Atheist Delusions: The Review

Recently I mentioned that I was reading through “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart, and I said I would write up a review of it when I’d finished reading it. Well, I’ve finished reading it now, and really enjoyed it. Quite a lot of the book deals with the same kind of things I’ve been talking about with regards to atheism/secularism, although he takes it from a different angle. Essentially, Hart is going on a journey through Christian church history, and along the way correcting a lot of misperceptions about the past and how our society relates to that. From that perspective, I think he does brilliantly: he writes like he knows what he’s talking about – he’s done the reading and interacted with what we know historically (unlike a lot of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, who seem to basically ignore it). His basic contention is that the New Atheist reading of history is completely back-to-front, when Christianity arrived on the scene it changed the world in ways which are hard for us to imagine now.

Speaking of the New Atheists, it’s written in a fairly robust style in that he spares no love for the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris – although in general they (and especially Dawkins) spare no love for Christianity in their books so it’s like for like. And most of the book is spent not so much on interacting with their arguments directly but interacting with history and various views on it. My main problem with the style of the book was that it is fairly dense prose, which isn’t really good when you’re trying to read it late at night! It’s definitely a book which you really need to be fully awake for to read properly, but it’s worth it.

What I’d like to do is pull out some of his arguments about secularism, which should both tie in with what I’ve said before as well as give you a flavour of what the book is like. This all comes from the last quarter of the book, the previous three-quarters being groundwork for it. (I apologise that it’s a bit long… skip to the end for my tl;dr!) I’m going to do this in two sections – firstly about Christian morality as opposed to the pagan morality which preceded it, and then secularism.

Pagans, Humanity and Divinity

Firstly, then, he talks about how Western morality as we perceive it now was something of a shock to those living in the Roman Empire of the early centuries:

[on us sensing morality] But this is only because we live in the long twilight of a civilization formed by beliefs that, however obvious or trite they may seem to us, entered ancient society rather like a meteor from a clear sky. What for us is the quiet, persistent, perennial rebuke of conscience within us was, for ancient peoples, an outlandish decree issuing from a realm outside any world they could conceive.

The idea that society pre-Christianity was a good, moral and upright society is simply not true. Or, at least, not in the way that we would perceive it to be. The idea that all people were equal was laughable. Indeed, he claims that it is only because Christ descended to Earth in the form of a lowly man that it became possible to see people as divine:

Seen thus, Christ’s supposed descent from the “form of God” into the “form of a slave” is not so much a paradox as a perfect confirmation of the indwelling of the divine image in each soul. And, once the world has been seen in this way. it can never again be what it formerly was.

In other words, it was Christianity that introduced the idea that everyone was a bearer of the divine image and was thus worthy of treating well. It’s not automatic that this should be the case:

There is no such thing as “enlightened” morality, if by that one means an ethics written on the fabric of our nature, which anyone can discover simply by the light of disinterested reason. There are, rather, moral traditions … no morality is devoid of the contingencies of particular cultural histories. Whatever it is we think we mean by human “equality”, we are able to presume the moral weight of such a notion only because far deeper down in the historical strata of our shared Western consciousness we retain the memory of … a single historical event: the proclamation of Easter.

In other words, we didn’t just come to the conclusion that everyone was equal (however we define that) by science, by examing ourselves, and by reason. Instead, we came to it through – and only through – the Easter story, the story of God who became man, who became a curse for mankind. But if that is the case, if the proclamation of the Easter story changed the world, how could something like slavery had lingered on as long as it did in the Empire, despite its Christianisation? Well, Hart makes the point that:

Once a person or a people comes to recognize an evil for what it is, even if that evil is then allowed to continue for a time, in whole or in part, the most radical change has already come to pass. Thereafter, everything – penitence, regeneration, forgiveness, rebellion, reconciliation – becomes possible. For what it is to be human has been, in some real way, irrevocably altered.

It is true that some of the previously pagan morals had remained in society after Christianity was established, however this does not mean that no change was made: recognising those things as wrong was a change in itself. Additionally, there was some time where the morality of the previous pagan society lingered on, much as in society today a lot of Christianity morality remains even though people do not believe the Christian story anymore. And the pagans of the Roman Empire could be pretty bad at times.

If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was – in purely pragmatic terms – a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us

Pagan society at the time was not what we in the Western world would call ‘moral’. But yet, as Hart points out, this is presumably what we would call more ‘natural’. The ethics which we hold dear, from the idea that each human life is precious, did not occur to them. Any ideas we have of freedom and equality are derived from Christian ideas, and to think otherwise is to be truly deluded:

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

In other words, if we say that humans are basically good, that we can indeed be good without God – then we are deceiving ourselves. Our vision of equality and freedom is rooted in a dogma, and that dogma is Christianity. We see this from history. It’s not automatic, it’s not an obvious thing – it’s something fragile, a belief which in order to maintain we need to hold on to the thing which gave raise to it.

Secularism

Secondly, Hart talkes about secularism and how its proponents seem to be the ones who are actually distorting the truth:

[in the ‘New Atheists’ circles] one labels anything one dislikes – even if it is found in a purely secular setting – “religion” (thus, for example, all the twentieth-century totalitarianisms are “political religions” for which secularists need take no responsibility), while simultaneously claiming that everything good, in the arts, morality, or any other sphere – even if it emerges within an entirely religious setting – has only an accidental association with religious belief and is really, in fact, common human property … every injustice that seems to follow from a secularist principle is obviously an abuse of the principle, while any evil that comes wrapped in a cassock is unquestionably an undiluted expression of religion’s very essence.

Apologies for the long quote, but I think it captures well the spirit of much of the New Atheist secularist approach: secularism never leads to anything bad; religion always does. This seems to be only supported by a revisionist reading of history, but at the same time – what’s a bit of revisionism amongst friends? In actuality, history of the 20th century shows us a rather different picture.

At the end of the twentieth century – the century when secularization became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world – the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of … the process of secularization was marked, from the first, by the magnificent limitless of its violence.

A glance at the history of the 20th century shows us a picture of secularization which does not involve it changing the world for the better. It is rather the opposite. I have heard some claim that – as mentioned above – the atrocities were committed in the name of ‘secular religions’ which means that secularization itself is not to blame. Hart claims this is not so:

…in the end, it is the process of secularization itself – and not those elements of the “religious” grammars of the past that the secular order might have misappropriated for its purposes – that is the chief cause of the modern state’s curious talent for mass murder.

The modern secular state tries to free itself from the shackles of religion, and in particular Christianity. In doing so, rather than improving the morality of the state it moves evermore towards immorality as we might see it. Rationality, science and evolution leave no room for us to build confident moral frameworks: Hart gives several examples of modern thinkers or ethicists who claim certain things which we might shrink from morally but make rational sense:

… the will to lead modern humanity onward into a postreligious promised land of liberty, justice and equality has always been accompanied by a willingness to kill without measure, for the sake of that distant dawn … Francis Galton – Darwin’s half-cousin – first popularized the view that traditional social sentimentalities, inspired and maintained by religious myths, had conspired to retard the natural process of evolution by preserving idiots, criminals, weaklings, and the feckless from nature’s just – if pitiless – verdicts, and that a project of selective breeding was now needed to correct the problem … H.G. Wells predicted the same thing, albeit somewhat more buoyantly, and pronounced the extermination of lesser races a rational imperative. And any number of other earnest souls shared these ideas, arguing the need for an ethical approach to society and race that was no longer bound to the obsolete Christian superstition that every life is of equal – which is to say, of equally infinite – value.

Once you remove the dogma, the values will quickly fall. Rationally speaking, I believe Francis Galton and H.G. Wells – and others like them – are right. Why should we not try to exterminate those from the human race who hinder, rather than help, its development? If you take away the Christian framework which gives value to all humanity, you could end up virtually anywhere. Certainly, scientific progress is no guarantee of anything:

A culture could remain contentedly Christian in all its convictions and still achieve space travel. The mass manufacture of nerve toxins and nuclear weaponry, court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies [and other examples]: all of this required the scientific mind to move outside or “beyond” Christian superstitions regarding the soul and the image of God within it.

Science is just science. It’s just a tool – we can use it to create a cure for diseases, or we can use it to create nerve toxins to kill millions. There is nothing inherently ethical about it; in fact it is distinctly amoral. However, it is definitely possible to read it in an ‘immoral’ way:

One would think it would be more scandalous than it is, for instance, that a number of respected philosophers, scientists, medical lecturers, and other “bioethicists” in the academic world not only continue to argue the case for eugenics, but do so in such robustly merciless terms.

There are those out there today who are arguing the case for eugenics and things like infanticide, on rational grounds. Like I said before, secularism could lead us somewhere we don’t want to go.

Summary

Christianity provided a moral framework which hit the ancient world with something it had never known before: the idea that a person, an individual, was of infinite worth. This has shaped Western society’s thinking ever since; those in the New Atheist camp who like to claim Christianity’s moral principles for their own are misreading history. A secular society which deserves to be free of those Christian ideals could well end up with a high body count.

tl;dr It’s a very interesting book, well worth reading! I’ve skimmed some of the arguments here to give you an idea, but I’ve missed out most of the history and surrounding arguments and detail. Would I recommend it to atheists to read? Definitely: I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, and DBH is an intelligent and eloquent writer. Despite the occasional moderately aggressive style toward the New Atheists, I think the arguments are worth engaging with.

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6 thoughts on “Atheist Delusions: The Review

  1. I loved this book. I just wish the brilliant information was more quotable… the book was so good that, for a quote to really give it any justice, you have to include the entire page. it’s just THAT good. This tops the list of my recommended reading under ‘Worldviews and Apologetics’. Glad to see others are reading it.

  2. Thanks for such an informative review. I did have this book on my to read list but sort of forgot about it. Given what you say about it I’ve added it back on!

    • I’m so glad you said that Chris, that’s exactly what I was aiming for! – I was hoping it would be useful to provide a more comprehensive review than I usually did 🙂

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