Skip to content

For a Good Flaying

David Bentley Hart’s new book on the new atheists is out and, in his usual take-no-prisoners style, Hart pulls no punches. Rusty Reno has a good review of the book on the First Things website. Here’s a taste:

Thus, if we return to the usual Western Civ lecture hall cliché—ancient science was somehow stymied by dogmatic Christians, only to be recovered and given new life by Renaissance free thinkers—then we can see that it is a hopelessly inaccurate cartoon. As Hart points out, “The birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a revival of Hellenistic science but its final defeat.”

Hart goes on to show how equally cartoonish pictures of Christian persecution, intolerance, and lust for religious warfare cannot stand up to judicious historical analysis. To these topics he adds some very important observations about our supposedly modern, rational, and progressive age. “We live now,” he writes, “in the wake of the most monstrously violent century in human history, during which the secular order (on both the political right and the political left), freed from the authority of religion, showed itself willing to kill on an unprecedented scale and with an ease of conscience worse than merely depraved.  If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness, it is surely ours.”


  1. Evan wrote:

    Yale Press has had his introduction up:

    It’s wonderful reading, as usual.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  2. theogothic wrote:

    (I am subscribed to your site via rss)

    Lord willing, my copy should be in any day. Hart is utterly awesome. I want to say this should be his finest hour, but I can’t wait for him to write other stuff, too.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I just got this book and started it. Oh man is it a rip-roaring good time. Here’s one of my favorite parts from the second page of chapter one:

    “And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, already a major film and surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.”

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Oh shit, that’s funny!

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  5. dave wrote:

    Thanks for that, Hill!

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Aren’t we being a little hard on Brown? No one castigates Roddenberry for the completely absurd physics in Star Trek.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    Dan Brown is either an idiot or has no scruples whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine reading something like the Da Vinci Code and thinking otherwise. This excerpt speaks to the former possibility:

    “What is the captain’s name?” Langdon asked, changing topics.
    “Bezu Fache,” the driver said, approaching the pyramid’s main entrance. “We call him Le Taureau.”
    Langdon glanced over at him, wondering if every Frenchman had a mysterious animal epithet. “You call your captain The Bull?”
    The man arched his eyebrows. “Your French is better than you admit, Monsieur Langdon.”
    My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good. Taurus was always the bull. Astrology was a symbolic constant all over the world.

    Is that some brilliant prose or what?!??! The inanity of what he is trying to accomplish here is beyond my ability to describe. The entire book reads like this. I found it so morbidly compelling that I read it in one sitting.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Rereading that excerpt just enforces the point that “borderline illiterate” is really not that much of a stretch. Dan Brown can obviously read and write English, but that’s about as much as one could say.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  9. Sorry, Hill. I don’t get it. My professional background is in physics, so I can’t see what’s so terrible about the prose in the section you’re quoting. I appreciate that it’s obvious to you, but it isn’t to me. All I see are ordinary English sentences. The grammar seems okay. What am I missing? Is it his assertion about astrology?

    I’m not defending Brown or the Da Vinci Code. The story would not have more absurd if it included a trip to Atlantis. But between books, movies, and TV shows, there is a massive amount of nonsense in modern fiction. Why does this particular author and this particular book receive so much condemnation?

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  10. saint egregious wrote:

    I love Hart because he alleviates me of my intellectual inferiority complex as a Christian.
    Then whenever my cultured despiser friends mock my stupidity, I hold up Beauty of the Infinite and say, “Take that you dumb-asses!’ God it feels good to be smarter than that.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  11. Patrik wrote:

    Ok, I agree that’s a funny quote, but why does Hart keep doing this, and why do you keep applauding? This is exactly what I hated about “Beauty” – that all his arguments were reduced to simple ad hominems. That is the number one example of bad rhetoric in any handbook, and this from a guy who wants to make rhetoric central to his method. It takes all the force out of his argument.

    Very bad theology, that is.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    It’s not really the factual errors that drive me crazy about the book. It’s the confidence with which Dan Brown attempts to use the most crude and ridiculous kinds of pseudo-anthropology (Langdon is a “symbologist”!?!) in order to lend some sort of intellectual weight to the novel. That’s what I take from the passage I’ve quoted. It’s really so multifariously stupid that it would take me a while to unpack. As if he’s somehow prescinding from language to the essence of the symbol because he knows that Taurus = Bull and hence Taureau = Bull. Of course it does… Taurus is bull in Latin and French is a romance language. It has nothing to do the freaking zodiac or some sort of essential symbolic framework that persists through all human civilization. So it’s not that the history is wrong (boy is it) but that it’s dressed up in this absolutely horrific pop-anthropology that is perfectly tailored to bamboozle stupid people.

    I should alter my opinion somewhat. Dan Brown is actually really smart in some sense, and I’m sure he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    I don’t know what to tell you if you think Beauty of the Infinite is an ad hominem. Thinking Hart is “too mean” is the first sign of having not understood him.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  14. Patrik wrote:

    So if you have you get to be as arrogant as him then? ;)

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    I’m just a hack. Hart certainly as an ascerbic tone at times. My point is that it is an injustice far more egregious than his supposed biting tone to write off his theology because he’s mean (and I don’t think he is and I’ve read everything he’s ever written).

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  16. “I’m just a hack.’ I think you meant to have quotation marks around that.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  17. Patrik wrote:

    My point is that he might very well be brilliant (and I think parts of “Beauty” is), but the cheap points he gets by attacking people ad homine (Heidegger an “old Nazi” for example) subtracts so much from his quite solid arguing against these people.

    I’ve made my case more in depth here

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    I was going to italicize it, but I always screw up the formatting.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  19. kim fabricius wrote:

    In the introduction to In the Aftermath (2009) Hart admits to his “natural inclination towards satire and towards wantonly profligate turns of phrase,” and then goes on to defend his “expressions of distaste for an idea or for the mind that produced it”:

    “[S]ome ideas are simply evil, and the persons who conceive them somewhat depraved, and there may be something rather disgraceful in an unwillingness to say so.
    At other times, of course, an idea or a thinker is not evil or depraved, but merely silly or sanctimonious; and in these cases also a certain robustness in one’s rhetoric is not necessarily a discretable thing.”

    I find Hart’s attacks hilarious. (I also like the way Hart takes the piss by constantly sending readers to the dictionary to look up $10 words.) But Dan Brown? Calling another Dan – Dennett – an “ignoramus”, and suggesting that “Dennett’s science of religion has a great future, and always will have” – that’s a good one-two; but I can see how having pop at Dan Brown looks like bullying. And who gives a shit about Dan Brown?

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    To be fair, he devotes a single sentence to Dan Brown, and primarily to the point of pointing out the degree to which the bankrupt historical narrative he has in his sights has filtered down the most democratic levels of culture.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  21. saint egregious wrote:

    Yeah, I’m with Kim. I howled when in Beauty of the Infinite he called Levinas’s ethics ‘depraved’, a ‘prodigy of incoherence’, ‘the banal tortured into counterfeit profundity’,’obviously false propounded as irresistably true’, ‘vicious’, and that all in a single paragraph and before he even begins his analysis. That was a hoot.

    When I shared this with a philosophy friend of mine he got really mad and protested that Levinas was ‘one of the greatest ethicists of the 20th century’, hugely influential for thinkers as diverse as Derrida and the Roman Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion; a concentration camp survivor whose ethics were born out of intense suffering and a remarkable rendering of Dostoevsky’s thought, etc. etc. I just sighed. When will these secularists get the joke?

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  22. Geoff wrote:

    My favorite line was that Dennett’s book amounts not to a “revolution not of thought, but only of syntax”

    Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  23. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Stanley Hauerwas quoted from the book today and said Hart has the “most colorful prose in theology today.”

    He quoted from a passage something about:
    - modern as few of us are . . . belief in nothing . . . make of ourselves what we choose . . . nihilism . . . not dismissively or contemptuously . . . few are consistent nihilists . . .

    Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    Another hilarious and delicious morsel:

    “[Sam Harris] declares all dogma pernicious, except his own thoroughly dogmatic attachment to nondualistic contemplative mysticism, of a sort which he mistakenly imagines he has discovered in one school of Tibetan Buddhism, and which (naturally) he characterizes as purely rational and scientific. He provides a long passage ascribed to a (largely mythical) Tantric sage Padmasambhava and then breathlessly informs his readers that nothing remotely as profound is to be found anywhere in the religious texts of the West–though really the passage is little more than a formulaic series of mystic platitudes, of the sort to be found in every religion’s contemplative repertoire, describing the kind of oceanic ecstasy that Christian mystical tradition tends to treat as one of the infantile stages of the contemplative life. He makes his inevitable pilgrimage to the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, though without pausing to acquaint himself with the Inquisition’s actual history or any of the recent scholarship on it. 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 almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, 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 and, with all the fervor of the true believer, defends the purity of his elected creed against its historical distortions. Admittedly, he does not actually discuss Tibet’s unsavory history of religious warfare, monastic feudalism, theocratic despotism, and social neglect; but he does helpfully explain that most Buddhists do not really understand Buddhism (at least, not as well as he does). And in a disastrous chapter, reminiscent of nothing so much as a recklessly ambitious undergraduate essay, he attempts to describe a “science of good and evil” that would discover the rational basis of moral self-sacrifice, apart from religious adherences: an argument composed almost entirely of logical lacunae. In short, The End of Faith is not a serious–merely a self-important–book, and merits only cursory comment.

    Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site