Friday, April 24, 2009

David B. Hart Looks at Atheists' Claims

David B. Hart looks at the claims atheists make about Christianity in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolutions and its Fashionable enemies.

Here is a good review of Hart's book by Derrick A. Peterson:

Don't let the bombastic title fool you (it appears to be a play on both Dawkin's The God Delusion and the latter part of the title of Schliermacher's famous On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers and so is actually a rather sly title despite its prima facie inflammatory nature). This is by no means a standard book of apologetics. You will find here no trenchant rehashing of the so-called arguments for God's existence (cosmological, axiological, ontological), theodicy, or the well worn cart paths of the wearisome and quixotic Evolution vs Creationism debates. Rather what Hart attempts to do (and does beautifully) is to show that the assumptions of the "New Athiests," (e.g. Dennet, Dawkins et all) and the common mythology of atheism amongst laypersons and professionals pervading our contemporary atmosphere--namely that the history of Christianity is one of completely violent, doctrinaire aggression, suppression of scientific inquiry, fideistic stupidity, the abnegation of freedom and self thinking, and all in all the historical quintessence and amalgamation of nearly all the maladies and vicious shortcomings of Western history--are completely false.

To complete this task Hart sets forth a history of Christianity that shows, e.g. that Christianity was not some great and malicious interruption to the ideals of Classical and Hellenistic science in the so-called Dark Ages, but in fact preserved and expounded upon classical ideas, and even--interestingly enough--mediated to Islam via Syriac Christianity's copious translations of Aristotle the Aristotelian scientific heritage that eventually became re-integrated into the Western world. Or, for example, the notorious case of Galileo and his condemnation by Pope Urban the VIII is wonderfully narrated with the historical precision it deserves to show (rightfully, and finally in a way that will reach the popular consciousness) that this was an anomaly in the general historical relationship between science and the Church; that it was not in fact a battle between the incandescent purity of the reason of scientific legitimacy versus the stalwart bastion of traditional fideistic dogmatism of the church but rather the asinine conflict between two supremely egotistical men; that, if one looks at it, Galileo despite his brilliance could provide no empirical evidence for his Copernicanism (which, up to that point had created no stir in the church and found both admirers and fact Pope Paul the 3rd, to whom Copernicus' book was dedicated quite liked it) and so, ironically (as Hart wonderfully puts it), it was the CHURCH that was demanding evidence from GALILEO, who was in many ways blindly devoted to the hypothetical system of Copernicanism despite the lack of empirical evidence for his heliocentricism as would be provided later by, say, Tycho Brahe; and, quite humorously, that the eventual success of heliocentricism in the likes of Kepler and Newton was not the eventual success of some Classical Greek scientific spirit obfuscated by some Christian decline, but its final and ultimate defeat by a new system of science which superceded the old Aristotelian prejudices due to the influence of Christianity.

This is only a small piece of the books recovering of Christian history, but overall Hart's thesis is that the Christianity transformed the ancient world: it brought dignity to human beings, liberated us from fatalism, subverted the cruelest aspects of pagan society, emphasized learning and self control, and elevated charity above all virtues. In fact, to summarize, no Christianity means the disappearance of most, if not all of the positive force of Western history (a lofty thesis, to be sure). But the book is so much more than even this corrective.

Hart is not only a scholar of profound depth, but he also has a sharp sense of humor that saturates his beautiful writing style with a glamor and a fluidity of reading that few academics of his stature can achieve. There were moments when I actually laughed out loud at some of Hart's hilarious observations, and overall I could hardly put this book down.

I strongly recommend this book. Not only is it an innovative and historically accurate (though as Hart himself admits, not exhaustive) account of Christianity, and not only does it provide an excellent introduction to Hart apart from his much more difficult (but also amazing) Beauty of the Infinite, but it is a ripping good read in its own right. An indispensable read for Christians (and atheists!) of all levels of learning.

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