“Atheist Delusions”: what I learned

I joined a book club this year — 4 books, 4 evenings with great desserts — led by Paul Doerksen, teacher at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, here in Winnipeg. On the menu tonight is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

It’s been a slog, frankly, reading this book, but that’s why one joins activities like this, I suppose — to persist in what’s good for one, not just the dessert! Hart takes on the current atheist apologists, none of whom I’ve read, and also considers in some detail the first four or five centuries of Christian history, with which I’m also not as familiar as I probably should be.

But here’s what I learned:

1. The current crop of church antagonists (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Pullman) are hardly worthy of the name. Theirs are “vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance.” The church used to have opponents of stature, of whom Nietzsche was the greatest, having at least had “the good manners to despise Christianity…for what it actually was — above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion…” 

2. The view of the past that modernity (whose “primal ideology” is nihilism) has given us — and one we’ve probably all absorbed — is just plain wrong. This false narrative, based on distorted history, tells us that the dark, confused Middle Ages gave way to “a new and revolutionary age of enlightenment and reason.” 

3. In fact, Christianity brought something entirely new and profoundly remarkable into the world (along with its single historical claim: Christ’s resurrection).  It was a “cosmic sedition” that gave “a vision…of humanity in its widest and deepest scope, one that finds the full nobility and mystery and beauty of the human countenance — the human person — in each unique instance of the common nature.” 

“For what it is to be human has been, in some real way, irrevocably altered.” 

This good news, he notes, evolving within a pagan culture of spiritual and moral decline, was “uncommonly attractive to women.” It imparted to the world “a deep and imperturbable joy.” And it started hospitals. (On the grounds of Christian charity, Hart gives not an inch — the range of Christians’ exertions on behalf of others was “astonishing.”)

Hart’s style is as vigorous and compelling as it is complex, and he has a magnificent capacity for what seems to me a kind of (usually) holy sarcasm. I’m tempted to quote him endlessly here, but first I want to hear how Paul Doerksen will pull Hart’s thesis together — he’s read the book at least twice — and what the rest of the participants of the group will have to say.