Home > Apologetics, Cultural Christianity, Culture, David Bentley Hart > Atheist Delusions: Good is good and Its not from Nature

Atheist Delusions: Good is good and Its not from Nature

December 19, 2012

Belief in the good, the bad and the ugly aren’t things that are simply inherent realities to the fabric of nature; such realities are things that are contingent upon certain unique belief structures. In other words, as atheists might surmise, we don’t simply read such moral proclivities off of the page of nature, instead these realities are those that come from something or someOne above, beyond, but lovingly and graciously from within the structures of nietzschecreation. In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly are not absolute realities in themselves, things that we can possess and manage through the proper education; instead their reality comes extra nos, from without us, as an alien thing bequeathed to us as creatures whose concreteness is also an ecstatic reality; a gift from some other ground than ourselves. This is one of the many points that David Bently Hart is making in his book Atheist Delusions:

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid. [David Bentley Hart,  Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.]

In this, one of Hart’s opening chapters, he is taking aim at what he considers to be a sad attempt of atheism and Christian antagonism nowadays. He has been referencing Richard Dawkins, Dennet, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Brown and others who seem to have the ear of popular culture when it comes to critiquing Christianity. But he shows how inane so much of what these authors actually is when taken to its logical and ugly conclusion.

Anyway, I liked the material point of what Hart is writing in the quote I provide from him. There is this naïve belief amongst pagan culture in general, that they have something better to offer. They seem to fail to recognize that they cannot simply sleuth in negation and criticism of something positive (and I mean by way of presentation) like Christianity; they actually, through their criticism betoken themselves with a severe burden of proof. That is, it is not enough to shoot the messenger, after they shoot the messenger they must offer another message, an alternative account, and explanatory motif that provides greater gusto and gravitas than say the Christian account has offered Western culture (and all cultures, in some regard) for millennia; no small task. And what Hart is suggesting, arguing, is that it really cannot be done; at least if the history of ideas have any meaning.

Something that should be noted; Hart is comparing and contrasting today’s antagonistic voices (to Christianity) with those offered by thinkers in the 19th century and further back. He is somewhat lamenting the fact that today’s antagonistic critics of Christianity are in fact like babies compared to their more mature an thoughtful and informed forbears. I think Hart thinks the media has a lot to do with the fact that the most prominent Christian critics today have any purchase at all; because to Hart’s point, they certainly don’t have resonance based upon their force of thought and commanding intellectual and rhetorical prowess when it comes to actual depth.

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  1. December 20, 2012 at 7:19 am

    I might frame DBH’s point differently than you just have: there are certainly other grounds for morality besides the Christian one, the Jewish one, and their descendants—but you can’t get them by positing post-Judeo-Christian society as self-grandfathering. You can’t, in other words, just write them out of the history and keep going on from the present.

    Genuinely pagan culture (if we use that term rightly, rather than as a polemic againt non-Christians) does have something of comparable validity to offer. You will find it in Aristotle and Plato, even as they depart from it critically. You will find it in storytellers like Xenophon, and poets like Martial. You will find it in the classics of the Hellenistic pagan world and its antecedents. If we had usable writings from the British, you would find something else there. You will find something different again in the various Norse pagans. The Buddhist and the Hindu have their own bases for morality.

    And at least Nietzsche, in his criticisms of the vapidness of popular Christian orthodoxy and morality in his Europe, went after it root and branches, and was comfortable with the fact that this left him “at sea out of sight of all land.” He knew it was a necessity. And at least, when he went looking for alternate bases, he went somewhere else for them, rather than pretend that the Christian land on which he stood was some terra incognita he could discover afresh.


  2. December 20, 2012 at 7:46 am

    And we, when we look for Christian bases for morality, must also do what Nietzsche does, and go after all of its present forms, root and branches, and find ourselves at sea, out of sight of all land.


  3. December 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I think that’s what DBH will be doing and is getting at; the next quote from him (that I was going to maybe provide) goes after root and branches. I just went with emphasizing the Christian reality because it is true, or at least Jesus is, and all else is a lie. I was thinking from the mood: “either for Christ or against him.” From a rather ultimate vantage point. I wouldn’t contest the fact that other belief systems have their own internal self-referential hooks for morality etc., but even based simply on pragmatics I don’t think any of these alternatives offer the kind of ontologically real ground from which a lasting ethics survives. Surely they offer a temporary varnish at levels, but nothing that is ultimately going to stand (built on sandy land).

    In general, though, DBH’s point could go as you say; to the roots and branch. His more basic point in the quote I offer, contextually, is that nature cannot provide a sound basis for ethics etc. (so I read him as against natural theology here).


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