Dec 11, 2013
Anthony Kenny on ‘Atheist Delusions’
Posted on May 13, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
In the ongoing suit of Secularism vs God, David Bentley Hart is the most able counsel for the defence in recent years. Though confident in the strength of his case, he does not hesitate to abuse the plaintiff’s attorneys, and he does so in grand style. Richard Dawkins is guilty of “rhetorical recklessness”. Christopher Hitchens’s text “careens drunkenly across the pages” of a book “that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method”. Daniel Dennett’s theses are “sustained by classifications that are entirely arbitrary and fortified by arguments that any attentive reader should notice are wholly circular”.
Hart [in his book “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies”] has the gifts of a good advocate. He writes with clarity and force, and he drives his points home again and again. He exposes his opponents’ errors of fact or logic with ruthless precision. He is generous in making concessions on his own side, provided they leave intact his overarching claims. Above all, he has ensured that his brief is modest and manageable.
Thus, no attempt is made to plead in defence of religion as such. “Religion in the abstract”, Hart says, “does not actually exist, and almost no one (apart from politicians) would profess any allegiance to it”. This is a sound and fundamental point. The creeds of the major religions are mutually contradictory, so that the one thing we know for certain about religion is that if any religion is true then most religions are false. Hart’s client is not religion in general—it is traditional Christianity. It is this, he claims, that has been misunderstood and slandered by its cultured despisers.
Again, Hart concentrates on issues of history rather than philosophy. True, he claims that Dawkins’s philosophical arguments are ones that “a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice”. However, the claim that Dawkins is philosophically illiterate is based on an ontology that would be rejected by many a seasoned professor of philosophy. Hart’s own strengths lie elsewhere, so he is wise to concentrate on narrative and invective.
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
By David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 272 pages
The aim of the first half of the book is to demolish “the mythology of a secularist age”. Secularists invite us to believe the following story. In the medieval ages of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity was enslaved to superstition. The literary remains of antiquity had been consigned to the flames, and the achievements of Greek science lay forgotten until Islam restored them to the West. The age of faith was succeeded by an age of reason and enlightenment, which gave us the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The modern separation of Church and State has put an end to the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Western humanity has at last left its nonage and attained to its majority in science, politics and ethics. “This is”, Hart says, “a simple and enchanting tale ... its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.” Six chapters demolish detailed elements of this secularist myth. Chapter Four refutes the allegations that the ancient library of Alexandria was destroyed by Christians and that the pagan philosopher Hypatia was murdered out of hatred for women and learning. Chapter Five shows that far from burning Classical texts, Christian monastic librarians preserved them from decay. Chapter Six argues that Greek science had become sterile long before the Christianization of the Roman Empire. The only innovative physicist of late antiquity, we are told, was the Christian John Philoponus. During the four and a half centuries of its scientific pre-eminence, Islam made “no more progress than a moderately clever undergraduate today could assimilate in less than a single academic year”. Paying tribute to the Oxford calculators of the fourteenth century, Hart illustrates the continuity between medieval and Renaissance science. Pope Urban VIII’s condemnation of Galileo, he claims, was not an index of inherent ecclesiastical hostility to science, but a clash of arrogant personalities.
The seventh and eighth chapters defend Christianity from the charges of intolerance and cruelty. The persecution of witches, Hart points out, was an early modern rather than a medieval phenomenon, and the inquisitors of the time did their best to suppress witchhunts.
The rise of modern science and the obsession with sorcery “were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world”. In exculpation of the use of torture and the burning of heretics, it can be said that the Church was merely following a fashion which was originated by the State. During the so-called Dark Ages, the only penalty for misbelief was excommunication, whereas in the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire heresy became a capital crime. “Violence”, Hart says, “increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished.”
Addressing the responsibility of the Church for warfare, Hart briskly gets the Crusades out of the way. Admitting that they were “holy wars”—the only ones in Christian history, he maintains—he dismisses them as “the last gaudy flourish of Western barbarian culture, embellished by the winsome ceremonies of chivalry”. The European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are treated at greater length. Here, we learn, “no prince of the time waged war against another simply on account of his faith”. In its bloodiest days the Thirty Years War was not a war of religion, but a struggle between two Catholic houses, the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. Hart is at his most convincing when he argues that for the sheer scale of its violence, the modern period trumps any of the ages of Christian faith. “The Thirty Years War, with its appalling toll of civilian casualties, was a scandal to the consciences of the nations of Europe; but midway through the twentieth century ... even liberal democracies did not scruple to bomb open cities from the air, or to use incendiary or nuclear devices to incinerate tens of thousands of civilians.”
In the second part of the book, Hart seeks to replace the secularist myth with a positive account of what he calls “the Christian revolution”—“perhaps the only true revolution in the history of the West”. Many of the values prized by modern secularists are inheritances from the early days of Christianity.
Pre-Christian cults involved human sacrifice, self-castration and self-mutilation. PreChristian society despised the poor and weak and tolerated infanticide; it enjoyed gladiatorial combat, and it was built on slavery.
Only Christianity fostered the concept of a dignity intrinsic to every human soul. Only the Church built hospitals and almshouses, and taught that charity was the highest virtue.
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