Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

By: George C. Mchalopulos

Several years ago when I was young and impressionable, I happened upon the Charles Laughton version of The Mutiny on the Bounty. What struck me – as near as I can recollect—was the climax of Lieutenant Bligh’s trial. Though acquitted of the charges against him, the president of the tribunal condemned Bligh’s character by saying that the Royal Navy had erred in commissioning him as he was “no Christian gentleman.” I remember how devastated I was by the indictment of Laughton/Bligh, delivered as it was in the crisp, no-nonsense, upper-class English accent. It became immediately apparent that the poor wretch would be hounded out of decent society for the rest of his life.

The reader may ask at this point: what would incite a reviewer of a book which is a vigorous apologia of the Christian religion to cite a little-remembered version of movie describing an event barely remembered today? Only this: that at one time, there was such a thing as a “Christian gentleman,” a man of culture and erudition who lived comfortably in the world but was resolute in his religious convictions. More importantly, this type of Christian gentleman lived in a society that was Christian and unapologetically so.

Now of course, the opposite is the case: obloquy is heaped upon Western Civilization and the Church. Christendom is castigated as the great engine of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. No doubt, we will soon find out that we would be much better off if our ancestors had never read McGuffy’s Reader as children or the Confessions of St Augustine as adults. Instead, we would all be better off if we read Heather has Two Mommies or I, Rigoberta Menchu. In this abyss of ignorance in which we find ourselves. It seems to be the case that we have only two choices: the tyranny of tolerance or the horrors of Christianism.

Into this vacuum come the strident New Atheists, the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harrises of the world. Though their books are vastly more intelligent than the bovine waste that comprise the feminist, homosexualist, or secularist “canon” of the typical Western university, they are not without their logical and philosophical problems. A few enterprising souls have risen to the fore to engage them on their own terms. Dinesh D’Souza for example, has done yeoman’s work in this regard, easily besting them, often in open debate as well as in print. However, the problem is not the New Atheists but the broader society, which has internalized a very ignorant, Christophobic dynamic. It is modern society and its “smelly little orthodoxies” (in Chesterton’s apt phrase), that has made the careers of the New Atheists viable. To decimate these pretensions, one could do no better than look to David Bentley Hart’s new book Atheist Delusions.

The New Atheism has found fertile clay indeed in which to sink its growing roots. The modern world has been softened up for some time now by the plows of materialism, Darwinism, and Freudianism. It is into this arena that Hart (an Orthodox Christian), has boldly advanced to do battle. He is certainly up to the task: like a confident gladiator he knows where his enemy’s weak spots are. His weapons are impressive indeed; besides the facts, he has a keen analytical mind and is able to spot fallacies and errors in logic. He sees what is there and often what is not there, the so-called dog that didn’t bark, and for this we can be grateful. Indeed, his prose is lively and entertaining, that alone is worth the price of admission. Moreover, he does not hesitate to pore through the evidence and footnotes (a tedious process if there ever was one), and is perfectly willing to call out eminent scholars (such as Ramsay MacMullen) for purposely distorting the evidence which they themselves used, in order to propagate a deliberate anti-Christian argument.

Hart dispatches the secularist critiques of (among other things) the Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, and the Christian burning of the famous Library at Alexandria. In the interest of brevity, I will only say that the Inquisition was set up by the Roman Catholic Church to stop the promiscuous torture and execution of people condemned of heresy and witchcraft by the state. In this respect, the Church largely succeeded. As for Galileo, Hart plumbs the historical record and proves that he was a prickly character who needlessly and with malice often provoked his many academic enemies. More to the point, his own astrophysical theories were not in themselves correct as his inquest pointed out. Indeed, the Church had no problems with his theories as they were essentially the same as Copernicus’, who some eighty years earlier, had received the imprimatur of the Church. And almost always left out of the modern secularist critique of the Church was the fact that he was a devout Christian, indeed more so than his great friend, Pope Urban VIII, who lavished upon him great accolades, pensions, and awards (thus further inflaming Galileo’s many enemies). More damningly, Galileo himself was not intellectually honest. He castigated competing astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, more out of spite than conviction. Indeed, it is Kepler’s system of celestial mechanics which we use today.

As to the famous burning of the Alexandrian Library by supposedly superstitious and bigoted Christian mobs in A.D. 390, Hart destroys this myth with an alacrity that enlightens as well as educates us about the intricacies of the early Christian age. It is little known that the Library had in fact been burned down many centuries earlier, most probably – and inadvertently—by Julius Caesar’s legions, during the dictator’s war against Pompey in the year 48 B.C. This is a stunning revelation, as Caesar died in 44 B.C., a good forty years or so before Christ had even been born (and almost a good century before the creation of the Church). So how did this myth take hold? The answer lies in the internecine conflicts that took place between Greeks and Jews, and later between pagans and Christians in Alexandria, quite possibly the most cosmopolitan and most violent city in the Roman Empire.

The facts are discernable to anyone who wishes to pore over the earliest extant documents. On the grounds of the earlier Library stood a temple dedicated to Serapis, constructed a century after the first Library. The confusion arises because the Serapeum contained many scrolls scattered about its environs. The twelfth century Byzantine historian John Tzetzes for instance “claimed that Callimachus of Cyrene (c.305-240 B.C.) catalogued forty-two thousand scrolls in the library…but whether this is to be trusted…cannot be determined.” It is important to note that Tzetzes received this information second-hand; at any rate neither historians’ sources are extant. At any rate, the destruction of the Serapeum was one incident in the long, internecine conflicts between Christians and pagans. In this particular instance, some pagan gangs had kidnapped Christians, taken them to the temple, tortured and killed them, dumping their bodies in the adjacent pits where the offal of sacrificial animals was thrown. In the ensuing melee, the enraged Christians burned the temple and all its contents. Although a regrettably violent act, it is unknown at this time if there were indeed books and scrolls there. Regardless, the myth of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by intolerant Christian mobs arose out of the ashes of this great catastrophe.

It is because of Hart’s great historical knowledge that this book is well worth a leisurely read. His historical episodes are written in a lively manner, entertaining and often with a hint of sarcasm. However, the real jewel of this book lies in its middle section, when Hart beautifully describes the rite of Christian initiation, contrasting it with the benighted, and hopeless paganism that permeated the entire non-Christian world. The remorselessness that Hart catalogues –from the pagans’ own sources at that—describe nothing less than a severe existential crisis for Hellenistic civilization. Even the vaunted erudition and science of Greek philosophy had long degenerated into superstition and magic by the time the Galilean “had cast the world gray with His breath.” The Renaissance myth, that Greek learning was snuffed bout by an intolerant Church takes a well-deserved beating in these pages. Indeed, it was Christianity, with its insistence that Reason (logos) had permeated the world –indeed created it—which gave rise to the scientific method. True science did not begin with Aristotle, who disdained the laboratory as the denizen of slaves, but with the Franciscans of the High Middle Ages, who had no compunction about getting their hands dirty. The operating principle of modern science –reductionism—was the revealed to the world by William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk.

So where are we now? Clearly not in a Christian – or even post-Christian age — but more probably an anti-Christian one. It is equally apparent to some that this age cannot last. There comes a time when old paradigms must be cast away. Sometimes a good idol-smashing does this, or better yet, a nice book-burning. Hart describes one such book-burning which gave rise to the modern age. It was on June 24, 1443, when Paracelsus took copies of all the medical books written by Galen and Avicenna in his possession, and publicly burned them, thereby destroying the stranglehold of Aristoteleian pseudo-science on the Christian and Islamic worlds. Hart makes a convincing case that it was only by such an audacious act that the modern age of scientific inquiry could begin. At any rate, it was not the Church which burned pagan texts (indeed, quite the opposite), but it was the Church which created a new paradigm that allowed such a brave soul to take such action, thereby birthing the modern age. One could only look wistfully upon such cheekiness and wonder if the modern Academy would be better off if 90 percent of its “canonical” literature received a similar fate.

Be that as it may, the Christian society of the ages past is probably extinct. However if it were to ever arise again, it would need an informed intellectual vanguard. There is no doubt in mind that Atheist Delusions would be a welcome and necessary addition to a new, more confident Christian canon, one appealing to Christians of all stripes. If nothing else, for those who desire the appellation of Christian gentleman, Atheist Delusions is a necessary addition to one’s library.

George C Michalopulos, is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He was born in Tulsa, OK where he resides and works. George is active in Church affairs, having served as parish council president at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and as Senior Warden at Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he wrote ‘American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings” (Regina Orthodox Press: 2003). He is married to Margaret and has two sons, Constantine and Michael.

The Patriarch of Russia's Restoration

By: James George Jatras

Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia
By John Garrard and Carol Garrard
Princeton University Press
326 pp., $29.95

James George Jatras Esq.

James George Jatras Esq.

The recognized godfather of modern Orthodox-inspired Russian patriotism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once characterized Bolshevism as a promethean effort to rub off the age-old face of Russia and to replace it with a new, ersatz Soviet face. Historians will argue for years if that monstrous experiment was doomed to failure, when and how that failure might have occurred at critical historical junctures, and especially who the indispensable figures in communism’s eventual demise were. But there is little question that in the chronicles of Russia’s restoration as a recognizably Orthodox Christian country the late Patriarch ALEKSY II of Moscow and All Russia will figure high on that list.

While few could realistically expect the end of communism to entail the reinstatement of dispossessed noble families’ lands and estates or formal reestablishment of the Church and monarchy (not yet, anyway), "restoration" is indeed the right term. After the long, sub-rosa civil war that constituted the communists’ decades-long efforts to overcome Russians’ obstinate unwillingness or inability to conform their lives and consciences to the insane scribblings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Americans and other westerners familiar with Russia today can only be astounded at the miraculous – there is no other word for it – degree to which the Orthodox Church has become the national moral conscience, including in state, and especially, military affairs.

While Americans, with our history of government neutrality among churches, might be a bit taken aback at public officials’ and commanders’ participation in Orthodox services to bless the launch of a new nuclear submarine or to celebrate the patron Saint’s Day of a military unit, given the degree to which Christianity is being ruthlessly purged from our own public life we might feel just a twinge of envy.

That this state of affairs came into being relatively peacefully during the dangerous days of the Soviet regime’s final death agony is largely Aleksy’s doing. Indeed, though the late Patriarch’s name does not appear in the title or subtitle, John Garrard and Carol Garrard have written a book about him far more than about Russia or Orthodoxy per se.

The book is especially enlightening in detailing Aleksy’s actions during the failed August 1991 putsch, when Soviet diehards sought to overthrow the government of the Russian Republic (the largest of the USSR’s 15 Union Republics) headed by President Boris Yeltsin. The Garrards credit (correctly in this reviewer’s opinion) Aleksy’s stern anathema against the shedding of civil blood for the fact that the military refused to take action in support of the coup and that the death toll was kept to just three persons:

Every person who raises arms against his neighbor, against unarmed civilians, will be taking upon his soul a very profound sin which will separate him from the Church and from God. It is appropriate to shed more tears and say more prayers for such people than for their victims. May God protect you from the terrible sin of fratricide. I solemnly warn all my fellow-citizens: The Church does not condone and cannot condone unlawful and violent acts and the shedding of blood. I ask all of you, my dear ones, to do everything possible to prevent the flame of civil war from bursting forth. Cease at once!

The success of Aleksy’s warning, issued in response to an appeal by Yeltsin, is all the more remarkable in that it would be heeded by officers and men of a Red Army originally created to crush Russian resistance to an earlier Bolshevik coup d’etat, in October 1917. The army’s response did not materialize out of thin air. The Garrards record Aleksy’s amazingly deft cultivation of the armed forces, and even elements of the KGB, well before his rise to the patriarchate.

During the 1980s, first as Metropolitan of his native Tallinn (Estonia) and of Leningrad (now once again Saint Petersburg), Aleksy was remarkably successful in securing the Soviet authorities’ acquiescence to the restoration to the Church of the celebrated Danilov Monastery – now once again official headquarters of the patriarchate – and the KGB’s return of the relics of the famous military saint and champion of Orthodoxy against the Roman Catholic Swedes and Teutonic Knights, Prince Aleksandr Nevsky.

His masterful orchestration of the 1988 celebration of the millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ under Saint Prince Vladimir of Kiev was a major milestone in the Church’s assumption of its current commanding role. At the same time, the authors, despite their clearly positive attitude toward Aleksy and his accomplishments, do not hide the fact that little of this would have been possible if Aleksy had not himself been a longtime and obedient operative of the KGB.

Taken as a whole, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent is a valuable book and the Garrards should be commended for their ably bringing to light facets of one of recent history’s little known but most significant chapters. At the same time, the work includes two minor oddities and one major, indeed deplorable, defect.

The Garrards explore the bases of the thousand-year-old discord between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as an intended insight on Aleksy’s distrust of the Vatican, his refusal to allow Pope John-Paul II visit Russia as he dearly had wanted, and his insistence that Orthodoxy, not Catholicism or Protestantism, be acknowledged as the Christian confession in Russia in relation to other historic faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In doing so, however, they embark on an extended, and essentially irrelevant, explanation that the claims to primacy of Rome and Moscow depend on how one reads the Gospel accounts of Christ’s first calling to His Apostolate, respectively, Saint Peter or his brother Saint Andrew.

Aside from the fact that the see of Constantinople also takes its founding honorific from Andrew, and Antioch and (via Saint Mark) Alexandria both can claim Peter, no such who-was-summoned-before-whom question has ever had much bearing on the real points of division: Rome’s own formulation of its unique Petrine claim of authority (and infallibility) based largely on Matthew 16, the filioque, the unions of Lyon, Ferrara-Florence, and Brest, and repeated armed incursions by western armies into Orthodox countries to subdue people regarded by Rome as schismatics if not heretics.

Writing as no stranger to Orthodox-Latin polemics, this reviewer is puzzled as to why the authors would include such a strange and, frankly, inaccurate explanation.

Even more peculiar is the Garrards’ repeated insistence that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) are two different bodies when in fact they are the same thing. I have consulted numerous sources, including many in ROCOR/ROCA – both of which names are found on their own website – and they are as baffled as I am as to what the source of misunderstanding might be. (In common parlance, even more common than "ROCOR" and "ROCA" are "the Synod" or "the Synodal Church," which is not used in the book.)

While the confusion can be regarded as a minor quirk the topic to which it is relevant – the 2007 reunion of the branches of the Russian Church abroad and at home, of which then-President Vladimir Putin was hardly less a champion than Aleksy – is not. In any case, the reunion was a bilateral, not trilateral, event.

These blemishes are insignificant compared to the Garrards’ absolutely inexcusable vilification of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people. It is understandable that the authors wish to juxtapose Aleksy’s successful navigation of the Russian Church through the treacherous shoals of Russian politics, both civil and ecclesiastical, and it was no doubt tempting to hold up a negative point of comparison. Given the magnitude of the disinformation about and demonization of Serbia and the Serbian Church, and the close national and spiritual ties between Russians and Serbs, the Serbian example might seem a suitable illustration of the "road not taken" (as the Garrards indeed refer to it).

They compare what they see as Aleksy’s positive handling of sensitive issues like the glorification of the Royal Martyrs Nicholas II and his family, the return to Sarov of the relics of Saint Seraphim, and the veneration of warrior saints such as Nevsky and Prince Dmitry Donskoy to the "Serbian bloodlust" and supposedly Church-blessed massacres of Croats and Muslims stirred up by Serbian bishops. The Garrards suggest the Church, in concert with the late Slobodan Milosevic, manipulated the 1989 translation of the relics of Saint Prince (not "king") Lazar on the 600th anniversary of the epic battle of Kosovo, in which he championed the Christian forces fighting Ottoman invaders, to encourage Serbs to regard themselves as victims of their neighbors.

The authors seemingly are unaware of the fact that the Serbs are indeed victims of their neighbors, having been subjected not only to the physical depredations of mass murder and eradication from their homes during World War II under Croatian Ustaše and their Muslim allies but in the 1990s by Croats and Bosnian and Kosovo Albanian Muslims – the last continuing today in slow-motion under Washington’s sponsorship.

Likewise missing is any awareness that Aleksy, as well as Putin, and everyone else featured positively in the book, and in truth almost everyone in Russia, has remained fully in support of the Serbian cause and would see no difference at all between the Russian and Serbian national, religious, and martial traditions – not least in Lazar’s choosing a spiritual kingdom over the earthly, hardly a negative comparison with Nevsky and Donskoy. It certainly does not help that the Garrards took as their authorities on Balkan events two unreliable authors noted for their vicious Serbophobia and Pravoslavophobia.

In short, the Garrards should have observed Rule One for the writing of nonfiction: stick to what you know, stay away from subjects about which you are ignorant. While at their worst on Serbia, with regard to Russia they write perceptively and effectively about a subject they clearly know very well. As an explanation of pivotal events of recent history, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent is, despite its flaws, a valuable public service, for Orthodox Christians especially. John Garrard and Carol Garrard have written book well worth reading and a fitting memorial to a hierarch whose reputation will only grow with the passage of time.

James George Jatras is Director of the American Council for Kosovo (www.savekosovo.org), and advisor to the American Orthodox Institute, and former senior foreign policy analyst for the U.S. Senate Republican leadership He is a member of St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia.