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.


8 thoughts on “Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

  1. Dan Hallissey says:

    Nice review, although if I were to nitpick, and you’d expect me to, I would take issue with this

    ‘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.’

    At least a few cases of very bloodthirsty Christians crop up through history, Bloody Mary, Charles IX-Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre, and the Belgian King who order that the right hand of evey man in the Belgian Congo be cut off, not forgetting Henry V a burner of heretics (Lollards, forerunners of Protestants) himself, and also a slaughterer of prisoners against all rules and conventions of war, not to mention chivalry, to boot. (at Agincourt/Azincourt he was afraid that the prisoners would break their word and catch his army in a pincer movement).

    I would argue that Christians have historically been quite as brutal and bloodthirsty as those other religions, but that they have sometimes been haunted by their consciences afterwards, a great consolation I’m sure.

    Funnily enough, Christians seem to have been more brutal to ‘heretics’, or those with beliefs only differing slightly from their own, than they were with ‘savages’ who knew no better. Just as a side note, in the first great conquests of Islam, there was no forced conversion, but tax breaks were given to those prepared to give up a little part of themselves. Merchants converted.

    As for the Christian Revolution, I presume you don’t mean that hospitality and charity never occured before Christ’s death, but that they just became ‘institutionalized’ if you will, a bedrock of Christian societies everywhere as they formed. Only there is the tale of the Good Samaritan (yes I know, it was Christ who told it), and though I don’t know enough of pre-Christian Judaism or Arabic nomadic life in the centuries before the Christianization of North Africa, I’d be willing to bet that hospitality and charity are encouraged within Judaism and that Arabic nomads were fairly keen on hospitality to strangers, realising that they might one day find themselves in need of food or shelter.

  2. danhartley says:

    Hey man! Thanks very much for the response!

    As the quotation of mine that you open with states, I totally agree with you: there have been many bloodthirsty ‘Christians’ throughout history and there will continue to be many more of them. The point that Hart tries to make, as I tried to stress though perhaps to no avail, is that Christian rulers were no more likely than non-Christian rulers to be bloodthirsty, and that in many cases Christian institutions played a far more positive role historically than is often stressed.

    A good example of this links to your second point, and comes in chapter 7 of the book: the Spanish Inquisition – the trump card of all atheists. What Hart writes by no means whatsoever exonerates the Catholic Church’s role in the whole affair, but it does go some way to lending it historical credibility. I’ll quote him at length:

    ‘True, it was Pope Sixtus who authorized the early Inquisition, but he did so under pressure from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who – with the end of centuries of Muslim occupation of Andalusia – were eager for any instrument they thought might help to enforce national unity and increase the power of Castile and Aragon. Such, however, was the early Inquisition’s harshness and corruption that Sixtus soon attempted to interfere in its operations. In a papal bull of April 1482, he uncompromisingly denounced its destruction of innocent lives and its theft of property (though he did not, admittedly, object in principle to the execution of genuine heretics). But Ferdinand effectively refused to recognize the bull, and in 1483 he forced Sixtus to relinquish control of the Inquisition to the Spanish thrones and to consent to the civil appointment of a Grand Inquisitor…Even after Sixtus had surrendered his authority, however, he did not entirely relent in his opposition to its excesses. In 1484, for instance, he supported the city of Teruel after it forbade the Inquisition entry – a revolt that Ferdinand suppressed the following year by force of arms…Within Spain itself, there was some resistance to the new Spanish racialism, none more honourable and uncompromising than that of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. But from racialist harassment often only the papacy’s interventions could provide relief, however small or infrequent.’
    Now, does this redound to the greater glory of the Church? Not exactly. But what it does do is highlight two things: firstly, when Christianity becomes institutionalised it loses that radical edge and lends itself to potential contortion and injustice (hence why the likes of Eagleton argue that any form of Christianity worth its salt should be in opposition to the state, per se). Secondly, it shows that what appears on the surface to be a religious matter is in fact a secular affair of the state which wields Christianity as an ideological weapon. But ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’ In this particular case, against popular accounts of the Inquisition it can be see that the Church most definitely played a role in this heinous event, but that any good that could possibly have arisen in that misery also found its origin in the Church.

    As for the Christian Revolution, Hart refers to that as something non-institutional, as the great rebellion of Pagan society, the overthrow of the eternal, unchangeable chain of being, from the gods right down to the lepers. Of course charity and hospitality existed prior to Christ! They exist everywhere, but, like you say, in early Christian societies they were the sine qua non of the social bedrock. What I want to stress is just how radical Christianity was. Here was a man who was God on earth, and yet who broke bread with all the possible lowlifes of his age, all those whom the Pharisees as much as the Romans refused to recognise as fully human (as I said, the concept of universal humanity didn’t even exist! Just look at the concept of the ‘homo sacer’ in Roman law, for example). He got down and dirty with the down and dirty; more than that, he preached that all of the scum, the rejects, the losers, the shit of this world would be the rulers of the Kingdom of Heaven! That in itself was simply unthinkable! When Pilate asks ‘What is truth?’ he’s asking a rhetorical question: he is, obviously! How could a Jewish joker of a carpenter like Jesus possibly be anything important? So that’s what the Christian Revolution was about…clearly that becomes very difficult to sustain post-Constantine.

    The point of Hart’s book is simply to set the historical record straight. He’d be the first to list to you all the thousands of terrible things the Church has done, but he also informs the reader of what popular atheists such as Dawkins et al would never mention: Christian good deeds. This book isn’t evangelism or an attempt to promote Christianity as a faultless faith compared to all others – far from it! – it’s just an airing of a few truths, which atheists might care to consider. As I said, what interests me most are his analyses of modern conceptions of freedom and the current state of play of Christianity…but that’s another story.

    Anyway, thanks again for commenting!

  3. Dan Hallissey says:

    I hope you didn’t have to type out that citation, if you did that’s quite some devotion. Thanks for clearing that up mate and responding at such length. I ‘ll have to look up the book once I’ve finished the Communist Manifesto and the American Constitution (only whisper it, but it seems the latter falls flat if it is ever proved that there is no God). I think that my favourite pope might have to be Alexander VI, who with the help of a ruler and a map, indicated which bits of the world were to belong to Spain and which to Portugal, just dividing all the new world up. There’s also Greg VII who made the Holy Roman Emperor Henry I stand outside in the snow for three days at Canossa before he would ‘unexcommunicate’ him.

    Funny thing to say though, that Eagleton thinks any Christianity worth its salt should be in opposition to the state. So if you have a radical Christian opposition they’ll do good despite the government etc, but if the government itself is Christian (admittedly there aren’t many of these around), then it will presumably try to do good, but won’t do as much good as our hypothetical Christian radicals. The government or state would have the power to do greater good to greater numbers, but would be less inclined to do so, because of its corruption etc, whereas our radicals would have less opportunity but more inclination. Can we reduce it to a question of arithmetic?

    You might be surprised but i’ve missed our discussions this year, oh, and if you want a laugh, and you don’t mind despairing of free speech, type in Lionheart blog to a search engine, I read about it in the Guardian, apart from anything else, the man uses the word ‘stenches’

  4. James A. Connor says:

    Fascinating conversation. I just finished Hart’s book and will rush off to the Barnes and Noble to pick up his Beauty of the Infinite. What Hart says about modern anti-Christian mythology is correct, and getting sidetracked into conversations about episodes of violence in Christian history seem to be a distraction from the major point, i.e. that modernity’s understanding of freedom sets it onto a collision course with its own past. We have a philosophical and, dare I say it, economic stake in condemning our forbears, because we believe that we are Enlightened, and the Enlightened can only be bright when compared to those who live in the shadows. Moreover, we have a modern commitment to either forget the past or rewrite it. We nod piously at Marx’s comments on history and victors, and then set out to revise our own history to suit the prejudices of our times.

  5. Justin Ryals says:

    Fantastic review, at least in content–I’ve not read the book but now certainly want to. The quote on modernistic nihilism is, to put it mildly, profound.

  6. James Connor says:

    I read Hart’s book a few months ago, and I think he is one of the most insightful theologian/social commentators around today. His critique of the contemporary metaphysics of freedom is wonderful. Your website, by the way, is one I follow religiously, so to speak. Thanks for the mind food.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      James, many thanks. Well, ass you may have noticed, I haven’t written anything here for quite a while. That’s because some friends and I have been working on a new blog. It’s less theological and much more politically engaged, but maybe you’d like it. If you do, feel free to send me your e-mail and become a contributor:

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