Atheist Delusions 5

Imagine.jpgDavid Bentley Hart, a historian of ideas, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
, examines “faith and reason” to provide historical context for what has happened with New Atheists.

Did history move from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason? Was this from superstition to enlightenment? Do the new atheists frame the story this way? Is it appropriate to accuse Christians and believers in religion of all sorts of lacking culture and intelligence and rooting their ideas in evidence and logic? Are the new atheists more reasonable than Christian or other religious intellectuals?

In chp 4, he brings his expertise in the late Roman empire to bear upon the myth at work in much of the popular and (uninformed) scholarly claims about how culture has moved from the superstitions of the age of faith into the non-superstitions of the age of reason.

He sets the chp up with a quotation from Jonathan Kirsch, from his book called God against the Gods that discredits Christians for their faith-inspired destructions of the library at Alexandria and at Serapeum, both of which claims Hart exposes as fallacious, mythical, and drawn from bad history. Then he picks on Edward Gibbon. When done flaying their lack of evidence, Hart trots through the ancient world to show that the evidence is a mixed bag of intellectuals who mostly got along and where each group had its own violent rabble.

“It would have been wonderful especially if all the baptized Christians of the age, whose ideals were by far the higher and nobler, had never yielded to their hatred for the cults of their erstwhile persecutors as fervidly as they sometimes did. But human beings frequently disappoint” (41). Four pages later he’s back to this point: “And, while it is correct to deplore Christians whose behavior betrayed the morality of the faith they professed, it is also worth noting that one cannot do the same where the pagans devoted to the temple cults are concerned, since their religions had practically no morality to betray” (45). This, however, is the worst form of apology I know: confession of sin is eviscerated when it includes wagging a finger at those yet worse.

But, Hart’s right, and this is a theme for him, when he speaks of the Christian contribution: “a vision without precedence in pagan society, a creed that prescribed charitable service to others as a religious obligation, a story about a God of self-outpouring love.” But he goes on to excuse Christians a little too much for me: “In long retrospect, the wonder of this new nation within the empire is not that so many of its citizens could not really live by the ideals of their faith, nor even simply that so many could, but that anyone could even have imagined such ideas in the first place” (45).

Here he draws his conclusion that shapes this Age of Faith vs. Age of Reason debate: “What was certainly not the case was that paganism and Christianity confronted one another as, on the one hand, a tradition of ‘pluralism’ and rational inquiry [the Age of Reason culture of ancient Rome that was supposedly squashed by benighted Christians] and, on the other, a movement of ‘irrational’ fideism [the Age of Faith as seen by the pagans who lost their cultural intelligence to the Christians by violence]” (46). He illustrates this with myths about Hypatia, a pagan woman scholar who died, not because of the superstitions of Christians but because she got caught between warring tribes at the demotic level.

"Dana--I am glad that you ended your very thoughtful posting on the note of hope. ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Hi Michael,I have only read some of his books and all these issues you are ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Certainly the cultural context question has to be asked. Personally, I think that in this ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Yes. People need to look at the big picture. Anything taken out of context can “prove” or support nearly anything. The more people can try to look at the whole, the better. I know a general atatement about generalties, but it holds water to me.
    I do like the next to last paragraph- on what Hart is saying. Thanks, Scot.

    There is a certain irony to that bumper sticker image, being asked to “Imagine No Religion” thus viewing imagination an enlightening trait. Yet at the same time condemning religion for being “merely” imagination. Granted an atheist would say they are favoring an imagination grounded in evidence and proof, but such an imagination is no imagination at all, merely observation.

  • Whoever killed Hypatia, she was no pagan:
    “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it”
    Hypatia 370 – 415 CE

  • Scot McKnight

    Chris, I haven’t studied the Hypatia story myself, but Hart observes she was a pagan. So I looked up the Wikipedia piece — it says she was a pagan. EncyBrit sees as a Neoplatonist — what’s wrong with calling her a “pagan”?

  • Scot McKnight

    Chris, doesn’t your quote confirm the myth of progress from the age of faith to the age of reason?

  • “the worst form of apology I know: confession of sin is eviscerated when it includes wagging a finger at those yet worse.”
    But it is valid to point out that Christianity’s detractors must borrow Christian morality to attack us.

  • Paul S

    “But it is valid to point out that Christianity’s detractors must borrow Christian morality to attack us.”
    And what exactly is “Christian morality”?

  • “Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace
    You may say that I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one”
    I don’t think christians seem to understand this. The war on terror, the crusades, the dark ages (where people were boiled, skinned, burned alive). All of this is because of religion.

  • ChrisB – No, there are other ways to conceptualize morality than as being dictated by a Lawgiver. See the link below my name.
    And Scott, if the myth is about moving “from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason” – if that’s a myth – then I fail to see how this story illustrates it. I mean, if moving from paganism to Christianity were a movement toward reason, then it wouldn’t be a myth. And if the ‘detractors’ think that moving from paganism to Christianity were a bad thing, then it wouldn’t be a ‘myth of progress‘. I guess I’m not following your point.
    I rather thought the so-called Enlightenment was the point where it was generally thought to have moved from an “Age of Faith” to an “Age of Reason”, anyway. And that happened a bit later than Roman times.

  • AnAtheistsPhilosophy – Of course, there are atheists who don’t see religion as the sole cause of all those evils, but rather as a major contributing factor.
    A catalyst, in chemical terms, affects the rate of a reaction without actually being consumed in the process. I see religion as a catalyst for trouble in that sense – wars and conflict can certainly happen without religion, but religion boosts the problem.
    See, e.g. Israel. Did you know that, before the creation of Israel in Palestine, there were serious proposals to create a Zionist state in South America? That didn’t happen… because religious concerns mandated Palestine. I’m not sure we’d have the same level of troubles today if present-day Israel were in the Western hemisphere.

  • Rick

    “I don’t think christians seem to understand this. The war on terror, the crusades, the dark ages (where people were boiled, skinned, burned alive). All of this is because of religion.”
    We, Christians, probably recognize this sad fact more than you realize (especially in recent decades), and although we are beginning to be more open about expressing regret, we still have done a poor job.
    I do apologize for those harmful actions that were done in the name of Christianity, but were, in fact, actually/unfortunately very un-Christ-like.

  • ChrisB

    Yours is the usual morality of pragmatism. You can say that an act is illegal, impractical, or rude, but you can never say something is wrong.
    So you can never say that I shouldn’t kill someone. I just need to not get caught.
    And why people are good is a different question entirely from whether there is a “good.”

  • ChrisB

    “The war on terror, the crusades, the dark ages … All of this is because of religion.”
    Not really. The Assyrians, Alexander the Great, Rome, the Mongols, the American Civil War, WW2 — it’s standard human behavior. Sometimes it masquarades as religion, sometimes it doesn’t.

  • ChrisB – If that’s all you took from the essay, I’m sorry. Of course, I disagree that you can make such a claim without running smack into the Euthyphro Dilemma:

  • Religion, if we mean living with a sense of purpose that transcends evidence, is part of what it means to be human. On an interpersonal level it wouldn’t be too difficult to prove that sex is the cause (or at least the catalyst) for many painful conflicts. Do we conclude from this that we need to become asexual? Imagine there’s no sex? I’m not sure I can live in that world.

  • I was waiting for Euthyphro to rear it’s typical head.
    I don’t necessarily buy into an “absolute morality”. I fall on the subjective side of the fence. However I would probably posit the following:
    1. God must be a God of love
    2. This is the lense through which I then read the Bible. Actions that are consistent with love could be consistent with this God, other actions not. this obviously results in further discussion about what Divine actions (as explained by the biblical writers) seem to express love, and which ones do not.
    3. If there’s no “objective” morality then fine. We choose for ourselves if we agree with love or not. I’ve got no issue with that. Taste and see…

  • Craig – Most people, of course, don’t define religion that way. If we want to get into personal definitions, though, I’d say that a worldview is ‘religious’ if it includes supernatural elements.
    And what’s ‘supernatural’? Things that are defined as being forever beyond human comprehension – not just things that aren’t understood yet, but that can’t be understood.
    This seems to cover the ground pretty well. Note that there are ‘religions’ that are frequently called ‘philosophies’ – where there’s already some doubt about whether they are actually ‘religions’, like Confucianism or Buddhism. And those are the ones that include the least amount of ‘supernatural’ elements.

  • Ray,
    Admittedly, definitions are tricky. It seems to me, however, that if we start suspecting that Confucianism and Buddhism are not religions because they don’t conform with a definition than it might be better to reconsider our definition.
    I don’t think my definition is as arbitrary as it might seem. It accords well with Lennon’s song.

  • Craig – If you want to stick with that definition, fine. But then I’d just say that it’s entirely possible to find a sense of purpose in life without requiring belief in anything supernatural.

  • Ray,
    That may be, but note that how we might be able to find purpose might pale a little next to how we as humans actually do find purpose. To use my analogy, one might say we can satisfy our sexual needs without relationships, but I prefer the old fashioned way. Note also that my definition includes transcending the evidence. Whether or not that means reference to the supernatural would be an interesting discussion, I think.

  • Steve S

    I think I would find a definition for ‘religion’ in the sense of purpose that Craig points to. The larger sense of significance that gets attached to life and events within history by some sort of meta-narrative.
    I concede (Ray) that this can be found outside of what might be typically called ‘religion,’ but I don’t have a problem calling ‘scientism,’ ‘nationalism,’ or even ‘football-ism’ and ‘family-ism’ religions…
    This fits quite nicely with the Biblical narrative’s description of ‘idolatry…’ don’t you think?

  • Craig – I’d be fine with having that discussion sometime, too – as I don’t perceive a need for purposes “transcending the evidence” (pretty much equivalent to what I called ‘supernatural’ earlier). How about someone’s ‘religious’ when they see or need purposes that “transcend the evidence”, and not religious otherwise?
    Steve S – I think that definition loses a lot of important distinctions. It rolls together things like ‘worldview’, ‘paradigm’, ‘philosophy’, ‘hobby’, and so forth into a muddy concept. At which point it doesn’t seem terribly useful – except rhetorically.

  • Ray,
    That seems like a workable definition to me though I don’t see a significant difference between it and my original definition in comment 15. No doubt, I’m missing something. I should point out that my intent was not to give an all purpose definition but rather to give us a handle on the sort of thing that Lennon is asking us to imagine out of existence. I would argue that if we really followed Lennon’s advice we’d cease to be human. If a good friend told me he had nothing to live or die for I’d look into a suicide prevention.

  • Craig – Actually, I think the line in the song you’re referring to is “nothing to kill or die for”.

  • Ray,
    Wow do I have egg on my face. My apologies to you and Lennon. I’ve been singing that line wrong for many years. Thanks for the correction.