Atheist Delusions 8

Imagine.jpgDavid Bentley Hart, a historian of ideas, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
, puts the New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris — to the test in the theories that are at work to prop up their own theories.

What about those inquisitions and burnings of witches? Hart brings his considerable expertise to this question with finesse and, without exonerating the Church one iota, he proves conclusively that the simplistic appeal to age of faith/superstition/violence to an age of reason/science/peace isn’t even close to reality.



First, Hart examines the connection of science and the demonic to show that they were both ways to deal with elements of life perceived to be powers. A rise in accusations about sorcery and the like is late Medieval or early Modern and not at all characteristic of the bulk of the Medieval age. Those most hostile to sorcery, Hart shows, were often not Christians and connected to state and power and politics — Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin.

Hart’s thesis is that this can’t be explained simply as Christian power but of the corruption of power, in which Christianity was absorbed. Here’s his very insightful and important thesis:

“The long history of Christendom is astonishingly plentiful in magnificent moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements… But it has also been the history of a constant struggle between the power of a the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.” 

And: “we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished” (86).

Medieval society was more peaceful, just and charitable than the imperial society before it and as well as more than the early modern nation state that followed it.

What Christians need to do is own up to what it has done, to own up to its complicity in power and the moral degradation that followed in that power, and ask forgiveness to those who point out its moral failures. What we would ask of the New Atheists is to accept our confessions, to accept also the complicity of all humans in moral failures, and to tell the story of the shift from the so-called age of faith to the age of reason is more realistic tones.

  • stephen

    Does Hart come to grips with the church surrendering moral authority to the Roman Empire?
    I agree with his point about the corruption of power, but then we must address Constantine. Didn’t it all start there?

  • Scot McKnight

    stephen,
    Well, I wouldn’t say it all began with Constantine because there were inroads into power structures before that, if not mostly at the local area in bigger cities.
    Does he come to grip with …? Not really; this book isn’t a confession but an attempt to show the theory of history at work in the new atheist books and public statements is grossly inaccurate to how things have “progressed.” But he does say the Church was wrong; he doesn’t spend his time on that confession though.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    I will also add that the extremely common present-day story among Christians of the surrender of moral authority and corruption by Constantine (or pick any other period) is often as historically inaccurate and incomplete and mythical in nature as the atheist story of the triumph of the age of reason over the age of faith.
    Reality is irreducibly complex and typically much more interesting than such reductions. Those who adopt and tell them, as a rule, have some sort of agenda for doing so.

  • James

    I can’t help but think that this golden nugget quote:
    “The long history of Christendom is astonishingly plentiful in magnificent moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements… But it has also been the history of a constant struggle between the power of a the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.”
    Has some bearing on our current political climate.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    he proves conclusively that the simplistic appeal to age of faith/superstition/violence to an age of reason/science/peace isn’t even close to reality.
    Even in Harris (the weakest of the so-called “New Atheists”) I don’t see a portrayal that’s that simplistic…

  • Jack Justice

    While I have deeply appreciated Atheist Delusions and have long admired Hart’s other essays on contemporary culture and the history of ideas, I think his most valuable work by far is in Christian metaphysics. His latest contribution in this field, published just last month, is found in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, an absolutely superb collection of papers from a March 2007 conference at Providence college.
    Hart’s paper “Impassibility as Transcendence: On the Infinite Innocence of God” powerfully encapsulates what I think has been his main metaphysical thesis during the past decade – that large tracts of Christian theology in the modern era have been degraded by an inadequate understanding of the nature, and logical consequences, of the transcendence of an infinitely loving uncreated Triune Being who gives created being to a universe created out of nothing, a created being that participates in God’s uncreated being, which we can only conceive analogically. More briefly, much Christian theology since the Enlightenment has been plagued by the ontotheological error, the error of picturing God’s uncreated being and the being of creation as species of the same being, and by a view of God’s infinity as a boundless stasis rather than unbounded activity. (At least that is an old Baptist layman’s sophomoric way of summarizing it.)
    In this particular paper, Hart applies this thesis to the concept of “physical premotion” taught by some “classic Thomists” to resolve questions about God’s sovereignty and human spiritual freedom. His critique of this notion is also partly aimed at Calvinist views of God’s sovereignty. This paper is probably the best introduction to Hart’s major theological work The Beauty of the Infinite.
    While I cannot agree with some historical judgments, and with some very disappointing moral judgments of Christians who have failed to correctly understand God’s transcendence, that Hart voices in the last two sections of this paper, I believe (and hope and pray) that he will be an intellectual force who has to be reckoned with by theologians in the future.
    Blessings.


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