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The New Atheism and the Cost of Secularism

“Can one really believe–as the New Atheists seem to do–that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, free of the constraining hand of archaic faith, will naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficulty, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern ‘progress.’ At the end of the twentieth century–the century when secularization became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world–the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of. The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity; for the most part, all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities. One could, I suppose, argue that the secular project had somehow been diverted from its proper course at the dawn of the twentieth century, just as the new ideologies were assuming concrete political forms, or had been stalled or subverted by certain intransigent forces of unreason. This would be a more credible claim, however, if the twentieth century’s horrors were demonstrably aberrations within the larger story of the modern world. But, in fact, the process of secularization was marked, from the first, by the magnificent limitlessness of its violence. One does not have to harbor any nostalgia for the old order of Christendom, or of the church’s degrading association with the state, to be conscious of scularity’s cost. . . . In purely arithmetic terms, one cannot dispute the results. The old order could generally reckon its victims only in the thousands. But in the new age, the secular state, with all its hitherto unimagined capacities, could pursue its purely earthly ideals and ambitions only if it enjoyed the liberty to kill by the millions. How else could it spread its wings?”

~ David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 222-23.


  1. Derrick wrote:

    This was a great section of Harts book (well actually they were all great it is an amazing book). I liked especially how in this instance Hart lines up completely parallel with Pannenberg’s own appraisal of secularization:

    “Emancipation from religious commitments and considerations and from the general guidelines of social life was one of the presuppositions for the autonomous development of the economic life of modernity. Modern secularism cannot simultaneously pride itself in its emancipation from religious ties and load the responsibility for the consequences of its absolutization of earthly acquisitiveness on those religious origins from whose restrictions it has free itself.” (Systematic Theology 2:204)

    Or also close to Hart’s analysis of the nihilism of modern freedom, namely nature and man are guaranteed far less protection by human autonomy than by a Christian conception of reality “when the idea of autonomy is connected not with a concept of reason to which the individual is subordinate, but with the modern understanding of individual freedom as an unlimited power of self-disposition which is subject to factual limitations only by the demands of society.” (Anthropology in Theological Perspective 77-79 at 79).

    Hart is of course a much more enchanting rhetorician than Pannenberg (thank goodness) but I found the similarity of ideas in this case striking.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  2. saint egregious wrote:

    Yawn. Been there, read Cavanagh. The title of part three of the book is a howl: Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human. Well sign me up!

    (Okay, okay Christianity, step back a bit, you’re perfume’s a bit heavy. I mean, you were hot and all once, but what have you done for me lately?) You don’t really think that your boy Hart’s spittuferous rantings are gonna get me to drop my drawers, do you? Some wingman ya got. (I speak metasporically)
    If this is the best Christianity’s got, plumping its (Egyptian plundered treasure) chest and getting some historical botox treatments a la Hart and Milbank, then I’m hard pressed between it and Dawkins. Come to think of it, I can’t really see much of a difference, spiritually speaking that is. Which fact leads me to think that that’s the point–How else can Christian discourse get in the game but by being as fulmagacious as its sworn enemy, who otherwise is kicking its cultural ass?

    ‘Mr. Beck, meet Mr. Stewart.’ ‘Likewise, I’m sure.’

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    If one were utterly incapable of parsing rational arguments, you might have a case, there, egregious.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    In fairness, Hill if the argument is over who is able to use the most parentheses, then S.E. clearly wins.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I concede.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  6. Ryan wrote:

    Great quote. I wrote a thesis on the new atheism last year and was continually amazed at the creative ways around the uncomfortable facts Hart presents that these guys tried (Sam Harris seems to basically define any and all violent behaviour as “religious”). You may have already read it, but Hart’s got a great chapter on Daniel Dennett in his recent collection of essays, In the Aftermath (I think it was also have been published on the First Things blog).

    As a long-time reader/lurker on this blog, I just wanted to say thanks for the thought-provoking writing. Keep up the good work.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  7. saint egregious wrote:

    Yes, but the winner of pwonoun twouble? Hill, you win that one hands down!

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    My pwonouns were cawfuwy sewected.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  9. I think the argument is presenting something of a false dichotomy here: either humanity is more violent under religious rule, or more violent under secular influence. Personally, I tend to think humanity has a fondness for violence, and will find a way to excuse it regardless of the prevailing moral framework. In modernity’s defense, it seems plausible that the explosion in the number of violent deaths in the past 100 years is nothing more than a function of the explosion in the world population (and if we trust the popular historical narrative, a population explosion made possible by modernity’s ideals). Rather than a simple death toll, I would be interested in some sort of normalized statistic, e.g. annual percentages of the total population that suffer violent death. I think that would be more telling, no?

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  10. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    Also technological advances. It was never before possible for a few people in a plane to kill 100,000 people on the ground.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    Population “explosion” on it’s own can’t explain the level of organization and systematic character of the brutality of the modern period. Hart’s point is that yes, people are inherently violent, but it is only with the atomization of the individual and the consolidation of power in a sovereign center can that inherent violence be realized in such a brutally efficacious way. This stripping away of intermediary institutions and the consolidation of power in an ever expanding centralized state (possessing a monopoly on the use of force).

    You don’t need statistics to appreciate pogroms or the Holocaust. In each case, the will of essentially one man (or at least a very few men) resulted in the deaths of millions.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  12. Sue wrote:

    What about the cost of the “cross” as portrayed in this painting?

    And that was 500 years ago. The same deadly power drive continues, and such is loudly supported by all of those on the “religious” right, many of whom Hart hobnobs with.

    Friday, April 10, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

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