Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemiesby David Bentley Hart
Pub. Date: 04/21/2009
Publisher: Yale University Press
In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian
In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.
Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.
- Yale University Press
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: FAITH, REASON, AND FREEDOM: A VIEW FROM THE PRESENT 1 The Gospel of Unbelief....................3
2 The Age of Freedom....................19
PART TWO: THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE SECULAR AGE: MODERNITY'S REWRITING OF THE CHRISTIAN PAST 3 Faith and Reason....................29
4 The Night of Reason....................36
5 The Destruction of the Past....................49
6 The Death and Rebirth of Science....................56
7 Intolerance and Persecution....................75
8 Intolerance and War....................88
9 An Age of Darkness....................99
PART THREE: REVOLUTION: THE CHRISTIAN INVENTION OF THE HUMAN 10 The Great Rebellion....................111
11 A Glorious Sadness....................129
12 A Liberating Message....................146
13 The Face of the Faceless....................166
14 The Death and Birth of Worlds....................183
15 Divine Humanity....................199
PART FOUR: REACTION AND RETREAT: MODERNITY AND THE ECLIPSE OF THE HUMAN 16 Secularism and Its Victims....................219
17 Sorcerers and Saints....................229
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Hart gives short shrift to the popular atheists of our day, but the book is really about something else. Drawing especially on a deep understanding of the early centuries of the Church and its cultural context, Hart offers an erudite essay that takes on the view--pervasive since the Enlightenment--that Christianity was a violent and irrational interlude between the cultured classical world and a modernity of reason and science. Hart accepts that Christianity was an interruption, or irruption, but sees it as one that revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human. It was the most profound revolution in human history. Hart points out that, unlike today's evangelical atheists, Nietzsche hated Christianity for what it actually was, a religion the God of which is Love and which regards charity as the highest virtue. It was, he understood, unique and subversive in its insistence on God's universal love--beyond ties to place, tribe, nation, or ruler--and the duty of Christians to help the sick, poor, weak and oppressed, to visit prisoners, and to respect the intrinsic dignity and worth of all human life. Its adherents often disappoint, as Hart insists, like all other human individuals and institutions in our fallen world. But in developing a (highly sophisticated) understanding of the God-man in whom God became human so that humans may become divine, Christians of the early centuries overthrew older views of the infinite distance between God and humanity and rejected the arbitrariness and immorality of the pagan gods. Christians established a world-view that saw the world as law-governed and humans as subject to a natural law "written on their hearts" and--in great contrast to pagan religions--a social ethic. This made scientific discovery--initially largely the work of churchmen and devout Christians--a reading of the book of nature that God had written. No longer could we say, except in the depths of despair like the brutally blinded Gloucester in King Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport." Christianity, says hart, is a religion of joy and hope, as opposed to the prevailing pagan sadness and resignation. So Hart's argument takes us from the pagan world, with its lack of a sense of the arrow of time and hence of the future, purpose and direction of life, its moral callousness toward the weak and oppressed, through the Christian revolution in which king and slave, aristocrat and worker, were of equal worth as sharing in the divinity of the God-man. The Church--again unique in its separation of religion from the state--suffers (what Hart sees as) the catastrophe of being adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire. But unlike the pagan cults, the Church retains its subversive aspect. It insists on the submission even of emperors and kings to God. The long struggle (as well as collusion) between church and state ends in defeat for the Church as Protestant rulers place themselves at the head of their national churches and Catholic states like France and Spain completely subordinate the church to the monarchy--even in Spain's case insisting on the Inquisition as an instrument of "nation-building." The long march of the hypertrophied state culminates in the secularist horrors of the 20th century.
Hart's writing is intelligent and easy to read, particularly given the subject matter. He clearly and accurately presents his point of view, and refers to sources so that the reader can make their own decision as to whether he has made an accurate representation. I think that it is telling that none of the negative one star reviews could provide any details for their negative review.
When this book was suggested by one of my online dealers, it seemed they not only knew me, but cared deeply about what I was reading. I felt warm, well cared-for, optimistic that, when I come to a place of having “nothing to read,” I would be aided in that moment by a benevolent guide who could know my plight and shine a light in a darkened moment. The title of this volume suggested that it would begin to speak back to the “presently” (even though the practice has been around since the beginning of religion) popular pastime of the vehement, bombastic, uncritical destructing of faith in general and Christianity in particular. Here was a voice that would be a rational, steady, well documented and easily comprehended retort to that particular activity. Reading it brought to light the reality that, while Dr. Hart’s passion is evident, his present book is overly enthusiastic and under documented. In the preface, the author outlines the process of what is to follow; this is to be an essay, rather than a book and more of one dealing with Church History than theology. With those parameters set he opens the book with a first paragraph that sets the mood for what follows. In the neighborhood where I grew up, had someone spoken to another in the manner Dr. Hart chooses to speak in the opening moments, those would have been considered “fightin’ words.” He names authors, books, articles of the “faith questioning camp” with surprising viciousness and insult. The following chapters address the various arguments posited by present day “atheist” authors. He is careful to site how those authors have missed-led or down right lied to their readers or have ignored/been ignorant of history as it pertains to the benefit Christianity has had on culture, many of the sciences, philosophy and politics. This is a plus, what detracts from his astute observations are his own use of innuendo, lack of documentation (for a history book that speaks of people, places and times, he has less than 7 pages of notes in support of his “facts;” for a historian, if it cannot be documented, it is opinion, not fact) and his use of near libelous language in stating his case. I was very disappointed in the writing of this book. Faith is matter of deeply personal matters. I believe that everyone has faith (atheists have faith that what science/rationality/their heart tells them is true). I have been given the gift of believing and the gift/responsibility for being a rational being. I cannot “prove” why I have faith, but neither can I cease to believe. God, as I understand that Being has endowed me with the ability to reason and be responsible with that rationality to the betterment of all, even if “all” at that moment is but one person. When one as learned as is Dr. Hart shoulders the task of speaking back to those who (apparently) dishonestly besmirch faith, it would be of immense help to recall the biblical admonition found in Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” His seeking to answer his counterpoint in the same language as he is addressed only underscores the detractor’s argument that “faith is of little affect,” for in so speaking, he shows himself to have been little changed by his faith. May I be passionate in my belief, honoring of others “disbelief” and able to speak with both in my discussion of either.
There are many beliefs that people have about the history of the church. Many of these beliefs put Christianity in a negative light with regard to what today might be considered civic virtues, such as tolerance, respect for science, and a preference for non-violent solutions. Hart's book looks at the historical events that are typically cited as indicating that Christianity and the church are at odds with these virtues. This exposition is well supported by citations from modern historians, and original sources. Hart makes a strong case that most of the "common knowledge" people have about Christianity and the church is wrong. His analysis shows that these errors seem to have developed from a combination of ignorance, intellectual laziness, and malice. This is a good book, and the arguments should be considered carefully by any one who is interested in an honest search for the record of the church and Christianity
Hart's book is brilliant - finally, an even-handed and historical rebuttal to the trendy atheists. Dawkin, Dennett, Hitchens, et al are thoroughly discredited. Their pompous, self congratulatory refusal to take the time to actually study the history of Christianity is convincingly documented by Hart. Hart points out that the new atheists might be somewhat interesting if they actually took their subject seriously enough to understand it, as did the philospher Hume. But their self assured conceit blinds their understanding. Hart is a first rate scholar, and his prose is beautiful. Too bad that the books by the new atheists, to include the "the borderline illiterate Dan Brown", will sell far more copies.