Thursday, March 22, 2012

Book Recommendation: Atheist Delusions

As a pastor, I am often looking for good books to recommend to people. Several years ago, someone approached me looking for a book that would help them when confronted by their atheist friends. A knowledgeable atheist will often bombard Christians with a plethora of so-called "facts" and "history" to prove that Christianity has caused nothing but trouble. When one hears everything from "Christians caused the dark ages" to "Faith and science are opposed" what is a Christian supposed to say in return? Most Christians will recognize something smells rotten in Denmark but they are not equipped to go toe-to-toe with the atheist and dismantle such ahistorical shenanigans piece by piece.

This is where David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies can help. I read this book about a year or two ago and remember thinking "finally" to the question of 'what book to I recommend to help debunk an atheist's jumbled arguments from history'.

From the book, I wrote a post on my blog entitled: "Mythbusters: The Christian Dark Ages." It remains the all time highest trafficked post. I encourage you to read it as I run through some of Hart's arguments and supporting documentation that Christians did not cause "Dark Ages." In fact, the Middle Ages were filed with advancements and most scholars in the field recognize this. It really is a naive 'Enlightenment' fantasy to say that Christians held back science and technological advancement. As Hart and others have shown, Christian advanced some thing in various ways. This includes especially medical treatment and care of the poor and needy.

Ironically, today, many of the 'new atheists' are rabid in asserting arguments that are filled with historical fallacies. Edward Gibbon's hostility to Christianity that colored his The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, has long been debunked--but some of the new horseman of the atheist apocalypse aren't always current on scholarship in fields they have no mastery of. Often times, Christians today encounter atheism of a species that bring more heat than actual light--I simply mean that your average coffee shop atheist often (but obvious not always) has a zeal without good knowledge.

This is a book that I would recommend to a knowledgeable high-schooler and definitely to a college student at a secular college or university. It is not so much an apologetics book in the traditional sense nor is it strictly a history book, although part 2 takes on the atheist rewriting of Christianity's history. 

The book takes on modernity as a failed project, as a surprising number of the new atheists are pointed out as being a bit naive when it comes to philosophical commitments. 

The book also makes positive arguments. We need to retain Christianity if we are going to retain any notion of humanity and ethics. Secularism's promise to the contrary has turned into a grand failure. Christianity has done for the West, and the world, something that was never found in paganism: it dignified the human being and individual. Secularism and enlightenment thinking has lived on borrowed capital but that capital is slipping fast as Christian moorings are lost.

Hart is not naive to argue that everything good that happened in the West is from Christianity and everything bad is unrelated. He is more interested in showing how Christianity and Christian beliefs actually changed the moral landscape, which of course brought secondary effects on history [although not necessarily direct cause and effect]. Listen to him in his own words:
[U]nless Christian apologists are eager to credit for much that is not creditable, and to argue that their faith made straight the way for all the large political movements of Western history, including the horrid ones, they should venture claims regard the inevitable political and economic consequences of Christian beliefs only tentatively and, as it were, in sotto voce. 
What interests me--and what I take to be genuinely demonstrable and important--is the particular ensemble of moral and imaginative values engendered in numberless consciences by Christian beliefs. That such values had political and social consequences I certainly do not deny; I feel fairly safe in saying, for instance, that abolitionism--as a purely moral cause--could not easily have arisen in any non-Christian culture of which I am aware. That is quite different, however, from claiming that Christianity ineluctably or uniquely must give rise to, say, democracy or capitalism or empirical science. It is to say, rather, that the Christian account of reality introduced into our world an understanding of the divine, the cosmic, and the human that had no exact or even proximate equivalent elsewhere and that made possible a moral vision of the human person that has haunted us ever since, century upon century. (Hart, p.202-203).
This leaves Hart's work as an interesting mix of history, theology and apologetics. But Hart brings his argument together in a way that is rather effective. His approach to the atheism is fresh. Hart himself is both winsome and engaging in his arguments yet he does not suffer fools gladly.


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommended for college students, people interested in apologetics, history and Christian theology. Very useful for anyone in regular dialogue with non-Christians, particularly ardent atheists.

Other recommended reading:
Alistair McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism.
Tim Keller's The Reason for God.

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