More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.

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