Friday, March 26, 2010

Atheist Delusions

I try to read as much of David Bentley Hart's work as I can. He is about the finest public Christian theologian I have read. Since I have taken back up with historical studies, I have little time for works of theology. But this is one I could not resist. In Atheist Delusions, Hart takes on the so-called New Atheists and their popular proclamations and pontifications.

The book is arranged in four parts. In part one (Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present) Hart provides his interpretation of the current cultural situation that underlies the popularity of the "New Atheists." The first chapter outlines what Hart calls the "Gospel of Unbelief," and stages a first assault upon the incredible works of Dawkins, Dennett and Sam Harris in particular. In his initial examination Hart postulates that the problem underlying not only these dilettantes, but other popular authors as well (e.g. Philip Pullman and Dan Brown), is a faulty and simplistic view of history that overemphasizes the virtues of the modern world and the vices of Christianity, and concomitantly underemphasizing the virtues of Christian civilization and the vices of modernity.

Throughout the book, Hart seeks to complexify, if not overturn, this view of history by indicating faulty perceptions of Christianity's rise to prominence. The second part of the book seeks to overturn the flagrant falsity that paganism was a more humane, scientific and tolerant state of affairs that the Christian culture that replaced it. The third and longest part of the book strives to highlight the cultural advantages of the Christian "revolution," namely that it was more liberating for women and slaves, and that it provided a face for the faceless. The cause for this revolution, which did effectively make Hellenistic paganism obsolete, was the elevated sense of the human person--"total humanism"--based on the Christological formulae of Christianity. Orthodox Christology emphasized the condescension of God to humanity, thus elevating the value of every human person in a way unprecedented in the Hellenistic world.

This may not be the tack one would expect someone to take in responding to the "New Atheists," since they do not actually explicitly invoke this narrative very often. The move is brilliant, however, because to try to refute the arguments of these atheists directly would be pointless, based as they are on the assumptions of the narrative Hart attacks. That said, Hart's own narrative is not without its own inaccuracies, to enumerate which would be tedious. In some places the view of Christianity may well be rosy, but it is not unrealistic, and it is a very useful corrective to popular and widespread misunderstandings of the cultural value of Christianity. To name just a few of the more useful social innovations of Christianity, we might offer hospitals, universities, orphanages, and almshouses, not to mention much of the beautiful works of music, architecture and art of the Western world.

As I said, the entire book is colored in hues of of hopeful melancholy. Hart is no common apologist, boldly asserting the truth and persuasiveness of his faith, deploying prefabricated arguments willy-nilly, and ultimately convinced that his message will prevail. Instead, he is skeptical that Christian will continue to flourish; indeed, he thinks it will continue to whist away in the winds of secularism. Hart's point, though, is that any optimism on the part of secularists over this state of affairs is short-sighted, and completely ignorant of the boon of Christianity in Western culture. Moreover, Christian history is of course littered with its share of travesties and ugliness. This should be seen as a reflection not of the essential "irrational violence" or immorality, however, but rather of the fact that so often "humans disappoint."

Indeed, the age of modernity is far from a moral, utopian paradise. "Certainly we moderns should not be too quick to congratulate ourselves, or to imagine ourselves as having embraced a more rational approach to the world, simply because we are less prone than were ancient persons to believe in miracles, or demons, or other supernatural agencies" (102). Modern prejudices are not much less irrational. More importantly, the ethics of the modern world utterly disappoints. "Part of the enthralling promise of an age of reason was, at least at first, the prospect of a genuinely rational ethics.... ...Was there ever a more desperate fantasy than this? ...If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness, it is surely ours. One might almost be tempted to conclude that secular government is the one form of government that has shown itself too violent, capricious, and unprincipled to be trusted. ...Christian society certainly never fully purged itself of cruelty or violence; but it also never incubated evils comparable in ambition, range, systematic precision, or mercilessness to death camps, gulags, forced famines, or the extravagant brutality of modern warfare. Looking back at the twentieth century, it is difficult not to conclude that the rise of modernity has resulted in an age of at once unparalleled banality and unprecedented monstrosity, and that these are two sides of the same cultural reality" (106-7). I find it hard to disagree.

One critique I might offer, and it is really only a criticism of scope, is Hart's failure to really discuss similar contributions of Islam or Judaism. Hart does mention that the charitable moral core of Christianity is a gift of Judaism, though he does not often come back to the point. Certainly, he is right that neither paganism nor the Enlightenment incubated or innovated a morality based on caring for the weak. But both Judaism and Islam cultivated similar values, and the fact should not go without note since the "New Atheists" also take aim at Islam.

One of the hallmarks of Hart's writing is his rhetorical flourish. Few theological authors have such delightful turns of phrases. If I am ever fortunate enough to become a widely read and prolific author and my works need to be scrutinized and lampooned for the benefit of the public, I can only hope that this is the man who performs the deed. Take, for instance, these passages:

"The God Delusion, an energetic attack on all religious belief, has just been released by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist and tireless tractarian, who--despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning--never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness. The journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic, has just issued God is Not Great, a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method. ...And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, already a major film and surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate" (3-4).

"As I have already complained, the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief. The best we can now hope for are arguments 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: Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing 'philosophical' arguments that a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice, Daniel Dennett insulting the intelligence of his readers with proposals for the invention of a silly pseudo-science of 'religion,' Sam Harris shrieking and holding his breath and flinging his toys about in the expectation that the adults in the room will be cowed, Christopher Hitchens bellowing at the drapes and potted plants while hoping ho one notices the failure of any of his assertions to coalesce with any other into anything like a coherent argument. One cannot begrudge these men the popularity of their screeds, obviously; sensationalism sells better than sense" (220).

I must confess that the latter jab at Sam Harris made me laugh aloud to the extent that I had to put down the book for a couple of minutes. This review is by no means exhaustive or unbiased. I am in nearly complete sympathy with Hart's thesis and his tone. I do not hope to fully represent Hart's argument so much as to whet appetites. I will merely leave my readers with this last enticing quote:

"Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, or spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attribute as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction" (100).

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