Monday, June 21, 2010

Atheist Delusions - Short Review

I recently concluded the phenomenal Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and it's Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. The title gives the impression that it would be an all-out polemic, and in a certain sense it is. However the vast majority of the book focuses on a few central claims made by atheists and proceeds to dismantle them in such extreme historical detail that the focus shifts away from the arguments being refuted to the history itself. The subtitle of the book should probably be the title; the book is much more about the Christian revolution within Western history than it is about it's enemies. Though it does use those enemies as a jumping off point, essentially structuring the book as a response to various critiques, and juxtaposing these (mostly amateur, petulant) modern critiques to the, in some ways, much more sophisticated and legitimate critiques of great unbelievers of the past, most notably Nietzsche. Who, Hart claims, was one of the few who actually understood the gravity of exactly what it was he was opposing, and all the associated consequences. Whereas modern critics want to blithely reject Christianity while unknowingly clinging to it's moral remnants, despite rejecting the foundation that morality is built upon. Or they choose to cherish the scientific method above all else failing to recognize that it was only out of Christian societies that "science", as we understand it, came into being.

Hart goes into extensive historical detail revealing the ways in which the modern, secular narrative of Christianity's rise and influence over Western culture can not be adequately explained in the ways that many of the critics attempt to make sense of it. Hart examines in detail the ways in which these critic's narratives of Christianity in Western history i.e the "dark ages" of religion, virtuous paganism stamped out by dogmatic Christianity, burning of books, Christian suppression of science and intellectual advancement, "religious wars", and the light of secular modernity which saved us from all these etc. are either pure fictions, or are not exclusively or primarily attributable to Christianity and it's ideals (despite whatever extent they were attributable to Christians.)

He then goes on to give a detailed historical account of that which the modern critics, for the most part, don't even care to address or acknowledge; that being the unique, monumental, moral revolution in society attributable solely to Christianity. A moral revolution which we as modern peoples are heirs of, and which these same critics wholeheartedly embrace as a "humanism", unawares that such a "humanism" only became knowable, or even intelligible, through Christianity.

Though the whole book is aimed at rejecting certain arguments by atheists and secularists, Hart goes into such detail you sometimes lose sight of what argument it is he is refuting, and get immersed in a simple history of Christianity and the West. Which is fascinating stuff in it's own right, but the book excels the most when it focuses on it's targets (illegitimate, ignorant critiques of Christianity) and dismantles them. In these sections Hart is mercilessly acerbic, and it's truly beautiful stuff.

Atheist Delusions lays bare most of the conceits of the so-called 'New Atheists' handily, and without wasting space. No energy is expended attempting to exhaustively refute every claim of the 'New Atheists', many of which are irrelevantly true. Hart instead focuses on those that, if they were true, would be pretty devastating, and reveals them to be demonstrably false. All the while providing a thorough, illuminating perspective on the history of Christianity in Western culture and it's revolutionary nature.

Style footnote: Hart's prose is mostly excellent and very fun to read, though he at times sacrifices some degree of readability for overly ornate language.

Footnote #2: This article, which came out after his book, is what got me interested in the author's work. And it's on the same subject as the book, so check that out if you want an idea of what the book is like.

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