Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Splash of Cold Water on Atheist Delusions

I have read a few of the responses to the "New Atheists" but never one quite as good as David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009). Every word in the title could be parsed to tease out the thesis of the book. In fact, that is just what I want to do.

Atheist - these enemies of Christianity do not hide behind the cowardly "agnostic" label. They come right out with their own faith committment. Of course atheism is a faith commitment; you can't "prove" empirically that a non-empirical God exists. The reach of the scientific method is not that long. You can simply prove that there is no empirical God; to which Christians reply "We would never believe in a "god" that was simply reducible to the physical universe without remainder." But atheists are willing to make the leap of faith necessary to believe that "the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, all there ever shall be," as Carl Sagan put it.

Delusions - Atheists fondly imagine (with John Lenon) that a world without religion would be a world of peace, love, tolerance and kindness all around. Right. Like Nazi Germany or China during the Cutural Revolution or Stalin's atheist utopia of "scientific socialism." Atheists are so extremely Pelagian that they, like Marxists, believe that evil comes from outside of humans, who are pure sweetness and light on the inside. For Marxists, evil comes from economic conditions. For the "New Atheists" evil comes from the imposition of religious ideas and institutions, although it is also true that Marxists are often Atheists and Atheists are often Marxists, as well. In that case religion is defined as that which prevents people from joining the Revolution.

Can a more shallow, less insightful, more psychologically improbable set of assumptions about human nature ever have been devised than this story designed to frighten small children and adults of doubtful intelligence? Hart has little difficulty showing that the origin of evil is within human beings themselves and that human beings will grasp anything at hand - be it religion or ideology or myth or whatever - to justify their murderous rage, greed and hate. Human beings are the problem. Now, by denying this fact, Atheism simply declines to address the real problem. Christianity, on the other hand, grasps the nettle. The wonder is not why Christian societies do not always live up to Christian ideals, but how on earth those high ideals came into existence in the first place? Hint: they didn't come from Atheism.

The Christian Revolution - Hart's method is historical. He is wise enough to realize that the real problem for people today is not an inability to accept the supernatural or a rigorous committment to scientific objectivity. The real problem is not science at all, which is a mistake people sometimes make just because Dawkins is a scientest. The real problem is that most modern people, even politicians, professors and other leaders in society, are abysmally ignorant of basic history, especially the history of Western civilization. The "New Atheists" prey on such ignorance with their vague, often unhistorical emotional stereotypes of Inquisitors, witch-hunts, wars of religion and crusades.

A Little Quiz (see ch. 7 for a discussion of these examples)
1. If I were to ask you when the high point of European witch-hunting was, (a) the Dark Ages or (b) the Enlightenment, what would your answer be? If you said (a),you would be wrong.

2. If I were to ask you whether it was (a) the State or (b) the Church that instituted the Spainish Inquisition, what would your answer be? If you said (b), you would be wrong.

3. If I were to ask you whether heresy became a capital crime during (a) the Dark Ages or (b) the late Medieval period, what would your answer be? If you said (a) you would be wrong.

The high point of magic was not the Dark Ages, but the period in which modern science got going, the Rennaissance through to the 17th century. The popular imagination is quite ready to believe the "New Atheist" revisionist mythology of a Europe held is the grip of darkness, superstition, and religion finally stumbling into the light of science and atheism. Hart aims some heavy blows in the direction of this rewriting of Western history.

Then, in the heart of the book, Hart discusses what he calls "the Christian Revolution," that is, the emergence of Christianity during the Roman Empire and its transformation of a tired, dreary, sad paganism into a dynamic culture of humanity, reason and light. In his final section, he looks at the implications of the old paganism triumphing over religion today and extinguishing the light of faith from Western culture. It is possible to have some idea of what the future will be like after Christianity because we have historical records of what it was like before Christianity. A low view of human life, a view of life as a permanent agonistic struggle to survive, an aristocratic ideal of the strong man - what once was is coming to pass once again.

Its Fashionable Enemies - Of course, there can be no doubt that the "New Atheists" are enemies of Christianity. But Hart's book is valuable in showing that they are also enemies of humanism, reason and humility. Hart can be harsh at times; but he is facing an enemy who is blindingly stupid, in addition to being smug, self-superior and condescending. Thus:

"One still has to wonder, however, at their thoughtless complacency: the doctrinaire materialism - which is, after all, a metaphysical theory of reality that is almost certainly logically impossible - and the equally doctrinaire secularism - which is, as even the least attentive among us might have noticed, a historical tradition so steeped in human blood that it can hardly be said to have proved its ethical superiority. . . Even in purely practical terms, to despise religion in the abstract is meaningless conceit. As a historical force religion has been neither simply good or simply evil but has merely reflected human nature in all its dimensions." (221)

This is a great book. As long as the finest minds are on the side of the Gospel, all the propaganda and rewriting of history will have a difficult time prevailing. As God wills.

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