Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Atheist Delusions

Commemoration of Martin Chemnitz (birth), Pastor and Confessor

The Lord be with you

I receive a journal named Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology. One of the features I enjoy are the book reviews. Trust me on this; the books they review are not reviewed by the New York Times. In Volume XX, Number 4 (Reformation 2011) there was a very interesting review by Jack Kilcrease. I thought I’d share it with you.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. By David Bentley Hart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Atheist Delusions is the attempt on the part of Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart to write a rebuttal to the new atheist movement (Dawkins, Hitchens, and so forth). From the first page, Hart demonstrates his extreme erudition as well as a keen writing style. He displays a thorough knowledge of classical Christian thought and the Western philosophical tradition. His first few chapters debunk the "Scientism" that is the presupposition of the new atheists. Hart shows himself to be a master of demystifying their faulty thinking and ignorance of post-Enlightenment Western thought. Despite their pretense at being "Brights" (Dawkins’s suggested alternative name for atheists), they show a profound ignorance. Frequently they are simply repeating long-discredited philosophical, theological, and historical fallacies. Hart suggests their popularity stems not from the theological or philosophical viability of their proposals, but rather from the appeal of their metanarrative of nothingness. Modern and postmodern people think of themselves as self-positing, free-willing, and unconstrained subjects. They see God as interfering with this autonomy and ability to self-create. Nevertheless, to be totally undetermined means to be nothing in particular. Only nothingness is pure indeterminacy and absolute autonomy. Modern and postmodern people, in effect, argues Hart, believe in nothingness more than anything.

Most of the rest of the chapters deal with historical questions and the impact of Christian theism on world civilization. The Christian narrative is the ontology of peace rooted in the inner life of the Trinity and the peaceful act of creation ex nihilo. Paganism held a narrative of order and chaos in a perpetual conflict (see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy). Here Hart echoes John Milbank, among others. The claim that Christianity is actually an ontology of violence masquerading as ontology of peace is unfounded, notes Hart.

Similarly, the claim that Christianity maintains its peaceful charade in order to perpetrate violence is false. The claims that historically Christians have been responsible for the lion’s share of violence and intolerance in world history are also false. For example, the new atheists frequently attack Christianity for causing religious wars, from which only the secular state can save us. This is pure propaganda. Hart notes that the Thirty Years' War, frequently credited with showing Westerners the need for religious toleration, was about the birth of the secular state, not about religious rivalry. The modern secular state has bequeathed the human race far more violence and misery than Christianity ever did. Furthermore, Christian values—the belief in the order of creation and value of each individual—have informed the West’s cultural striving in ways that directly contradict paganism. Nietzsche was correct that one cannot reject a Christian worldview and expect to hold on to its ethical dimensions. If each human is not made in the image of God and therefore valuable, then why respect them? If the world was not created by a rational and intelligent mind, then why look for order in it through scientific inquiry?

The new atheists demonstrate their profound historical ignorance when they posit that Christianity has constrained peace, freedom, and scientific inquiry. In fact, the ancient pagan world, which Christianity conquered, was not the sphere of tolerance and scientific inquiry that they imagine it to be, but a gloomy place, stagnating in its technological and scientific advancements. (By the time of Augustus, all discernible scientific or technological development had more or less ceased.) Regarding liberties and freedom, the Pax Romana was a tyranny much like the empires that preceded it. Its literature, philosophy, and religion all presupposed a tragic metanarrative. In effect, it was nothing like the ethical, optimistic, and scientific world Dawkins and Hitchens believe would exist if the Christian church were to blip out of existence. In truth, to the extent that the secular metanarrative upholds these values, it is simply parasitic upon the Christian worldview. It posits a meaning, peace, and order to the cosmos that its own tragic atheism cannot logically sustain. In the end, Hart demonstrates that the atheistic worldview stands in great conflict with its own moral compass, as well as its scientific and historical pretensions.

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