On this blog, I try to emphasize the importance of stories. The stories we tell shape our minds and hearts — they shape the very way we perceive the world. And when those stories are about our own history, what’s at stake in the telling of them is both our worldview and our sense of self. Telling the story of Western civilization is a tall order: that story must weave characters, events, institutions, and geography into a coherent order with a coherent logic. It must not only describe events, but imply causalities; it must not only describe characters’ actions, but suggest their motives. Otherwise, the history may be factual, but it will not be meaningful. To be useful to us, it must be a story.
Unsurprisingly, the history of the West has been told many different ways. A central point of David Bentley Hart’s 2009 book Atheist Delusions is to refute one of those ways. The “delusions” of the title do not refer to the philosophical positions of atheism (with which Hart can often be quite sympathetic), but rather to the historical narratives espoused by untold numbers of atheists and secularists and militantly promoted by their vociferous champions, the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and their ilk). This narrative specifically focuses on the rise of Modernity, the age of reason, and contrasts it with the age that came before it — the age of faith. This simple and enchanting tale is described by Hart like this:
“Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjection to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion.
This simple story, says Hart, is easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness, but “its sole defect,” he warns, “is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.”
The rest of the book is itself an utterly captivating untelling of that story; a parading of actual persons, events, institutions, and documents which inconveniently debunk the notions of “dark ages”, superstition, and the absence of reason in a time of blind faith. His story describes a culture of pragmatic paganism radically transformed by the uniquely Christian idea of the equal dignity of every human in the eyes of God and a revolutionary ethic of compassion for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased. Of how the concept of hospices and hospitals were the fruit not of the secular humanism of modernity nor of the high philosophy of the Greeks, but of the Holy Unmercenary Saints of the Christian ages.
The deconstruction of the myth of “the age of reason” supplanting “the age of faith” will change the way we in the West think about ourselves and our current times. “To be fair,” writes Hart, “serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend.” But, he continues:
“Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. . . . And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling us about itself for centuries now.”