Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart's book examines the Christian revolution that changed Western Culture

I have a cartoon scene in my head. Christopher Hitchens sits on a stool in the corner of a boxing ring; sweat dripping from his face and body. He is smoking and holds a glass of scotch in his hand. A trainer attends to a cut above his left eye, while another speaks in urgent tones trying to get a message through to his clearly dazed fighter, who is bruised and battered, barely able to maintain his seated position. Over Hitchens’ shoulder can be seen a frantic looking Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins urgently mouthing words of instruction, which, drowned out by the gathered throng, fall limply to the floor. In the centre of the ring, unruffled, serene, yet impatient for the satisfaction of a final, crushing blow so that he can move on to other more important tasks, stands David Bentley Hart.  

It’s a petulant thought, and one that does no justice to the elegance, profundity, or indeed the gravity of the subject matter of Hart’s latest book Atheist Delusions – the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. It isn’t very respectful to Hart’s opponents either, although that part of the image may well match Hart’s posture towards them.

The provocative title doesn’t match the seriousness with which this book should be regarded, despite the obvious appeal for the publisher. If only thought of as adding to the heat of debates between ‘enlightened secularists’ and believers, much would be missed in this brilliantly articulate treatment of the impact of Christianity—good and bad—on Western culture.

The recent spate of atheist attacks on religion of all forms, most notably from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—the four horsemen of the apocalypse as they like to call themselves— are the function of a pervasive post-Christian culture. Hart aims some impressive guns at these prophets of modernist confidence, but his major contribution and focus is on the utterly revolutionary impact of Christianity on the West—on our culture, our consciousness, our view of ourselves and others, our spiritual and moral imaginations. This is the most positive element of the book that should be read by sceptics and believers of all flavours.

Hart warns that ‘to live entirely in the present, without any of the wisdom that a broad perspective on the past provides, is to live a life of idiocy and vapid distraction and ingratitude.’ (XIV). Much of what we see here is a corrective of misinformed or recklessly erroneous history that David Hart feels characterises popular ‘wisdom’ about what Christianity has brought to the world.

He brings to the task an encyclopaedic knowledge that is wide and deep.  He speaks with authority and sophisticated understanding on an astonishing range of material from first century Roman households to the intrigues of the 16th Century French Court; from Classical and Medieval Science to the moral turpitude of failed 20th Century modernist ideologies. His writing is beautiful—scorching in argument, withering in criticism, hilariously funny in parts and simply a delight to savour. Such a substantial skill is held aloft on a sturdy rock of towering intellect, historical detail, insight, and wisdom. One gets the feeling that the world would be a lonely place for someone as clever as Hart, yet his writing is infused with a deep and resounding humanity. This is a book to keep and re-read.

Of all the movements and transitions across Western history Christianity is the one true revolution, argues Hart

Against a background of popular sceptics baying for the demise of religion and Christian faith in particular, Hart sets himself the task of establishing what it meant for Western culture to adopt Christianity in the first place. He does this in order to consider what it would then mean to reject it. He wants to call attention to the ‘peculiar and radical nature’ of the new faith as it began to impact the pagan Roman world in which it was born. Of all the movements and transitions across Western history Christianity is the one true revolution, argues Hart. It delivered a completely new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time and of the moral good (XIV). This essentially involved ‘liberation from fatalism, cosmic despair’ and occult terrors; as well as imparting unprecedented dignity on the human person, a ‘subverting of the cruellest elements of pagan life, and focus on active charity above all other virtues.’ (X)

It is clear that the author has little time for the most recent evangelists of non-belief and their arguments. He admits that he finds some forms of atheism more admirable than some forms of Christianity. But:

  “… atheism that consists entirely of vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.” (4)   

At least the sceptics of past eras—Hume, Voltaire, Diderot from the Enlightenment, and Friedrich Nietzsche of the 19th Century—knew what they were attacking, says Hart. He makes the pertinent point that Nietzsche ‘never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some dilute form, such as liberal conscience or innate human sympathy.’ (7) This is a key part of the argument of the book: that post-Christian secularism is blindly and childishly optimistic about the human condition and where we might be headed once ‘primitive faith’ has been left behind.

And it’s an appeal to history through which Hart makes his case. This necessarily involves a challenge to the accepted ‘fashionable’ wisdom regarding Christianity’s impact. It is here that this writer is at his most devastating best. He laments the way in which modernity defined itself as an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith’. Behind this definition, writes Hart, lies a simple and enchanting tale:

  Once upon a time … Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity laboured in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of “Greek science” were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness.   

The story generally continues that the dawn of a new age gave birth to the Enlightenment, where church, superstition and intolerance were cast off in favour of reason, science and progress. This, continues the author, is a tale that is ‘easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.’  [33-34]

Hart laments that the telling of this fantasy inevitably sets many heads ‘sagely nodding in recognition of what seems an undeniable truth.’ (5) Much of this book is his attempt to show in what way and by how much that story is false.

The author is not especially interested in defending religion per se nor is he unwilling to acknowledge the deep failures of many Christians to live up to their Christian calling throughout the ages

In chapter after chapter we see a demolition of what Hart claims are misconceptions and uninformed critiques: ‘Christianity attacked reason and tried to destroy the cultural achievements of the classical world’—nonsense. Islamic culture was the rescuer of classical learning lost the darkness of the West’—a crude burlesque of medieval history. ‘The golden age of Hellenistic Science was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of the church at war with reason’—a wildly romantic fable. ‘Christendom was the enemy of science and a model of intolerance and persecution’—not so fast.

The author is not especially interested in defending religion per se nor is he unwilling to acknowledge the deep failures of many Christians to live up to their Christian calling throughout the ages. There are plenty claiming to be believers with blood on their hands, he admits. But to the charge that religion is the cause of violence he offers this:

  Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing?  Undeniably it often does.  It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognising this.  For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.  [p13]  

It is an accepted fashion today to suggest that historically Christianity has been a force for evil rather than good. While Hart is no simplistic or eager apologist, he has little time for the thrust of such arguments. To isolate the very real failures and blemishes of Christian history and paint these as typical of the general trajectory of the faith, he finds incredible. He also argues convincingly that critics tend to exaggerate some of the less palatable aspects of Christian history or erroneously attribute to the faith things that are more accurately seen as reflections of the age in question, the Thirty Years War of the 17th Century being one such example.

Would we be better off without the deep marks of Christianity in our culture? The author asks us to wonder at the incalculable worth of, ‘ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses, and hostels … the golden rule, “Love thine enemies,” “Judge not lest you be judged,” prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need.’ Would the world truly be a better place without the music of Palestrina and Bach, or the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement and the wonder of Chartres Cathedral?! Were it not for faith, most of these things would not have existed at all.

It is difficult for modern readers to appreciate the scandal many pagans felt at the astonishing way that early Christians would grant full humanity to people of any class and of either sex

Among the many golden moments this book has to offer, it is the depiction of what the Christian revolution meant for Western understanding of what it is to be human, that stands out the most. Here lies a truly momentous change, brought to light in stunning lucidity, by David Hart. His success lies in painting an image of the way our culture has continued to benefit from the legacy of this cultural shift, even when the reason for it has long since faded from memory. He talks about a moral vision of the human person brought about by the story of Christianity and seen most clearly in the attitude of early Christians’ towards orphans, widows, prisoners and the sick. It is here that we locate the West’s robust, but perhaps fading, understanding of the unique dignity of the human person ‘One finds nothing in pagan society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and bound alike,’ (163) says Hart. It is an idea that has ‘haunted us’ ever since.
It is difficult for modern readers to appreciate the scandal many pagans felt at the astonishing way that early Christians would grant full humanity to people of any class and of either sex (171). Bequeathing a dignity and value on each person made in the image of God, that could not have even been imagined previously, Hart believes is the key aspect in us coming to view the handicapped, the destitute, the mentally ill, the wretched or derelict, refugees, and criminals as people of value rather than an aberration to be discarded or killed. This is due entirely to this Christian understanding of the person, he says, and warns that it remains ‘a fragile vision’ (214).

In the latter sections of the book readers are asked to consider where secular reason has taken us and where it might eventually lead. Will being free of constraints of religion truly deliver a more humane and just society? Considering all those who have already been ‘swallowed up in the flames of modern “progress”’ optimism may be misplaced. (222), suggests our author.

Atheist Delusions is an extended argument that asks that a serious topic to be treated with appropriate seriousness

Atheist Delusions is an extended argument that asks that a serious topic to be treated with appropriate seriousness—with sound scholarship, with careful and sober judgement, with intellectual integrity. This, David Hart feels has been lacking in some of what is trotted out and gobbled up by a public eager to be free of religious constraint and nagging conscience.

It is this question of freedom that the author convincingly argues is at the heart of modernity’s rejection of ultimate or eternal truth. Today we hear freedom as the catchcry of ultimate human attainment – unfettered and ill-defined autonomy.

And who of us can argue with the beauty of freedom? It’s a powerful motif that the author says these days carries an almost ‘mystical supremacy’. And yet, he also reminds us that the classical understanding of freedom, both pagan and Christian, centred not on banal and trivial individual choice, but on gaining what was understood to be our true nature. Freedom understood in this way meant ridding ourselves of the things that suppressed who we most essentially are, including overcoming our own foolish choices—the things that restrain and enslave us. In this sense we become free when we choose well, says Hart. Like a sculptured figure slowly being revealed as rock is chipped away, and the wonder of the figure is revealed, true freedom involves a movement towards that which we were intended. (24)

It is this freedom that David Bentley Hart sees most clearly in the Christian revolution, as it burst upon the pagan world, leaving a lasting image and framework for authentic human flourishing. The echoes and shadows of that revolution remain albeit in faded and increasingly marginalised form. ‘You don’t know what you’ve go till it’s gone,’ sang Joni Mitchell and if Bentley Hart is right, were the West to finally and thoroughly reject the legacy of that Christian Revolution, the loss would be far greater than contemporary critics appear to know or understand.

Simon Smart is the Head of Research and Communications at the Centre for Public Christianity, This article first appeared in edited form on ABC Unleashed.