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.
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.