David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

How exactly am I to describe Hart’s Atheist Delusions?  It has affected me like few things I’ve ever read, and, in truth, I’m still reeling a bit from reading it.  Hart is a Greek Orthodox theologian and philosopher who seems to have had his fill of the atheistic platitudes of the so-called “new” school of atheists.  And yet, Hart is concerned with much more than merely refuting the village atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris, et al.  In fact, he’s concerned with levying a broadside against the historical and philosophical presuppositions of modernity itself.

Hart is writing primarily as a historian here, and he does so with ferocious aplomb.  He is given to grand dismissive statements, but then he demonstrates through careful historical investigations that he has done the hard work necessary to make such  generalizations.  But the book is far from a pastiche of generalizations.  On the contrary, it is an historical tour de force examining the realities behind the new atheists’, and modernity’s, favorite talking points.

Hart’s thesis is that modernity is casting off perhaps human history’s only true revolution:  Christianity.  However, in order to cast it off, it must live parasitically off of the host it presumes to hate.  One of the ways that modernity seeks to cast off Christianity is to recast the Christian story as one of largely unchecked ignorance, violence, and cultural atrophy.  Hart seeks to demonstrate contra this modern myth that Christianity, while far from living up consistently to its own ideals (something that pretty much every Christian on earth will quickly admit), has in reality ushered in a genuine and earth-shaking revolution in the way we view human beings, the cosmos, and reality itself.  Modernity is seeking to cast off this revolution in favor of one in which individual autonomy and freedom reign supreme as the summa of modern existence.  But in order even to idolize this ideal, modernity must distort the raw stuff it inherited from the Christian woldview in the first place.

Hart is at his best debunking the tawdry misrepresentations of the Christian story that many of the atheist evangelists offer as history (You mean Christianity doesn’t hate knowledge, stifle cultural advance, lead to war, and poison pretty much everything?).  Hart seems to relish his task of critiquing the old canards.  His writing is erudite, perceptive, and even humorous at points.

I especially appreciated Hart’s diagnosis of modernity, his discussion of the humanitarian impulse of early Christianity, his reflections concerning Christianity’s impact on the idea of “the person,” his thoughts on the Christian concept of “joy,” and his level-headed examination of Christianity and slavery in particular.

All of this is offered (thankfully) without the cheerleading and white-washing with which some apologists seek to exonerate historic Christianity.  Hart’s arguments are careful, balanced, measured, and bolstered by an impressive array of primary documentation and historical reconstruction.

Hart’s book is not without its problems.  I thought his take on John 1:1 was less than persuasive and some of his higher-critical assumptions were as well.

That being said, Hart’s work is one that ought not be missed.  You will be challenged and educated by this book.  I intend to begin re-reading it very soon.

If you read only one book this year, read Hart’s.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *