Book Review: Atheist Delusions - The Christian Revolution & Its Fashionable Enemies

September 01, 2009

Book Review: Atheist Delusions - The Christian Revolution & Its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart is a North American Orthodox theologian who is perhaps best known for his essays (some of which are published in In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments) and his short book The Doors of the Sea, a challenging theological response to the 2004 tsunami. However, his major work is a daring and combative articulation of the Christian gospel as a fundamentally aesthetic reality, titled The Beauty of the Infinite.

Hart's latest work, Atheist Delusions, is ostensibly a response to the "New Atheists" who loom so large on the contemporary apologetic horizon. Hart has little time for the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris, whose arguments he describes as being — to take a fairly representative example — "pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor" (page 220). (Reading the book, one frequently feels glad both that it has been written and that it was not written by oneself.)

However, Hart has more than rhetoric here. The first and second sections of the book represent a devastating demolition of several key pillars of the New Atheist argument. The assumption of reason as the special possession of modernity (chapter 3), the story of Christianity's suppression of all that was civilized and good and progressive in the ancient world (chapters 4 and 5), the polemical tale of the incompatibility of faith and science with Galileo as its standard-bearer (chapter 6), and the portrayal of Christianity's intrinsic intolerance as seen in its witch hunts and religious wars (chapters 7 and 8) — all these stories are convincingly rebuffed by means of historical investigation.

Though at times one suspects Hart's polemic runs ahead of him, this historical recasting is frequently fascinating, such as when he argues that "the rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery... were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world" (page 82). However, Hart's book is far more than a mere broadside against Christianity's modern critics. (Indeed, one gains the impression that Hart would see them as hardly worth the ink.) Hart's real intention is to recover from the forgetfulness, ignorance, and criminal misrepresentations of our own day a sense of the profound transforming vision that early Christianity represented.

Hart argues that Christianity was a revolution, "perhaps the only true revolution in the history of the West" (page 108), changing Western humanity "at the deepest levels of consciousness and at the highest levels of culture" (page xiv). In the third section of the book, Hart describes how Christianity conquered the ancient world not by political fortune, but by winning its heart: offering liberation from spiritual desperation, audaciously embracing even slaves and women, and radically reimagining what it meant to be human. Western civilisation was reborn through "something of incalculable wonder and inexpressible beauty" (page xiv).

Not every aspect of Hart's vision of the essence of Christianity will be endorsed by all. For example, his descriptions of authentic Christianity tend to have a somewhat ritualistic bias and he endorses a strong view of salvation as divinization (chapter 15). In all, however, Hart's book represents a powerful response to the critiques of Christianity currently in vogue, as well as an inspiring retrieval of many positive aspects of Christianity's historical legacy. In this regard, Hart has something to teach us about the value of historical investigation. Hart clearly believes that the concrete effects of Christianity on culture and society are a battleground worth defending. Perhaps in this he rightly perceives something evangelicals can easily forget: that the history of Christendom, though muddied by human sinfulness and failure, and mired in complexity and disappointment, is and must be, at one level at least, a history of the work of the Holy Spirit. To abandon this history to misrepresentation and dismissiveness cannot, ultimately, aid the cause of Christ in the modern world.

Atheist Delusions is a counter-cultural work in the fullest sense. "If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness," Hart avers, "it is surely ours" (page 106). In the final section of the book, Hart reflects ominously on what the future of the West might be like, having abandoned the revolution that gave it birth. Christianity, though it in one sense "permeates everything we are" today, is in another sense disappearing, and in its place "something new is in the centuries-long process of being born" (page 239). Hart argues that this something includes particularly a conception of freedom as unrestricted personal volition (chapter 2) that is markedly different from the classical Christian understanding of freedom as liberty to flourish in accordance with one's nature (page 24). And Hart sees the distinct possibility (and this is his most profound response to Christianity's critics) that this something will be a culture which is not just post-Christian, but also post-human.

Atheist Delusions

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