Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Snap: David Bentley Hart's "Atheist Delusions"


From the September 2009 E-Block.
***
David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions proved an interesting book in many ways. It was recommended to me by one of our longtime readers and contributors, who said that Hart often sounded like my Impossible Faith article. I did indeed find some material with the same general thrust, such that I may even use some quotes from it for Defending the Resurrection for thematic (not documentation) purposes. But that is not mainly what Hart is all about, I'd say. 

The title may lead you to think Hart has a lot to say to atheists -- and indeed, in the first chapters, he does. Hart forthrightly and dismissively rejects the new atheists and critics as ill-equipped pedants, in language that will also remind the reader of my writings: e.g., Christopher Hitchens has a "talent for intellectual caricature [that] somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic"; Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is "surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate" [4]; Sam Harris "displays an abysmal ignorance of almost every topic he addresses" [8]. But this, too, is not mainly what Hart is all about; he leaves the new atheists behind as named persons for the bulk of the book. 

What then is Hart all about? The bulk of this book is a quite engaging refutation of various mythologies about post-first-century Christianity. To frame the matter for veteran readers, it is rather like a detailed but narrower version of our Christian Crimeline rebuttal, a debunking of certain "atheist delusions" regularly appealed to by critics. Yes, everything here from the destruction of the library at Alexandria to the Spanish Inquisition, and many more in between. 

It's written in a clear and engaging style, but it is also the sort of thing I would wish were heavily footnoted, which it is not. Hart clearly knows his subject and counts his authority to speak on it as sufficient -- which I am sure it is, overall, especially as for the most part, his assertions on subjects I know well does check out. (One of the few exceptions: His claims that the doctrines of the Arians could be as well supported from Scripture as that of orthodox Trinitarians. -- 204-5)

From the positive side, Hart is also about showing how positively Christianity has influenced society. The TIF sort of aspect comes into play here as well, though Hart does not really go into why Christianity succeeded in the first century so much as he concerns himself with how it succeeded in the centuries thereafter. In that sense, his work is more like Rodney Stark's than mine.

One should not be too stringent against Hart for not providing more documentation, however, as he clearly describes his book as more of an essay than anything else. I believe readers will find this book encouraging in the same way some might find reading (say) Rush Limbaugh's works encouraging. But by no means should it be taken as something on the lines of a work of N. T. Wright that should be quoted in a documentary work. Look at it then as more of a refreshing draught of cold water.

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