Chapter two is entitled “The Age of Freedom.” Hart’s point in this chapter is to tell us why it is that those such as the new atheists “tend to employ such extraordinarily bad arguments for their prejudices, without realizing how bad those arguments are…” The reason he suggests is that, “they are driven by the precritical and irrational impulses of the purest kind of fideism. At the deepest level of their thoughts and desires, they are obedient to principles and promptings that rest upon no foundation but themselves.”
This “faith” is, he goes on, built upon a particular notion of “freedom,” which flows from that more fundamental aspect to modernity which is a belief in “nothing,” or “nothingness as such.” He writes,
Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.
He points out further that this modern notion of “freedom,” which is the very air we breathe, has a history. What we take for granted as simply the “way things are” is, rather, a metaphysical construct and not just a conclusion arrived at from looking around and stating the “obvious” or what appears to “correspond” to reality.
Our modern notion of freedom was not always thus; the prior Christian understanding, and even the classical pagan understanding, was that freedom derived from knowing one’s proper “essence” or “nature.” This means that “we are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.” And of course this presumes there is a “good” to choose rather than simply a plethora of ultimately meaningless or equally worthless choices of which somehow the choosing, in and of itself, is considered the significant aspect rather than whether the choice was good, true, and beautiful.
Hart closes by asking if we can remember another time—a time when a Christian understanding made freedom a directed (telos) virtuous move rather than a function of pure will directed toward perhaps helping an old woman across the street, or, on the other hand, snatching her purse and running off. The modern can only lay these two choices out equally; it can give us no reason why one choice is fundamentally (in and of itself, outside of law, custom, conscience, or consequence) different than the other.
What one senses, then, in the new atheists’ writings and those sympathetic to their views is the feeling they are completely oblivious to the historical and philosophical genealogy of their world. They have never questioned (simply exhaled it) these core beliefs regarding this particular modern notion of “freedom” and this original absence (nothingness) and then imagine that all their further arguments, which rest on this vapor, are just, well, reasoned and obvious.