Atheist Delusions

November 4, 2010

in What I'm Reading

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Here’s an extended excerpt from David Bentley Hart’s excellent book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. It is well worth reading the entire book, but this particular section — in chapter one, which is called “The Gospel of Unbelief” — helps to remind us that a so-called purely secular world might not, in fact, be the utopia many assume it would be.

He writes:

What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned [among them, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Philip Pullman], and of others like them, is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith. Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their confidence. (Certainly the ridiculous claim that these forms of secular goverment were often little more than ‘political religions,’ and so only provide further proof of the evil of religion, should simply be laughed off as the shabby evasion it obviously is.) It is not even especially clear why these authors imagine that a world entirely purged of faith would choose to be guided by moral prejudices remotely similar to their own. . . . There is something delusional . . . in [Dennett’s] optimistic certainty that human beings will wish to choose altruistic values without invoking transcendent principles. They may do so; but they may also wish to build death camps, and may very well choose to do that instead. For every ethical theory developed apart from some account of transcendental truth — of, that is, the spiritual or metaphysical foundation of reality — is a fragile fiction, credible only to those sufficiently obstinate in their willing suspension of disbelief.

Later, Hart echoes this same sentiment — in Chapter 16, titled “Secularism and Its Victims” — when he writes:

Can one really believe — as the New Atheists seem to do — that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, free of the [supposedly] constraining hand of archaic faith, will naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficult, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern “progress.”

Question: What do you think of Hart’s arguments here? And, just as importantly, why?

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