Reframing Human History
Upon seeing the title Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press), I confess to having suspected it would follow the formula of other debunkings of the "Bright brigade," decrying the illogic and inaccuracy of the New Atheists' arguments. Instead, I found someone (in this case, theologian David Bentley Hart) taking a step back from the carnage of the current (pop) culture war to ask bigger questions about how we ended up here in the first place.
Hart, a visiting professor of theology at Providence College, begins by looking at the New Atheist phenomenon, lambasting Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett et al. for their carelessness with and rhetorical manipulation of philosophy, theology, and history. But that is quickly left behind; in the book's second half, we begin to see the Orthodox theologian's real intent: to offer a counter-narrative of religion's role in human history.
The New Atheists trade in "fruitless abstractions of religion," Hart writes, and reduce Christianity to its history's "bloodthirsty crusaders and sadistic inquisitors"—in other words, to its worst constituent parts. But far from being an obstacle to human flourishing and fulfilment, Hart asserts, Christianity gave birth to the idea of humanity as we know it. Never before the 2,000-year-old religion were slave and free, man and woman, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile welcomed in equal measure and with immeasurable love.
Much of Atheist Delusions reminds readers of the importance of remembering what Christianity has done for us—not just for the believer in personal salvation, but also for the nonbeliever in human history. Would we have had medieval leper hospitals if not for Christ's teachings of kindness and his charge to seek the good of those less fortunate? Would almshouses, orphanages, and hospitals have come into existence without the Christian message that God dwells in "the least of these"? Hart finds no precursor in pagan society that shows that Christ's message was anything but revolutionary.
He also refutes many of the New Atheists' unjustified charges regarding witch hunts, the Inquisition, wars of religion, the destruction of the Alexandrian Library (which supposedly symbolizes Christians' antipathy toward learning), and so forth. You might think, as I did, that saying that much of Christian history has been distorted in this debate is hardly revelatory. But Hart goes further, asserting that itself has a mythology of its own, according to which the Age of Reason came to birth during the Enlightenment (Genesis), scientists such as Galileo have been sacrificed (as martyrs) for the cause, and the superstitions of religion (evil) must be fought in order for science and reason (good) to prevail. Modernity has rewritten the past, editing out the role of the church, the cradle of many triumphs of scientific inquiry.
A good deal of the modernists' mythology parades in the name of education; science and religion are presented as polar opposites, while misinformation about this battle, such as the belief that Galileo suffered at the hands of the church, prevails. Galileo's own irascible character, in fact, was the source of much of his misfortune. This is not to say that science and religion have always existed harmoniously, but where such tensions existed, they were often internal; many conflicts arose because so much early science was done in the church's pursuit of learning.