Hollyoaks and the holocaust image

Hollyoaks and the holocaust

The mood at the end of Atheist Delusions, which I’ve been blogging through for the last couple of months, is somewhat melancholic. David Bentley Hart has given an excoriating demolition of the modernist myths surrounding both the triumphs of secularism and the bumbling backwardness of the rise and dominance of Christianity in Europe, but in his final section he becomes more reflective, brooding, even morose, about the future of humanity in a post-Christian context. So as I finish this series, it’s worth considering why.

As he begins his penultimate chapter, he pulls no punches, and reiterates his savage critique of the New Atheists, focusing his ire particularly on Christopher Hitchens, and the ‘petulant’ subtitle to his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

Does he really mean precisely everything? Would that apply, then – confining ourselves just to things Christian – to ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses and hostels? To the golden rule, “love thine enemies”, “judge not lest ye be judged”, prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need? To the music of Palestrina and Bach, Michelangelo’s Pieta, “ah! bright wings,” San Marco’s mosaics, the Bible of Amiens, and all that gorgeous blue stained glass at Chartres? To the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and contemporary efforts to liberate Sudanese slaves? And so on and so on? Surely it cannot be the case that, if only purged of the toxin of faith, these things would be even better than they are; were it not for faith, it seems fairly obvious, most of them would have no existence at all. And since none of these things would seem to fall outside the general category of “everything”, it must be that Hitchens means (assuming he means anything at all) that they fall outside the more specific category of “religion”.

Which, Hart argues, would be typical of New Atheist logic: if something is bad, even if it is explicitly secular or atheist, it is “religion” (the attempt of Dawkins and others to make this case with reference to Stalinism is especially lame), whereas if it is good, even if it is explicitly Christian, then it results not from faith but from common humanist principles (as in the works and ethics well-known secular humanists like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa).
Hart’s main problem with the New Atheists, however, and with much modern secularism in general, is the problematic assumption that a post-Christian society would necessarily be a more humane, more rational and more just society. Previous posts in this series consider some of the reasons for this: the essentially Christian foundation of almost all of our most life-affirming values, the barbarism and violence that have bedeviled the secular state from Westphalia onwards, and perhaps most strikingly, the inherent nihilism of the modern concept of freedom:

… the modern notion of freedom is essentially ‘nihilistic’: that is, the tendency of modern thought is to see the locus of liberty as situated primarily in an individual subject’s spontaneous power of choice, rather than in the ends that subject might actually choose. Freedom, thus understood, consists solely in the act of choosing as such … Traditionally, throughout most of Christian history, theologians followed classical precedent in conceiving of creaturely freedom principally as the freedom of any being’s nature from any alien constraint or external limitation or misuse that might prevent that nature from reaching its full fruition in the end appropriate to it … For the purposes of my argument, it is enough simply to ask where the ascendancy of our modern notion of freedom as pure spontaneity of the will leads the culture it pervades. At a rather ordinary level of public discourse, it obviously leads to a degradation of the very notion of freedom, its reduction in the cultural imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty, no more – though no less – significant than a consumer’s freedom to choose among different kinds of bread, shoes, televisions, political parties or religions … Our modern concept of freedom can, however, lead to other, more terrible things as well.

And this is where the melancholy comes from. What, Hart wonders, is to stop a post-Christian society, unencumbered by anything but the sheer power of willing-as-such, from doing anything, no matter how destructive or murderous? Marx and Engels looked forward to the day when the Slavs would be destroyed and replaced by a superior race, Darwin talked in The Descent of Man about the damage done by defective people being able to procreate, and H. G. Wells thought eliminating inferior races was both reasonable and necessary. Why shouldn’t they, given the premises upon which their view of the world was based?
Which takes Hart, and us, back to where we began, and to Nietzsche, who saw this all so clearly:

… a moment of potentially shattering crisis had arrived, and it was not obvious to him that post-Christian humanity had the energy to repond to it with anything more than an ever-deeper descent into triviality and narcissism … The story of the crucified God took everything to itself, and so – in departing – takes everything with it: habits of reverence and restraint, awe, the command of the Good within us. Only the will persists, set before the abyss of limitless possibility, seeking its way – or forging its way – in the dark.

What happens next? Either banality or monstrosity, it seems, or possibly both, as the unconstrained human will, worshipping its god of Absolute Choice, shapes the world in whatever way serves its preferences. This might result (as per some modern philosophers) in infanticide, or it might only lead to a world whose collective imagination does not rise above the glass ceiling of the Shopping Channel, or it might lead to both together, but in any event, it is (for Hart) a cause for mourning and consternation. If he, and Nietzsche, are correct, then Hollyoaks and the Holocaust, Peter Singer and Peter Andre, are all inevitable expressions of the same cultural malaise. The only hope for the Western church, Hart suggests, is either the promise of what Philip Jenkins calls ‘the next Christendom’, or to follow the example of the desert fathers and retreat into the wilderness.
However, if that all sounds rather negative, and you feel somewhat Harted out by this series – if the wit and erudition of Hart’s apologetics has managed to get gazumped by his wistful intellectualism and sometimes superior tone – then you might be blessed by these comments from Doug Wilson:

We also need to remember that the eschatological future promised by the prophet Isaiah, and the future that was shaped by industrial revolution, and will continue to be shaped by the digital revolution, are the same future. I don’t believe in an invisible spiritual future, shaped by the Holy Spirit, full of sweetness and light, and an actual historical future shaped by the Devil, Halliburton, the Illuminati, and Murphy’s law. The world, this world, is presently going where Jesus is taking it. Be wise, but stop worrying.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series. Any comments, please post below!

← Prev article
Next article →