I was prompted by this post to get hold of an (audio) copy of David Bentley Hart’s 2009 book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
I listened to the whole thing during the course of a short walking trip. Here are a few random thoughts by way of response.
As some other reviewers have pointed out, the book’s main title (‘Atheist Delusions’) was quite possibly chosen by the publishers, and not by the author, and serves more as an attention-grabber than as an accurate guide to content. The book is by no means a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the opinions of Dawkins, Dennett and others (who are all dismissed contemptuously; Hart expresses regret that there are no honourable atheists around, wearing the mantle of a Celsus, a Hume or a Nietsche).
The sub-title, on the other hand, does give some indication of the book’s main thesis: that the revolution that Christianity brought about, far from retarding the progress of humanity (as critics are fond of asserting), actually enhanced it immeasurably. All things considered, Christianity was a vast improvement on the paganism which it largely supplanted, and on the modernism which now threatens to bite off the hand which fed her all her best attributes.
Hart rightly does not make it his business to defend Christendom (Christianity in its institutionalised and politicised forms). Still less does he set out to defend ‘religion’ in general (for ‘religion’ is an abstract term which embraces a bewildering array of beliefs and practices, varying from the saintly, to the wrong-headed, through to the murderous). Nor does he attempt to whitewash over Christianity’s many failings; but when Christianity fails it is despite itself, whereas when modernism fails it is because of itself. Christianity, you see, is truly humanising, whereas modernism is essentially dehumanising.
Much of Bentley-Hart’s argument is historical. As far as I can tell, his knowledge in this area is both wide and accurate, and his judgement sound. It was no light thing to convert from paganism to Christian faith in the early centuries AD, and we should not make light either of the evils of the paganism from which people turned or of the goodness of the faith which they now embraced.
One of the ‘myths’ that Bentley-Hart seeks to debunk is the idea that Christianity held back scientific progress by suppressing the learning of the Greeks. Not so, he says. Greek learning had already fallen into neglect by the time that Christianity arrived on the scene. Far from destroying the artefacts of this earlier learning, Christians went to considerable pains to preserve and translate them. Copernicus and the other pioneers of modern science did not awaken the world from centuries of dark slumber but were rather the heirs of a continuous tradition of theoretical and practical work in mathematics and astronomy.
Bentley- Hart agrees that it is difficult fully to explain why Christianity tolerated slavery for so long. Maybe slavery was so deeply ingrained in ancient society that even the most enlightened persons could no more be expected to abolish it outright than they might be expected to come up with a cure for cancer. Still, says Bentley-Hart, Christians revolutionised the institution, even while it fell short of abolishing it. For one thing, Christianity had taught from the beginning that slaves and masters were one in Christ, that slaves should be treated with consideration and respect, and that opportunities should provided for manumission. There seems to have been one lone voice railing against the very concept of slavery, and that was the voice of Gregory of Nyssa, a Christian. And it was due to a Christian impetus that slavery was, in the end, abolished in the West.
The record is put straight on a number of other historical matters. Pre-Christian paganism was not the noble, happy world that some imagine it to have been. The great library at Alexandria. The story of Galileo is not so much a story of conflict between science and faith, as of conflict between two tetchy personalities – Galileo and the Pope.
The notion that Christianity is intrinsically or habitually violent is rejected. At only one period – the time of the Crusades – was Christianity involved in anything that might be called a ‘holy war’, and even then the religious motivation and theological rationale were secondary to other considerations. At other times (including the so-called European ‘wars of religion’ in the 16th century) the drivers were even more obviously social and political. They were, in fact, the birth-pangs of the modern state. But even if it is true that Christianity has killed its thousands, then securalism has killed its millions, as the record of the 20th century shows.
Hart writes as a Christian believer of the Eastern Orthodox variety. Not surprisingly, he gives ‘two cheers’ for Eastern Christianity, ‘one cheer’ for Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) faith, but he scarcely mentions of Protestantism. I am not quite sure of the extent to which the theological views he expresses are representative of Orthodoxy, or are more peculiar to himself. He strongly emphasises the incarnation and, in fact, makes the actuality of God-come-in-human-flesh the lynch-pin of his theological argument concerning the humanising effects of Christianity. But he does not tell us how he knows this doctrine is true, since he seems to think that the Bible itself is ambiguous on this matter (with, for example, John 1:1 permitting an Arian Christology and John 20:28 teaching a higher and fully orthodox view of Christ), and that the Church only arrived at a clear view some centuries later. Christ’s resurrection is affirmed, albeit more briefly. But I could discern little emphasis on or explication of the Cross and Christ’s work of atonement. He seems to find more meaning in Peter’s tears than in Christ’s death. The theological underpinning of the book was, in my opinion, weak.
On the other hand, Hart is rightly dismissive of those (mainly popular) writers who think that orthodox (i.e. Nicean) Christianity emerged, if not by chance then from a superior show of strength, from the various options (including Gnostic forms) that were available at the time. Gnosticism and Christianity were, in many important respects, not alternatives, but opposites.
Where modernism seeks to treat all people with equal dignity, it is simply because of its (largely unacknowledged) debt to Christianity. But modernism has no reasons within itself for such a high view of personhood. There are, rather, within modern secularism. the seeds of a deeply dehumanising attitude. A willingness to kill countless numbers of non-combatants in war, to destroy huge numbers of unwanted children in the womb (and, in the teaching of Peter Singer, to allow for the killing of disabled children after birth), to dream of genetic modifications of the most outrageous kinds, and so on, can only arise when the belief that we all bear the divine image is forgotten or denied.