March 15, 2010

Review: David Bentley Hart, "Atheist Delusions"

Title: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
Author: David Bentley Hart
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religious History
Published: Paperback ed., 2009.
Pages: 253
ISBN: 9780300164299
Price: 17.00

David Bentley Hart describes his latest book as an engaging "mediation" or "historical essay" on the influence of Christianity in western history. He provides a corrective to other modern revisionist views espoused by Christianity's fashionable enemies (ix, x). Hart's message is a call to re-call; a thoughtful request for Christians (and anyone else who will listen) to think more deeply about the past and how it has impacted our current moral sensibilities. He believes the past is a foreign country and that the veil drawn between the present and the past "protects us from the burden of too much memory." At the same time, "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). Clearly, Hart is not impressed with new atheist writers who he believes generally misunderstand and misuse the past for their own objectives: “[T]he 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” (220). Strong words, those. What is it about the past that he thinks people are overlooking?

Hart makes "no attempt here to convert anyone to anything," religion-wise; rather, he wishes to "raise objections to certain popular calumnies of the church [and] call attention to achievements and virtues that writers of a devoutly anti-Christian bent tend to ignore, dissemble, or dismiss" (x). The book's title is a throwback to Richard Dawkins's 2006 hit The God Delusion. Hart is aiming directly at the so-called "new atheist" movement without attempting to refute their arguments point for point. Instead, he address their now-familiar tale of the arc of Enlightenment sweeping the west, burying dangerous (or silly) religion in the dust. The dim and dark domination of Christianity, its cruelty and barbarity, is said to give way to the modern secular world with its greater potential for human advancement. In the face of such modernist myths Hart wishes to “score as many telling blows as I can against what I take to be false histories and against dishonest or incompetent historians,” which he believes requires substantive argument and documentation, something that isn't found in the works of atheists like Christopher Hitchens (xiv). 

Hart begins by describing his own method, approach, and premises with a blunt admission in the opening sentence: "This book is in no sense an impartial work of history" (ix). It isn't straight academic history—though he insists on assessing historical evidence fairly and responsibly, his footnotes are few. Hart's prose is conversational and clever—sometimes a bit pedantic, occasionally snarky, but more often erudite. The straightforward tone makes the book engaging and fun to read:
Stated in its most elementary and most buoyantly positive form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one—the triumph of Christianity—that can be called in the fullest sense 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. To my mind, I should add, it was an event immeasurably more impressive in its cultural creativity and more ennobling in its moral power than any other movement of spirit, will, imagination, aspiration, or accomplishment in the history of the West. And I am convinced that, given how radically at variance Christianity was with the culture it slowly and relentlessly displaced, its eventual victory was an event of such improbability as to strain the very limits of our understanding of historical causality (xi).
At the same time, Hart does not shy away from discussing problematic aspects of Christian history, including Crusades, the inquisition, slavery, and various political maneuverings. He also eschews the simplistic argument that believer = good, atheist = bad. Following a particularly stinging paragraph early in the book he steps back:
A note of asperity, though, has probably already become audible in my tone, and I probably should strive to suppress it. It is not inspired, however, by any prejudice against unbelief as such; 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. But 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 (4). 
Hart opposes fundamentalism, both religious and secular (for a darker, less sympathetic look at new atheism and fundamentalism, see my recent review of Chris Hedges’s When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists). In four parts, the book relates fascinating historical insights regarding aspects of Christianity prior to the Restoration. Of course, Hart, of the Eastern orthodox persuasion, doesn't discuss Mormonism. However, Latter-day Saints can benefit from a more nuanced view of the development of Christianity. Comparing Atheist Delusions with Noel B. Reynolds's Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy would be quite fruitful.

At times the book strays from what a reader might expect from its title, although I found such side roads enjoyable. For example, one section begins with a particularly striking description of an early Christian baptismal rite in which the candidate renounced the world and turned to a new way of life. Hart explains why baptism was momentous, dramatic, perhaps terrifying and joyous for early Christian converts from paganism. Here is part of his moving description of the early ritual in the greater Byzantine world:
Ideally...one's baptism would come on Easter eve, during the midnight vigil. At the appointed hour, the baptizand (the person to be baptized) would depart the church for the baptistery, which typically housed a large baptismal pool or (if possible) flowing stream. There, in the semidarkness of that place, he or she would disrobe and--amid a host of blessings, exhortations, unctions, and prayers--descend naked into the waters, to be immersed three times by the bishop, in the name of the Father, then of the Son, and finally of the Holy Spirit. The newly baptized Christian would then emerge from the waters to be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Holy Spirit, and to don a new garment of white, and would return to the church to see the Eucharist celebrated--and to partake of it--for the first time. On that night, the erstwhile catechumen would have died to his or her old way of life and received a new and better life in Christ (112-113).
There is too much of interest in this book to hope to cover in a short review. Hopefully a brief overview of the sections will provide enough to spark interest: In part one, "Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View From the Present" (1), Hart outlines then responds to two popular prejudices he finds among new atheists:  "first, that all religious belief is in essence baseless; and, second, that religion is principally a cause of violence, division, and oppression, and hence should be abandoned for the sake of peace and tolerance” (10). He contrasts some classical and modernist views of  "freedom" and explains why he believes views shifted over time towards a creeping and somewhat clandestine nihilism.

Part two discusses "The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity's Rewriting of the Christian Past" (27). It begins by countering one historian's assertion that the early Christian Church largely failed to care for the sick by relating a brief history of early Christian hospitals. With interspersed commentary on historiography he goes on to discuss Christianity's relationship with science, politics, persecution, and war.

"Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human" is the subject of part three. Hart outlines why he believes Christianity helped bring about fundamental changes in the way human identity itself was understood. As with other sections of the book, Hart does not attempt to cover for or omit embarrassing aspects of Christian history. After a difficult discussion on race relations, for example, he notes: “Nevertheless, what should really astonish us...is not that so few Christians behaved in a way perfectly consistent with their beliefs but that such beliefs had ever come into existence in the first place” (175).

The final part, "Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human," concludes with a haunting assessment of modernist sensibilities in the face of what Hart senses as a general fade in Christian belief. Hart sees a rise in what he calls "Post-Christian magical thinking" (a take on the "magical thinking" accusation of new atheists), where technology and science are treated like special knowledge and power, to be separated from old notions of human nature or moral truth. Hart believes that new atheists present a false dichotomy when they pit reason against faith. “Reason, in the classical and Christian sense," he adds, "is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom” (236). For Hart, reason involves the ability or willingness to acknowledge blind spots.

I agree with Hart's belief that understanding (or trying to understand) the past is critical to understanding and appreciating the present. This is a book I'll return to in the future and one I strongly recommend for anyone interested in a counter-perspective to popular new atheist writers.

12 comments:

Greg Smith said...

A good review of a great book. Hart is one of those writers that makes you either throw up your hands in frustration because you'll never write half that good.

One need not agree with every contention, but he provides an excellent example of how historically uninformed authors like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Sam Harris are.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Greg, and thanks for the tip on the book!

djinn said...

“Reason, in the classical and Christian sense," he adds, "is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom” You do understand that is the opposite of science, don't you? How do you feel about planes, trains, and automobiles, all brought to us by the non- and occasionally (ever so quietly) anti-christian viewpoint.

BHodges said...

Thanks for stopping by, djinn. The "opposite of science"? No, I don't understand how Hart's description of reason is the opposite of science. Planes, trains, and automobiles were brought to us by the non-Christian viewpoint? That's just flatly false (actually bordering on the nonsensical).

But this post is merely a book review. I suggest you pick up Hart's book and see what it has to offer as a corrective to your perspective. :)

Greg Smith said...

Or, djinn could read something from the fairly vast literature on the history of science (and its attendant technology) and Christianity.

Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led To Freedom, Capitalism, And Western Success is an accessible and useful corrective.

+1 irony points for making the very same uninformed mistake which the book under review discusses, though. :-)

BHodges said...

By the way, djinn, I noticed you only mentioned anti-Christian views, and given your pseudonym's reference to Islam I wonder if you are a Muslim? I should point out that while this book is focused mainly on Christianity it has a few tips of the cap to Islam and its intellectual tradition.

Charles Freeman. said...

The biggest problem Hart and his supporters have is to overcome the burden of original sin laid on Christians by the Augustinian view of Christianity. There were much more optimistic views about human dignity in the works of the church father Origen and Julian of Eclanum but these were wiped out. If you read medieval writers on their view of humanity it is of a debased humanity deserving of eternal punishment. The restoration of the classical authors and the Enlightenment (as well as the work of some Christian writers such as Erasmus, though every one of his works was placed on the papal index) restored the idea that human beings are dignified in their own right. I think the next move in Christian history , already under way with some scholars, is to realise the extent to which alternative Christianities were suppressed, especially in the fourth century.
I have reviewed Stark's book, Victory of Reason, on Amazon.co.uk. I didn't know that such material could be presented as scholarship but we live in strange times. Charles Freeman.

BHodges said...

Charles, thanks for the comments.

John Stamps said...

At best, Eastern Orthodoxy is ambivalent to St Augustine. Our anthropology is not Augustinian.

BHodges said...

Thanks for stopping by, John. Can you clarify what you mean?

John Stamps said...

Sure. I went to a conference at Fordham two years ago on "Eastern Orthodoxy and St Augustine." I wrote up a retrospective for an Eastern Orthodox journal. It's somewhat provocatively titled "When Tradition Fractures: St. Augustine Lives on in the Great Theological Conflicts of Today."

Sadly, "Again" no longer exists. But a friend linked my article to his blog. Here it is in all its glory:

http://silouanthompson.net/2008/10/when-tradition-fractures/

Rip to shreds as needed. I'm not sure what I'd change if I had to rewrite the article two years later. I mostly stand by what I wrote.

BHodges said...

Thanks for the link.

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