David Bentley Hart and “the new atheism”: a brief review and recommendation of Atheist Delusions

One of my favorite Christian authors is David Bentley Hart. His The Doors of the Sea was a profound inspiration and help as I wrote Against Calvinism. He is a word master. Just reading him elevates your mind and soul. And, if you pay attention and learn, your vocabulary! (Anyone who has read him knows what I mean.)

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009) is typical Hart–not easy reading but good reading in the rare sense. Not just “good” as in “pleasurable” or “inspiring” but “good” as in soul-stirring, though-provoking, faith-deepening and mind-elevating.

The book is poorly titled. I suspect (although I have no inside information) that Hart’s intended title was the subtitle. Surely the publisher slapped Atheist Delusions on it as the main title. I  know of other cases where this sort of thing has happened–for marketing purposes. “The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” is the right title for the book, but perhaps it wouldn’t sell as well.

The book is a polemic against “the new atheism.” Here’s a typical example of Hart’s biting rhetoric about the new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchins, et al.): “As I have already complained, the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief. The best we can now hope for are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in  an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor.” (220)

IF you plan to read this book, I suggest you read the Introduction and Part One (“Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present”) and then skip over the Parts Two and Three to Part Four (“Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and The Eclipse of the Human”) and read the two chapters there: “16 Secularism and Its Victims” and “17 Sorcerers and Saints.” THEN go back and read Parts Two and Three which are mostly historical in nature and explain Hart’s theses about what he calls “the Christian revolution” and why it is misrepresented by the new atheists and other secular critics of religion and especially Christianity. He demonstrates conclusively that what he calls “total humanism” is rooted in Christianity and not in secularism. He explodes numerous myths about Christian beginnings and Christian history while admitting without hesitation the abuses of Christendom (which have been betrayals of true Christianity).

I’ll just give one example of Hart’s incisive historical examination of Christianity’s (not Christendom’s!) contribution to Western civilization and especially humanism (value placed on all human beings regardless of age, race, ability, etc.). I must admit that I did not know that Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian fathers of the church, was the first human being to condemn slavery outright as an institution and call for its abolition. Christians before and after him (and some pagans as well) called for humane treatment of slaves and even generous manumission of slaves, but Gregory, in his fourth sermon on Ecclesiastes (379) directed his anger “not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners…for daring to imagine they have the right to own other human beings.” (178) And his only ammunition is the gospel.

I can’t resist another fairly lengthy quote from Hart about Christianity’s “total humanism” or “personalism”: “In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity [that has no pagan or secular foundation], we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrom or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight…[as] not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, [this] is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls.” (214)

Hart goes through a laundry list of modern/contemporary secular “thinkers” who suggest that such children ought to be killed or at least bred out of existence through eugenics. He doesn’t mention her, but his argument reminds me of the very revealing answer given by a secular “genius” columnist to the question “What makes a life worth living.” She wrote “A life is worth living if it produces more than it consumes whether that be happiness, handbooks or harmonicas.” (I’ve always wondered why people think she knows the answers to metaphysical questions just because she allegedly has a very high IQ.) That is, in Hart’s opinion and mine, the correct answer for purely post-Christian, thoroughly secular person to give. Any other answer draws on the left overs from their Christian past.

Now, it’s important to clear away some of the objections that will inevitably arise from those who do not read the book. By “Christianity” Hart does NOT mean “the churches” or “Christendom” or any Christian denomination’s confession of faith or even “everything in the Bible.” He clearly (!) means “the gospel” and its direct implications. He clearly means “total humanism” or “personalism” based on the narrative of God creating humans in his own image and likeness and becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. He readily admits that the gospel has rarely been lived out faithfully by institutions. But, in his view (and mine), it is the salt and light that overcame the “melancholy” of ancient pagan culture and has always stood as judgment and hope within Western culture.

Now, much of what Hart says is not entirely new; he just says it so powerfully, courageously, directly and intelligently.

One thing I found new in Hart’s book is his tracing of the ills of modernism to nominalism. According to Hart (and I agree) the root ill of all modernism is its excessive emphasis on freedom to choose as an end in itself. The inflation of the will has become the be-all and end-all of being human in contemporary Western society. Not choosing for some good, but simply having the power to choose and acting on it is what makes us human (to many secular modernists). The Christian law of charity has been replaced with the self’s ability to choose as the summum bonum.

Many have said this before. Hart rightly traces it back to nominalism. Of course, it’s an unintended consequence. The line for him (and for me) is clear, however, and should have been seen from the beginning. For nominalism/voluntarism “God’s essence simply is will. And if this is what freedom is for God, then this must be what freedom is for us as well.” (225) (Page 225 constitutes a beautiful and frightening description of nominalism/voluntarism; read it.)

Some time ago I was browsing in a Christian bookstore and came across a published version of Luther’s Bondage of the Will (his diatribe against Erasmus) edited with an introduction by J. I. Packer. (I wondered then as now how honest it is to publish just Luther’s diatribe without at least lengthy selections from Erasmus so people can know “from the horse’s mouth” what Luther was reacting to.) Here’s the great irony. Packer, a Calvinist, agrees with Luther against Erasmus. But Erasmus’ free will was simply power to choose; it was freedom to move toward or away from the good. There is no hint in Erasmus of “freedom” in the modern sense of simply the right and power to choose whatever. His is a limited, situated power of contrary choice based on assisting grace. Luther’s diatribe contains clear, even extreme, affirmations of nominalism/voluntarism (that God is above all law even within his own eternal nature). If Hart is right, and I suspect he is, it is Luther’s view of God that led to modernity’s inflation of freedom out of all bounds! Of course, it wasn’t Luther’s alone. Nominalism/voluntarism existed and exists way beyond Luther. But the irony is still striking.

If Hart is right, the future looks dim as Christianity recedes in influence. (Again, he’s not talking about Christendom but about the gospel!) Without it, there is no ground for humanism or hope. The only thing left is power and will. The lives of those who cannot produce more than they consume are in very real danger. He concludes that “our contemporary ‘age of reason’ is in many ways an age of almost perfect unreason, one always precariously poised upon the edge of–and occasionally slipping over into–the purest barbarism.” (236) He holds out little hope for Western civilization apart from a revival of Christian, total humanism and personalism.

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  • 1) Thanks for the book recommendation, I think I will be reading this as soon as I finish Myths and Realities!
    2) How do you differentiate between or what is your working definition of Christianity and Christendom? Do you know who first made this distinction?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know, but I grew up with the distinction between “nominal Christianity” and “real Christianity.” I can find that distinction in the radical reformers (Anabaptists) and pietists and many other groups of Christians throughout history. “Christendom” is Hart’s term for organized, institutional Christianity. “Christianity” is his term for the set of ideals and teachings given by Jesus, the apostles and the church fathers. Historically, the difference seems clear.

  • Rob

    It sounds as though another voice has been added to the chorus claiming that the rejection of a broadly teleological view of the world has brought us to where we are today. We can only talk of freedom being its own end or existing to set its own ends if we have already cleared away natural ends, telos, and realized natures. The early modern philosophers could not reconcile the received morality with a world devoid of telos, essential natures, and act/potency. When it was all over and done with, all modern philosophy could come up with is that (subjectively defined) pleasure/happiness is the only good to be sought and morality is nothing more than a rational restriction on each of our own individual pursuits of happiness that makes room for the free pursuit of happiness by others.

    The implications of embracing autonomous freedom instead of teleology as the basis of morality take awhile to pan out but we can see the process starting with William of Ockham, continuing through Luther, and finally arriving at Kant. Rawls’ thought is probably the best contemporary example and it is very influential and rooted in Kant.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. Except that at least Rawls attempts to come up with a secular, rational basis for social ethics that is not hedonistic. I find his “maximin principle” a helpful analogy to the gospel (in terms of application to wealth and poverty).

  • AJG

    When I hear or read them, I always wonder what kind of world men like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris live in. They seem to think that if people will just start to use their brains, they will reject faith for cold, calculated reason. That is an absurd assertion that is the result of living in an academic bubble. The vast majority of people are more emotional than rational (that is just an observation, not a value judgement), and will never function as Vulcans, Mentats, or computers. People need hope as much as they need food and water. As beautiful as science is, it can’t answer the deep questions that people want to know (Why am I here? What is my purpose?), or if it does, it provides answers that give no comfort to the soul.

    Of course, there is also the degradation of culture and morality that accompanies the loss of faith, which seems to be Hart’s point. Without a set of grounding moral principles that are absolute and authoritative, everyone eventually reverts to “What will benefit me the most?” resulting in one of two outcomes: 1) chaos and societal breakdown or 2) authoritarianism to maintain order. Maybe the New Atheists want number 2) with themselves as the overseers.

    • Bev Mitchell


      “What will benefit me the most?” resulting in one of two outcomes: 1) chaos and societal breakdown or 2) authoritarianism to maintain order. Maybe the New Atheists want number 2) with themselves as the overseers.”

      This may well be true. But see also the post before this one where Roger reviews Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and the Beast. Extremists contending is one thing. Extremists gaining the power to be overseers is quite another. This has been tried on numerous occasions in history so we can be certain that this way lies madness and great evil.

    • John I.

      I think it might be more accurate to view their position as rationalistic.

      Brain studies have shown that emotion is critical to making rational decisions–people with impaired emotions had difficulty make rational choices (even wikipedia has accurate cites on this. People make decision using both reasoning and emotion. I think it’s unfair to characterize people as making only emotional decisions for the most part.

  • JamesT

    The Doors of the Sea was my introduction to Hart. I needed to keep a dictionary handy, but what style! I am conflicted though, especially with Doors. He was asked, as I understand it, to write the book because of the article he wrote for the WSJ. What an opportunity to write for the non technical common guy, and I think he blew it! So much good to be said–and needed to be said–but he might as well have written it in Swahili.

    • rogereolson

      But there are already many good theodicies written for the “non-technical common guy.” Perhaps Hart sees himself as an apostle to the university educated, the intellectuals, for whom few orthodox Christians ever write.

    • John I.

      In addition, erudite defences of Christianity do filter down as top scholars respond to it in their teaching, and thence from university levels to the media and people in other areas of influence.

  • I’d like to know more about what’s meant here by ‘nominalism’ and ‘voluntarism’, how the two things are related, and what they have to do with free will. In scholarship on early modern philosophy (my field) it’s well-known that the voluntarist (Scotist) and nominalist (Ockhamist) traditions of late Medieval philosophy exercised significant influence in the development of modern philosophy, and one of the things that goes along with this is the attempt to give a nominalist account of the meaning of ‘good’, which in the empiricst tradition usually ends up connecting goodness with pleasure (Gassendi, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill), and you even sometimes get goodness connected with pleasure in more complicated ways in the broadly Cartesian tradition (Leibniz defines ‘pleasure’ sometimes as ‘perception of increase in perfection’ or other times as ‘increase in perception of perfection’ – these are not equivalent; in the Theodicy this is why the ultimate human destiny, the highest good we can hope for, is to be forever increasing in our understanding of God). I can see how, in this way, nominalism might (but need not) lead to an impoverished understanding of the good and what’s to be pursued. In Mill’s case, it leads specifically to the view that each person is the final arbiter of what is the good life for him or her. (Locke, I think, held only that each individual is a better judge than the government of what’s the good life for him/her, not that the individual is infallible about this.) But in the mainstream of this tradition we somehow end up with compatibilism rather than libertarianism becoming the dominant view (on the standard list of seven great early modern philosophers, all but Descartes and Berkeley are compatibilists, although Kant is a compatibilist of a rather odd sort). So I’m not sure where the voluntarism is coming in and what it’s doing. Also, I’m not convinced that this is a necessary consequence of nominalism, although I do see that, as a matter of historical fact, some of these ideas arose from nominalism. (Incidentally, nominalism is no longer the fashionable view about universals in general in Anglo-American academic philosophy, though problems about moral knowledge have prevented most philosophers from endorsing strong forms of realism about moral properties.)

  • Dr. Olson: Who is T. F. Torrance? Have you written anything about him? Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t. He was an influential Scottish Reformed theologian heavily influenced by Barth. He is the main inspiration behind what is now increasingly being called “evangelical Calvinism.” I blogged about that a while ago. But I’m no expert on Torrance; I read a few of his books and didn’t think that much of them. If I were a Calvinist I’d probably be more attracted to his thought (as an alternative to TULIP Calvinism).

    • Bev Mitchell


      According to Elmer Colyer who wrote “How to Read T.E. Torrance” and is now writing a book on John Wesley’s theology, there are great similarities between Torrance and Wesley (per com). Torrance, unfortunately, does need interpreters such as Colyer. Another interpreter is Paul D. Molnar “Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity”. I’m no Calvinist, or expert either, but do appreciate Torrance’s strong emphasis on the Trinity – and his great ecumenical contributions, especially for Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical (Scottish?) Reformed.

      You can find lots more at the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship site:   http://www.tftorrance.org/

  • Elliott Scott

    I just reread “Doors of the Sea” and was struck by how similar his explanation for natural evil is to Greg Boyd’s in “Satan and the Problem of Evil”: fallen angelic powers have authority over aspects of the natural world. Natural disasters are not necessarily God’s will but often occur in opposition to it.

    That is not something too many modern Christians ever hear.

    • rogereolson

      Indeed. Most modern Christians, including evangelicals, have long ago abandoned realism in belief about the demonic.

      • Elliott Scott

        Well, we evanglicals may be somewhat familiar with the concept of demons harassing a human being, but affecting the weather? When Boyd pointed out that Jesus quiets the storm on the sea of Galilee with the exact same words he uses to silence demoniacs, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

      • Bev Mitchell

        It’s interesting that in a time when popular thinking includes “spiritual” as part of its worldview, movies are full of corporeal depictions of evil, the Bible clearly talks about evil’s role in all aspects of life, knowledge that the early Church was completely accepting of the idea, evangelical Christians want to shy away from (even deny) the whole thing. People will even go so far as to effectively think that God is unopposed, which completely defeats the articulation of any remotely reasonable theodicy. 

        One of the clearest metanarratives of Scripture is that there are two realities – spiritual and material. There is no warrant from Scripture to think that God alone is spirit. Spiritual formation, growth, growing in grace, whatever name is preferred, is a constant theme in evangelicalism, yet the real opposition to this essential growth is largely ignored. Yet, we probably can’t even think reasonably about creation without accepting that God did it in the face of a mighty opposition.

        Of course, this  kind of thinking can lead to dualism. But then, we have the Resurrection. God’s demonstration of what a human being should be when God creative love works unopposed. This eternal victory over evil is a huge part of the Good News that we are called to share. But that’s not all! Many evangelicals have so down-played the Holy Spirit that to many he is an “it” and remains very poorly understood and unheralded. Many have become effectively binitarian instead of trinitarian. 

        A revival in our thinking of the Trinity and of the reality of spiritual warfare, for which we must rely on the Holy Spirit, is sorely needed. Of course, past excesses in this area have frightened people off. It’s great that people of the stature of Greg Boyd are calling attention to this gaping hole in our theology and our theodicy. 

        Elliot, it’s also great to hear that David Bentley Hart highlights the same issue. Thanks for noting it.  I’ll start with “The Doors of the Sea” as you and Roger suggest. 

    • Professor Hart seems to have adopted the Faith of Eastern Orthodox Christians, but of his writings with which I am familiar (I just purchased his book on the New Atheists) I have yet to find anything in those writings that leads me to believe that he possesses an Orthodox phronema (“mind-set”). To quote a Church Father or two is no guarantee that he understands them. A case in point — he insists that all the Church Fathers were all Scriptural allegorists. DBH has forgotten the typological and historical sense of the Bible which is common place among them. In any case, no Orthodox Christian worth his salt thinks his religion as merely the best version of Christianity. Our exclusivism and “rigorist theology” leaves no place for political correctness.

      • rogereolson

        Over the years I’ve had many lengthy conversations with mainstream Orthodox priests and theologians. Many of them warned me about Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists.

  • Steve

    Hi Roger:

    It seems to me that despite your (and Hart’s) view that the freedom to choose is at the root of “nominalism” and that the right to choose in an end to itself, freedom to choose, as substantially free moral creatures, is at the heart of the story of God and his loving relationship with his creatures (human). The consequences of our free choices; for God or for self, is what sets Christians and the sacred apart from the profane and tyranny of self-rule. Love demands the ability to make choices as its highest standard, even if those choices are horrifying and damaging to every realtionship mankind partakes in. At the same time, freedom to choose is at the root of all sin—this freedom (for good or ill) seems to be inseparable from the state of being human.

    Prevenient grace allows mankind to recover one aspect of that which has been lost — it allows, by grace, the freedom to choose God. The freedom to choose is itself a gift of grace from God. How is it possible, that the ability to make free moral choices (or at least, one ultimste moral choice) irrespective of the outcome of that choice, is not the only Godly thing a fallen creature can still do? While it is not morally or ethically good or loving to make a “bad” choice in choosing other than God, it is loving for God to allow that choice to be made and therefore it is the epitome of our humaness–it is our imago dei. Freedom to choose is the only way we humans can be accountable to God for our choices.

    • rogereolson

      Hart’s (and my) objection is to confusing “freedom” with “choice.” Real freedom is found only in Christ. Too many people equate our summum bonum, our highest good, our ultimate achievement of our telos, with choosing. Free will is a good gift, but it is not true freedom, it is only a tool to use rightly or wrongly. When used rightly, assisted by grace, it can be a tool for receiving the gift of true freedom. See my forthcoming article in Christianity Today (October issue).

  • Steve

    I may be quibbling here Dr. Olson but is saying that freedom and choice are not the same making a distinction without a real difference. Using either freedom or choice as aspects of our human condition inherently begs the questions: freedom from, to, or for what? Choice for or against what? Are you saying that the freedom or ability to choose or reject God by an unsaved person is not true freedom? Likewise, the Christian makes a choice everyday and many times through out the day to choose or reject the mercy, grace, and empowerment of God–willingly choosing Christlikeness, by grace or willingly choosing self-interest. I think, the raising up of choice as an end in itself is the perfect back drop and postion that fallen mankind should be in and as Christians, we should rejoiice that they get this right. For it is at that point of freedom AND choice that the Gospel is aimed at. All Christians arrived at the point where everything was reduced down to the one question of who they are going to use their freedom for — who is going to be the direct their telos; God or themselves. It is unclear to me how we can on one hand decry having the ability to make free choices (and the logical outcome of that) and on the other pray that the unsaved get to precisely that point in our efforts to evangelize them.

    • rogereolson

      When Scripture says that Christ will make us free, it doesn’t mean “free to choose.” See my article in the October issue of Christianity Today. It will explain everything (I hope).

  • Just downloaded this upon your recommendation Roger. Hart certainly is a word-smith. One of my favorite lines by him so far: “It is a little more than a concatenation of schrill, petulant, assertions, a few of which are true, but none of which portrays any great degree of philosophical or historical sophistication.”