David Bentley Hart, a historian of ideas, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
, puts the New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris — to the test in the theories that are at work to prop up their own theories.
What about those inquisitions and burnings of witches? Hart brings his considerable expertise to this question with finesse and, without exonerating the Church one iota, he proves conclusively that the simplistic appeal to age of faith/superstition/violence to an age of reason/science/peace isn’t even close to reality.
First, Hart examines the connection of science and the demonic to show that they were both ways to deal with elements of life perceived to be powers. A rise in accusations about sorcery and the like is late Medieval or early Modern and not at all characteristic of the bulk of the Medieval age. Those most hostile to sorcery, Hart shows, were often not Christians and connected to state and power and politics — Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin.
Hart’s thesis is that this can’t be explained simply as Christian power but of the corruption of power, in which Christianity was absorbed. Here’s his very insightful and important thesis:
“The long history of Christendom is astonishingly plentiful in magnificent moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements… But it has also been the history of a constant struggle between the power of a the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.”
And: “we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished” (86).
Medieval society was more peaceful, just and charitable than the imperial society before it and as well as more than the early modern nation state that followed it.
What Christians need to do is own up to what it has done, to own up to its complicity in power and the moral degradation that followed in that power, and ask forgiveness to those who point out its moral failures. What we would ask of the New Atheists is to accept our confessions, to accept also the complicity of all humans in moral failures, and to tell the story of the shift from the so-called age of faith to the age of reason is more realistic tones.