Wednesday 13 September 2017

Daryl McCann's piece in the Autumn 2017 edition of Salisbury Review

Here is my 'Conservative Classic' column on David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies was published in 2009 as a direct response to the phenomenon of militant atheism that, at the time, caught the imagination of the book- buying public in the Anglosphere. Prominent amongst these ‘fashionable enemies’ were the so-called ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. All of these atheist fundamentalists were, in their previous intellectual endeavours, either brilliant or at least notable figures. Experts on religion, alas, they never were, and Hart relishes the opportunity to expose their shortcomings.

Hart confines himself, here, to a defence of the Christian faith, and more specifically its revolutionary role in the making of Western civilisation. Christianity, in the opinion of the ‘Four Horsemen’, is a singularly bad idea, nothing short of an irrational impulse or antiquated superstition foisted upon each new generation by means of indoctrination. Anyone in full possession of their faculties of reason would not be Christian. The Age of Reason, as distinct from the Age of Faith that preceded it, ought to have cured all educated people of the folly of Christianity, religion and reason being antithetical. The time had long passed for a movement of atheists (or ‘Brights’ as Richard Dawkins called them) to criticise, counter and liberate deluded believers (‘Dims’) from the fetters of their supernatural fantasies.

Hart, nevertheless, takes issue with the assertion that Christian belief can be dismissed as no more than a supernatural delusion. A central idea in Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is that all ‘religions’ are a natural function of humanity and, as a universal natural impulse, this fatally undercuts the supernatural pretensions of religious belief. It does not ‘logically follow’, though, that ‘simply because religion is natural it cannot be the vehicle of divine truth’. Besides, Christians, according to Hart, ‘are not, properly speaking, believers in religion’. The question for Christians is not loyalty to religion as an abstract concept, in the sense of a ‘natural desire for God’ as articulated by Dennett, but fidelity to an historical personage: ‘Jesus of Nazareth crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his church as its Lord.’

If Dennett’s atheist polemic represents ‘something of an embarrassment’, the ‘doctrinaire materialism’ of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion fares little better. It constitutes no more than a subcategory of modern scientific positivism, which Hart classifies as ‘an illogical, inflexible and fideistic certainty that empirical science’ should serve not only as ‘the sources of factual knowledge’ but as ‘an arbiter of values or of moral and metaphysical truths’. We might call this ‘scientism’ and it asks scientists, our new priestly class, to arbitrate on matters ‘unencumbered by archaic Christian mystifications about the sanctity of every life’. Peter Singer’s support ‘for the right to infanticide for parents of defective babies’ and James Rachels’ advocacy ‘for more expansive and flexible euthanasia polices, applicable at every stage of life’ are likely portents, warns Hart, of the brave new post-Christian world we are entering.

In the case of The End of Faith, David Bentley Hart claims that Sam Harris not only betrays ‘an abysmal ignorance’ of almost every tenet of Christian belief, from Christianity’s view of the soul to its moral doctrines, but proves totally prejudiced in his treatment of both the bad and the good that have occurred since the advent of Christianity. All acts of violence and injustice are a direct consequence of Christian doctrine, while the ‘unmatched moral triumphs’ in Christianity’s twenty centuries, including alms-houses, hospitals, medical missions and charitable aid societies, are ‘simply expressions of normal human kindness with no necessary connection to Christian conviction’.

The subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything follows the
same jaundiced path as the other New Atheists. Hart wonders how, if Christian sensibility is so toxic, do we makes sense of the music of Bach and Michelangelo’s Pieta, not to mention ‘the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and contemporary efforts to liberate Sudanese slaves’? Hitchens’s militant atheism demands that he characterise Stalinism as a ‘political religion’ and an abuse of the principles of militant atheism, while condemning ‘any evil that comes wrapped in a cassock’ as ‘an undiluted expression of religion’s very essence’. The hypocrisy and incoherence of the argument should be self-evident. Only the ‘relative vapidity of our culture’, contends Hart, permitted Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens to get away with their ‘thoughtless complacency’.

There was once such a thing in the West as ‘unthinking religious conviction’, but this has been superseded by ‘unthinking irreligious materialism’. Atheist Delusions goes beyond demolishing the ‘thoughtless complacency’ of the ‘Four Horsemen’ and attempts to make sense of what the New Atheism experience tells us about our world. David Bentley Hart laments the ‘facile simplifications of history’ that embody so much ‘fashionable’ thinking. The Christian Revolution, and its association with the age of Constantine, utterly reconfigured Western civilisation in ways that we moderns scarcely understand. The Christian Revolution might now be an ancient insurgency but it made us anew, delivering the West from melancholy and tribalism of paganism to an unprecedented kind of optimism, freedom and reason. It has informed almost everything about the West. Even the Age of Science, contraire the New Atheists, was not a rebellion against Christian culture but a product of it.

Atheist Delusions ends on a pessimistic and ominous note. The decline of Christianity, the faith that shaped the West’s social, intellectual, metaphysical, moral and spiritual landscape, leaves us unmoored and diminished. That is the final aspect of the ‘thoughtless complacency’ of the New Atheists. If Christianity along with its ‘transcendent aspiration’ departs Europe, will not Nietzsche’s prophecies about the ‘Last Men’ finally come to fruition? David Bentley Hart expresses his ‘morbid despair’ in a post-Christian vision of an ageing Europe, obsessed with the banality and trivia of narrow, materialistic interests, milling around ‘the glorious remnants of an artistic and architectural legacy’ that ‘sprang up under the sheltering canopy of the religion of the God-man.’

Daryl McCann is an Australian journalist. He has a blog at