David 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.
Hart begins by quoting the famous medievalist, Jacques Le Goff, who exercises considerable psychological imagination about why and how medievals cared for the excluded — lepers and the like. Hart simply trots out evidence that makes Le Goff’s psychologizing less than adequate and suggests that the evidence leads us to think that Medieval Age, for all its problems, really did try to construct society on Christian ideals (29-31). Modernity is prone to embrace Le Goff’s theory because we believe we “are vastly more enlightened than those poor, uncouth, benighted brutes who slouched through the swamps of medieval fanaticism, superstition, and hypocrisy” (31). Here Hart is getting at his point: we have embraced propaganda about the Medieval Age and have embraced a theory of progress that lacks evidence.
The reigning theory is that modernity led us out of darkness and superstition into enlightenment and reason. To make this sustainable, we’ve had to construct the Medieval Age in a mythology. In his view, a truly modern society is a post-Christian society. Modernity is what occurs “post Christendom.” But he claims that “the ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity … are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology” (32). We would not believe today in things like human rights or economic/social justice or basic human dignity were it not for this so-called Christendom.
Secularization theory then is for many modernists nothing other than the chase of freedom. This is why the major mythology is that history moved from the “age of faith” into the “age of reason.” That Age of Faith then gets its own typologies: no culture, science was debunked, wars of religion abounded, witches were burned … it was a bundle of superstition and superstitious people. Secularism, however, came to the rescue and began to reduce religion to its proper place. Intolerance was on its way out.
Hart: “This is … a simple and enchanting tale … its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail” (34). New Atheism hangs from this mythology. It is the Story it tells. But no good historians tell this story today because they know Renaissance was the flowering of what was going on in the late medieval age. Yes, there was a loss of classical learning in the early medieval age. But from the late 7th Century (Carolingian Renaissance onwards) on there was plenty of classical learning at work.
But bad popular historians often shape the mind of the day.