In the second section of his first chapter, Hart takes “emotional and rhetorical opportunism” to task, and does so ably. He is not fond of the “triumphalistic atheist” who declares immediately that the “materialist creed has been vindicated” (p. 7) by natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami.
“But the alacrity with which some seize upon the moment when tragedy befalls to hold forth on the indifference of the universe and obvious nonexistence of God inevitably gives rise, at the very least, to extraordinarily inept arguments” (p. 8).
This is quite true, as I have witnessed first hand. Materialistic atheism takes the obvious insult and outrage of the tsunami as clear and obvious proof that there is nothing wrong with such things. They angrily reject having any basis for anger. And furthermore, he adds, in case we didn’t get it, such events prove how precious human life is, being the mindless end product of a blind and naturalistic process. If you can’t follow this, I wouldn’t worry. The problem is not yours. Atheists like Sam Harris are simply incoherent on subjects like this. Perhaps they advance such arguments in the immediate aftermath of disasters because that is when everyone is numb, and nobody feels like responding.
Hart then says something that I take as a very good point against the materialists, and is a point that should be filed away for us to bring out later when he begins his interactions with Calvinism. “It is hard not to become impatient at disquisitions on the absurdity of religious beliefs confidently delivered by persons who have made no discernible effort to ascertain what those beliefs actually are” (p. 9).
Hart also makes another statement in passing that is also worth filing away — “as if God were to be imagined as some finite cause among the world’s other causes” (p. 10). This is actually really shrewd, and it contains the answer to all the standard objections to Calvinism. If God is simply the white cue ball that makes all the other balls move, then God is down within the system, bounded by it. But fundamental to true Calvinism is the Creator/creature distinction. If any ostensible “Calvinist” determinist writes in to Hart to say that God is the big cog in a universe full of little teeny cogs, and that Hart should just learn to deal with it, then somebody else needs to write Hart to inform him that his first correspondent is about as Calvinistic as John Wesley’s hatband.
Although Hart was tempted to blow off these inadequate atheistic arguments, he decided not to because of what provoked them in the first place.
“For one thing, while they may not be particularly germane to Christian theological tradition, they are nonetheless responses to the way in which many religious persons (including many Christians) are in the habit of speaking” (p. 15).
I am quite prepared to grant that many Christians argue poorly when confronted by things like this. I think that is fair enough. But I repeat my earlier point — there are defenses of true Calvinism that are shrewd, wise, profound merciful, and sublime. They are also confessional, and they do not portray God as a musclebound Zeus, clobbering the little people. If the ignorati have to be answered, then answer them. But part of the answer is to deny them the cover of a great theological tradition. A mechanical Muslim determinism is not Calvinism. Fatalism is not Calvinism.
All in all, Hart tends to give too much to authenticity to the unbeliever’s case against God.
“After all, at the heart of all such unbelief lies an undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage” (p. 15).
But the problem with this assertion is that this is the first thing such unbelief does –reconcile itself to the evil, removing any basis for being able to take a consistent stand against it. So there is no God. What possible meaning could the word evil now have? Whatever this unbelieving move is, it is not “authentic.” It is not a “rage for justice” — it is a rage against justice as we watch it unfold with horror. Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do right? Not one person who has ever died in the history of the world has died unjustly — with the one exception of our Lord.
When we look at the “sheer extravagance of worldly misery,” there are two basic directions to go. The first is to assume that God is far, far worse than we had ever imagined. The other is to wonder, perhaps for the first time, if perhaps we as a race are far, far worse than we had ever imagined.