Hart: Atheist Delusions

August 10, 2009

Atheist Delusions
The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart (Yale, 2009)
253 p.  First reading.

There is a story that modernity tells itself about itself.  The main characters and plot points are familiar to us all: modernity is preeminently devoted to reason and freedom; it is the heir of the beauty and rationality of ancient Greece and Rome; between us and those halcyon days there intervened a period of intellectual squalor, political oppression, and religious fanaticism; the preeminent power in those dark days was the Christian church, notable for its antagonism to learning and science, its hatred of the body and the physical world, its misogyny, its suppression of individuality and violent intolerance of difference, and its uniquely irrational devotion to faith.  In these latter days, thanks to the courage and intelligence of certain great figures, the power of this notorious institution has been overthrown, and we have since experienced a steady march of progress toward greater liberty, rationality, and happiness.

Although it is not his primary purpose, David Bentley Hart devotes a considerable portion of his book to a systematic demolition of this flattering mythology of our secular age.  He amasses historical evidence that complicates, and in some cases sharply contradicts, the received wisdom.  At times this involves looking closely at particular historical episodes — the Galileo affair, the death of Hypatia, the Thirty Years War, the destruction of the Alexandrian library — and at other times it proceeds thematically to examine issues such as the relationship of faith and reason, the fortunes of slavery in Christian civilization, the ethos of medieval science, and the origins of hospitals and charitable institutions in the West.  This historical material is not original, but welcome nonetheless.  It is good to be reminded that the actual past differed from our lazy recollection of it.

The purpose of this demolition is to clear space for a renewed appraisal of the deeper foundations on which our culture is built.  Hart’s basic claim is that we live in a world that has been deeply and pervasively transformed by Christianity.   He does not contest that our culture may be post-Christian, but insists that it is specifically post-Christian.  This powerful shaping of our culture by Christianity he calls “the Christian revolution”, and he argues that it altered everything from politics and morality, to our understanding of nature, to our very self-understanding.  The scope of the revolution can only be truly appreciated if we understand the classical world into which the Christian gospel entered.  The secular mind is prone to consider itself closer in spirit to the ancients than to the medievals. (The European Union’s statement about its cultural inheritance is a notorious manifestation of this tendency.)   Hart remarks that this misapprehension is due largely to the success with which Enlightenment thinkers fashioned for themselves a conception of the ancient world that suited their purposes and served their aims.  For them, the ancient world was made beautiful by reason and tolerance.  Hart adduces a very different picture; he characterizes late antiquity as “a twilit world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning”.  It was a world in which religion and politics were tightly interwoven, in which the gods were capricious and sometimes cruel, in which the high God was impossibly remote, and in which the body was a prison from which the soul sought escape.  The stability of the sacred order was maintained through the violence of sacrifice.  In late antiquity religion became progressively more superstitious and experimental, devolving to the point where it was notable chiefly for “the vapid obscurantism, the incontinent mythopoesis, the infantile symbolism, the sickly detestation of the body, the profound misanthropy, and so on.”  (Incidentally, “incontinent mythopoesis” is one of those incomparable coinages that this author liberally sprinkles through everything he writes.)  Yet at the heart of antique religion lay an insight, “a profound sense that somehow one is not truly at home in the world, and a deep longing for escape.”  Early Christians viewed their rejection of ancient religion as an escape, not from reason and tolerance, but from superstition and moral callousness.  Christianity appeared to them as a triumphant proclamation of liberty:

Whatever else Christianity brought into the late antique world, the principal gift it offered to pagan culture was a liberation from spiritual anxiety, from the desperation born of a hopeless longing for escape, from the sadness of having to forsake the love of the world absolutely in order to find salvation, from a morbid terror of the body, and from the fear that the cosmic powers on high might prevent the spirit from reaching its heavenly home.

For such reasons, Christianity was attractive to men and women in the ancient world.  It steadily gathered adherents, and, as its influence spread, it began a long and slow process of transformation of thought and culture.  Hart believes that this transformation has been, on balance, for the better, but he does not intend to defend the whole historical record of Christian societies:

The gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures — the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized — producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age, institutional and personal, and suffering countless betrayals and perversions in every generation.

The slow and halting transformation of society proceeded along many fronts; I shall briefly draw attention to four of the most important.  First, in politics, Christianity desacralized the state.  We are accustomed to think of the marriage of church and state as having been consummated in the Middle Ages, but this is not true; in the ancient world the two were frequently so close as to have been indistinct: “Every state was also a cult, or a plurality of cults; society was a religious dispensation; the celestial and political orders belonged to a single continuum; and one’s allegiance to one’s gods was also one’s loyalty to one’s nation, people, masters, and monarchs.”  The Church, on the other hand, was an universal polity, cutting across the boundaries of state power and religious allegiance.  It was this, more than any other quality, that most incensed Celsus in the second-century, for he perceived in Christianity a dangerous threat to the whole social order of antiquity.

Second, the influence of Christian doctrine has profoundly shaped our understanding of and relationship to the natural world.  Various conceptions of nature circulated in the ancient world: some believed that the physical world was an illusion or a prison, others that it was an emanation that proceeded by necessity from a remote and inaccessible deity.  To some it was an object of worship, to others an object of fear and anxiety.  Christianity declared it to be a creature, created freely by God out of a superabundance of love.  Hart’s description of the contrast between these two views is so revealing that I can’t resist quoting it:

Christian thought taught that the world was entirely God’s creature, called from nothingness, not out of any need on his part, but by grace; and that the God who is Trinity required nothing to add to his fellowship, bounty, or joy, but created out of love alone.  In a sense, God and world were both set free: God was now understood as fully transcendent of — and therefore immanent within — the created order, and the world was now understood entirely as gift.  And this necessarily altered the relation between humanity and nature.  This world, it was now believed, was neither mere base illusion and “dissimilitude,” nor a quasi-divine dynamo of occult energies, nor a god, nor a prison.  As a gratuitous work of transcendent love it was to be received with gratitude, delighted in as an act of divine pleasure, mourned as a victim of human sin, admired as a radiant manifestation of divine glory, recognized as a fellow creature; it might justly be cherished, cultivated, investigated, enjoyed, but not feared, not rejected as evil or deficient, and certainly not worshiped.  In this and other ways the Christian revolution gave Western culture the world simply as world, demystified and so (only seemingly paradoxically) full of innumerable wonders to be explored.

Third, and more profoundly, Christianity changed our moral intuitions. It sowed within our consciences a “strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness”.  The bestselling hawkers of atheism sometimes talk as though Christianity were at heart bloodthirsty and war-mongering, but Nietzsche’s cold hatred saw more truly: Christianity gave birth to an ethic of compassion.  Today if one claims to be a victim it grants one a certain moral status; to have tried that tactic with a Roman would have earned one a derisive laugh, at best. Christ taught us to see dignity and humanity — indeed, to see his very self — in the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. In this he initiated a “transvaluation of all values”, a true “slave revolt” — to use Nietzsche’s contemptuous term — but, as Hart points out, it was “a slave revolt from above”, a rebellion sparked by the actions of the Lord himself.

This transvaluation of values is present in the Gospels; Hart focuses in particular on the scenes of Jesus before Pilate.  To an ancient audience the meaning of the scene is clear: a man of no distinction, without power, broken and humiliated, who speaks vaguely of a kingdom not of this world is confronted by a man whose person and position inherit the dignity of the gods.  Pilate’s judgement, almost by the very terms of the encounter, is just, for Jesus has no standing before the law, and no claim to mercy, and his death restores divine order by destroying the sower of discord.  We, however, cannot see the scene in this way, for the figure of Christ, whether we consider ourselves Christians or not, evokes pity and sympathy, and stands before us with a tragic dignity.  “We cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor…”  This is quite right: the grandeur of the persecutor was shown a sham by the Resurrection, in which God himself took the side of the one who had been thought vanquished.  We can therefore see that the Resurrection overturned the moral and political order of antiquity in “an epochal reversal of all values”.

At the heart of the moral revolution wrought by Christian thought was a new conception of the human person. Hart again points to the Gospel, this time to the story of Peter’s denial of Christ.  When the cock crowed, Peter “went out and wept bitterly”.  What are we to make of these tears?  To an ancient Roman audience, Hart argues, they would have been embarrassing and discordant, for of what value are the tears of a rustic peasant?  Peter “could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice.”  Yet those tears do move us.  Through them we begin to see

something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of infinite value.

This doctrine of intrinsic human dignity asserted that women and men, slaves and freemen, Greeks and Jews were all equal before God, made in his image, and capable of eternal union with Him.  This dignity was not based on wealth, or rank, or blood.  The proclamation of this doctrine was the proclamation of human equality as such, and to the ancients this was “a monstrous impiety and noisomely wicked degeneracy”, for it subverted the natural hierarchical ordering of society. Christians, however, said that since Christ had united himself to human nature, human nature itself was henceforth a holy thing.  Even if a particular person happens to be sick, or old, or young, or poor, they still possess this dignity simply by virtue of their humanity.  And since the inner life is where the drama of sin and redemption plays out, where Christ meets each sinner’s soul, it is immensely important and worthy of reverence.

This immense dignity — this infinite capacity — inheres in every person, no matter what circumstances might for now seem to limit him or her to one destiny or another.  No previous Western vision of the human being remotely resembles this one, and no other so fruitfully succeeded in embracing at once the entire range of finite human nature, in all the intricacy of its inner and outer dimensions, while simultaneously affirming the transcendent possibility and strange grandeur present within each person.

The doctrine of intrinsic human dignity penetrated deeply into our moral consciousness.  It took time.  Consider, for instance, the slow pressure that it placed on the institution of slavery.  The first unequivocal denunciation of slavery as an institution was pronounced by St. Gregory of Nyssa in around 380.  His argument was theological: given that each person is an image of God, what price can be set on them?  God himself has endowed each person with freedom, such that even He may not enslave them; what man then can justly claim to enslave another?  All are equal before God.  Now, Hart judges Christianity’s historical record in this regard to be middling, for it took centuries for the argument to prevail and overthrow slavery in Christian lands.  The conversion of cultures is slow, but once an evil is recognized as such, the essential work is done, for then the drama of repentance, rebellion, forgiveness, and conversion can take place.

In fact, it is still taking place.  We still resist the implications of this teaching, but we do it by defining certain groups as “non-persons” rather than by denying the teaching itself.  In fact, our commitment to human dignity and equality is so thorough that we are sometimes inclined to believe that it is true by nature, a truth evident to any open and rational mind.  But, says Hart, this is indefensible both historically and philosophically, for cultures in other times and places have not seen this truth, and there is no purely rational ethics deducible from logic and nature.  “Nature admits of no moral principles at all, and so can provide none. . .”

**

All this is of more than academic interest, for Hart persists in making a discomfiting but very reasonable inquiry: if it is indeed true that our foundational ideas about the human person, about human life, and about our relationship to nature and the divine are ultimately based on Christian doctrine, what happens when that doctrine is forsaken?  Modernity is engaged in a great experiment in which adherence to the Gospel plays no part, yet it received from Christian culture an immense moral and philosophical inheritance.  How much of that inheritance can persist if the principles that gave it shape and unity are abandoned?  We know after all, that cultures change; Christianity proposed new principles, and changed the ancient world; secular modernity, too, has principles of its own, and it is only reasonable to wonder where they lead, and whether they are able to sustain the Christian inheritance.

To answer this, we must attend to the ideas which are closest to modernity’s heart.  These, as we have already said, are a devotion to reason and freedom.  The first of these Hart contends is unstable and secondary.  The particular concept of reason which modernity adopted was thin and instrumental, bereft of reference to virtue or beauty, and without any apparent relationship to divine truth.  Reason has served mostly as a wedge to pry modern culture loose from history and tradition, the better to give unfettered play to our wills:

[We] are anything but rationalists now, so we no longer need cling to the pretense that reason was ever our paramount concern; we are today more likely to be committed to ‘my truth’ than to any notion of truth in general, no matter where that might lead. The myth of ‘enlightenment’ served well to liberate us from any antique notions of divine or natural law that might place unwelcome constraints upon our wills; but it has discharged its part and lingers on now only as a kind of habit of rhetoric.

In this I believe Hart is correct: it is not reason but freedom that is the central value for our times.  And the particular concept of freedom to which secular modernity is committed is different from what came before.  True freedom, we are told, means autonomy of the will, the power of choice as such.  The liberty of a choice derives from the fact that it is unrestrained, rather than from the thing that is chosen.  There is no horizon of the good against which to judge a choice; if it was free, then it was good.  “Neither God, then, nor nature, nor reason provides the measure of an act’s true liberty, for an act is free only because it might be done in defiance of all three.”  This notion of freedom is therefore at odds with the whole Christian tradition, and is, at root, hostile even to reason.

It also conceals within itself a set of metaphysical commitments, and Hart unfolds them for us.  It conceives of the world as “an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index.”  Or, again, as “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.”  To say that the autonomy of the will is the highest good is to say that the will has no master and need not conform itself to any higher reality or transcendent order.  It is to say that beyond the sheer power of the will there lies, not just nothing, but the nothing.  Such freedom is, to use the term precisely (and not pejoratively), nihilistic.

This analysis implies that for secular modernity, neither tradition nor authority nor any lingering nostalgia for a transcendent order can finally command assent.  To be free is to be free of the accumulated weight of history; to be free means to be unconstrained by conventional notions of what is “natural”; to be truly free, in the modern sense, means to pour corrosive acid on whatever restrains the will, and then to will a future of our own devising.  Freedom is power, with no obvious relationship to love, mercy, or any of the other Christian virtues.  It is fairly evident, I believe, that if this account of things is substantially correct, modernity is unable, on its own terms, to preserve the Christian inheritance, or any other inheritance for that matter.  It unmoors itself, and goes its own way.

Where does it go?  Hart argues that history has already begun to show us.  We see it in the unparalleled violence of the modern period, and especially of the last century, in which mountains of corpses were piled up in the effort to will a new order.  Here, I think, we come upon the stinger at the core of Hart’s argument:

. . .all the astonishing violence of the modern age — from the earliest European wars of the emergent nation-state onward — is no less proper an expression (and measure) of the modern story of human freedom than are the various political and social movements that have produced the modern West’s special combination of general liberty, material abundance, cultural mediocrity, and spiritual poverty.  To fail to acknowledge this would be to close our eyes to the possibilities for evil that have been opened up in our history by the values we most dearly prize and by the “truths” we most fervently adore.

In other words, Hart will not allow us to point at “them” — the savage dictators of the modern age, the advocates of eugenics, the practitioners of euthanasia and abortion, the “transhumanists”, etc. — with equanimity, for we are all caught up in the same story, and “their” actions are often not as foreign to our values as we would like to think.

On these grounds, Hart is not optimistic about the future.  Modernity, he believes, is a monster, capable of both great good and great evil, but unable on its own terms to clearly distinguish one from the other, and so unable to steer a clear path. In the closing pages of the book he turns for encouragement and instruction to the example of the Desert Fathers, who separated themselves from the decadence and decline of their culture in order to love God, discipline their wills, and keep their eyes on the prize.  They set, he seems to be saying, a good example, and those of us not in thrall to the modern project do well to keep them in mind.

**

In summary, Hart argues, first, that “the Christian account of reality introduced into our world an understanding of the divine, the cosmic, and the human that had no exact or even proximate equivalent elsewhere and that made possible a moral vision of the human person that has haunted us ever since. . .”, and, second, that modernity, because of its special devotion to autonomy and freedom, cannot sustain the Christian view, nor finally admit any other good that interferes with the ongoing process of self-expression and self-definition. “Only the will persists, set before the abyss of limitless possibility, seeking its way — or forging its way — in the dark.”

**

This is a wonderful book, written with verve and wit, and backed up by long and serious study.  Hart is sometimes prone to overstatement; his affection for words like only, never, necessarily, always, and unquestionably gets the better of him at times, and this makes the book more combative and provocative than it needed to be.  But that is part of Hart’s style; a big-hearted book like his The Beauty of the Infinite doesn’t get written by someone who minces words, and the same applies here.  Atheist Delusions is not only a good book, but also I think an important one, for it is written against the self-image of the age by someone who is serious, learned, and thoughtful.  That ought to be enough for anybody to give him a hearing.

**

Incidentally, the book has been marketed as a rejoinder to the bestselling atheism books that have been issued in recent years.  This is a little misleading.  It is true that several short chapters have been stapled to the front of the book in which Hart deploys his superb rhetoric at the expense of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.  He has a reputation as a man who does not suffer fools gladly, and he has little respect for the efforts of these public atheists.  Serious critics of Christianity, he says, hold “the amiable belief that they should make some effort to acquaint themselves with the object of their critique”, but regrettably the same conscientious spirit does not animate these recent efforts.  Convinced as they are of the “sheer passive idiocy of belief” (Hart’s marvelous phrase), they simply have not done their homework.  Truth be told, it was a little embarrassing to see Hart, who is quite comfortable navigating in deep intellectual waters, thrashing around in the shallows with these foes, and I was glad that he didn’t linger over them for too long.

Hart’s project relates to the popular atheism projects not as a point by point rebuttal of their patchwork case against God and religion, nor even as a positive argument for the existence of God or the benefits of religion (Hart offers neither), but as an exposé of the historical ignorance and spiritual complacency underlying those projects.  Hitchens, Dawkins, and the rest of them are notable adherents of the mythology of modernity that I sketched earlier; they seem confident that once religion, that indiscriminate poisoner of all things, is dead and gone, the native rationality and goodness of humanity will finally be able to flourish without impediment.  The whole thrust of Hart’s argument is that this is absurdly facile and betrays a debilitating lack of self-understanding;  this is the atheist’s delusion.

**

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11 Responses to “Hart: Atheist Delusions”

  1. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    Your summary of Hart’s book here is an AMAZING service. Thanks so much.

  2. Giovanni Says:

    I fully echo Tracy’s sentiments. A big THANK YOU. You deserve a dinner at Ceylonta for this.

    I have to say this book seems to articulate perfectly well many thoughts I have been having of late about modernity and the enlightenment.

    A couple of comments.

    When you paraphrase Hart’s exposition of “freedom” in the modern world, you say “To say that the autonomy of the will is the highest good is to say that the will has no master and need not conform itself to any higher reality or transcendent order”. Remember another book you reviewed by J. Robinson, “The Mass and Modernity”? Does he not echo this sentiment when he talks about the lack of transcendence in many Novus Ordo Masses? Modernity has become almost all-pervasive, in my opinion. Even in Christianity we constantly feel its influences – had we only listened to St. Pius X’s warnings

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html

    – and it has become difficult to separate modernist Christianity from Traditional Christianity. It is as though “some enemy has sown weeds among the wheat.”

    “It is important to be reminded of the *actual* past, rather than our lazy recollection of it”. How true!! Even very well educated people tend to forget history and its lessons.

    That’s all for now
    Untill next time

    –Giovanni

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for the thanks. I don’t mind saying it was quite a bit of work. I think this might be the longest Book Note I’ve written. Giovanni, Ceylonta sounds great after all that writing!

    I hadn’t thought about a connection between Hart’s argument and Fr. Robinson’s. It is not impossible that there is one, but I’d be cautious about drawing too straight a line. Fr. Robinson argued that the loss of transcendence manifest primarily by elevating politics and the development of “the community”, whereas Hart stresses the concept of freedom peculiar to our times and its incompatibility with a robust sense of transcendent order. Both are developing their arguments in response to modern philosophy — Fr. Robinson largely to Hegel, Hart to Hegel’s heirs — but they are not quite saying the same thing. At least, so it seems to me.

    • Giovanni Says:

      As a Christian, I am chiefly concerned with the state of Christianity, and the response of Christianity to modernity. As an uneducated layman, the subtleties of what philosopher said what and at what time, are of less concern to me.

      What I was trying to point out is that, in the present age, there is s problem with the Christian response to modernity (in that modernity is in some way diminishing the Christian message); and that both Hart and Robinson point this out in, as you put it, different ways. It is very important, I think, that writers are finally realizing this and expressing it.

      I also think that the sooner we Christians acknowledge this problem, the sooner we can start fixing it.

      –Giovanni

  4. Giovanni Says:

    I feel that my tone in this last post of mine on this thread might have sounded a bit too confrontational. I do apologize if it has disturbed or offended anyone.

    –Giovanni


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  6. ig Says:

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  7. Thank you for the skillful summary of Hart’s award winning book. I am delighted and challenged by Hart’s book and think you have been able to articulate Hart’s most important contribution in a way that even those who would not spend time reading the book would still be able to take home his important points. Question: I work as a reference librarian, sometimes reviewing books. This is the best review I have seen of Hart’s book. Would you give me permission to put your book review on a public library blog so that a wider readership might benefit from your work?


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