Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart and The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day
Book Review by Bryan E. Dowd
Division of Health Policy & Management
University of Minnesota School of Public Health
These are two very different books linked by a similar goal. Both authors assure us that their work is not intended to convince anyone that deism or theism, much less Christianity is true. Day even opens his book by declaring, provocatively, that he doesn’t care whether the reader goes to Hell or not! Instead, both authors simply are trying to correct popular but erroneous views of the history of Christianity and its cultural influence. Both authors regard the “New Atheists,” particularly Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, as contemptible propagators of factual errors who either are unable or unwilling to do the hard work of historical scholarship. To that list, Hart adds Jacques Le Goff (despite referring to him as otherwise brilliant), Edward Gibbon, Jonathan Kirsch, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, Charles Freeman, and Ramsay MacMullen. Day argues that despite Dennett’s egregious errors, he distinguishes himself from his compatriots by admitting that there are some things he does not know.
Despite their common goals and common foils, the authors differ in their approaches. Hart focuses primarily on the early history of Christianity while Day covers the waterfront from the time of Jesus to the present day. Hart is concerned with ideas and their consequences. Day also critiques a variety of ideas, but is concerned primarily with data, and presents reams of it, some of it original and intriguing.
Hart is an academic historian. Day represents the new generation of investigative bloggers who wears his lack of advanced degrees on his sleeve and mocks the errors of his academically-certified adversaries. While both authors’ impatience with the new atheists leads to a bit of name calling, neither engage in mere ad hominem attacks or what C.S. Lewis labeled “Bulverisms,” e.g., “you say that only because you are a (fill in the blank).” Both authors have an engaging writing style. Hart’s will appeal to a more academically inclined audience, while Day’s is entertaining, in-your-face, sprinkled with jokes (hopefully the reader will be able to distinguish the jokes from the serious critiques), and likely to appeal to younger readers.
The two authors emphasize different themes and offer different views of a “post-Christian” secular world. One of Hart’s general themes is that what many people think of as religion-inspired violence really is state-inspired violence in which the church was willingly or unwillingly complicit. He reminds readers that the Crusades were episodes in a history of conflict beginning with the Muslim conquests of the 600s. (Oddly overlooked by critics of “colonialism.”) Similarly, the Spanish inquisition was a matter of Crown policy and an office of the state. The Grand Inquisitor himself was a civil, not ecclesiastical, appointee and civil courts prosecuted heresy as treason. The Catholic Church often intervened to dampen the secular courts’ excessive cruelty. During the “religious” wars of Europe, the state regularly accepted help from religious rivals and received none from regimes with similar confessional stances. And, interest in witchcraft actually coincided with a decline in the authority of the Christian church. Thus overall, violence increased as the state became more powerful and as the church surrendered its moral authority, reaching its climax (we can only hope) in the twentieth century when the state achieved true cult status, demanding unwavering support from its citizens, purging the public sector of its religious influence, and in the case of atheistic regimes, murdering 100 million of their own citizens in less than 50 years. Hart characterizes the current state of affairs within these regimes as “absolute state” and “total war.”
As Hart shifts his focus to Christianity’s relationship to reason, he shows that rather than impeding science, Christianity facilitated it and preserved it in the monasteries during the middle ages. Pope Urban III’s confrontation with Galileo was a clash of colossal egos, not the ecclesiastical suppression of rationality. Urban actually funded Galileo’s research (and that of some of his relatives) and ironically it was the Church that was insisting on scientific evidence that the Copernican model was correct, proof that Galileo was unable to provide because Urban was correct on a technicality. Hart also notes that states unchallenged by the authority of the Christian church have produced more than their share of horrific “science” and had the Church been successful in impeding it, humanity would have been much better off.
Hart concedes that ancient pagans were more tolerant than their Christian contemporaries, but their tolerance was not what most moderns celebrate: the ancients were tolerant of disease, starvation, homelessness, and the murder of unwanted infants, disproportionately girls, who were left to die of exposure or to be devoured by wild animals. He notes that the Christian “rebellion” was a rebellion from within the pagan ranks. The gods rejected by early Christians used to be the Christian’s gods. Christians were viewed by pagans as the atheists of their time.
Hart’s enumeration of the benefits conferred on society by Christianity reminded me of Monty Python’s skit “What Have the Romans Done for Us Lately,” in The Life of Brian. In addition to promoting and preserving modern technology and science and the modern research university, we can add the development of a “social morality” (something the pagans never accomplished), an institutionalized obligation to care for widows, orphans and the poor, a culture of generosity towards their non-Christian neighbors that embarrassed Julian the Apostate (a convert from Christianity to paganism), the concept of the universal and intrinsic worth of all human beings, the end of the “divine right” of kings, abolition of slavery in the Western world, and so forth. Christianity has so transformed our moral consciences that it is virtually impossible for modern Western society to imagine the pagan world. The early pagans would have found the values and virtues that we take for granted not merely objectionable, but inconceivable.
Regarding a “post-Christian” future, Hart notes with faint optimism that at least the future indeed will be “post-Christian” so that for a short period, some vestige of Christian values might suffice to ward off the state’s most voracious impulses. However, despite pop cultural trends to the contrary, we cannot now return to a pagan culture. Christianity has made it impossible to believe in the pagan gods, and all that appears to remain is Nietzsche’s will to power yielding a frightening future where knowledge is the new morality, science chaffs at any moral constraint and “reason” is elevated to godliness regardless of reason’s ambitions.
Day covers many of the same topics as Hart, but includes some of the more recent misrepresentations of Christianity and some novel lists and data analyses. My personal favorites are his six events that would falsify Christianity (in response to the criticism that there are none) and his reanalysis of Sam Harris’s data on voting patterns and crime rates that reflected what analysts refer to as the ecological fallacy. Harris analyzed voting patterns and crime rates at the state level and Day reversed the result by analyzing the same data at the county level. Day’s Appendix A contains a convenient list of atheist leaders who killed at least 20,000 people (not including wars).
Day’s treatment of the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition is similar to Hart’s but Day likes numbers and military history and adds some detail about the events between November 1478 and 1480 that led up to Ferdinand’s appointment of two inquisitors. The Turkish fleet attacked Otranto, killed 20,000 people including the archbishop (killed in the cathedral), sawed the garrison commander and a bishop in half and beheaded 800 captured men who refused to covert to Islam. Ferdinand’s response was to protect the state from treason, which, at that time, happened to take the form of people pretending to be Christian while holding other beliefs. Day reminds us that the number of victims during 345 years of inquisition was less than half the number of Catholic clergy killed during the Spanish Republican Red Terror in 1936. But how many people are even aware of the latter carnage?
Day does not consider all forms of atheism irrational. His three forms of “rational atheism” are (1) Somerset’s parasitic atheism in which the post-Christian culture “free-rides” on its Christian roots, at least in the short term; (2) Nietzsche’s will to power; and (3) Michel Onfray’s primacy of desire. For Day, these forms of rational atheism represent a progressive descent into madness and his vision of the post-Christian society.
Day borrows heavily from the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and I wish he would have cited him, if only to encourage more people to become familiar with his work. The idea that if Christianity is true, Christians have a good warrant for believing it is true (whereas the same cannot be said of naturalism-materialism) is pure Plantinga, as is the result that if we reject all the common arguments for the existence of God we likely also will have to give up our beliefs in other minds!.
The purpose of a review is to encourage people to read the books, not to serve as a substitute for them, and I hope that this review has been provocative enough to have that effect. Saving civilization from itself may be too lofty a goal, but perhaps we at least could get the history of the rise and fall of Western civilization straight.