All of us know someone who is not a believer in Christ.  Many of us likely know someone who is not only an unbeliever, but one who is aggressive in their unbelief.   If the subject of religion or faith comes up, they bring up an area in which they think Christians or Christianity itself reflects poorly and hammer relentlessly against your faith.  At times, religion doesn’t even have to come up at all, knowing you are a Christian, they will bring it up using you as a target for their bully pulpit.

If you have experienced anything along these lines, or someone you care about is an unbeliever, Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart is for you . . . it is not for your unbelieving friend . . . it is for you.  Not that an unbelieving friend couldn’t benefit from reading this book.  However, in Peter’s exhortation to “always be ready” to give an answer for the “hope that is within you,” the qualification is to do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) and Hart provides very strong answers in this book.

Hart is a theologian, a visiting professor, and is referred to as a “polemicist.”  Atheist Delusions is an overview of how frequently and consistently full historical context is ignored in order to serve a humanist agenda.  Hart sets the record straight on a number of distorted narratives and he begins with this note:

Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history necessarily demands some sort of narrative of causes and effects, and is thus necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice.[1]

This is important to remember as often information is presented as an unbiased and clear view of history, when in fact, the presentation is a result of a very distorted lens.  Everyone, even historians, bring preconceptions and a particular worldview to the table.  Beware  of those who are not honest about it. Hart’s intention with the book is to present a more even handed history of the church for the first five centuries,[2] or if one does not believe a Christian can do that objectively, a reader will at least have to consider the case Hart makes as it is much more fully sourced and comprehensive than the standard church detractors. Specifically, he states:

My chief ambition in writing is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of the occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues. Stated in its most elementary and most buoyantly positive form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have sparked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one — the triumph of Christianity—that can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”: a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good. To my mind, I should add, it was an event immeasurably more impressive in its cultural creativity and more ennobling in its moral power than any other movement of spirit, will, imagination, aspiration, or accomplishment in the history of the West.[3]

(When you read about the transformative power the church has had on culture, doesn’t make you stop and question what the modern church is missing?)

Atheist Delusions is separated into four parts: “Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present”; “The Mythology of the secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past”; “Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human”; and “Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human.”

Part One: Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present

In the first part, Hart assesses the current state of the treatment of Christianity by culture as a whole, noting that it has rarely been more fashionable to bash Christianity.  He makes short work of Christianity’s most notable opponents describing Richard Dawkins as “the zoologist and tireless tractarian who—despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning—never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness”[4] and who has a penchant for inane “memes;”[5] Christopher Hitchens as the journalist “whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic;”[6] and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code as “the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.”[7] I’m sure you are beginning to see why he has earned the title of “polemicist.”

Throughout this section, Hart pokes holes in the logic (or rather points to the gaping holes) in the skeptics arguments and illustrates the areas they misinterpret, misunderstand, or misrepresent.  One particular point that he makes in skeptics’ seeming assumption that believers have never asked these same questions or examined their own faith.  He writes:

It is always perilous to attempt to tell others what or why they believe; and it is especially unwise to assume . . . that believers, as a species, do not constantly evaluate or reevaluate their beliefs.  Anyone who actually lives among persons of faith knows that this is simply untrue. Obviously, though, there is no point in demanding of believers that they produce criteria for their beliefs unless one is willing to conform one’s expectations to the kind of claims being made. For, while it is unquestionably true that perfectly neutral proofs in support of faith cannot generally be adduced, it is not a neutral form of knowledge that is at issue. Dennett’s belief that no one need take seriously any claim that cannot be tested by scientific method is merely fatuous.  By that standard, I need not believe that the battle of Salamis ever took place, that the widower next door loves the children for whom he tirelessly provides, or that I might be wise to trust my oldest friend even if he tells me something I do not care to hear.[8]

Part Two: The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting o the Christian Past

In this section, Hart demolishes some pernicious myths regarding the church’s past, such as it was only through Roman decree that Christianity was adopted rather than the fact that it was the outpouring of Christian charity to those who were social outcasts that drew people in.[9] He also addresses the mistaken, but widespread belief, that science and reason was smothered during the time of the ascendancy in the political realm of the church.  He points out that while modern scholarship has abandoned that claim and recognizes the flowering of the sciences and arts during the Middle Ages writing that the “tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, “intellectual journalism,” and vulgar legend”[10] and that it is unfortunate that it is not these from who the public get their information, but rather “bad popular histories.”[11].

Other myths Hart tackles in this section are Jonathan Kirsch’s claim that Christians burned the library at Alexandria;[12] that Christians were anti-learning and by women in particular;[13] the claim that Islam and the recurrence of paganism salvaged the West from the intellectual dustbin;[14] and that the church was at war with science including an explanation of the dynamics in play behind Galileo’s trial.[15]

Hart also spends quite a bit of time dismantling the claim that the church was the source of intolerance, bigotry, and oppression; and that it was only when the authority of the church began to decline that true freedom was obtained.  Instead, as he illustrates, that

we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. E find also that early medieval society, for all its privations, inequities, and deficiencies, was in most ways far more just, charitable, and (ultimately) peaceful than the imperial culture it succeeded , and, immeasurably more peaceful and even more charitable(incredible as this may seem to us) than the society created by the early modern triumph of the nation state.[16]

I think we can see this as true in our culture today as well.  Jesus tells us that this is not our home.  We are not living just for the here and now, but for eternity, and what we do in the now has eternal consequences.  I don’t think it was the fact that the church itself had rule, but that it was a constant reminder of who is to be the true Ruler of our life.  There are seemingly no immediate consequences for being a “bad” Christian and so it is easy to forget that while consequences may be delayed, a reckoning will eventually come.

Part Three: Revolution: The Christian Invention o the Human

As I mentioned above, we today often have a cheap view of faith.  However, in the third section, Hart highlights what a radical and “momentous” event a decision for Christ was meant to be.  He writes,

for most of the Christians of the earliest centuries; for them, baptism was of an altogether more radical nature. It was understood as nothing less than a total transformation of the person who submitted to it; and as a ritual event, it was certainly understood as being far more than a mere dramaturgical allegory of one’s choice of religious association. To become a Christian was to renounce a very great deal of what one had known and been to that point, in order to be joined to a new reality, the demands of which were absolute; it was to depart from one world, with an irrevocable finality, and to enter another.[17]

Hart includes a very detailed description of the earliest rites of baptism.  It was not a small thing. He also reminds us that Christians had a supernatural worldview, they were not simply believing naturalists.  They understood pagan gods to be deceiving spirits, and that baptism was to “renounce one’s bonds to these beings {as} and act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated from . . . ‘The prince of this world.’”[18] Hart also dispatches with the claim that early Christianity was nothing more than an amalgamation of various pagan religions, pointing out that “one cannot deny that Christianity entered the ancient world as a faith strangely incapable of alloy with other creeds . . . It differed from all other devotions in requiring of its adherents loyalty not only devout but exclusive.[19]

Rather it was, as Hart points out, the heretical Gnostic Christians who were “audaciously syncretistic and drew freely on Persian, Jewish, Mesopotamian, Greek, Syrian, and Egyptian thought simultaneously, some even to the complete exclusion of any overt Christian symbolism.”[20] The current tendency to give more weight to Gnostic thought as it relates to early Christian origins is unwarranted.  The group, in relation to the larger Christian community as a whole, was “marginal, eccentric, and novel”[21] and the thought and literature characterized by “the vapid obscurantism, the incontinent mythopoesis, the infantile symbolism, the sickly detestation of the body, [and] the profound misanthropy.”[22]

Hart shows that rather than being a religion that stifled and restricted, Christianity with its Gospel message of transformation and deliverance from the oppressive “powers” brought hope and new life to a pagan world characterized by “unremitting melancholy.”[23] The world was not an accident, an “emanation,” or a reflection of something else, but rather “the gratuitous gift of divine love, good in itself”[24] and “that by its very autonomy gives eloquent witness to the beauty and power of the God who made it.[25]”  The Christian message and worldview is not derivative, it is something entirely new. In contrast to the pagan view where the world just is, in the Christian view, it is becoming.

Part Four: Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human

In the final section, Hart returns to his disappointment with the paucity of intellect found among the New Atheists noting, “it probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief.”[26] In the remaining pages of the book, he highlights the impact of these anemic thought processes on foundational beliefs in our society: things such as liberty, values, the worth of the individual . . . a shriveling of self as well as the greater community.

To Recap

This review is a racing overview of a few of the topics within the book.  Rather than being so much a primer on atheists and their “delusions,” it is a primer on our Christian heritage, equipping us with the tools, the information to refute many of the abysmally ignorant beliefs that we come across so often.  It isn’t so much a book that you sit down and read through at one sitting (although some might), but rather one to read through in sections and have on hand for reference when subjects come up.

Study Tip

While the book does have an index of people, I recommend creating your own topical index on one of the blank pages to make it easy to find the discussion on certain topics.  For example: slavery (pages 177-178), the impact on women (pages 158-161),  the Crusades (pages 88-90), and so on.

If you’ve read the book, what are your thoughts?

David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). 253 pages.


Footnotes

[1] David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). Ix.

[2] Ibid. X.

[3] Ibid xi.

[4] Ibid. 3-4.

[5] Ibid. 7.

[6] Ibid. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 10-11.

[9] Ibid. 30-31.

[10] Ibid. 34.Other

[11] Ibid. 35.

[12] Ibid. 36-44

[13] Ibid. 45-47

[14] Ibid. 49-55.

[15] Ibid. 56-74.

[16] Ibid. 86.

[17] Ibid. 111.

[18] Ibid. 113.

[19] Ibid. 118.

[20] Ibid. 135-136.

[21] Ibid. 135.

[22] Ibid. 141.

[23] Ibid. 131.

[24] Ibid. 201.

[25] Ibid. 201.

[26] Ibid. 220.