My Thoughts After Reading “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart

Before I say anything else, I want to urge the reader not to allow the title of this book to color their perception of it any more than they can help. Whoever selected the title of “Atheist Delusions” may have done so in an attempt to grab the interest of today’s conflict thirsty, spectacle seeking, self-righteous intellectual crowd more so than to put an accurate heading on the book.

“Atheist Delusions” is, quite simply, an enormous book. Not in length, but in scope and vision. Hart proposes a different way of looking at the past, present, and future of the world; a different way of interpreting the philosophical, scientific, political, and religious narrative of the West. And not only are the scope of his topic and the ambition of his vision big, so are his knowledge and ability.

I read “Atheist Delusions” after reading “The God Delusion” and I think it would be illustrative to compare the two.

Dawkins is funnier. He is more accessible. He demands less. His is exactly the kind of book that becomes a 21st century best seller. Hart uses bigger words, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, a much larger vocabulary, and most importantly, more intricate and profound concepts. His is, in this respect, the kind of book that I imagine would have sold well 150 years ago.

To give the impression, however, that this book is mere contemplative philosophy would be very misleading. There are more facts in some of Hart’s individual chapters than in Dawkins’ whole book. I suspect that a genuine unbiased statistical analysis would reveal at least 10 times as many verifiably factual statements in “Atheist Delusions.” Hart certainly puts forth his fair share of opinions, no doubt, but it is refreshing to be given so much information to go along with it.

Historical information is presented in support of Hart’s thesis: that the typical modern narrative of the West – of ancient cultures, blossoming in rationality and scientific inquiry, followed by a great darkness and stagnation caused by the rise of Christianity with its blind submission to dogma, followed by a flourishing of mankind again as the shackles of belief are cast off and reason is championed once more – is a rhetorical myth constructed in the support of modernity’s underlying agenda. That agenda is a new conception of freedom, not as the submission to an underlying set of principles that govern reality but as the isolated action of the will, free from all such underlying, universal principles. In the old understanding of freedom, we unlocked our true potential and thus the freedom to soar as we learned to be true to our own nature and the nature of reality. The new, modern conception of freedom is one unencumbered by such pesky, metaphysical guidelines. It is freedom for freedom’s sake.

That narrative which has been constructed to that end, of Christianity as mankind’s historical obstruction of reason, was, generally, what I was indeed taught in school.

The wealth of history, complete with names, dates, and quotes from primary sources that are presented to counter this modern myth was (no pun intended) enlightening to me. I don’t think I have ever willingly read so many historical facts in my life. I learned a great deal, and walked away knowing that the textbooks I grew up with didn’t share the whole picture. The crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Galileo’s skirmishes with the Catholic Church, and the like were dealt with extensively. If you are wondering how in the world such historical facts could possibly be the subject of a book about the merits of Christianity, you will just have to read it and see.

If the book contains 10 times more facts than “The God Delusion”, it contains 20 times the depth of philosophy. Hart, for a man so well acquainted with history, is also an excellent articulator of profound metaphysical inquiry. I suspect that Dawkins would read much of what thrilled me in this book and scarcely be able to get anything intelligible out of it. I base this on the casual dismissal of theology and related philosophies that was typical in his own book and illustrative of his own narrow scope of expertise.

Hart puts things more blatantly when he speaks of “Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing ‘philosophical’ arguments that a college freshmen midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice.” Thank you, David Bentley Hart, for confirming that I’m not going crazy.

In more constructively critical language, he speaks to the same kind of closed-mindedness which is typical of the New Atheists in his remark: “It is astonishing really, (and evidence that a good scientific education can still leave a person’s speculative aptitudes entirely undeveloped), how many very intelligent scientists cling to an illogical, inflexible, and fideistic certainty that empirical science should be regarded not only as a source of factual knowledge and theoretical hypotheses but as an arbiter of values or of moral or metaphysical truths.”

This kind of talk can easily be accused of being overly condescending or arrogant, especially when it is so infused with Hart’s large vocabulary. But Hart does reveal that he has a great deal of respect for many of Christianity’s enemies… just not the modern, uncreative, best-selling, simplistic ones.

His mastery of history sheds light on the present and the future. I cannot help but share a passage that I find a particularly piercing assessment of the present, as described in terms consistent with the book’s aforementioned thesis:

“The true essence of modernity is a particular conception of what it is to be free, as I have said; and the Enlightenment language of an ‘age of reason’ was always really just a way of placing a frame around the idea of freedom, so as to portray it as the rational autonomy and moral independence that lay beyond the intellectual infancy of ‘irrational’ belief. But we are anything but rationalists now, so we no longer need cling to the pretense that reason was ever our paramount concern; we are today more likely to be committed to ‘my truth’ than to any notion of truth in general, no matter where that might lead. The myth of ‘enlightenment’ served well to liberate us from any antique notions of divine or natural law that might place unwelcome constraints on our wills; but it has discharged its part and lingers on now only as a kind of habit of rhetoric. And now that the rationalist moment has largely passed, the modern faith in human liberation has become, if anything, more robust and more militant. Freedom – conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will – is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth.”

When I read over my review I can’t help but agree with prospective readers that I sound painfully biased. Maybe it is unfair of me to compare works that are clearly on two different scholarly plains. Hart is a brilliant scholar and a philosopher, while Dawkins is an intelligent, snarky scientist. Then again, maybe it isn’t unfair. After all, Dawkins is Atheism’s front man, and ideological front men should be held to decent scholarly standards.

And are we not all biased towards what we perceive as the truth? Read the book and reach your own conclusions. I couldn’t possibly presume to demonstrate Hart’s conclusions as skillfully as he does in a thousand pages, let alone in a brief review.  I have merely tried to describe them.  The truth has always been open to our inquiry. That’s part of the beauty of life.

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