Strident critics of “religion” today would like us to imagine a society without religion and to begin constructing a society without religion. David Bentley Hart, in chapter one of his new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
, takes on “The gospel of unbelief” and puts to the test the underlying assumptions that are work in the critics of religion.
He comes out swinging: “But atheism that consists in entirely vacuous arguments [and he’s pointing at Dennett and Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris] afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism” (4). I’ll tell what you I think: this approach is itself too strident, but it’s the first chapter and Hart doesn’t keep this up.
He says past critics of Christianity were noted by a “certain fierce elegance and occasional moral acuity” (5) and he points to Celsus and Porphyry, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon. But in Hart’s view Dennett and Harris are shallow thinkers compared to the others.
Can a purely secular society be moral? If so, on what basis? What is evidence that a secular society can be a morally good society?
One of his more important conclusions in this chp can be found on p. 14: “What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned … is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith” (14).
Hart’s anthropology won’t let up: “But there is something delusional nonetheless in his optimistic certainty that human beings will wish to choose altruistic values without invoking transcendent principles. They may do so; but they may also wish to build death camps and may very well choose to do that instead” (15).
He reminds DHH of this: “Compassion, pity, and charity … are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practiced, formed by cultural convictions that need never have arisen at all” (16).
He contends that DHH “are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises” (16).
He calls on Christians not to give on this score: Christians “ought not to surrender the future to those who know so little of human nature as to imagine that a society ‘liberated’ from Christ would love justice, or truth, or beauty, or compassion, or even life” (17).