Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Two

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.

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5 Responses to Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Two

  1. Burkhard says:

    You make as though one can choose to have a god or not. But that is not, or at least should not, be the case. The prior must be the fact of whether there is a god or not, and the signal event of modernity is the existentialist discovery that there is not. That we are radically free, and that it is our own work to make meaning, make judgements, and make the future.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Right, thanks for clearing that up…or…wait a minute…I think you just made my point…

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Well, your point seemed to be utilitarian- how great Christian theocracy was and how nice it would be to get back to that solid ground. But if the facts are against you, then no amount of fantasy (or fancy clothes, or weeping statues, or promises of death-life, etc.) can get you there, notwithstanding the abundance of fantasy bandied about in the countless faith traditions of humanity in its various states of infancy. Modernity is and was about growing up.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Your responses mean either you did not understand Hart or my comments or they are somehow a parody of the very person Hart was writing about. Any idea as to which might be correct? I’m totally serious. Did you read the post? I don’t even know how to respond to what you are writing. Where was theocracy mentioned? How is my example of helping a person as opposed to stealing from them-or the entire post for that matter- about utility? What? Huh? The rest of your comments beg the very questions Hart is addressing-they add nothing.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    If I many point out one snippet:

    “… asking if we can remember another time—a time when a Christian understanding made freedom a directed .. virtuous move rather than a function of pure will …”

    Here in a past time, Christianity “makes” freedom something else.. not free, but bound by its own views to whatever it thinks virtuous. Doing similar close readings and sentence diagramming of the rest of the post is too painful to contemplate, but the drift was similar.. that Christianity did its utmost to make us bound, not free. Bound in the nicest possible way, of course.. but bound to its own power and mental fixations.

    Whatever the virtue of that state, the issue is whether Christianity is even remotely true, and thus worthy of having such power. If not true, then no amount of nostalgia, which the post is permeated with, will help. Humans will continue to define the good, and need no theology to do so.

    Secondly the statement that “freedom derived from knowing one’s proper “essence” or “nature.”” is neither particularly Christian, (Know thyself being the Greek dictum, as you fleetingly mention), nor absent from modernism, as we are all in a mad dash to understand ourselves better through art, science, meditation, marijuana, self-fulfillment, pottery, pilates, and all other possible modalities, culminating in the existentialist position that is so accurate and difficult that it is deeply unsettling to those used to easy answers.

    You and Hart make a mistake to think that there is some conflict between knowing our nature and knowing the ultimate void that he disparages as nihilism. Just as life arises from nothingness, so does meaning. It is <>our<> nature that is the creator of and key to value and meaning, not the nature of imaginary super-beings who we make in our image.

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