Thursday, September 22, 2011

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
by David Bentley Hart, Yale, 2009, 249pp. 

I took this one on holiday with me back in August and finished it a week or so after we got home. I usually read something by John Grisham when we go away. But after reading The Associate last year I began to grow a little tired of legal pot boilers and fancied a change. Not that reading theology is much of a change, but there we are. Then again, I don't often read  stuff by Eastern Orthodox theologians so it was kind of different. You can tell that Hart isn't an Evangelical because he says that he isn't out to convert anyone to anything. Can you imagine John Blanchard saying something like that? Probably not. 

What's Hart trying to do then? Well he's having a pop at the new atheists for rejecting the Christian faith, while at the same time piggy-backing on the remnants of Christian morality in Western society. You see, lots of the things that even atheists think are good, like holding to the unique value of every human life, are in fact the product of what Hart calls the "Christian Revolution". By the "Christian Revolution" the writer means the paradigm shift in values that superseded classical pagan thought and set the moral tone for the best part of two thousand years. New atheists such as Richard Dawkins "who - despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning  - never fails to entrance his readers with his rhetorical recklessness" and Christopher Hitchens "whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic" often fail to face up to this inconvenient truth. Oh, and if you think Hart was being a little rude to Dawk and Hitch, then that was nothing compared to his withering scorn for Dan Brown author of The Da Vinci Code, which the writer describes as "the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate." Fun, eh? 

But it's not all jokes at the expense of vocal sceptics. In fact Hart keeps the knockabout to a minimum. This book isn't a specimen of Punch and Judy apologetics. The theologian offers a serious and telling critique of post-Christian society where human freedom has become the freedom of consumer choice with little regard for the morality of our choices. He faces head on some of the claims routinely made by the fashionable enemies of the Christian faith. It is often said that early Christians suppressed the intellectual achievements of Greek culture,  leading to the "night of reason" that was only dispelled by the Enlightenment. Further, many sceptics routinely insist that Christianity has stifled scientific progress. Hart details why these charges simply do not stick.

Hart is aware that especially since Church and State were aligned under Constantine that Christianity hasn't always lived up to  its highest standards. Christian civilisation has been guilty of intolerance and bloodshed. Given what the Bible says regarding human sinfulness, this isn't too surprising. But the record of Christendom on this score, shameful though it may be, is as nothing compared with the millions of lives lost in the secular conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Some atheists writers try and suggest that all was fine and dandy in the ancient pagan world before those pesky Christians came along with their hang ups over human physicality. Hart addresses this point, exposing the "glorious sadness" at the heart of pagan life and experience. Heretical Gnostics may have had hang ups over human physicality, but not the orthodox, who believed that the Word was made flesh. Christianity constituted a great rebellion against the false gods of paganism and the pitiless indifference to human suffering that often characterised pagan thought. The central tenet of the Christian faith, that he who was in the form of God took the form of a servant and died for sinners conferred a new dignity on each and every human being, slaves included.

The Christian message constituted a new vision of humanity, in which all human beings, regardless of wealth and status were viewed as persons. That is fully paid-up members of the human race. This was a truly revolutionary idea, for in pagan thought groups such as slaves and the disabled were regarded as faceless non-persons. Slaves could therefore be owned and  mistreated. Disabled infants could be left to die. The notion of human personhood and its concomitant, universal human rights, was a specifically Christian development. Against the Arians who denied the full deity of the Son, the orthodox Christian faith confesses that there is one God in three co-substantial persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the incarnation the person of the Son took human nature. God became man so that man might partake of the divine nature. Hart weakens the biblical evidence for orthodox Christology by translating John 1:1 as "the Logos was with God and the Logos was a god" (p. 204).  But his account shows that the very idea of human personhood was an offshoot of the theological reflection of the church. Given that this is the case, Hart worries that a post-Christian culture "will also, ultimately become post-human" (p. 215).

Perhaps Hart's scenario is closer than we might think. Atheist thinkers such as Peter Stringer have openly argued for infanticide in the case of severely disabled babies. The production and then destruction of human embryos for stem cell research purposes is another indication that the Christian view of human life is being abandoned. As is the widespread use of abortion as a means of birth control. Others go still further and advocate the use of genetic engineering that breaches the gap between humans and animals. A man with canine hearing, anyone? Welcome to the brave new post-Christian world.

Hart writes with great verve and panache. He has a deep knowledge the religion, thought and culture of the classical period. His learning is skilfully deployed to refute the sloppy arguments of the new atheists. Evangelical readers won't be able to go along with everything that he says. By "Christian" Hart basically means the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Protestants don't get much of all look in, although the abolitionist William Wilberforce is mentioned in passing. Readers will need to look elsewhere for a fuller presentation of the Christian gospel. However, Hart has ably demonstrated that the Christian Revolution transformed the moral outlook of the ancient world. To an extent that is not always recognised we have all been beneficiaries of this love-fuelled, wonderfully humanising revolution. We turn our backs upon Christian faith and values at our peril. 


PlatinumBeetle said...

Ironically this means atheists attack the biblical God by trying to use his moral standards against him. Thus morally-motivated atheism is incoherent, ethics can only be used by atheists as a cover for their own deep-seated need to believe God doesn't exist. Because if he did they know they would be answerable to him. They may not admit it and may not even realize it, but all the arguments for the "righteous atheism" advocated by Dawkins and others (that the God of the Bible is a tyrant, and that "if he did exist" they would not want to serve a God like that.) basically boils down to "God does not conform to my values, so obviously God must be wrong". This ignores the two very obvious truths that if an all-knowing being disagrees with you, you might be the one who is wrong and that they get most of their ideas about what is right or wrong from the same place they get their idea of Him, at one or several removes. The real disturbing part to me though is that these "new atheists" as some are calling them claim they don't even believe in objective moral standards but condemn God for not conforming to said standards (since obviously if there actually were no objective moral standards, than they have no basis to complain about his behavior since he is not essentially a member of any human culture. This basically reduces all of their arguments against him even more to "I don't like you") The levels of DoubleThink required to hold these positions is literally beyond my comprehension, but to some people the intellect is only a sheet to spread over the heart so it looks nice. I really can't imagine doing such mental gymnastics, in which you have to avoid thinking about any of your thoughts. Depriving themselves of such self-awareness they have made themselves into little more than animals intellectually and little better than demons spiritually. This is not a proper place for human beings, made in God's image. I shall scarcely be surprised if at the last judgement a major reason for their sentence is not how they have treated others, but how they have wasted themselves.
All this said and done I find no such hypocrisy in "scientifically" motivated atheism, herein they are taught all they're lives to believe that evolution is a fact as firmly established as gravity and as logically necessary as basic math. They also know somewhat of the book of Genesis. They see the accounts of creation they are offered and realize they conflict. They know that without an extremely good explanation they have to pick sides and the theistic evolutionists offer them nothing even close, instead pretending that not only is there no contradiction, but that their is no seeming contradiction either. Since this flies in the face of reality they decide that religious folks are just a bit crazy and decide to side with atheism. In these cases the atheists is actually more intellectually honest than the theists, who choose to believe what their culture says over what God says, even though they know he really exists and that one of their enemies is the present world system. "Let God be true and every man a lier"

PlatinumBeetle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PlatinumBeetle said...

My first post was a little too harsh and generalized, though it definitely does apply to Dawkins and other rabidly militant atheists the way I phrased them was unkind and unfair to other atheists. I apologize, please forgive me. I guess I was venting just as much as actually making a point and I forgot that I was probably in mixed company. Still I said some things that I think somebody needs to say in our culture, namely:
1) Evolution is something that has been taught or implied to us so frequently and so matter-of-factly that there is enormous intellectual momentum and social pressure to not only accept but embrace the idea, regardless of wether or not a person understands or is even aware of Darwin's theory of natural selection, the mechanics of Mendelian heredity, or how fossils and strata are formed and dated.
2) Most people in english-speaking countries have a general idea of the creation account in the book of Genesis.
3) The Holy Bible and Evolutionary Theory are incompatible in their factual claims, or at least seem to be.
4) Without a very good explanation one is forced to either decide between the alternatives, suspend judgement until further evidence and arguments, or else simply not care which is true (probably the most popular option).
5) Theistic Evolutionists in general do not offer an explanation, but act like there is no conflict. (by explanation I mean a reconciling one which allows both alternatives to really be true. "It's all a metaphor" doesn't count for reasons I'll explain below).
6) If someone thinks that the two origin myths obviously conflict and learns that most religious people can't see that, than the natural conclusion is that the majority of religious people are out of touch with reality.

Saying that the creation account in Genesis is metaphorical is not viable as an intellectually consistent position. If the creation and fall we are told of are just metaphors than the Bible offers no real explanation for the existence of the universe, of life on earth, or of humanity. It would offer no explanation for why the earth is full of death, suffering, and hatred. In other words either God doesn't know (in which case he can't be that powerful or important) or else he doesn't want to tell us the nature of the world we live in (in which case he can't really care about us). The Bible claims that he is all-knowing and all-loving. Also the creation, fall, global flood, and tower of babel accounts are not isolated parts of scripture, they are found in the book of Genesis where we also learn of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with no clear internal division between the parts that modern people would consider "mythological" and the parts we would consider "historical" either in style or content. They are referred to as literally true by numerous other passages in both testaments, even by Jesus and his apostles. In other words if we can't trust the Bible on this, we can't trust it on literally anything.