David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
(Yale University Press, 2009)
£19.99, 272 pages
Buy from: http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300111903
Author details: http://orthodoxwiki.org/David_Bentley_Hart
Atheist Delusions is an excellent Christian response to the new atheists (these include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett). Hart laments the quality of the modern critics of Christianity. In the early church, pagan critics really understood the faith against which they were arguing. More recently, philosophers such as Nietzsche and Hume also had an accurate understanding of Christianity when they argued against it. Nietzsche in particular realised that the effect of Christianity was to support the weak and helpless, and this is precisely what he criticised in it. The modern critics, however, seek to portray faith as being detrimental to morality – without realising that the morality they themselves employ is the result of a Christian revolution in history. The modern moral consensus in large areas is not something inevitable, but rather the result of the impact of Christianity on the Western Roman Empire and its descendants over thousands of years.
Hart’s method is to systematically tackle common perceptions about the negative impact of Christianity on the West in the Middle Ages, which results in the idea of the ‘dark age’. Hart argues that Christianity was not detrimental to reason, science, and tolerance. Rather, for example, it was the undermining of classical Greek and Roman thought by Christianity that opened up the possibility of modern science. He goes on to examine the impact of Christianity on moral society, and concludes by arguing that secularisation in the West is undoing some of these changes and taking our civilisation back into the darkness which preceded it.
Hart’s section on ‘The Christian Invention of the Human’ is particularly illuminating. The principle idea here is that Christianity caused the rapid spread of the Jewish notion of the infinite worth of every human being regardless of social status, wealth, or any other factor. Christianity was responsible for hospitals, schools, and (admittedly terribly late) the abolition of slavery. In Roman society, the tears of a peasant or slave were not worth recording, except as the butt of a joke. How revolutionary it is then, that Matthew’s Gospel records Peter’s tears after he denies Jesus, not as a joke, but as a serious and solemn matter (see Matthew 26:75).
Hart concludes that we are now in a time when we are losing the Christian idea of the human, and that Christianity must adopt a form much more similar to the desert fathers who withdrew into the desert to pray, to be an ark for the preservation of Christianity, and be content not to be at the heart of modern consciousness. This is not as bad as it might sound – many of the spiritual children of the desert fathers went out into the Roman Empire and, empowered by their sustained prayer, changed the world.
The essence of the book, then, is that the common image of the glorious light of the Roman Empire giving way to the dark ages, which then give way to Renaissance and Enlightenment with the rediscovery of classical culture, is wrong. Rather, we should think of the dark and brutal Roman Empire, which under the influence of Christianity brought forth a shining Christian era in the West that now seems to be ending, just as Christianity continues to expand rapidly in other parts of the world. Meanwhile in the West the darkness threatens to return, albeit in a different form.
Hart writes well, and this is a book to be savoured and enjoyed. Many reviewers consider the book to end on a more negative note than is necessary, but we will leave it to the reader to decide.