Nietzsche’s good manners image

Nietzsche’s good manners

The fashionable atheist pamphleteers of recent years have annoyed a lot of people, including many of my most intelligent atheist or agnostic friends, but few can have responded with the belligerence and visible irritation of David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. In his first chapter, entitled ‘The Gospel of Unbelief’, he credits Richard Dawkins with an ‘embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning’, says of Christopher Hitchens that his ‘talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic’, and calls God Is Not Great ‘a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of dialectical method.’ He describes Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell as ‘utterly inconsequential’ and ‘something of an embarrassment’, slams The End of Faith by Sam Harris as ‘little more than a concatenation of shrill, petulant assertions, a few of which are true, but none of which betrays any great degree of philosophical or historical sophistication’, and then gets started on the popular fiction writers: Philip Pullman’s ‘evangelically atheist (and rather overrated) fantasy trilogy’ of which the third volume, ‘easily the weakest of the series, has even won the (formerly) respectable Whitbread Prize’, and finally The Da Vinci Code, ‘surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate’ (harsh, but perhaps fair). Hart is clearly ticked off about something.

As the chapter unfolds, it becomes clear that he is not particularly troubled by the fact that people are criticising Christianity. As it happens, there are many varieties of Christian belief that Hart would love to see consigned to the dustbin of history, and he has some very positive things to say about those who have attacked them through the centuries, from Celsus and Porphyry to Hume and Voltaire. He is also a big fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, not least because ‘he had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was – above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion – rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.’ In comparison, the high profile critics of faith in the last few years fare badly; not for criticising the tenets, ethics and history of Christianity in the first place, but for failing to understand, represent accurately, or even bother to find out what they actually are.

Sam Harris, for Hart, is the silliest example:

He more or less explicitly states that every episode of violence or injustice in Christian history is a natural consequence of Christianity’s basic tenets (which is obviously false), and that Christianity’s twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs – its care of widows and orphans, its alms-houses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organisations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on – are simply expressions of normal human kindness, with no necessary connection to Christian conviction (which is even more obviously false). Needless to say, he essentially reverses the equation when talking about Buddhism …

The only reason Hart finds for talking about Harris at all, which he only does for a paragraph, is that Harris is the epitome, ‘verging on unintentional parody’, of ‘contemporary antireligious rhetoric at its most impassioned and sanctimonious’. In particular, one finds in Harris – and Dennett, and Dawkins, and Hitchens, and others – two particular prejudices: ‘first, that all religious belief is in essence baseless; and second, that religion is principally a cause of violence, division and oppression.’ The first of these is not the primary target of Hart’s book, and therefore receives only three pages of intemperate rebuttal in this chapter, but the second comes in for more sustained critique.

At the outset, Hart asks us to grant

… that religion is violent, that religion in fact kills. At least, let us grant that it is exactly as true, and as intellectually significant, as the propositions ‘politics kills’ and ‘colour reddens’.

Nice. Some religion kills, and some politics kills, and some colours redden; but not all do, and there is no more necessary a link between ‘religion’ and ‘killing’ than there is between ‘colour’ and ‘reddening’. ‘Religion’ in the abstract, for Hart, does not actually exist,

… and almost no one (apart from politicians) would profess any allegiance to it. Rather, there are a very great number of systems of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call ‘religions’, though they could scarcely differ more from one another … When, therefore, Dennett solemnly asks (as he does) whether religion is worthy of our loyalty, he poses a meaningless question. For Christians the pertinent question is whether Christ is worthy of loyalty, which is an entirely different matter. As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the ‘natural desire for God’ is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax.

So we can happily concede, says Hart, that ‘religion kills’ – as long as we are prepared also to concede also that ‘men kill’, and that the former statement is no more an indictment of its subject than the latter. Polytheists, monotheists and atheists kill. Some kill because of their beliefs, and others in spite of them; some kill for tribal reasons, some for food, some for land, some for empire, some for transcendentalised ideals like socialist utopia, or the greater good, or liberal democracy. Therefore, Hart argues,

… to speak of the evil of religion or to desire its abolition is, again, as simpleminded as condemning and wanting to abolish politics. Dennett, for example, on several occasions in Breaking the Spell proclaims his devotion to democracy, a devotion that one can assume remains largely undiminished by the knowledge that democratic governments – often in the name of protecting or promoting democracy – have waged unjust wars, incinerated villages or cities full of noncombatants, abridged civil liberties, tolerated corruption and racial inequality, lied to their citizens, aided despotic foreign regimes, or given power to evil men (Hitler seems a not insignificant example of this last).

As such, to pronounce Christianity evil because (a) it is a religion, and religion kills, and (b) its history includes awful moments like the Crusades and the Inquisition, is as silly as proclaiming modern democracy evil because (a) it is a form of government, and politics kills, and (b) its history includes awful moments like the Vietnam War and the rise of the Nazis. In fact, it is sillier, both because Christianity’s far longer history has provided many more opportunities for failure, and because events like the Crusades and the Inquisition took place in spite of the fundamental ethics of Christianity (the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour as oneself), whereas the most horrible achievements of modern democracy happened as a result of the fundamental ethics of democracy (the election of a government by the will of the majority). Interesting.

Slightly more facetiously, Hart continues:

…I am fairly certain that Dennett would not be so feeble of intellect as to abandon his faith in democractic institutions simply because someone of no political philososphy whatsoever had emerged from the forest and told him in tones of stirring pomposity that politics is divisive and violent and therefore should be forsaken in the interests of human harmony. Similarly, the vapid truism that ‘religion is violent’ is less than morally compelling. As no one has any vested interest in ‘religion’ as such, it is perfectly reasonable for someone simultaneously to recite the Nicene Creed and to deplore Aztec human sacrifice (or even the Spanish Inquisition) without suffering any of the equivocator’s pangs of conscience, or indeed sensing the least tension between the two positions.

Quite so. And this brings Hart to his final complaint in this opening chapter: the strange complacency that characterises Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and company – their curious certainty that a completely secular society would inevitably cherish (for example) tolerance, non-violence and love for fellow man. Where, he wonders, does such confidence come from, given that the most resolutely secular governments in history have been the most murderous? (The standard New Atheist riposte, that Mao and Stalin and co weren’t real atheists, is almost a parody of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy, and ‘should simply be laughed off as the shabby evasion it obviously is’). Why would a worldview of materialism rooted in Darwinian biology lead inexorably to an altruistic society, when both philosophical and historical considerations suggest the opposite could be the case? Why do such writers assume that a culture in which Christian foundations have faded altogether – a culture in which the love of God, justice for the oppressed, love of one’s neighbour, compassion, pity, sacrifice and forgiveness are no longer transcendental imperatives but merely possible community preferences – would necessarily share the (Christendom-engendered) values that they do? Nietzsche, as Hart points out, took a very different view: Christianity was on the way out, but he assessed the consequences of that for human morality not with naïve optimism, but brooding apprehension. At any rate,

… there is something delusional nonetheless 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.

In other words, the atheists who condemn religion as the root of all evil, and prophesy a brave new world after its eventual demise, need a more accurate view of history, a more cautious view of secularism, and a more sober view of what a religionless future might hold. Plus Nietzsche’s good manners.


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