Review Article: “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart (Pt.2)

Atheist Delusions is divided into four parts.  The first two chapters comprise part one, which deals with the present day.  Part two comprises chapters 3 through 9 and examines the past, especially the world of the early church.  Part three continues looking into history but with special emphasis on the outworking and impact of Christian teachings.  Finally, part four appraises the alternative value-system of the New Atheists and its likely aftermath in our culture.

In the first half of this review I stated that the second chapter really launches us into the main argument of the book.  Although it precedes the two central parts of the volume, this chapter, entitled “The Age of Freedom” is where Hart gives his diagnosis of modern man’s dilemma.  Unsurprisingly the problem is as old as human history.

To understand what it is that drives certain of us not only to unbelief but to a passionate and often articulate hatred of belief in God, and to an evangelical dedication to its eradication, one must understand what it is they – and perhaps, in a larger sense, all of us – believe in, and why it demands of us the overthrow of the faith it seeks to displace. (20)

Put simply, we believe in ourselves.  Personal autonomy; what the author calls “Modernity’s highest ideal” and “our primal ideology,” stands behind the propaganda of atheism new and old.

Armed with stories and interpretations which support the tale of morality we have told ourselves, we still cannot get rid of the “fragments of Christian moral theology” which give credence even to our preferred self-understanding (32).  With this understanding, Hart tackles such yarns as the “age of reason” releasing men from the blinkers imposed on it by “the age of faith,” given potency, not by the findings of good historians, but too often by the “myths” and “simplifications” promoted by “bad popular historians” (33-35).  Examples given by Hart are Jonathan Kirsch’s account of the destruction of the  great Serapeum of Alexandria or the myriad retellings of the murder of Hypatia, about whom “more twaddle tends to be written…than about any other figure from early or late antiquity.” (46).

One might think that the numerous examples of odium perpetrated by those calling themselves Christians would prevent one from giving a robust apologetic defense, of say, the Crusades, or the Inquisition.  But the writer, who never tries to deflect well deserved censure, does us the favor of at least separating the truth from the rant in the middle chapters.

The chapter on “The Death and Rebirth of Science” addresses such modern myths as the Greek foundations of science, the enlightened Islamic medievalist, the Galileo affair and its corollary, the church’s resistance to the Copernican Revolution.  It is a brilliantly written and informative chapter.  We are reminded that “the birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science.” (68).

Atheist Delusions includes many memorable challenges to contemporary folklore.  How refreshing it is to hear a Christian author who is not taken in by the secular separation of faith and reason!  He writes, “One can believe that faith is mere credulous assent to unfounded premises, while reason consists in a pure obedience to empirical fact, only if one is largely ignorant of both.” (101). The sanitized vision of Roman society is made to look more lifelike and believable under Hart’s correctives.  Even the noble failure of Julian (the Apostate) is shown to have been inevitable given the philosophical and ethical resources available to him (Chapter 14).

Such a book could only receive a recommendation from this appreciative reader.  Still, in more than one place I put question marks over some of Hart’s assertions.  Most of these came towards the back of the book, when I’d already felt like I’d got my money’s worth.  A couple of examples will suffice:  When Hart, possessed of every ounce of  self-assurance, asserts that John’s Gospel “is a composite text…probably incorporating earlier Gnostic or semi-Gnostic texts within itself” (137), one has to wonder who he’s been reading.  He certainly needs to avail himself of one or two of the best evangelical treatments (e.g. Carson, Morris, or Ridderbos) and revise his opinion.  Likewise his annihilationism (155) is not the product of biblical exegesis.  Notwithstanding these not insubstantial blips on the radar, Atheist Delusions leaves us with the satisfaction that much has been learned and many precious beliefs has been fortified against the tirades of New Atheists and society in general.

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2 comments

  1. Yes, I suppose the title does provoke doesn’t it? Another good book, entertainingly written, if not overtly polemical is Jonathan Hill’s “What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us?” (IVP)

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