Refuting Religion: Looking through David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

Read an excerpt from Atheist Delusions

In 1776 the arch-skeptic David Hume lay dying and many waited to hear whether he had, on the point of death, sought the consolations of religion or clung to his atheism to the end. Hume’s calm acceptance of his imminent extinction (“I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could desire, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire”) is said to have encouraged the devoutly irreligious over the years. It was certainly on the minds  of those in 2011 watching the final months of the writer Christopher Hitchens and his battle with esophageal cancer. Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was one of the feistiest of the New Atheists and not a man to back down.  Even in his last days, from his contempt for supernatural claims and penchant for energetic debate, he died as he lived, as a man of high infidelity.

One might have thought, therefore, that Hitchens and his contemporary fighters against faith — Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins — would be the principal targets of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. In fact, one of the themes of Hart’s work is how airily he disposes of New Atheism and its leaders, all of whom are addressed. If his topic is the debate on Christianity, Hart‘s tone stays true to his subject, matching Hitchens’ witty pugilism and the energetic rhetoric of the public square. Hitchens, says Hart, is one “whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic”. Dawkins gets off no more lightly – he is pegged as a Tractarian with an “embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” while Sam Harris’s work is rated as “extravagantly callow …. a concatenation of shrill, petulant assertions.” Daniel Dennett’s claim to have traced the natural origins of the religious impulse is handled with concise brutality. It was “pure intuition, held together by tenuous strands of presupposition, utterly inadequate as an explanation of religious culture” and not convincing in its attempt to the bridge the gulf between “the amoeba and the St. Matthew Passion.”

As Hart sets up camp on the contested ground between the “religious” and the “secular,” Hart disputes the very conception of those terms, for to lament the existence “religion,” he argues, would be akin to regret “politics” in the general sense. Speaking directly to Christianity’s opponents, he reminds them that Christians don’t believe in “religion” at all, and its critics are most successful when they recognize this and direct their claims more specifically. If the heavyweights of 21st-century irreligion are brushed aside as scarcely worth of regard, whom does Hart deem to be a worthy opponent? Hart reminds us that there were once atheist giants in the land – “enemies of unparalleled passion and visionary intensity” of “fierce elegance and occasional moral acuity”. Celsus and Porphyry from ancient Rome, Hume, Diderot and Gibbon during the Enlightenment and the greatest of them all the 19th-century German, Friedrich Nietzsche who “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was–above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion–rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.”

Yet the anti-Christian on whom Hart bestows most regard and who was once that religion’s most powerful foe is little known today: Flavius Claudius Julianus, the Roman Emperor of the 4th century, dubbed “Julian the Apostate”. During his brief reign (361-63 CE) he attempted to curb Christianity and return the empire to the worship of the old gods. As the last pagan ruler of the empire, Julian’s confrontation with the religion of “the Galileans” provides the background to some of Hart’s most penetrating insights into the profound consequences of the Western adoption of Christianity – the revolution he speaks of in his subtitle. Hart does not contest all forms of unbelief; Atheist Delusions seeks, in part, better opponents. Challengers and defenders of theism alike will find much of interest in Hart’s examination of this clash.

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Categories: Philosophy, Religion, Religious Studies

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