A nice treat came in the mail a couple of days ago: David Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale Press). I’m a complete sucker for the great avalanches of Hart’s long, elegant Ciceronian sentences. And his take-no-prisoners gift for polemical riposte¯well, he is almost sinfully fun to read.
The proximate occasion for the book is the recent flurry of books slamming faith as an irrational, retrograde hangover from our past captivity to superstition and priestcraft. First Things has taken modest notice what Hart calls the preachers and “tireless tractarians” of “the gospel of unbelief.” Hart himself put Lewis Carroll to good use in a particularly clever (and effective) critique of Daniel Dennet’s Breaking the Spell (” Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark “, January 2007).
In the main, however, First Things haven’t given all that much attention to the tired Enlightenment clichés of Richard Dawkins or the furious barking of Christopher Hitchens. In itself unbelief is not something to dismiss, and certainly many unbelievers compel attention and respect. “But,” as Hart writes in one of those sentences that makes the writer in me jealous, “atheism that consists in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”
So, yes, the modern era presents Christianity with deep and profound challenges, challenges we should engage, because they have the power to reform and deepen our faith. Hart points to David Hume and Edward Gibbon, and especially Friedrich Neitzsche. But it seems that our postmodern age has seen a definite drop in the quality of unbelief. “By comparison to these men,” writes Hart, referring to the serious atheists, “today’s gadflies seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity has been or is.”
That pretty much sums up in one delicious sentence why First Things is entirely committed to engaging the realities of modern secular culture, but has not thrown itself into debates with the so-called New Atheists. They’re not serious.
This is not the place for anything like a serious review of Atheist’s Delusions . But I can offer a taste of Hart’s argument.
One of the casual truisms we often hear goes back to the Renaissance and achieved canonical form in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . As Hart puts the prejudice: “that Christianity rejected classical civilization, even sought to destroy it root and branch, and thus inaugurated the Dark Ages.”
In a brilliant chapter on the history of science, Hart paints a very different picture, one that argues (quite convincingly) that pagan religious and metaphysical assumptions (which are invariably intertwined) made it impossible for the ancient world to develop the mode of inquiry we associate with modern science. The utter lack of motion and change were, for religious and metaphysical reasons, thought to be the highest (and thus natural) state of reality. As a result, it was not possible to formulate the law of the conservation of energy.
As Hart shows with wonderful detail and concision, the radical transformation of metaphysics required by Christian convictions about God and creation led to the possibility for the Copernican revolution in astronomy, a revolution thrown into powerful theoretical form by Isaac Newton.
Thus, if we return to the usual Western Civ lecture hall cliché¯ancient science was somehow stymied by dogmatic Christians, only to be recovered and given new life by Renaissance free thinkers¯then we can see that it is a hopelessly inaccurate cartoon. As Hart points out, “The birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a revival of Hellenistic science but its final defeat.”
Hart goes on to show how equally cartoonish pictures of Christian persecution, intolerance, and lust for religious warfare cannot stand up to judicious historical analysis. To these topics he adds some very important observations about our supposedly modern, rational, and progressive age. “We live now,” he writes, “in the wake of the most monstrously violent century in human history, during which the secular order (on both the political right and the political left), freed from the authority of religion, showed itself willing to kill on an unprecedented scale and with an ease of conscience worse than merely depraved. If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness, it is surely ours.”
As I said, this is not the place for full-scale review. But I don’t want to leave out the most important part of the book. Hart does not simply criticize our modern historical fantasies. He paints the Christian picture of reality, which is a portrait of the human person animated by love.
“The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels,” Hart writes, “are those that first convert the minds and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul.” Christianity caused such a revolution, and it did so, Hart claims, with its fundamental claim about Christ: In him each one of us can join our humble humanity to the glory and holiness of God.
The great doctrinal debates of the ancient church revolved around this claim. Hart goes into the details, but I must simply report the eventual consensus: that Christ in his person, as the particular man who died on a cross outside of Jerusalem, offers us the gift of fellowship with God¯not Christ as a symbol, emanation, representative, adopted instrument or spark of the divine.
With the doctrinal point established, let’s return to Hart: “The rather extraordinary inference to be drawn from this doctrine is that personality is somehow transcendent of nature. A person is not merely a fragment of some larger cosmic or spiritual category, a more perfect or more defective expression of some abstract set of principles, in light of which his or her value, significance, legitimacy, or proper place is to be judged.”
This claim about the human person is the taproot of the Western moral and political project: the defense of human dignity. The human person¯the unique, distinctive, individual person¯is what God has chosen as his partner and through whom he will consummate all things. Therefore, nothing can have a greater significance, and no human person should be sacrificed to supra-personal (or more accurately sub-personal) notions such as Fatherland or Racial Purity or Utility or History or the Triumph of the Proletariat.
We live in a culture eager to put Christianity behind it. What does this augur? By David Hart’s reckoning, we can see nothing terribly promising. The moral, political, and rational character of modernity has been in many ways worthy and noble (and this in spite of our inevitable, sinful tendency toward inhumanity). But, as Hart notes, “the highest ideals animating the secular project are borrowed ideals,” that is to say, borrowed from the Christian culture out of which modernity sprang. (And, truth be told, the borrowing also sometime burnished, which is why a true Christian humanism does not adopt a simple-minded reactionary posture.)
What happens when the borrower denounces the lender? Hart contemplates an answer at the end of the book, in a passage worth quoting at length:
I am apprehensive, I confess, regarding a certain reactive, even counter-revolutionary, movement in late modern thinking, back to the severer spiritual economies of pagan society and away from the high (and admittedly “unrealistic”) personalism and humanism with which the ancient Christian revolution colored¯though did not succeed in wholly forming¯our cultural conscience. Peter Singer’s meltingly “reasonable” advocacy of prudential infanticide, for instance, naturally reminds one of the ancient world’s practice of exposing supernumerary infants (though lacking the ancient piety that left the ultimate fate of the abandoned child to the gods). It seems to me reasonable to imagine that, increasingly, the religion of the God-man, who summons human beings to become created gods through charity, will be replaced once again by the more ancient religions of the man-god, who wrests his divinity from the intractable material of his humanity, and solely through the exertions of his will. Such a religion will not in all likelihood express itself through a new Caesar, of course, or a new emperor or Führer; its operations will be more “democratically” diffused through society as a whole. But such a religion will always kill and then call it justice, or compassion, or a sad necessity.
Dark thoughts, and no doubt well warranted. And yet, and yet. Perhaps dismissive unbelief and easy forgetfulness are not really in charge of the future. Perhaps the salt of faith has not entirely lost its savor. Perhaps Christian faith retains the power to flavor the crazy lump of contemporary western culture. I hope so, as I know David Hart does as well.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things .