Editorial – Kay Parris: Challenging the New Atheists
I’ve read a lot of books with titles like “Atheist Delusions” – books in which Christian apologists condemn the New Atheist battles being fought against caricatures of their faith, and demand to know why more rigorous theological positions lie (albeit, too often, on dusty academic library shelves) unchallenged.
All this needs saying, and it has been said very well. But, believe me, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, by Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart, is something else.
It’s not that the winner of this year’s Michael Ramsey prize for theological writing – who is interviewed in REFORM this month – avoids launching the usual battery of charges. He fires them with relish. Indeed, as a review in Church Times put it, Hart’s book “represents a blistering assault on the crass ignorance of the New Atheists when it comes to matters religious and theological.”
The difference is the riveting way in which he moves the discussion on, into the fertile territory of history. His purpose is not to argue for Christian belief as such, but to examine the impact of the Christian message on ancient pagan civilisations; and what he identifies as a shocking abuse of popular history – regarding the so-called Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, the Crusades, and many other periods in which Christianity has so often been condemned as a force for regression, repression or violence.
He does not refute the share of evils carried out by various Christian movements and groups at different times, but he accords them analysis and proper perspective. And thrillingly, he charts Christianity’s embrace of learning and discovery through the ages, its relative moderating influence during bloody episodes; and most important of all, its extraordinary effect on humanity’s moral and metaphysical understanding of itself.
So guess whose books are filling up my summer reading list? David Bentley Hart is a writer and academic of great stature, and of great literary range. As I become more familiar with his work, I find I am entranced by his variations of light and shade – his combination of gravitas, humour and sheer unpredictability. He is probably best known for his challenging and profound theological reflections on suffering, especially relating to children, and in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami. But I have also found myself laughing out loud at the razor-sharp wit that runs through his various newspaper and online columns.
I hope any Hart experts out there will indulge my gushing a little on this occasion, and that anyone not already familiar with his work might consider him for holiday reading. In the meantime, do please keep writing in with your “A book I will remember” pieces – our readers tell us they find these a great source of inspiration.
This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Reform.Follow @Reform_Mag