnesia. We live in an age where “intellectually fulfilled atheists” can produce diatribes against a system of thought (Biblical Christianity) of which they are almost totally ignorant, all the while recommending a materialistic outlook on life which, if it were true, would extend that ignorance into very part of our deterministically conditioned existence. We live in times where Ivy League scholars can describe the past in terms, not in which things actually occurred, but in the way they wish they had occurred. This is the intellectual arena into which Hart has tossed his hat, and which he is trying to correct.
Before continuing something needs to be said about the books’ title. It is not so much about atheist belief, but, as Hart puts it in his introduction, “an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.” (ix). Perhaps the publisher thought an allusion to Richard Dawkins’ work was justified? Be that as it may, the subtitle, The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies is much nearer the mark. As the author says on the next page:
I feel no need to evade or excuse the innumerable failures of many Christians through the ages to live lives of of charity and peace. Where I come to the defense of historical Christianity, it is only in order to raise objections to certain popular calumnies of the church, or to demur from what I take to be disingenuous or inane arraignments of Christian belief or history, or to call attention to achievements and virtues that writers of a devoutly anti-Christian bent tend to ignore, dissemble, or dismiss.” (x).
With that said let’s take a look at the book’s content.
At the beginning of chapter one Hart does take momentary aim at, among others, Richard Dawkins (“who – despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning – never fails to entrance his readers with his rhetorical recklessness.”); and Sam Harris, whose The End of Faith never stoops to define “faith” and which Hart characterizes as an “extravagantly callow attack on all religious belief.” Granted such salvos soothe the sanctified ear, they also betray the frustration of the author who complains: “It probably says more… about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief.” (220). And certainly, when Christopher Hitchens presents the genius of the ancient Greeks to conceive of and erect the Parthenon as an argument against belief in God (or the gods) one might expect him to “take five” and ask himself what they put in it!
In contrast to the New Atheists Hart calls our attention to Friedrich Nietzsche (6), who at least “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was.” There follows a few pages in which the shallow arguments of Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris are reviewed, and acknowledgment is then made that “religion kills.” But this is not really saying much. For, as we are reminded, “Some kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them.” (12). The ethics of any system of belief or unbelief may or may not support the violent behavior of its adherents. But that surely is the real question. When Christianity commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute or despitefully use us, it thereby disassociates itself from those “christians” who have taken up the sword and shed blood “for the cause of Christ” (for example, the Crusades). God and his Christ are blasphemed by such misrepresentation, but Divine ethics cannot thereby be impugned.
This is not the case with humanistic ethical theories. As Hart crushingly puts it,
“… every ethical theory developed apart from some account of transcendent truth…is a fragile fiction, credible only to those sufficiently obstinate in their willing suspension of disbelief. If one does not wish to be convinced, however, a simple “I disagree” or “I refuse” is enough to exhaust the persuasive resources of any purely worldly ethics.” (15).
One may wish to continue the argument, but they should make sure they are conversant with “the actual particularities of Christian history and belief.” (16). This is what launches Hart into the main part of his book.