We have heard many wrong things in our history classes. We have heard things like the Church taught the earth was flat until the Scientific Revolution, feared education and learning (and our teachers told us that for this reason the church burned books) and was violent throughout the course of its history. We have been taught that these repulsive policies were generally the rule with Christianity and not the exception.
The reality is these teachings are lies invented by modern atheists. The bulk of the evidence in fact supports the opposite: that the church supported the growth of science, promoted education and learning, and pushed for peace throughout its history. Yet, the atheists especially the New Atheists, still continue with these lies, these delusions.
A person is deluded when one chooses to hold a belief or opinion even though the evidence is largely against it. The book The Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian philosopher and theologian, examines and dismantles multiple delusions that the New Atheists hold and absolutely destroys them. What is left for the reader then to ponder is that the New Atheists do not have much support using history to support their views and that, on the other hand, Christians have a very strong support in the records of the past for how their faith created a revolution in humanity ranging from morality, to society, to personhood, to education, to science, and to philosophy, and even to our understanding of who God is.
I first came across this book in 2010 when I was in college and an atheist professor was posing serious challenges to the Bible, the Church, and faith during every single class period in a World History class that did not even explore Christianity until the second half of the course. He was a true atheist preacher trying to spread his religion. It was so bad that I had an agnostic classmate who got offended. Can you imagine?
I read through about half the book and it was enough to change my level of thinking and the way I approach history (now as a way to edify my faith) in order to bring an end to the challenges, and in the end I began challenging atheists using the arguments in this book.
The Moral Revolution
Hart, who is a brilliant stylist (yet occasionally uses large and uncommonly used words), begins exploring the past by examining the claim that paganism was more tolerant than Christianity. In a brilliant stylistic turn, he says that paganism was tolerant of disease, famine, war, exposed babies, violence, poverty, and a multitude of other things. He provides quite a bit of evidence. Paganism was morally decadent. Yet, secularists are mystified by paganism and believe it was morally strong.
Then, he examines Christianity and how it really invented the modern conception of the hospital and other charitable organizations to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor. Christians also brought social justice for women and slaves, and material help for the most needy in society. For example, he cites how the Christian emperors changed the laws of Rome to offer more protections for and more importantly to recognize the rights of previously overlooked groups such as women, little girls, and slaves (pgs. 161-162).
Then, he examines what he says has no precedent in Western history, which is the first abolitionist writer, St. Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father of the 4th century, who was the first to call for the abolition of all slaves in Western history, and he did so based on his understanding of Christ’s coming and Resurrection and what it meant for Christians.
Although Hart does not go further in the history of slavery, slavery eventually did come to an end in the West organically because at its depths it was not compatible with Christianity to the point that it was practically forgotten by the time Europeans learned it again when they encountered it in Africa among the native Congolese Kingdoms in the 1400s, and it was almost a new concept to them.
The Development of Science in the West
To better appreciate the Christian impact on the development of science, let’s begin the discussion by looking at when people thought the earth was flat (although Hart does not use this example in his book). For starters, most of the early Church Fathers believed the earth was round, yes round. Why? The science of the day suggested that that was case. Aristotle had shown empirically the earth was round in the 4th century B.C., yes, 4th century B.C., and virtually all Western Christians accepted it as perfectly reasonable science. That is why Christopher Columbus had even conceived of sailing west to go to India.
Often this historical reality is totally misrepresented. Even when I was in elementary school in the mid to late 1990s, my teachers taught us that up until Columbus and then Galileo, that Europeans and especially the Church thought the earth was flat. Even an accomplished physicist like Neil DeGrasse Tyson repeated this totally wrong teaching saying that the West thought the earth was flat until 500 years ago when he famously got into his debate on the shape of the earth with B.o.B. in early 2016. He said, and I am quoting from his Twitter post, “Duude—to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.” Tyson was rebuked by educated people for his error in the comments on his Twitter post [read them; they are informative], and then even in news websites. This was for purely historical reasons like those I referenced above, which he did not think was worthy of his time to learn. He showed how ignorant he was in history by simply relying on lies he had been taught in his history classes. This is simply a real life illustration from our time, and one from an educated person at that.
To return to our book, Hart examines how Christians long ago contributed to science and had the incredible foresight of making such advanced discoveries as the universe having a beginning in time and the stars being made of the same elements as those found on the earth. A Christian philosopher scientist in 6th Century Alexandria arrived at these conclusions based on the limited observations he had and through what the Scriptures indicate about the origin of the universe. These conclusions were confirmed in the 19th and 20th centuries. European Christians also perfected the scientific method because of their theological axioms (a good and intelligent God created the universe, therefore the universe is intelligible and can be studied and we can discover how it works).
It is a very different narrative than what we have been taught, but the overwhelming evidence supports Hart’s narrative and not the one secularists have been preaching all along. The book discusses this in quite a bit of depth. He references several important studies such as Science in the Middle Ages, a collection of essays by scholars, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (which examines how Christianity and Greek philosophy interacted), The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, a masterful and in-depth study by David Lindberg, and God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science.
The Christian Revolution
The Christian revolution affected all parts of life and led to a moral revolution, a social revolution, a personal revolution, a philosophical revolution, a religious revolution, a legal revolution, an educational revolution, and a scientific revolution. Hart examines all of these in depth. The most interesting part especially to readers not used to delving deep into history is that the foundations for this revolution occurred before Constantine became a Christian and before Theodosius declared Christianity the religion of the empire. Thus the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ was fulfilled, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
I cannot go into all of these aspects of the revolution in detail; instead I advise you to get the book. You can get a copy by clicking here. It will not only elevate the discussion, but it will give you ideas of where else to go and the types of questions to ask when getting involved in this debate of whether Christianity was a good or bad force in the development of the West. I also suggest that you read it slowly, take notes, and reflect about it.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Hart offers breadth of sources and times in addition to carefully examining those sources and what they mean for the history of Christianity in the West. These two factors make his conclusions very strong. I recommend this book first and foremost to college students who may be disturbed by challenges to their faith. I will say this; they should not think that the challenges are always valid, but they should think about these challenges from their professors like an adult fooling a young child because the adult is much more experienced; in the same way professors have more experience in these matters than college students do, but this book will begin to level the playing field.
I recommend it to priests especially those who shepherd college-attending and college graduate Christians. I recommend it to teachers so they can illuminate their understanding of history and how the West developed. I recommend it to parents who may have doubting children and are not able to answer their questions. I recommend it to those who serve the youth in any type of ministry in church especially those who serve junior high and above. I recommend it to lay Christians so they may have a deeper and richer understanding of their past, so they can understand what a massive change, what an enormous revolution Christianity brought to the world.
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