Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies

Bentley Hart, David
Yale University Press (2009)
Buy this book from

Less than two hours after finishing this wonderful book, the General Synod of the Church of England voted against the consecration of women to its Episcopacy, thus consigning the established Church of England to the status that Christianity held before Constantine which may, according to Bentley Hart, be no bad thing as one of his central theses is that the Christian revolution was seriously compromised by the settlement between the Roman Empire and the Church, the difference being that the settlement was a sign of growing influence and the Synod vote a sign of almost lemming-like decline.

Bentley Hart's book has been much celebrated as the best attack yet on the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al but few reviewers, in their exultation at his brilliant onslaughts, have troubled to note the conclusion - perhaps not wanting to spoil the surprise at the end of the story - that Christianity is doomed, except perhaps in a marginally pure form reminiscent of the pre Constantinian settlement.

To begin at the beginning. Bentley Hart claims that the Christian revolution was the mightiest and most profound that has ever struck Europe, that its values so far surpassed rotting paganism - notably in conflating divinity and humanity in Jesus and us - that it swept it aside. The view of classical antiquity cultivated from the time of the 'Enlightenment' was highly romantic and misleading, largely ignoring its chronic aimlessness and cruelty. That, based on a highly particularist and erroneous reading of the Galileo episode, the medieval church's openness to scientific development has been traduced by the very critics whose very existence was made possible by it. That the 'Enlightenment' was no such thing. And that, finally, the secular slaughter of the 20th Century belies dewy-eyed secularism. The argument that Hitler and Stalin's slaughter was in some way religious is specious.

Bentley Hart's evidence for his theses is wide-ranging, closely argued and frequently somewhat abstruse and his discounting of his own leanings is at times just a little disingenuous but I enjoyed his authoritative interpretation of 4th Century evidence, his long excursus into the history of late Medieval astronomy and his somewhat idiosyncratic but nonetheless convincing readings of Julian the Apostate and Nietzsche.

This is no book for the hand grenade lobbing Christian fundamentalist because it carefully separates the radical Christianity of Jesus and the conservative religiosity of Christianity but its argument that postmodernity is totally in thrall to the exercise of the will as an end in itself and the consequent jettisoning of collective history and culture is chillingly accurate.

Bentley Hart does not know how the world will be without institutional Christianity and the values it has tried to sustain but he does not believe that there will be any significant revival. All but the most extreme Christians at either end of the spectrum try conscientiously to strike a balance by following Jesus within a Christian community of practice but that option, according to Bentley Hart, looks ever more bleak and, in England at least after the General Synod vote, it is hard to argue with him.