The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, $28, 253 pp.
When St. Peter heard the cock crow early on the morning of the first Good Friday, the synoptic Gospels tell us that he went out and wept bitterly. “We are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears,” writes David Bentley Hart in his new book, Atheist Delusions. The pathos of this gospel scene would have been invisible to the late antique moral sensibility. The weeping Peter and our response to him stand for the “Christian Revolution” of Hart’s subtitle, a transformation of the moral imagination that allowed Christians to recognize the full humanity of every person. This book presents the moral world of late antiquity and the scandalized response of its pagan inhabitants to the “bizarre prodigality” of the Christian belief in universal charity, which descended upon it “rather like a meteor from a clear sky.”
In the first of the book’s four parts, Hart gestures dismissively in the direction of the “new atheists.” But Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, et al. are not his chief concern. They have neither the intellectual chops nor the honesty of the likes of Celsus, Porphyry, Hume, or Nietzsche. We don’t make atheists like they used to. The so-called new atheists put their faith in a tired Enlightenment view of history and a nihilistic understanding of human freedom. In what he describes as a “historical essay” focused on the first four or five centuries of the early church, Hart relativizes...