As a Curate, along with the rest of my mentor group of Curates, I’ve just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s 2009 book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
I must admit that it’s not the sort of book that I would have naturally chosen to read if my mentor group had not made me. However, I’m glad that I did take the time with this American Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator.
The book is pure polemic in which Bentley Hart takes on the so-called “New Atheists” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and even Philip Pullman. I think it’s more than fair to say that he doesn’t have very much that’s good to say about them. One of the real marks of this book is how incredibly and deliciously rude he can be about his opponents. Check this out from p220:
‘The best we can hope for [in the contemporary debate] are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor [sic]: Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing “philosophical” arguments that a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice, Daniel Dennett insulting the intelligence of his readers with proposals for the invention of a silly pseudo-science of “religion”, Sam Harris shrieking and holding his breath and flinging his toys about in the expectation that the adults in the room will be cowed, Christopher Hitchens bellowing at the drapes and potted plants while hoping no one notices the failure of any of his asssertions to coalesce with any other into anything like a coherent argument.’
He’s quite rude. I loved it. He also uses really big words to which I didn’t always know the meaning. Loved that less.
However, to focus on his rude dismantling of Dawkins and co. really does Bentley Hart a disservice because the book is far more than that.
Bentley Hart’s quite appropriate criticism of the “New Atheists” is that they don’t know their history or their theology (something fellow Atheist Terry Eagleton noted about Dawkins some time ago). Once Bentley Hart has used the full breadth of his dictionary in lobbing darts at Dawkins and co, he goes on to reveal his ‘big guns’ in the argument by blowing away the “New Atheists” unfounded assertions and distortions through his deep and clearly intimate knowledge of the rise of Christianity in the first 400 to 500 years of its existence. Given his understanding of ancient history and theology, he makes the case that Christianity had an enormous revolutionary impact on the world (he uses the word ‘revolution’ quite deliberately) and was far from a poison or unfortunate hiatus in what would have otherwise been an unbroken line of evolution and enlightenment from the pagan society of the ancient Greeks to the “progressive” modern world that Dawkins and co. like to believe that they live in.
As Hart says, the “New Atheists” story about how our progressive, modern world has struggled rationally, scientifically and with tolerance against the regrettable history of Christianity, irrational dogma, creative and cultural stagnation are all very nice and can be very enchanting â€œeasily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detailâ€ (p. 34).
It is not that Bentley Hart is anti-atheism as such. He just thinks that the “New Atheists” lack the heavyweight punch of some of their forebears and, it seems, that his academic background and critical faculties can’t abide an argument being made badly… especially when that argument subsequently sells by the bucketload at Waterstones (or equivalent). Bentley Hart has far more time for such predecessors as Nietzche who garners high praise in this book, not just for having a decent argument, but also for having seen his argument through to proper conclusions that had even Nietzche worried.
Atheist Delusions is a brilliant, insightful if somewhat wordy (for simple ol’ me) set of essays on the rise of Christianity in the first four or five centuries. He doesn’t white-wash the historical data into a clean and simple idyllic postcard world. He is honest about the fact that it wasn’t all sweetness and light and, in a memorable phrase, often repeats “human beings frequently disappoint”. He knows and recognises there were faults and errors in the church, but he also boldly proclaims the unprecedented impact Christianity has had.
If you’ve got a Dawkins lover to try and ‘convert’, there is a judgement to be made about whether this book is the right one for them to read. On the one hand, I’ve not read a better dismantling of such “New Atheist” arguments neither have I read a better marshalling of the historical material available. However, on the other hand, it’s not always an easy read or ‘popular’ in style like Dawkins and company even if it is beautifully written and structured. If you’re like me, you may need a dictionary by your side.
Bentley Hart is at his strongest and also at his most scary when he follows Nietzche into a consideration of what the world might look like post-Christ. If we are increasingly in a world that is post-Christian, then he wonders aloud about the future of Western civilization over the next couple of centuries and the potential slow erosion of its Christian cultural heritage. Having read his treatment of the first 500 years of Christianity and the slow erosion of the Pagan worldview into which Christianity exploded, you can picture a similar situation now with the erosion of the Christian worldview. The forecast isn’t pretty. At all. The final chapter has had me thinking ever since and is definitely worth reading for all those with an eye on the church’s engagement with culture.