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.
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?
By dismissing every ethical theory developed apart from a transcendental truth, as a fragile fiction — as David Bentley Hart does in the first chapter his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies — it becomes difficult to assess any ethical theory in terms of its actual merits and limitations (regardless of its stance on metaphysics.) Furthermore, describing those whom find credible an ethical theory based on human reason as, “…obstinate in their willful suspension of disbelief” is ironic. In most of my conversations with atheists, I find it’s their unwillingness to suspend disbelief that keeps them from considering the reality of God. This, in turn, prevents them from entering a religious practice that could yield genuine faith and other fruits of the spirit. Since, in our daily experience, unwed teen mothers are never virgins, and the dead only rise in horror movies, suspension of disbelief takes practice — religious practice. I’ll confess, though a life-long Christian, I myself had a long period when I was unable to say the Apostle’s Creed. Somehow, I persisted in my practice, and today, I am able to believe in my heart and confess with my lips a belief that my head will never comprehend. We’re fortunate in the ELCA to have a tradition that doesn’t require us to abandon reason to gain salvation. Of course, for atheists, salvation is quite beside the point. So the question of ethics and the creation of a just society, apart from faith, needs to be addressed.
As Christians, we are not required to do good works. We are justified by grace through faith. Because we are neither obliged, nor coerced, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God, when we do take up God’s work in this world, it is with joy and freedom, buoyed by the Holy Spirit. I didn’t always understand this. Twenty years ago, when I was attending a Unitarian church in St. Paul, my next door neighbor, an older Roman Catholic woman, made a comment to me that I found a little offensive. We were driving together to a neighborhood association meeting when she said, “You can do all the good works you want, Tom, but without the Holy Spirit, there is no joy.”
Today, when I consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s not such a stretch to think that many atheists also seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly — not with God — but, at least with each other. Two Good Samaritan-atheists that I know (and love) have for 35 years lived life among the poor, worked for social justice and continue to seek genuine engagement and understanding with diverse peoples and cultures. Their 40-plus year marriage yielded two fine daughters (one of whom I married) and four grandchildren (two of whom I fathered.) My in-laws have endured much hardship in the name of diversity and urban renewal in Detroit. In in their time things have improved. For instance, the two neighborhood brothels from my wife’s childhood have gone condo. It’s been a few years since their home has been burglarized. And there’s both an organic bakery, and a micro-brewery within a couple of blocks from their front door. But the public school system where they proudly sent their two daughters is now bankrupt. Homelessness, poverty and unemployment still weigh heavily on the city. And while my in-laws are still holding on, my concern is that they are no longer are holding on to hope.
In reality, creating a just and fair world is tough work for atheist and believer alike. It is work that we share, with all people, regardless of creed or conviction. In this type of work for every step forward, there are often two steps back. We, who take up this work in the name of Christ, labor with the benefit of God’s love. We must extend this love freely, and without condition (just as it has been received) to all who join us in God’s work. Even to those who may find reason to dismiss our faith.
Tom Melander blogs about career development at ISEEK.ORG and is a member of Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
As an atheist I’m saddened by your straw-man attack, above: I don’t know any atheist who embraces the silliness that you attribute to us.
I suggest polite, civil dialog, Pastor Westermeyer. Let’s have a cup of coffee–and discuss our apparent disagreement.
Your flock very likely includes many people who maintain strenuously critical feelings about atheists–and, like you, believe it’s acceptable to attack atheists in blogposts, in a manner you would not direct at any other philosophical minority.
I request that a room at your church be reserved–a month hence, perhaps–and that we hold an ‘Ask an Atheist’ session, so that folks at your church can interact with an actual friendly, polite atheist. It would be great if the event could be announced in your bulletin. How ’bout it?
I volunteer my services–as a mannerly, unapologetic, volunteer heathen.
I’ve already thanked Gavin for his note here, and we’re currently working out details on getting together for coffee. Tim