David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale, 2009). $28.00, 253 pages.
Over the past five years, atheists—some of whom grandiosely describe themselves as “Brights”—published a number of screeds against religion that, despite being more rhetorical than rational, nevertheless managed to sell briskly and convince (or confirm the pre-existing convictions of) a few people that unbelief is the way to go when it comes to religion.
Well, maybe. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart admits, “I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general.” He seems especially partial to Friedrich Nietzsche, for example.
Then again, maybe not. Whatever the merits of Nietzsche’s insights, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are no Nietzsches. Of them, Hart writes: “atheism that consists entirely in 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.”
I wish I had written that sentence.
One might mistakenly assume, from what I’ve written so far, that Hart’s book is a point-by-point refutation of the Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens Axis of Unbelief. One might be wrong, however. Instead, Hart essays this purpose:
My chief ambition in writing is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting; how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues.
In other words, the birth of Christianity was a revolution: “a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.”
Negatively, Hart goes on to argue that—contrary to the popular picture of the modern period as an age of liberation from medieval superstitions and oppressions–“the modern age’s grand narrative of itself” is vastly overstated and even dangerous, hiding, as it does, the greatest era of barbarity in human history. The self-described atheist “Brights” may dun “religion” for its Crusades and Inquisitions, but those things hold no candle in sheer killing power to the gulag, laogai, and killing field.
To argue his thesis—in both its positive and negative aspects—Hart takes us on a historical journey of the Patristic Era, when the clash between Christian theism and Greco-Roman paganism first occurred. He shows us the Pauline demystification of the powers and principalities that peppered the pagan universe. He contrasts the tragic pagan spirit with the comic Christian spirit, the former filled with resigned despair at the cruelty of fate, the latter infused with hope in a God who saves. He shows, through a fascinating discussion of early Christian theological debates over Trinity and Incarnation, how the patristic theologians created the modern conception of personhood, and how Christian theology endowed even the lowliest of persons with dignity, unlike pagan ideology. He demonstrates that Christian theology liberated history from a chronicle of endless cycles of rises and falls and imbued human action with moral import and eschatological trajectory. And over and over again, he demonstrates how love animated Christians’ actions in the world, at least in theology, if not always in actual practice.
In a sense, Hart’s book is a historical representation of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, although this time in its defense of that same religion. Nietzsche slammed Christianity for undermining the pagan “Superman” with its insipid love of the low-born, uneducated, sick and needy. He despaired lest the triumph of Christianity leave a post-Christian era of “Last Men” without the wherewithal to traduce Christian values, having become so enslaved to them. Nietzsche knew that one could not dispense with Christian metaphysics and yet retain Christian morals. Hart knows this too. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens don’t. They want to retain the good effects of the Christian revolution without their cause. Hart won’t let them.
If you want Christian morals—a concern for rights, for the poor, for the wellbeing of the weak and innocent—you must have Christian metaphysics. Christianity created the modern concept of human being. A post-Christian world is a post-human one as well.
Atheist Delusions is well-written, even if its sentences can run to several lines. It is historically insightful, even if it wears its historical learning lightly. And it is utterly devastating to the standard atheist claim that the history of Christianity is a history of irrationality and oppression. Christians have, no doubt, had their moments. But the original revolution of Christian theology in the first four centuries of the Common Era lives on, ironically, in the moral aspirations and moralistic critiques of the atheists who don’t understand or are unwilling to take their metaphysics to their logical conclusion.
Somewhere, Nietzsche is rolling over in his grave that he’s stuck with such insipid thinkers as Dawkins et al, while the best advocate of his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Western culture believes in the God and Father of Jesus Christ.