Review: David Bentley Hart, “Atheist Delusions”


Yes, I’m late to the party. The New Atheist thing seems to be moribund at the moment, although the half-corpse sometimes twitches. But that may paradoxically make this book more valuable.

I think I will not be alone if I state that the debates around New Atheism are extremely tiresome, because the New Atheists are not so much giving the wrong answers or even asking the wrong questions but not even understanding the questions. I bought Atheist Delusions basically on a lark (oh, Amazon and your one-click Kindle shopping!), mostly out of interest for David Bentley Hart’s famously felicitous prose, expecting a philosophical polemic going over the many arguments that all intellectual Christians know by heart, and expecting that I would skim it, joyously tweet out the most damaging passages, and then forget about it.

Instead I found something very different. Atheist Delusions is a misleading title: this book is really, as the author says in his introduction, a historical essay, only tangentially related to these delusions. It is not, or only as the argument demands, concerned with philosophy, metaphysics or theology. The main argument of the book is simple, and true: Christianity was the only true “revolution” in history, in the sense that it radically transformed the entire outlook of the culture in which it emerged, so much so that it is nearly impossible for us on the other side of the chasm to grasp it.

Because of his enormous erudition, keen intellect, and gift with wielding the quill, Hart is especially suited to the task of making this argument. He has mastery of the historical sources, of the worldview of both the Pagan world and the Christian world that replaced it, and of all the issues involved.

Christianity, Hart argues, was the first movement to even intuit, let alone take to heart, what he calls a “total humanism”, meaning the conviction that every single human being has infinite value. This is an idea that, at least rhetorically, is today taken for granted by almost everyone in the post-Christian world, but was absolutely new–and scandalous–in the Pagan world.

While the Christian world, Hart very readily admits, had its share of atrocities, it remained forever haunted by this Christian total humanism, sometimes with dramatic consequences. For example, Hart goes over the fact of the Christian care of slaves and their progressive (though, sadly, much too slow) dismantling of the institution, the fact that the Christians were the first to organize care for widows (who, typically, in the ancient world, had no means to care for themselves), orphans, and the poor generally; that the hospital is a Christian invention; that Christians very often cared for victims of plagues at the risk of their own lives, and so on.

The book is full of gems. Hart’s biographical sketch of Julian the Apostate alone is worth the price of admission. Hart portrays Julian as essentially better than the Christian emperors who preceded and followed him: unlike them, whose allegiance was at best tinted by political calculation, a sincere religious believer; often a wise and less violent ruler (and milder in his oppression of Christians than many Christian Emperors were against Pagans); “capable of self-mockery”, not an attribute one often associates with late-Roman Emperors. Most importantly, to Hart, Julian’s attempt to reinstate paganism as the religion of the Empire is proof of the total victory of the Christian revolution. It’s not just that Julian’s earnest complains that Christians are winning converts because of their virtue or care for the poor is very strong historical evidence that this narrative is not later Christian propaganda. It is that the paganism Julian envisioned was a post-Christian one: an organized church; a dogmatic stress on brotherly love; priests taking vows of poverty; temples seeing care for the poor as one of their principal missions (in his letters, Julian repeatedly laments that the Christians not only take care of their own poor but all poor, and insists that to compete (as we would put it today) Pagans must do the same)–all concepts utterly foreign to the traditional Paganism that Christianity was replacing and that, already, no one could imagine a plausible religion without.

Another figure, Theodosius, stands as an example of the paradoxical role of Christianity in shaping (and being shaped by) cultural institutions. Theodosius established Nicene Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire and vigorously persecuted its opponents, setting in motion Christianity’s long and lamentable history of closeness to, and corruption by, political power.  At the same time, after a massacre (of Christians and Pagans alike) had occurred under Theodosius’s orders, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, excommunicated Theodosius, refused him entry to the cathedral, and would only readmit him as a penitent–and Theodosius, Roman Emperor, inconceivably from the vantage point of the previous centuries, complied. So even as proximity to power introduced a new and disastrous corruption to Christianity, Christianity, for the first time in all of human history, established that political rulers were subject to a higher divine and moral law and established a precedent of momentous consequences. It’s really worth stressing how utterly inconceivable this would have been in the Pagan, particularly Roman, world, where rulers were seen not as subjects of the divine but as their incarnation and their will manifested.

The most striking passage of the book is the one where Hart, convincingly, argues that to the people of the world of the early Christians, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ would have seemed right. In the world of the day, Jesus of Nazareth, as a carpenter’s son from a backwater, was not only a legal but a moral non-entity, while both the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor were imbued with divine authority; and therefore, such a lowlife disturbing the peace, and the proper authorities restoring the peace by destroying the lowlife in an appropriately shameful and humiliating way, would have seemed to Pagans not as sad, or even a lamentable necessity, but as positively right. This shows the positively dynamite-like power of the Gospel, where God’s triumphant reversal of the condemnation becomes a condemnation of the entire order of the society. But closer to Hart’s argument, given that even to the most faithless post-Christian it is impossible not to see the execution of Jesus of Nazareth as some kind of injustice, this demonstrates in a striking way both the moral decrepitude of the Pagan world and the extent and success of the Christian revolution that took it over.

Beyond the history, what makes the strength of the book is that, because Hart understands both the historical events and the ideas and has a keen mind, he is able to describe the history “just right”, that is to say, neither underplaying nor overplaying the role of ideas. For ideas do have consequences, but history is messy, and Christianity was more often found difficult and left untried than tried and found wanting. And so at the same time Christianity effected a total revolution on the mind in the Pagan world, but that revolution’s practical success was only partial and ephemeral.

Hart is actually, in a way, modest in his claims. Christendom was only ever haunted by Christianity, and never represented any fulfillment of it. While modern science could only have been born out of a culture that viewed the Universe as rationally ordered by an utterly transcendent God, Hart argues, he also explicitly rejects a simplistic narrative by which Christianity simply gave birth to modern science. Hart has always stood out among many Eastern Orthodox writers for his scrupulous fairness to Augustine, Aquinas, and Medieval and Counter-Reformation Catholicism (as I quipped on Twitter, this book was the first writing I read by an Eastern Orthodox that has nice things to say about Jesuits).

There are some things I could say to criticize the book, notably its reduction of Modernity to a choice-based view of freedom and a nihilistic embrace of the will as moral guide; while that is certainly–who could deny it?–part of it, I do think there is more. But Hart really did not have either the time or inclination for a thorough critique of Modernity, and his intent there is clearly more to shock Modern readers in realizing that the abandonment of Christian humanism is far from necessarily leading to a mild universalist humanism. I also wish he had more extensively argued, or at least footnoted his, to my mind, idiosyncratic reading of John 1:1, which asserts that it avails itself more easily to an Arian reading than a Nicene.

Finally, the book’s last great strength–and I mean this in no way as a backhanded compliment–is that it is short. It is, after all, a historical essay, not a book of scholarship, historical or philosophical, and part of the virtue of great essays is that they are never longer than they have to be. One reason why you should read this book is because it can be read in a few sittings, as I did.

Cefalu Christus Pantokrator cropped” by Photo by Andreas Wahra, edited by Entheta – own photography (Andreas Wahra) Image:Cefalu Christus Pantokrator.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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  • montanajack1948

    I’m glad to hear that David Bentley Hart has demonstrated that Christianity was an improvement over the paganism of Roman times; I will keep that in mind if the ancient Roman Empire ever returns and I’m forced to choose sides. But I suspect that Mr. Hart believes he has demonstrated more than that–i.e. that Christianity is an improvement over modern post-Enlightenment secularism. It will take more than citing Julian the Apostate to make that case, at least for me.

    • Hart also makes that case, and quite well too, but I didn’t talk about it because it wasn’t the thing I found most interesting.

  • According to the logic in this piece, perhaps Humanism will become the New new testament, one which evolves to accept science, evolution and technology as the basis upon which to determine our morality.

    • Dan13

      Hart might argue that Humanism is unsustainable without some sort of religion that emphasizes charity. Advances in science and technology could probably make one a better secular humanist, but I think they are agnostic on whether a materialist should or would be a secular humanist.

      I think this argument is–for us–academic because it is impossible to predict what the landscape regarding faith (or lack thereof) will be in 50 years or so. After all, Russians in 1880 probably wouldn’t have predicted the secularism of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Soviets in 1964 probably wouldn’t have predicted the surprising resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

      • Psycho Gecko

        Maybe not so much in 1880 considering that people there weren’t even predicting World War I, which is when the revolution took place.

        Though, Lenin did predict Stalin would be an overbearing dictator, so that explains the Stalin Cult of Personality where they worshiped him (so much for being secular). Given how religious Russia was before and throughout communism, it really wasn’t much of a stretch to think they’d have some big revival of it. The so-called “godless commies” may have had getting rid of religion as a party line, but that’s mostly all it was.

        The main thing to take away from all that Cold War propaganda is not an accurate account of history.

    • Good luck.

      • CowsomeLoneboy

        In earnest?

  • CowsomeLoneboy

    As Gobry reports it here, Hart’s thesis is mainly a celebration of the marvelous, revolutionary effects of Christianity on history–the kind of celebration possible only when one limits the history to the time of Christianity and ignores the history of the non-Christian world. For example, completely absent from Gobry’s review is mention of what transpired in the Asian world in both pre- and post-Christian times. A case in point: Gobry states as gospel that hospital systems are a direct result of the advent of Christianity. A neat claim, except that there were hospital systems in India well before Jesus was born, as there is evidence of similar concepts in other pre-Christian civilizatons. Is the current concept of hospital care in Western medicine largely derived from the early Christian efforts to care for the sick and poor? Without a doubt, but in this, as in so much else, it is easy to make grandiose claims when one conveniently ignores niggling little details of actual history.

    Gobry does qualify Hart’s claims by stating: “Christianity was the only true ‘revolution’ in history, in the sense
    that it radically transformed the entire outlook of the culture in which
    it emerged[.]” If you were to stop there you would think that I am taking on a false battle because hasn’t Gobry said that Hart limited his claims to the effects of Christianity on “the culture in which it emerged?” But only 1 short paragraph away Gobry writes this: “Christianity, Hart argues, was the first movement to even intuit, let
    alone take to heart, what he calls a ‘total humanism’, meaning the
    conviction that every single human being has infinite value.” Such language, it seems to me, plays fast and loose with the concepts of history (whose history?) and the sources and evolution of ideas. The Buddha taught that each human is worthy of dignity and respect and Buddhist writings focus on the equality of each human life. The Buddha can reliably be said to have predated Jesus and the Christian movement that arose after his death. Even if one wanted to believe that these Eastern ideas never in the slightest infiltrated thought in the Western world, to claim that Christianity is the first movement to even intuit the value of the individual human life, without any further qualification, is, to put the kindest face on it, a bit of cultural arrogance.

    It is telling as well that writers and thinkers such as Hart and Gobry conveniently divide the world into the Christian and Pagan, as though either is monolithic. It is particularly inartful regarding the so-called Pagan world, because of the rich and manifold histories of the various cultures and civilizations that comprised what these writers lump together into the singular category “Pagan.” Any fair reading of the development of Christian doctrine would acknowledge the profound influence of many of these various Pagan cultures on the mythology, ritual, and even theology of the early Christian church and its modern-day offshoots.

    So really then, doesn’t this author’s title, Atheist Delusions, beg the question: Who, exactly, is delusional?

    • Psycho Gecko

      I mentioned the pagan influence thing with an example of Christmas before it got deleted (maybe they didn’t like me also calling them out on the idea that Christianity was responsible for ending African slavery?).

      It’s considered a huge deal now, one of the biggest Christian holidays. Except the date comes from Mithraism, the hymns come from songs people sang to the sun, the tree is Germanic, the feasting is from Saturnalia, the gift-giving is from Saturnalia, and so on. There’s a reason why the early church tried to ban celebrating at that time of year before deciding to try and roll with it.

      It sounds like all that nuance was glossed over to create a palatable narrative, though. I could go into something more substantial about how Christianity took concepts from other religions and mythologies, but I think then they’d definitely delete this.

    • Ryguy

      You make a number of historical claims, so I’ll address them as follows:

      The statement “there were hospital systems in India” needs some qualification. First of all, the historical evidence for this is incredibly vague. There does seem to have been something akin to hospitals in some individual Ancient Indian cities (as well as some other places), but they were only “hospitals” in an analogical sense, and they disappeared when their cities disappeared. I’m sure they were lovely, but you cannot seriously compare these infrequent spurts and stagnation to the continuous and innovative tradition of western hospitals, to do so is like comparing a finicky herb garden to a robust orchard.

      As for Buddhism, I’m not quite sure what Buddhist tradition you’re referring to. Buddhism, at least in its most essential form, is a practice one undertakes in order to free oneself from the bondage of attachment (if and only if one would actually like to be free from attachments). The ‘self’ is an illusion (as well as the ‘not-self’), so the concept of “every human being” having “infinite value” does not even come into the equation. Buddhists, of course, are free to believe this (in an illusionary way), but there is nothing specifically ‘Buddhist’ about it.There are many noble and touching elements to Buddhism, especially their writings on compassion. But this compassion, understood in context, is not referring to the sort of metaphysical equality that Gobry and Hart are referring to. Certainly no “total humanism” ever emerged from a predominately Buddhist society. I’m honestly curious about which Buddhist writings you think “focus on the equality of each human life”.

      I get the feeling you did not actually read Hart’s book, since Hart warns against a “monolithic” interpretation of the Pagan world, and asserts how Christianity emerged from a largely Hellenistic culture. Neither the review, nor the book deny the influence specific Pagan elements had on specific elements of Christianity.

      • CowsomeLoneboy

        Your beef is really with Gobry and not me. I just addressed what he states in his piece. As I noted, he states things in absolutes. You, on the other hand, are willing to admit to detail and shadings. You challenge my discussion of hospitals, for example, so let’s look at exactly what Gobry stated in that regard: “…that the hospital is a Christian invention[.]” Now maybe Gobry completely misstates Hart, but as I said, why then are you not taking it up with Gobry?

        You are right that I did not read Hart’s book. I don’t intend to either, as I have read reviews of his other books and also have read about the author himself. He is dismissive of anyone who dares disagree with him. I prefer authors who have a healthy dose of humility along with their erudition. If you then wish to say I have no right to comment, that would be your right and privilege, but I did read Gobry’s piece and I feel I therefore have as much right to comment on what I find there as anyone else who’s read it.

        As to what the Buddha himself did (for Christians will be the first to tell you that Jesus’ example is as important as his words,) here is an excerpt from a basic introduction to Buddhism by the Rev. Dr. Walpola Rahula: “After his Enlightenment, Gottama the Buddha delivered his first sermon to a group of 5 acetics, his old colleagues, in Deer Park at Isipatan (modern Sarnath) near Benares. From that day, for 45 years, he taught all classes of men and women-kings and peasants, Brahmins and outcasts, bankers and beggars, holy men and robbers-without making the slightest distinction between them. He recognized no differences of caste or social groupings, and the Way he preached was open to all men and women who were ready to understand and follow it.” Again, I only refer to Gobry’s assertions about Hart’s book: “Christianity, Hart argues, was the first movement to even intuit, let
        alone take to heart, what he calls a ‘total humanism’, meaning the
        conviction that every single human being has infinite value.” That is a leap, whether you attribute it to Gobry or if Gobry has reported correctly, to Hart. Unless you focus solely on “total humanism” (as opposed to, I don’t know, humanism lite?), it’s impossible to ignore the Buddha’s approach to his fellow humans and it’s disingenuous to say that it doesn’t even “intuit” such an outlook. Furthermore, this religious humanism did not emerge until after Jesus’ death; in fact, its early roots in Christian writing and scholarship are seen a couple of centuries later. I will grant you that the seeds for this outlook were in Jesus’ teaching, but the “total humanism” that Gobry boasts of was not even abroad in the Church until much later than the second century stirrings I just discussed. And it is again contrary to the known history of the beginning of the Christian era to say that such a worldview or mindset was only nascent when Jesus began teaching thus and only then sprang fully formed from his mind.

        I would quibble with you about this: “Neither the review, nor the book deny the influence specific Pagan elements had on specific elements of Christianity.” Please go back and read the review again. It talks about a one-of-a-kind, not-even-nearly-ever-equaled revolution in the world, which is divided, as I pointed out, neatly into Pagan (pre-Christian) and Christian. Since I haven’t read Hart’s book, I believe you fully when you say that he says the Pagan world was not monolithic. I also believe that he acknowledges the influences of Hellenistic culture. (Of course he would have to unless he wished to discredit himself, because that is all thoroughly researched and documented.) If one argues, as does Gobry, that there was a seismic shift, no a galactic-birth kind of event with this revolution, one cannot then argue anything other than the relegation of these influences to the mostly inconsequential.

        Thank you for the thoughtful discussion. I sincerely appreciate it.

        • Ryguy

          You are very welcome, I’m happy to provide, but at risk of making this thread much-too-long, I’ll respond to you in order.

          Whether Gobry’s claim that “the hospital is a Christian invention” is true or false depends on your definition of the word “hospital”. If “hospital” means any building where medicine was distributed, then no, Christians did not invent hospitals. This definition, to me, is too vague. But if you define hospitals more specifically as facilities where there are doctor-patient relationships and different units for different illnesses, as I would, then Gobry is technically correct, even if he’s not giving proper nuance.

          I have no wish whatsoever to censure you or claim that that you have no right to comment on the review. I am merely suggesting that it is a good idea to read the source material for a review when commenting on a review. You began your comment by writing “As Gobry reports it here, Hart’s thesis is mainly a celebration of the marvelous, revolutionary effects of Christianity on history…”. This was, to me, an indication you were not just referring to Gobry’s piece, but stating that Gobry was reporting here what Hart’s thesis actually is, though I could have been misreading it. David Bentley Hart is a bombastic rhetorician certainly, but I don’t think it is fair to say he is dismissive. To arguments with sufficient nuance, I find him fairly considerate, but if you don’ like him, you don’t like him.

          As for Buddhism, I would merely repeat my earlier comment. Buddhist teaching asserts that “castes” are an illusion, so yes, of course the Buddha didn’t care what caste his students belonged to. Deriving “equality” out of this is misleading, though. Some nuance is required here. The Buddha neither confirmed nor denied “human value”, let alone “infinite human value”. All of these constructs and value systems are illusions in Buddhism. Again, as I said earlier, Buddhist teaching needs to be understood in context. It’s not that Buddhism is opposed to human value, only that the question of human value is irrelevant to Buddhism.

          It’s true that Christian scholarship did not emerge (in large part) until the second century, but it’s a non-sequitur to then say that Christianity’s “total humanism” (as opposed to, say, the more limited humanism of Patrician Rome) did not occur until then either, and would, frankly, not prove anything even if it were true.

          I read the review again and I remain unchanged in my earlier statement. To say that Christianity brought something entirely new (and unlikely) into the world, whether true or false, is not to say that nothing in Christianity had specific Pagan influences.

  • I thought we should deal with the actual atheist delusions, which Hart never mentions. These are ten weird beliefs we atheists hold:

    1. Science and Reality mean the same thing.

    2. Belief in God is based in wishful thinking, whereas nonbelief in God is based in evidence.

    3. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is brilliant satire.

    4. Tim Minchin’s act is brilliant satire.

    5. Religion literally poisons everything, even pets.

    6. Reducing humans to biochemical machines explains all human endeavor.

    7. The fact that humans evolved explains all human endeavor.

    8. People lived in mud huts until the Enlightenment.

    9. YouTube debates changed someone’s mind about something once.

    10. My Science Boyfriend can beat up your Sky Boyfriend.

    As an atheist, I’m outraged!