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. The New Atheists, he contends, propagate a myth in telling the story of (Western) civilization. Namely, that the Age of Faith was an age of superstition and the Age of Reason one of enlightenment, and the former is to be applauded for putting the former into the past. In fact, if all were so reasonable, our society would be improved. Hart thinks this is nonsense in a number of ways.
How often do we hear the story that the medieval age was the “dark” ages? That the “dark” ages ended when classical civilization was rediscovered in the Italian renaissance? That the church was to blame for that age being “dark”? Can we not see that when the Faith was growing, it was committed more to the Faith than to Plato and Aristotle? But that during that same time folks like Boethius in the West was doing what he could to keep the classics alive? That during this time the East was absorbing and reading the greats of Western civilization? And who is to say that the classics were always humane?
In chp 6 he takes on Jonathan Kirsch one more time, and Kirsch is a much-published critic of the Bible and history and religion. Kirsch is not match for Hart when it comes to comprehending the history of the Church. Kirsch describes the “Dark Ages” as do other myth-makers: “an era of obscurantism, stagnation, and terror in the service of true belief” (49).
Hart traces the Christian, both Western and Eastern (which Kirsch either doesn’t know or conveniently ignores), response to classical civilization and demonstrates compellingly that Kirsch’s theories are unfounded. Hart sees Kirsch’s claims to be a “crude burlesque of medieval history” (52). “Talk of medieval Christian civlization being ‘quick to burn’ the writings of ancient pagans, moreover, is tantamount to a confession of an almost total ignorance of that civilization” (52). To be sure, both pagan and Christian emperors destroyed the books of those who worried them.
But as Hart sees it: “the precedent, in point of fact, was set by Augustus Caesar, who according to Suetonius destroyed thousands of rival prophetic books before sealing the Sibylline books themselves away from public scrutiny in the Palatine temple of Apollo” (54).
Of Kirsch: “Slovenly scholarship is a sin, perhaps, but bad scholars might also be forgiven for believing what they have always been told” (54). But, “there is no intelligible sense in which the rise of Christianity can be held responsible for the decline of late Roman culture, some supposed triumph of dogma over reason, or the retardation of science” (54-55).
Indeed, “it was the church’s monasteries alone that saved classical civilization from the total eclipse it would otherwise have suffered” (55). And especially in the East.