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Atheist Delusions

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Atheist Delusions
    Book Description:

    In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious "histories" offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists's misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

    Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the "Age of Reason" was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason's authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15564-8
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    This book is in no sense an impartial work of history. Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history necessarily demands some sort of narrative of causes and effects, and is thus necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice. But I am not really a historian, in any event, and I do not even aspire to detachment. In what follows, my prejudices are transparent and unreserved, and my argument is in some respects willfully extreme (or so it might seem). I think it prudent...


    • CHAPTER ONE The Gospel of Unbelief
      (pp. 3-18)

      One would think these would be giddy days for religion’s most passionate antagonists; rarely can they have known a moment so intoxicatingly full of promise. A mere glance in the direction of current trends in mass-market publishing should be enough to make the ardent secularist’s heart thrill with the daring and delicious hope that we just might be entering a golden age for bold assaults on humanity’s ancient slavery to “irrational dogma” and “creedal tribalism.” Conditions in the world of print have never before been so propitious for sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity,...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Age of Freedom
      (pp. 19-26)

      At the end of the day, it is probably the case that arguments of the sort rehearsed in the previous chapter are somewhat futile, since they are more or less confined to the surface of an antagonism that runs far deeper than reasonable dispute can possibly reach. The sorts of “scientific,” “moral,” or “rational” objections to faith I have described above are not really scientific, moral, or rational in any but a purely rhetorical sense. There is no serious science in Dennett’s “science of religion”; and there is no genuine moral cogitation or rigorous reflection in any of the moral...


    • CHAPTER THREE Faith and Reason
      (pp. 29-35)

      At one point in his magisterialMedieval Civilization, Jacques Le Goff, one of the more brilliant medievalists of the latter half of the twentieth century, makes this observation: “[Christendom’s] attitude towards the excluded remained ambiguous. The Church seemed to detest and admire them simultaneously; it was afraid of them, but the fear was mixed with a sense of fascination. It kept them at a distance, but fixed the distance so that it would be close enough for the outcasts to be within reach. What it called its charity towards them was like the attitude of a cat playing with a...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Night of Reason
      (pp. 36-48)

      Part of this “story of the modern world,” in one of its more venerable variants, is that the “faith” that modern “reason” superseded wasuniquelyirrational, and unprecedentedly hostile to the appeals of rationality; that, in fact, this faith had barbarously purged Western culture of the high attainments of the classical world—had burned its books, abandoned its science, forsaken its “pluralism”—and had plunged the Western world into a millennium of mental squalor. Christianity, so the tale goes, induced the so-called Dark Ages by actively destroying the achievements of Roman culture. Here the ghastly light of a thousand inane...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Destruction of the Past
      (pp. 49-55)

      A little further along from his remarks on the Serapeum, Kirsch goes on to assert: “[The] Islamic civilization that came to power after the death of Mohammed was willing to spare the pagan writings that the Christian civilization of medieval Europe was so quick to burn. For example, the scientific writings of Aristotle were preserved in Arabic long after the original Greek texts had been destroyed. . . . [The] Crusaders were exposed to the remnants of classical Greece and Rome that had been preserved under Islam, and they returned to Europe as the bearers of a lost civilization. From...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Death and Rebirth of Science
      (pp. 56-74)

      Of all the ineradicable myths concerning a Christian Dark Ages, none enjoys greater currency than the wildly romantic fable of a golden age of Hellenistic science brought to an abrupt halt by the church’s “war against reason.” In the latter part of the nineteenth century, two now notorious books appeared that, for an unpleasantly prolonged period, exercised an influence entirely disproportionate to their merits: John William Draper’sHistory of the Conflict between Religion and Science(1874) and Andrew Dickson White’sHistory of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom(1896). The second volume was still occasionally consulted as an...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Intolerance and Persecution
      (pp. 75-87)

      At the end of the day, the most splendid and engrossing of modernity’s self-aggrandizing fables is that of Western humanity’s struggle for liberation, of the great emancipation of Western culture from political tyranny, and of Europe’s deliverance from the violence of religious intolerance. Certainly it is true that, at the dawn of the modern age, European society suffered convulsions of cruelty and bloodshed, chronic and acute, that rent Western Christendom apart, that claimed untold thousands of lives, and that were haunted by the symbols and rhetoric of religion. It was the age of the great witch hunt, of the so-called...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Intolerance and War
      (pp. 88-98)

      The violence of early modernity was expressed nowhere more purely or on a grander scale than in the international and internecine conflicts of the period, which custom dictates should be called “the wars of religion.” Given, though, the lines of coalition that defined these conflicts, and given their ultimate consequences, they ought really to be remembered as the first wars of the modern nation-state, whose principal purpose was to establish the supremacy of secular state authority over every rival power, most especially the power of the church.

      They were certainly not, at any rate, some sort of continuation of the...

    • CHAPTER NINE An Age of Darkness
      (pp. 99-108)

      One could go on indefinitely, really, adducing one example after another of false or distorted history and then attempting to correct the record. But, in the great “struggle for the past,” these engagements amount to mere local skirmishes, at the end of which we have accomplished little more than to confirm what we already knew: that men are rarely as good as we might hope, though not always as bad as we might fear, and that powerful institutions are as often as not gardens of ambition and injustice. It is far better, ultimately, to try to gain a perspective upon...


    • CHAPTER TEN The Great Rebellion
      (pp. 111-128)

      We are far removed from the days when one’s baptism could be said to be the most momentous event—and perhaps the most dramatic, terrifying, and joyous experience—of one’s life. Most Christians today, at least in the developed world, are baptized in infancy; and even those whose traditions delay the rite until adulthood are, for the most part, children of Christian families and have grown up in the faith, and so their baptisms merely seal and affirm the lives they have always lived. This was obviously not the case, however, for most of the Christians of the earliest centuries;...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN A Glorious Sadness
      (pp. 129-145)

      The past is always to some extent a fiction of the present. In our more melancholy hours, it is soothing to surrender to wistful “memories” of those better worlds that we have as a race or a people forsaken; and, in our moments of complacency and self-congratulation, we take pleasure in “recalling” the darkness from which we have now emerged, or the barbarisms of which we have long since taken leave. There is nothing necessarily unseemly in this: it is all part of what Nietzsche called the uses of history for the purposes of life. And during the early centuries...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE A Liberating Message
      (pp. 146-165)

      Two questions should probably be asked at this point. The first is whether it is demonstrably the case that the gospel did in fact spread through the world of late antiquity on account of the novelty of its message—which is to say, because those who first heard it preached were truly conscious of the radical originality of its ethos—or whether it prospered simply because it was the mystery cult that happened to have the most engaging myths, and that ultimately had the good fortune to be adopted by an emperor. And the second is whether any actual social...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Face of the Faceless
      (pp. 166-182)

      All four of the canonical Gospels tell the tale of the apostle Peter’s failure on the very eve of Christ’s crucifixion: Peter’s promise that he would never abandon Christ; Christ’s prediction that Peter would in fact deny him that same night, not once but three times, before the cock’s crow; Peter’s cautious venture into the courtyard of the high priest, after Christ’s arrest in the garden, and his confrontation with others present there who thought they recognized him as one of Christ’s disciples; and the fear that prompted Peter to do at the last just as his master had prophesied....

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Death and Birth of Worlds
      (pp. 183-198)

      Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radically reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert minds and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul. Christianity, in its first three centuries, was a revolution of the latter sort: gradual, subtle, exceedingly small and somewhat...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Divine Humanity
      (pp. 199-216)

      We believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty. The physical order, we know, is governed by uniform laws written into the very fabric of space and time; and the course of the ages, we believe, moves in a single direction, from one epoch to another, constantly developing, assuming cultural and material configurations that no one can foretell, and proceeding relentlessly toward an ineluctable, though unknowable, conclusion. Neither conviction is in itself extraordinary, perhaps, even if the peoples of most ages have subscribed to neither. What is remarkable is...


    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Secularism and Its Victims
      (pp. 219-228)

      The rather petulant subtitle that Christopher Hitchens has given his (rather petulantly titled)God Is Not GreatisHow Religion Poisons Everything. Naturally one would not expect him to have squandered any greater labor of thought on the dust jacket of his book than on the disturbingly bewildered text that careens so drunkenly across its pages—reeling up against a missed logical connection here, steadying itself against a historical error there, stumbling everywhere over all those damned conceptual confusions littering the carpet—but one does still have to wonder how he expects any reflective reader to interpret such a phrase....

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Sorcerers and Saints
      (pp. 229-242)

      Nietzsche cannot be said to have shed many tears over the thought of European Christianity’s demise; but even he was not entirely sanguine regarding what would follow from the gradual collapse of faith in the Continent. In part, this was because he believed that the pathogens of Christian pity and resentment had so weakened the wills of Western men that a meaningful recovery might be impossible. Now that the sacred canopy had been rolled back and the empty heavens exposed, a moment of potentially shattering crisis had arrived; and it was not obvious to him that post-Christian humanity had the...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 243-250)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 251-254)