Thursday, April 29, 2010

Atheist Delusions

I have been reading David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. Hart is taking on the so-called New Atheists who argue that Christian history is marked by its violence, ignorance, and opposition to science. I am only about half-way in but I find Hart making some good points.

One is that the Christian way of life was a marked upgrade from the pagan way of life that preceded it. He makes basically the same point here that Rodney Stark makes when Stark talks about how the Christians and pagans responded so differently when the Roman empire was visited by the plagues. The pagans fled for the hills, including the pagan doctors. The Christians stayed and took care of the sick. The result was that many of the pagans who survived converted to Christianity. It was a better way of living.

Why did the Christians stay and take care of the sick? Because at the heart of the Christian story there is a suffering God. On the surface it sounds like a terrible marketing strategy: my God gets hung on a cross, suffers and dies; how great can he be? It is a stumbling block. But in practice it leads to care for the suffering because this is where God is present. So widows are cared for, orphans are cared for, sick people are cared for. Christians are to stop supporting the games where humans suffer and die for sport. Christianity treats humans with more dignity; human consciousness evolves thanks to Christianity.

Christian culture brings us not only hospitals and better care for the suffering but a flourishing of the arts: literature, music, painting and sculpture. Creativity is encouraged; beauty is valued. And so the argument goes. The end of the pagan era was not the end of a golden era replaced by a thousand years of night until the enlightenment once again lit the mind on fire. The Christian era was in many ways a huge step up for humanity.

Another point, on Christian opposition to science, Hart essentially asks this question: in what culture did Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to name just a few history-making scientists, make their history? Christian culture. Where did they do their work? In universities created and funded by Christian institutions. Where they had remarkable freedom to study and write as they pleased. Hart talks at some length about Galileo's silencing at the hands of Pope Urban VIII over the issue Galileo's support of Copernicus' heliocentric theory. Hart repeats an argument I have read before that Galileo's problem was not in holding a view of the earth's place in the universe that the church found threatening. His problem was that he was a pompous ass who needlessly offended his erstwhile friend and patron the Pope. Even then his punishment was very mild. The pope and the church were not anti-science.

Hart acknowledges the reality of violence at the hands of Christians against Jews, witches, and Muslims, and he discusses the causes and consequences of the "dark ages" in western Christianity after the fall of the Roman empire. He notes, though, that Christian culture thrived in the East, and that this was gifted to the Muslims in their conquests and expansions. He traces the movement of ancient literature and learning back to the West during the Crusades. And that is as far as I have gotten.

One thing I will say for Hart and I am not sure this is a complement, he can match Dawkins and Hitchens snark for snark. The cultured despisers have no monopoly on the ability to hurl witty epithets at opponents.

Although I haven't finished the book my hunch is that Hart is worried about our future as we move into a post-Christian world that is losing its grounding in Christianity's great idea that charity and self-less love is the heart of God and the heart of a better way of living. I don't know the answer to that. Are we falling backward or are we evolving into a better future? I would say there is no way of knowing.

I wonder, though, if it is possible to be a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian and keep hope alive. The theology of Christianity doesn't work so well for me anymore, at least if that theology includes some kind of belief in a supernatural world, but the incarnational side that has God becoming human (in us all) and more particularly God being present in suffering and our calling to respond to that with love and service, that works for me. It is enough for me but is it enough for Christianity and for our culture?

I wonder to what hope there is when so many Christians identify their Christianity with militarism and capitalism. Christianity was once a better idea. It might still be but how would we know when you can't tell Christians apart from anyone else?


Joshua said...

Hart essentially asks this question: in what culture did Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to name just a few history-making scientists, make their history?

Seems like an odd question to ask. A Christian culture, obviously, but a culture 1,000 years removed from the fall of Rome. A culture that had finally rediscovered the intellectual curiosity of the ancients. There's quite a gap of time between the names you mention and names like Archimedes, Ptolemy and Galen.

I think Richard Carrier is the person best suited to responding to Rodney Stark and his bizarre claims about Christian influence on science.

liberal pastor said...

I guess the question I would ask is if there was something in the dna of Christianity during that period that was anti-science, or that lacked intellectual curiosity? How to explain the 1000 year gap in the west?

Hart would argue, I think, that the decline of the empire was underway well before Christians came on the scene. I think it is clear that as the empire fell apart social conditions deteriorated to such a degree that everything took a back seat to survival. Was this the fault of the Christians? Perhaps.

But when political and economic conditions began to improve in the west it was there that the fertile ground was laid for the birth of modern scientific inquiry. If Christianity is the problem, you still have to answer the question why it didn't happen in Muslim or Buddhist or Confusion cultures.

I will check out the Carrier videos although I wasn't really referencing Stark on the science question, just on the issue of why pagans chose to convert to Christianity.