Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

It’s not long since Terry Eagleton informed us that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like encountering someone who has read only the Book of British Birds and who then feels qualified to hold forth for over five hundred pages on biology. Indeed, fans of Eagleton’s ‘acerbic wit’, a quality which has become to ‘Eagleton’ what ‘yellow’ is to ‘submarine’ or ‘finger lickin’ good’ to ‘KFC’, are in for a treat with David Bentley Hart’s latest publication: Atheist Delusions. In delectable prose, the likes of which is exceedingly rare within the confines of the rhetorically deaf academic community (besides Comrade Eagleton’s, of course), Hart flays and scourges Dawkins and his ilk, whom he refers to under the endearingly archaic collective putdown: ‘gadflies’. Contrasting them with their far superior forbears – Celsus, for example, or, more recently, Nietzsche – Hart often appears decidedly disappointed that history has deigned to offer him such philosophically infantile and imaginatively vapid opponents. If at times he appears to teeter dangerously too far on the wrong side of ‘condescending’, then at others the sheer force of his erudition, so rhythmically and articulately performed, do more than enough to convince us that he has every right to be!

The majority of the book is taken up with methodically demolishing, one by one, the popular myths that are peddled about the role of Christianity in human history. Such myths include the following: that ‘religion’ (Hart rightly observes that ‘religion’ means nothing in itself, since no one advocates ‘religion’ per se, but rather a particular manifestation of it), or, more precisely, Christianity, has been responsible for the most despicable atrocities ever to have stained the annals of time; that Christianity is always and everywhere opposed to ‘scientific truth’; that it was the Enlightenment that rescued mankind from the yoke of Christian darkness, rekindling humanity’s moral and intellectual flames after centuries of obscurity under irrational faith; and so on. Several chapters begin with quotations from popular literature on Christian history which are then shown to be based on false assumptions, dubious historical sources, or downright ignorance.

All of this is not to say, however, that Hart naively celebrates a Church that has only and could only ever bring good into the world. He is far too astute and honest for such intellectual child’s play. No, rather, what it comes down to most often is this: whether or not, throughout history, someone was a Christian or a pagan, by the sheer fact that he or she was also ‘human’ (yet another category that Christianity pretty much invented), they were necessarily potential monsters. Supposed lovers of Christ were often just as susceptible to brutality as were their heathen counterparts, but not more so, and quite likely less so.

That said, however, Hart is not backward in coming forwards: where Christianity deserves credit, he is sure to give it in abundance. Take the overarching celebration of the book, for example: the Christian Revolution. Unlike what he deems to be false revolutions, those violent and explosive outbursts that fundamentally change nothing, the Christian Revolution changed everything. Our consciences, as he rightly observes, are historically conditioned. That little voice in the mind demanding us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, no matter if they are one of ‘our kind’ or not, is not something that has existed eternally. It has come to be through the slow, gradual, but ultimately tectonic, shift in Western human morality that began with a Jewish political prisoner who was executed by an imperial regime, and who, three days later, was resurrected. Hart demonstrates time and again that, where a Christian community was present, there was to be found the sick tended to, orphans cared for, the hungry fed, and the downtrodden uplifted.

But perhaps the most powerful chapters of the book are those concerning modern conceptions of freedom and the fate of Christianity in the modern world. For Hart, to be entirely modern (which, he points out, very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. Not just figuratively, but literally: to believe in nothingness itself. We are the great nihilists:

[we] place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology.

Moreover, the logical (and metaphysical) consequence of modernity’s consumerist nihilism is the following one: ‘if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.’ Suddenly, the ruling elite’s current obsession with choice (‘Choose your school!’ ‘Choose your hospital!’ ‘Choose your dildo!’) comes to sound a little more ominous than its civilized façade might admit.

Yet, despite the implicit nihilistic metaphysics of modernity, and despite his initial triumphalist rampages through the ranks of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, David Bentley Hart ends on a note of lament. Far from foreseeing an inevitable resurgence of Christian faith in the West, one which would carry on the work of the Christian Revolution before it was co-opted by the temporal state of Constantine, Hart envisages its steady decline, as Fortune’s Wheel revolves once more. If in one sense Christianity permeates everything we are – right down to our knee-jerk ethical reactions in our everyday lives – then in another sense it is disappearing, and something new is gradually taking its place. ‘If the principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can absorb it, perish.’ And if that happens, he warns, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, even in their darkest hours, could not imagine what a West purged of all Christian presuppositions would look like. It is time, he notes, mournfully, that Christians prepare themselves once more for the desert.