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Anthony Kenny on ‘Atheist Delusions’
Posted on May 13, 2010
Well aware that the Christianization of the Roman Empire did not wipe out the evils of pagan society, Hart is generous in concessions to the opposition. He has no illusions about the great Christian emperors. Constantine was “a violent, puritanical, ponderous, late Roman brute”. Theodosius was a harsh persecutor of pagans and heretics. Justinian was one “whom nobody very much liked or likes”. Surprisingly, the one emperor who gets a kind word is Constantine’s apostate nephew Julian, who tried to reintroduce paganism. “Of all the emperors in the Constantinian line Julian alone stands free of any suspicion of bad faith. He was also without question the most estimable and attractive of the lot.” It is wrong, Hart argues, to see Christianity as invading a joyful pagan milieu of vitality and mirth, and turning the world grey with its breath. Late antiquity was an era of fear and melancholy, and contempt for the body was a leitmotif of many of its thinkers. Christianity provided a liberating message, in which the resurrection of Jesus offered hope of the transfiguration of the flesh and the glorification of all creation.
Christianity slowly gave greater freedom to the oppressed of the present world. The legislation of Constantine and Theodosius II improved the status of women, whether virgins, wives or widows. Christian husbands, unlike pagan ones, could not force their wives to submit to abortion or to expose their infants. In the course of Christian history, the foundation of hospitals, leper asylums, almshouses and hostels palliated the lot of the most downtrodden members of society.
Hart cannot deny that the institution of slavery long outlasted Western Europe’s conversion to Christianity. With a shrug, he observes that it is no more surprising that some pagan moral values survived in a Christian culture than that some Christian moral values survive in our secular culture today. He can point to imperial edicts ameliorating the lot of slaves, and he can quote a sermon of St Gregory of Nyssa as early as 379 that attacked slavery as an institution, denouncing as blasphemous the claim of any human being to own another human being.
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
By David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 272 pages
In his final plea for the defence, Hart puts to the jury the question “When Christianity departs, what is left behind?”. The highest ideals of the secular project, he proclaims, are borrowed ideals, and Nietzsche was right that any effort to cast off the Christian faith while retaining the best elements of Christian morality is doomed to defeat. In an ultimate flourish he dons the robes of opposing counsel. “To use Richard Dawkins’s justly famous metaphor (which unfortunately he does not quite grasp is a metaphor), memes like “human rights” and “human dignity” may not indefinitely continue to replicate themselves once the Christian ‘infinite value of every life’ meme has died out.”
Let us now abandon the forensic context, and ask how accurate is Hart’s historical narrative .
The set-piece treatments of the iconic events of secularist propaganda—the burning of the Alexandria library, the Spanish Inquisition, the trial of Galileo and so on—are detailed and often convincing. But the book is full of generalizations that spur the reader to look for—and often to find—counter-examples.
For instance, in expounding the significance of the gospel story of the denial and repentance of Peter, Hart claims that in a pagan world “Peter, as a rustic could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy”. To say this is to ignore the existence of a whole genre of classical poetry devoted to the joys and sorrows of rustics, namely pastoral elegy.
Frequently, in order to emphasize the originality of Christianity, Hart devalues the achievements of Classical antiquity. Science as we understand it, he claims, depends on Christian underpinning. But if science is the collaborative pursuit of truth about the world by empirical inquiries whose results are structured into a theoretical discipline, then the West’s first centre of scientific research was Aristotle’s Lyceum.
Hart is not at his best when discussing Aristotle.
He cannot have read The History of Animals when he calls Albert the Great “the father of biological field research”. In physics he believes that Aristotle’s prime mover was an outermost crystalline sphere, when in fact it was an incorporeal divinity outside the universe. (How Hart would have crowed if he had come across such a howler in Hitchens!) Hart is right that the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were not so much a liberation from religious authority as from latter-day Aristotelianism. But the persistence of Aristotle’s cosmology for many centuries after its sell-by date was partly due to the religious cultures in which it survived. His works became the possession of “peoples of the book”—Muslims, Jews and Christians, and accordingly they were treated in the way that sacred texts are treated. That is why many of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, instead of following Aristotle’s example of original investigation, wrote commentaries on his scientific works.
Hart’s comparisons between Classical and Christian eras are all too often partisan. In order to portray Christianity as more cheerful than paganism, he has to downplay the patristic teaching that everlasting torment awaited the majority of mankind. To claim that the ultimate equality of all humans is an exclusively Christian doctrine he has to ignore the teaching of Stoics such as the slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. To explain his admiration for Julian the Apostate, he has to claim that of all the emperors between Constantine and Theodosius he was the most “genuinely Christian in sensibility”.
The truth is surely that the institutions and values we cherish, like the works of art and architecture that we prize, are not the exclusive property of any one stage in our long history. Some institutions, like democracy, were invented in the ancient world, and others, like universities, date from the Middle Ages. Some values, such as philanthropy, are part of our Judaeo-Christian inheritance: others, such as freedom of speech, we owe to the Enlightenment. Some values and institutions can be credited to more recent times, such as the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women. Surely, we should be grateful to our ancestors, near and distant, for the good things they handed on to us, and we should do our best to eradicate the evils we have inherited from them. But we can also agree with Hart that to regard our own age as blest beyond all others with an overplus of good versus evil is the height of folly.
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