Monday, 2 August 2010

Atheist Delusions: Another book review

In Beirut airport there is a smallish bookstore containing a smallish English language section, containing a few John Grisham novels, some travelogues, a good number of books on Islam and this: Atheist Delusions, The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart. I bought it immediately, and discovered at this point that my Visa card was still in an ATM back in Ashrifiyeh, but that is another story. I started to read the book on the plane and discovered a new hero.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox (note the capital)theologian of immense erudition, intellectual capacity and wit. I have now ordered some of his other works, but this one proved to be a great way to fill the long hours drifting above the clouds. His way of dealing with the challenge of the new Atheism is one I warm to immensely. I have long known that the best way of dealing with Atheist splutter is to use their own non-arguments against them ( I used to be an atheist but in my early twenties found that I no longer needed the emotional crutch of atheism...) Hart does it better. He knows what many of us timid and polite and nice Christians simply don't: that most of the atheists who beset us with such assurance and confidence simply have no idea what they're talking about. So people with the skimpiest knowledge of history, and no understanding whatsoever of the history of science will regale us with absolutely confident and convinced opinions on, say, the trial of Galileo. People whose knowledge of the Middle Ages comes exclusively from some half baked TV documentary or from one or two badly researched best sellers will argue earnestly about the end of the Roman Empire and the theological and moral development of Europe. With style, panache, élan, learning and relentless logic David Bentley Hart demolishes... no, blends, powders and atomizes... the arguments raised not so much by the serious philosophical atheists (of whom, incidentally there are precious few about), but by the fashionable poseurs, the headline makers, the publishers of cheap and cheerful splentetic tomes, and the ABWFI (Adolescent Boys With Father Issues [my phrase]).

The style of the book is bold, confident and assured. It is a wonderful piece of Christian apologetic, but it is much more besides. It is an interesting potted history of Christianity and of the development of Scientific thinking, written by a man acknowledged as one of the world's foremost scholars of religion. It is a devastating critique of the West, and of Modernism as the prevailing philosophy of the West. It is a hope-full analysis of the Christian Gospel and a statement of its contribution to the intellectual and moral development of Europe and, indeed, of the world. The book is backed by impressive scholarship, properly footnotes and referenced, and all this presented in a readable, and even racy style.

Hart's analysis of Modernism as resting on a particular concept of freedom is an intriguing one, and this is an idea I have spent the last few weeks unpacking for myself. Hart describes the Modernist concept of freedom as being entirely about the individual: that is, MY development as an individual is the highest good, and anything which compromises MY right to do exactly as I please is to be resisted. I believe he is accurate in this, and I am alarmed to consider how far this particular view of freedom has infiltrated the church and influenced the way we organize ourselves and the way we think about life, the universe and everything. We have lost, in large measure the freedom described by Paul in Romans which is freedom from my own self absorption and from the impulses and half conscious powers and principalities which hold me locked down tight in bondage.

This is a book I am savoring until The Beauty of the Infinite arrives. It's one I recommend highly, but don't expect me to lend you my copy. Not just yet, anyway.

11 comments:

Merv said...

..... not wanting to get carried away (he said) but I believe we are led to some books in a slightly miraculous way.
In some American city (could have been Miami or New Haven) in an ordinary book store, Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace - A Vocabulary of Faith beamed at me and said 'pick me'.
I'd never heard of or read her before. I sure have now.

Wynston said...

Oh dear ... yet another 'must have' book, and my copy of "A 30 Day Retreat" hasn't even arrived!

VenDr said...

Kathleen Norris is a great read. Dakota is the one of hers I responded most to, but Amazing Grace is not far behind.

And sorry about adding to the book bill, Wynston. Tell Lorraine it's my fault.

Anonymous said...

Hart has written a fine book here (one that even bends over backwards to be fair to Julian the Apostate in his attempted revival of paganism), with a great cavalcade of thinkers and movements. Of course, he's Orthodox and isn't too kind to Protestants.
A lot of Hart's other work can be accessed (free!) from the 'First Things' and 'Touchstone' websites. His work can be compared with Dante scholar Tony Esolen of Providence College.
Brian

Anonymous said...

Here's a new piece by Hart on 'the new atheism':

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/believe-it-or-not

Brian

daharja said...

I don't *get* atheism - but then, I guess I haven't had the time to properly read their books and listen to their, no doubt, convincing arguments.

For me, the Divine has just always been there, and always will be. Doesn't stop me cursing at Him/Her and doesn't stop me from questioning either!

But I'm not pigheaded enough to presume that humans have anywhere like enough brains to ever understand the complexities and elegant simplicities of the universe.

We've a long, long way to go, and a bit of humility would do us good.

Where am I going with this? I suppose I just see atheist as another form of "listen-to-me-ism", and a particularly vitriolic, aggressive, testosterone-laden one. Why so desperate to convince? Why so desperate to be heard?

Like I said, I don't get it! I'd rather just go out, and sit under a beautiful tree, and listen to the wind singing songs far more beautiful than anything I'll ever sing.

Jason Goroncy said...

Kelvin, thanks for posting this review on what is a very helpful book. I thought that while you're waiting for The Beauty of the Infinite to arrive, you may really appreciate Marilynne Robinson's latest book (based on her Terry Lectures), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. I found it a great compliment to Hart's insightful analysis. Happy to loan you my copy too.

VenDr said...

Thanks Brian for the link. The article gives a god taste of Hart's style and depth. Thanks also, Jason, for the suggestion of Marilynne Robinson. I looked her up on Amazon, read a review or two (the most telling of which was the rabbit in the headlights panic ridden squealing of the atheists) and bought an electronic copy which I have begun reading on the Kindle reader of my iPad. Isn't technology wonderful?

Jason Goroncy said...

Yes it is. I look forward to reading your thoughts on Robinson's book, should you choose to post on it. Pax.

Anonymous said...

We weren't,we are, we're not,face it.

NIE said...

Thanks Kelvin and Brian. Have just come upon something David B. Hart wrote a couple of days ago on First Things, about the Julian the "Apostate" - Julian Our Contemporary
Aug 6, 2010