Following is my review of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, April 2009). Hart (who also wrote The Doors of the Sea which I reviewed here) is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher who is currently a professor at Providence College. Those who read into the subtitle a dismissive tone (“its fashionable enemies”) do so correctly. Hart sets out to dismantle the underpinnings of today’s “New Atheist” authors, showing how their works rest less upon rigorous scholarship, and more upon the ethos of our age.
The Dismantling of New Atheism
In Atheist Delusions, Hart raises a powerful polemic against contemporary unbelief popularized by the so-called “New Atheists”. It is also, perhaps, the most formidable defense of Christian faith I have ever read.
I am a Christian skeptic. I tend not to believe things because someone told me it is so. I prefer to test everything, weigh everything in the balance of reason and evidence. I believe that God gave us minds to use! The result of all this is that I sometimes call much of what passes for Christianity into question. When I read what atheist skeptics are saying (as I often do), I find them to be correct in many of their assessments of belief.
Within this context, I found in Hart's book a powerful force drawing me into a much deeper appreciation for the place of Christianity in history, and the uniqueness of the Christian message. It also opened my mind (frighteningly!) to what a truly post-Christian era will look like. It is this flow of history, both in retrospect and in prospect, as seen through Hart's analysis, that greatly strengthens my assurance in the truth and viability of the essential message of Jesus.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once remarked that “history has to be rewritten because history is the selection of those threads of causes or antecedents that we are interested in.” And so the rewriting of history will always reflect prevailing current thought. This phenomenon is nowhere more blatant than in the selective retelling of history presently in vogue among the New Atheists. Hart’s book offers a scholarly retort to the history of Christianity in the West being offered up by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris. I suppose that the Holmes observation might apply equally to Hart’s work. I will leave that case for others to make. But having read from the New Atheists, and having read Hart, I found Hart’s retelling of Christianity’s story to be the far more compelling.
Much of this book draws a contrast between the paganism predominate in the pre-Christian era, and the Christian “revolution” which supplanted it. It is popular in some quarters today to cast a nostalgic eye upon the supposed virtues of paganism, and to lament its overthrow. Hart demonstrates conclusively how preposterous these notions are. He does not gloss over, nor deny the sad history of injustices and crimes which have been committed in the name of Christianity, a litany of offenses which seems to completely engross the enemies of belief. Notwithstanding these blemishes, and with great skill and scholarship, Hart takes us on an enlightening stroll though history; he reveals how Christianity has advanced the sciences, social morality, and in particular, humanitarianism, far beyond the highest prospects of paganism. It is the Christian understanding of humanity, the elevation of what it means to be human, that is, in Hart’s view, Christianity’s most significant contribution. Against this backdrop, Hart paints the horrific prospects of inhumanity which lay before us in a post-Christian era. Here he finds an ally in Nietzsche's more thoughtful atheism. Hart deeply respects the intellectually honest unbelief of Nietzsche who clearly saw the frightening nihilistic consequences of the “death of God.”
In contrast to his respect for Nietzsche, Hart laments the shallowness of today’s trendy unbelief. “ ... 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” (page 220). This “tribe of New Atheists” has published a spate of atheistic titles over the last decade. Hart has offered a persuasive rebuttal. The gauntlet has been dropped. I anxiously await a scholarly response from the halls of unbelief. I doubt that one will be written.