Chapter one is entitled The Gospel of Unbelief, which is appropriate because the “new atheists” and the more ardent secularists among us should be thought of more as evangelists than simple skeptics. It is one thing for someone to toss out casually, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really believe;” it is quite another to build a sustained passionate argument—and one in which the proponent feels he need share and defend. So we do not have the dispassionate objective atheist sitting back, basking in his cool reason as he surveys all the backward superstitious religions and commenting dryly; rather, we have passionate secular believers asserting positively because all skepticism is simply belief pointed in a different direction. I can only be skeptical about x because I believe in y. The new atheists are also the new evangelists.
Hart spends part of this chapter simply noting the resurgence of anti-religious works and their popularity given book sales and so forth. I have already noted significant portions of chapter one here and the link provided therein. Almost in passing, Hart also points out various problems with Daniel Dennett’s and Richard Dawkin’s works and ideas, such as Dawkins’s “inane concept of ‘memes.'” He also speaks to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. He writes,
This…is also a book that, in itself, should not detain anyone for very long. It is 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. In his remarks on Christian belief, Harris displays an abysmal ignorance of almost every topic he addresses…sometimes it seems his principle complaint must be against twentieth-century fundamentalist, but he does not even get them right…
Hart notes that the two main criticisms these writers bring against religion in general and Christianity in particular are, one, that religious belief is in essence “baseless” and, two, that religion is inherently intolerant and violent, while “a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith,” and it is this second criticism that Hart finds “most mystifying.” He writes,
Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their confidence.
Finally, the chapter ends with noting the rather empty and ridiculous notion that Christianity has made little positive difference in the world and that it has little bearing upon whether people are ethical or not. He notes,
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 the inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises…
Further, he writes,
It is pointless, however, to debate what it would truly mean for Western culture to renounce Christianity unless one first understands what it meant for Western culture to adopt Christianity; and this one cannot do if one is content to remain fixated upon fruitless abstractions concerning “religion” rather than turning to the actual particularities of Christian history and belief.
This last paragraph is particularly striking because one gets the sense when hearing an atheist/secularist blurt out with a “gee golly” naivety upon looking around, “Hey, people seem to be behaving fine with or without religion or Christianity,” that something has been missed as to the last 2000 years of deep Christian influence and enculturation.
Did these people just wake up today?