We remember what we want to remember
Every age necessarily reinterprets and rewrites the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions (33) The past is always to some extent a fiction of the present (129).
Hart is disgusted. The tale that modernity is wishing to call history has gotten entirely out of hand, most notably in its recollections of Christianity.
The story that modernity wants to remember
- Once upon a time, there was a late Roman Hellenistic culture that cherished the power of reason and pursued science and high philosophy. Then came Christianity, which valued only blind obedience and irrational dogma, and which maliciously extinguished the light of pagan wisdom. Then, thanks to Islam, thirteenth-century Christendom suddenly rediscovered reason and began to chafe against the bondage of witless fideism. And then, as if by magic, Copernicus discovered heliocentrism, and reason began its inexorable charge toward victory through the massed and hostile legions of faith.
- The emergence of the secular state rescued Western humanity from the rule of religious intolerance.
- Secularism is the exuberant adventure into the adulthood of the race so long delayed by priestcraft, superstition and intolerance. Secularism is the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.
What does Hart think of this story?
Utter bilge. Hart criticizes Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Kirsch, Gibbon, MacMullen, and Freeman to name a few. To Christopher Hitchens subtitle on his bestseller “How religion poisons everything” He directs particular malice. What precisely is meant by everything? Hart wonders, then he lists an entire page of wonderful things that would not exist were it not for Christianity, things like the abolition movement, the golden rule and hospitals. He concludes with the comment “It borders upon willful imbecility to lament the rise of Christendom.” One example of the “selective memory” of modernity comes to us through Edward Gibbon’s majestical work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Gibbon argues that Pagan polytheism was more “tolerant” than Christianity because of the plethora of pagan deities to choose from. This “tolerance” is pure fiction. Pagans slaughtered with “extravagant violence” says Hart, Jews and Christians alike. Anyone who denied the god’s existence was in mortal danger. Adding to pagan “tolerance” was the reality of human sacrifices both on alters, and more prevalently in the coliseums. Pagan systems of belief cared nothing for the homeless, the gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixions, the disposal of unwanted infants, or the brutal slaughter of war captives or criminals. Paganisms “tolerance” was completely ambivalent towards tyranny, injustice, depravity or cruelty. In Gibbons over-reaching bid to prove paganism more tolerant than Christianity, he leaves all these considerations out these items out. Hart is not about to let him or anyone else get away with it.
“Vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness. — Their rantings are as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”
Christianity not perfect but…
“It is true” is the single most used phrase in the entire book. Hart uses it to acknowledge that Christians were not perfect. For example,
“It is true that Christianity’s greatest historical triumph was also its most calamitous defeat”. Hart admits that when Christianity became a politically dominate force unfortunate tragedies happened. “It is true that Christendom in many respects was hardly Christian. Even so, the gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures—the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized— producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age.”
Critics of Christianity point out that slavery and the abuse of women continued on into Christendom. Hart acknowledges that “it is true” but then takes us on a fascinating journey where the norms of abuse accepted without question in paganism gradually fell prey to the corrosive influence of Christian thought. Hart concludes
Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, and spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attitude as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction.
The extinction of Paganism was a good thing.
Pagans became Christians to such a degree that paganism became extinct because paganism was terrible.
“It was time for the gods of that age to withdraw: for too long they had served as the terrible and beautiful guardians of an order of majestic cruelty and pitiless power.”
- Pagan thought did not embrace science and reason: Christianity upended the progression of science we are told. According to Hart, science as we understand it, didn’t even exist in pagan times, “all its methods, controls, and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws and so on—came into existence only within Christendom, and specifically under the hands of believing Christians.” The “so-called” dark ages of Christendom brought about the university, the first real steps in medicine, and the devolvement of incredible new science-based technology. The same cannot be said for the Hellenistic world or the Muslim world for that matter. They remained technologically static in part because they never developed science beyond theory and they remained committed to a slave culture. The church muting Galileo always comes up as evidence that the church and science were not friends. Hart is not buying it. What’s the story then? “That story demonstrates nothing of Christianity’s aversion to Science but only how idiotic a conflict between men of titanic egotism can become.”
- Paganism was depressing: Harts assessment of paganism is particularly bleak:
“In any event, to return to my principal point, the Christianity of the early centuries did not invade a world of noonday joy, vitality, mirth, and cheerful earthiness, and darken it with malicious slanders of the senses, or chill it with a severe and bloodless otherworldliness. Rather, it entered into a twilight world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning….It was a pagan society that had become ever more otherworldly and joyless, ever wearier of the burden of itself, and ever more resentful of the soul’s incarceration in the closed system of a universe governed by fate.
Christianity is a better story.
In addition to the fundamental goodness of the world, Christianity taught the indispensable value of a human person. The followers of Jesus saw in persons something godlike, to be cherished and adored. Then adding to the image of the divine in all humanity comes the grand rescue story of Jesus, proving once and for all that humanity is loved by God and welcomed into a divine eternal relationship. As Hart puts it:
By contrast, Christianity taught the incorruptible goodness of the world, the original and ultimate beauty of all things, inasmuch as it understood this world to be the direct creation of the omnipotent God of love. (144) … Christianity brought a deep and imperturbable joy” (145)
The advent of Christianity unquestionably changed the world for the better. For Hart, it is unconscionable for respected historians and philosophers not to recognize this. Hart is not apologizing for Christian’s who may have misbehaved in the past. Hart quips “Humans frequently disappoint,” but this truth is not limited only to Christians. He will not accept criticism from angry, misinformed people who:
“have not even paused to acquaint themselves with, for example, the Inquisitions actual history, while at the same time completely ignoring twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs. — its’ care of widows, and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on.”
The secular nation-state is the problem – Hart refuses to take the blame for the “so-called” religious wars of the 15th -17th centuries. He insists that they be renamed as the first wars of the modern nation-state. “Religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.” The protestant reformation succeeded because it served the interest of the emerging nation states. It wasn’t that the Germans became protestant and now wanted independence from the empire. They wanted independence from the empire, and so they became protestant. Hart takes us on an entertaining albeit very disturbing walk through the 15-17th centuries and concludes with a statement that hardly needed to be said. “Few would be so foolish to suggest that any side fought for religious reasons” As the common bond of Christianity decreased in Europe, so the standing armies of the future nations increased. Violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that, whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to the secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. Before the shift, for example in the 10th-11th centuries, the church instituted “Peace of God” days and “Truce of God” days, making war illegal on certain days of the week, fast days, and feast days. By the time the church was finished with the calendar three-quarters of it consisted of periods of mandated tranquillity, the churches great work though not carried out perfectly was always tilted towards peace.
What came after Christianity faltered was the absolute state and total war. The “religious wars” were the moderns state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check. So that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscriptions, mass exterminations of civilians, and so on.
Is the post-Christian world better?
First, for any people, comes its story, and then whatever is possible for those people becomes conceivable within that story — slowly and relentlessly, for centuries now, another story has been replacing the Christian one. Attempts to reverse this process are probably futile. (239)
- A New God — Freedom.
At the deepest level of their thoughts and desires, they are obedient to principles and promptings that rest upon no foundation but themselves…Freedom of the will is our supreme value. It is for all intents and purposes our god and certain kinds of god (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed.
Human freedom is the thing that drives people to a passionate and often articulate hatred of belief in God. Anything that stands in the way of freedom must be destroyed. Freedom might just as well be seen — from certain more antique perspectives as a kind of slavery to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. Modern Freedom is nihilism. The question to ask is where does nihilism lead? Nowhere good.
- A Better Story — Knowledge. Technological mastery is not just our guiding ideal but our model of truth. Power over material reality is all that matters, that’s the better story of the post-Christian world.
Only Christianity teaches the infinite dignity of every soul and the infinite value of every life. Because of Jesus, charity became the shining sun around which all other values were made to revolve. In the Post Christian world, this is no longer the case. If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning… What Nietzsche understood was that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat…A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it…But as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among the virtues. Love requires a reason, and the post-Christian world doesn’t have a reason.
Then to scare us entirely out of our minds, he quotes the ideas of Joseph Fletcher, Linus Pauling, Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Lee Silver, whose post-Christian ideals seek to manage humanity in what Hart describes as “robustly merciless terms.” When Christianity goes, so goes the sanctity of human life. Reading these guys makes this claim perfectly visible.
When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape. He will rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment. This is no description of progress, this is a descent into darkness.
What can a Christian do?
Hart is not jubilant. Christianity’s inexorable movement towards extinction is only resisted by his confidence that the Christian story is a cosmic truth that can never finally be defeated. Hart recommends retreat for the Christian into the desert as the monastics did in the 4th century. They rebelled against Christianity’s own success, to discover again in the quiet wastelands, what it really meant to live for the love of God and one’s neighbour. To banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul and to seek the beauty of Christ in others. The success of secularism to Hart is the same as the success of institutionalized, politicized Christianity of the 4th century. The authentic Christian retreats from both. In many ways, I think Harts very brief conclusion tilts toward an agreement with another book I read recently, The Benedict Option.
Body counting might not be the best comparison.
Hart with almost monotonous regularity takes the reader back to the 20th century to remind us that the most savage and sublimely violent period in human history was brought about by secular governments who had embraced thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology. My one issue with this constant refrain is the failure to consider technology into the body count. The real question to ask in my opinion is what would the badly behaving religious leaders of Christendom have done with weapons of mass destruction had they had them? A question impossible to answer, but I get an uneasy feeling that the body count discrepancy from the Christian to secular would not have been nearly as high if both had weapons of equal capability.
You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.
What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed. One of the saddest lines in his book is:
“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”
If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.
Death causes you to rethink your beliefs
As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:
“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”
One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.
Christian people are jerks
But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.
Prayer: Not a fan
Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:
“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”
Believe the better story
Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables
“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”
That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.
Eternity: A really bad idea
“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.
God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt
Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.
This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful. However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.
“I find it fascinating how relativists who say they love the idea of tolerance ultimately reveal themselves to be among the most bigoted”
I must say, I can confirm the veracity of this assertion many times over in my own personal life.
It’s for this reason that Ravi Zacharias gives a blood earnest response to the intolerant vitriol of popular atheist Sam Harris.
The inconsistency of new atheism.
Atheists, Voltaire, Sartre, Nietsche and even Russel were honest and consistent in their views, they wanted liberation from God and a certain form of morality but they understood the bleak horizon that their world view presented them. Voltaire put it well:
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
They knew what they were getting into, the new atheist doesn’t want to think about this. He wants to make absolute moral claims and create meaning and hope on a grand scale, but that’s incompatible with atheism’s framework. Foucault lived the atheist dream, and as he lay dying, his body ravaged by AIDS he said, “there are no solutions, there are no answers, only that it is forbidden to forbid.” at least he was honest.
If your going to belly-ache about evil remember where it leads
It seems to me that most Christian apologists these days are zeroing in on how morality is not compatible with atheism in any meaningful way. Ravi is on to this like a bull dog on a bone! For example Harris comes unglued on Christianity, blaming Christians for everything from slavery to the holocaust leaving just enough room to toss people like Mother Teresa under the bus for their contributions to evil.
Ravi gives no quarter to this talk. He masterfully deconstructs the historical fantasy Harris is engaged in but more than that he evaluates the inconsistency of Atheisms’ moral rant. “I can see no moral frame-work operating in the world” says Harris, we are all just neutrons and protons, just stuff and then he turns around an says “what I see in Christianity is morally condemnable” Well you can’t have it both ways and remain consistent. Noted atheist Bertrand Russell in his day, was pressed with how to distinguish between good and evil. He said that he distinguished the difference between blue and yellow by seeing, and the difference between good and evil by feeling — for Russell it came down to preference. The interviewer then asked him
“Mr. Russell, in some cultures they love their neighbours; in other cultures they eat them. Do you have a personal preference, and if so, what is it?
Russell was unsettled, his inability to proclaim a moral absolute was a troubling reality to him, at least he was honest. Modern atheists like Harris and Epstein will usually retort to this with some sort of comment about morality being a matter of common sense, or self-evident truth. Is it? I’m not convinced history gives any support to that view. For Ravi, to assert evil you must assume actual good. if good and evil truly exist, than you must assume moral law and if moral law is true than there must be a moral law giver. In framework where matter alone exists its impossible for there to be objective morality. Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Objective moral values do exist. — a point every atheist concedes when they reject God because of all the evil they see in the world. Therefore God exists.
Problems that don’t go away
The more books I read on apologetics the more I see that there are the same basic arguments that just don’t seem to go away, in addition to the problem of morality, atheist’s struggle to find convincing answers for the following:
- The problem of origins. Science teaches that something doesn’t come from nothing. The Christian concludes that there must be a self existing non-physical state that got everything going. But that’s unreasonable for the atheist so the fruitless hunt for an explanation continues.
- The problem of chance. So what are the odds that life is the random product of time plus matter plus chance? With the full use of science we are told that the probability is beyond measuring.
- The the absence of ultimate meaning and hope — they don’t exist in the atheist framework. But yet we are wired for them.
- Evolution is not a deal breaker — Belief in a creator does not hinge on how he created.
A better story
Christianity has a better explanation for origins, meaning, morality and hope. That is not in question. The question is could Christianity actually be true? Yes, there are countless reasons to support that conclusion. The problem however, is that when Christianity is embraced one is no longer able to be the centre of their own universe and that is infinitely undesirable for some and so they reject the better story for reasons that will have to suffice.
A look into the future
Zacharias is utterly convinced that “secularism simply does not have the sustaining or moral power to stop Islam” He believes that in the not to distant future America’s choice will have to be between Islam and Christianity! What can be said about this? Is it true? Who knows, I guess we will find out.
What’s this book about?
Andy Bannister attempts to use good natured humour to point out the logical fallacies and poor reasoning of modern atheist superstars like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. In a way as I read this book I felt a striking parallel to the Donald Trump political saga that we are enduring. The popular atheists of our day are functioning like the Donald Trumps of philosophy. Man handling, bullying, and belittling anyone who might disagree with the obvious conclusion that matter is all there is, and the the idea of God is on par with the idea Santa Claus. But like the political Trump, when searching for content amidst all the bluster, you find that there is not much there to back up these supremely confident conclusions.
Atheism is actually a belief system like all the rest. It doesn’t work to say “Our belief is not a belief” Not all God’s are the same, Atheists can’t simply dismiss all by “saying same crap different pile”. Religion doesn’t poison everything. When Dawkins suggested that he thought getting a Catholic education is actually worse than sexual abuse, I wonder if he would be willing to put that assertion to the test with his own daughter, not likely. Science can’t explain everything. Scientism is a dead end street that kills ones ability to reason. In all Bannister looks at 11 really bad arguments put forth by atheists to debunk God.
How does he do? Pretty well I think, but of course I am a Christian. What I appreciated about the book was it’s decidedly jolly tone, too many of these types of books just read angry. We need less angry.
What did I learn?
Is evil a greater problem for theism or atheism? If I’m a theist than I have to ask the question why does God allow evil? It is a question thats tough to answer. Of course if I am an atheist, I have to ask myself an equally difficult question. Why do I even care about evil in the first place? There is no such thing as evil if the material world is all there is, but yet evil feels real and it bugs us all. Where does the presence of evil point? To something beyond the material world I think.
Without God how to we determine what is good? pragmatism? government? majority rule? whatever gives us pleasure? All of these answers create huge cracks in which people fall and suffer. How do we value human life? Is our value based on our body parts, our ability to produce, our popularity? Science I suppose can tease out answers like this. But they all lead humanity into dark places. Goodness, value, meaning purpose all are answered on the strength of faith alone, science is a tool, and on the big questions of life it’s the wrong tool to use! If we try to squeeze ethics from science we all lose. We cannot live by facts alone!
Truth seems to matter to everyone, but if atheism is true, why should it matter then what someone believes? Why is Dawkins so irate that people might be embracing a comfortable lie instead of a hard truth? In the whole scheme of things if we are just matter dancing to our DNA, why should Dawkins care a lick about truth, it amounts to nothing anyway? His shouting is a subtle tipping of the hat to God the giver of truth.