In his fresh and polemical new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart takes on the so-called “New Atheists,” throwing the full weight of his historical insight, theological prowess, and rhetorical profundity into exposing and then dismantling recent assaults to the faith.
The underlying purpose of the book is to clear the air of the wildly unfounded assertions and distortions that attempt to depict Christianity as a blind, violent, superstitious, and primitive stain on our collective moral sensibilities, shrouding the “progressive” story modernity likes to tell about itself with a sense of legitimacy and superiority. In Hart’s estimation such tales of our (supposedly) rational, scientific, and tolerant struggle against dark ages of irrational dogmatism, cultural and creative stagnation, “wars of religion,” and so forth are simple and enchanting, “easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail” (p. 34).
Instead, Hart makes a case for the genuinely and irreducibly revolutionary impact of Christianity on the West. As he notes in the Introduction,
“My chief ambition in writing [this book] is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in [the cultural] setting [of late antiquity]: 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; its elevation of active charity above all other virtues” (pp. x-xi).
Now based on the early hype surrounding the book (undoubtedly encouraged by the rather superfluous blurbs garnishing the back cover), I admit that I felt some initial reservations about what kind of book Hart had actually produced here. Would I find a defensive, angry, even (rhetorically) violent call to arms in defense of a new Christendom? Or perhaps another rosy theological apologia sweeping the seamier sides of the Christian historical past under the rug of our selective memory? In clashing dueling sabers with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and the rest would Hart ultimately come to emulate the very style and depth of argument he seeks to rebuff?
If I’m honest, the first couple of chapters did stoke my skepticism, albeit briefly. Hart’s more aggressive, ad hominem attacks on the authors of the New Atheism (to the point of intellectual name-calling) do not exactly boost the credibility of his argument, nor will his cutting and abrasive language likely win him many friends amongst his ideological objectors. That being said, Hart is at least honest about his methodological approach and his occasional lack of pleasantries. And while the style of his critiques are a bit harsh at times, the content is most certainly sound, provoking, and justified. In light of the “intellectual rigor” of his opponents, perhaps Hart has a point when he says that “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. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves” (p. 4).
Minus a few such complaints, Hart’s book is a brilliantly insightful and eloquent essay on the rise of Christianity in the first four or five centuries. I appreciated the fact that Hart refuses to white-wash the historical data into a simplistic, sanitized picture of Christianity that pretends away faults in life and practice of the church, while nonetheless being honest about the bold and unprecedented impact Christianity has had upon the consciousness of the West. Hart is at his strongest in his clear critiques of the modern project and the current situation it has left us in, but also in his detailed historical analysis of the facinating consequences of the Christian gospel upon the social imaginary of ancient paganism.
Instead of attempting some sort of summary or overview, I’ll bring my general comments to a close here. There are plenty of reviews of Hart’s book out there that are far more nuanced and thorough than the one I’ve just presented. My intention here and in the few posts to follow is not so much describe or defend Hart’s book as a whole, but to interrogate a few particularly insightful gems he offers us in its pages.