David Bentley Hart is a Christian author, and he’s made several valuable contributions besides this book, among them the excellent The Story of Christianity, an Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith, and his newest, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press 2013). Atheist Delusions serves as a partial response to the New Atheist mudslide that we witnessed in the latter half of the ‘oughts. If you’ve had occasion to read the Dennetts, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harrises of the world, and have found yourself aghast at the shallowness of those efforts, you’ll appreciate what Hart has to say about them here, and more importantly, you’ll see Hart demonstrate how critical thinking on questions of religion ought to be done.
But understand, Atheist Delusions is not quite as broad as the name suggests. Hart is a philosopher and historian. The main thrust of this book is to debunk the professional atheists’ slanders of the impact of Christianity on history. Early on, Hart lays what seems to be the philosophical groundwork for what comes next. He attempts to identify a foundational belief for the new atheists: a belief that there is a nothing, and a belief in nothing. He writes that “To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing.” He goes on to explain that while people do believe in this or that thing or idea, they have a radical, underlying faith in “the nothing,” or “nothingness as such.” He goes on to make clear on what it is that we base our current philosophical basis for a search for freedom: philosophical nihilism as peace and freedom:
Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.
This is modernity’s model of freedom. Hart recounts the pre-pagan and pagan mindsets, in contrast to that of Christianity. In that respect his work resembles the early portion of Larry Seidentop’s recent book, Inventing the Individual. These two works together suggest a useful formulation for dividing history into three epochs (not that either author proposed it): paganism, Christianity, and modernity. Although it’s dangerous to generalize too much about the mind-sets of peoples in various ages, there seems to truly be a different paradigm extant during these eras of history, that is worth understanding, particularly because those residing within these epochs are unlikely to see outside the paradigm they hold.
And another point of thought, if you’re past a half-century old as this reviewer is: we do indeed live in interesting times, if only because the lifetime of many living now straddles the shift from a Christian to a modernist substrate for human understanding.
But, back to Hart’s main point about history. He notes that atheists make much of the so-called “religious wars” of Europe, and Hart debunks that. He argues that which ought to be fairly obvious to us anyway, if we have just a little understanding of history and of human nature: religion is invoked in the service of non-religious aims. Religion as such was not the source of the conflicts. In fact, the real motivations were instead the “birth pangs” of the modern state and “its limitless license to murder.” Thus, not only do modern atheist apologists misapprehend the true nature of pre-20th century strife, they miss the trends by which atheism itself is implicated in violence. In all the prior wars, including the so-called Religious Wars, there was some church restraint on war’s rapacity. The absolute state and the advent of total war commencing in the 20th century signify the removal of those restraints. They are products of post-Christian modernity. It is atheism as an ideology that has much to answer for, in the unprecedented bloodshed of the last 100 years.
About materialism? It is not a fact of experience or deduction of logic, but rather only a metaphysical prejudice; nothing more. Hart argues that it is more irrational than any other such metaphysical prejudice. Materialists, he concludes, are atheist fundamentalists. Lest we miss the tie-ins to his in-depth observations about history, Hart returns frequently to the idea that the true essence of modernity is a particular conception of what it is to be free. “Freedom—conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will—is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth.” By this we demark the passage out of view of historical Christianity as a paradigm of civilization, to the bloody and desperate struggles of modern atheism.
Read this, for an antidote to anti-factual history in service to materialist ideology.
(See, Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2009))