Very few books can be summarized as “social science by a prayerful engineer wearing a hauberk,” but John Gravino’s The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism) stands tall as a paperback fitting that description.
Gravino used the CreateSpace platform to publish a defense of “biblical moral psychology” aimed at professional atheists and the far larger crowd of people who listen to their arguments if only because scandals in the church seem to be caused in part by her encouragement of self-control.
The best-known atheists attack Christianity in a predictably Freudian way, starting with the big dog on the block: Sexual repression is part of the Catholic DNA, critics say, and despite the obvious ironies involved in claiming that striving for the good makes you bad, critics assert that unbending allegiance to virtues like celibacy for priests in the Roman rite and chastity for everybody fosters perversion and hypocrisy among the devoutly religious.
Endnotes aside, Gravino spends 194 pages dispatching that hobby horse to the glue factory where Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” would already have put it, if Sigmund Freud’s disciples had read JPII or embraced the scriptural foundations of his work. The problem, Gravino notes, is that Freud subscribed to the view that desires build up inside people like pressures in a volcano, and must occasionally be indulged for the sake of psychological health. Freud’s self-serving hypothesis runs counter to ancient wisdom about how people only flourish when passion is governed by reason. More specifically, Gravino shows, if Christianity is right that the inner battle between passion and conscience can be resolved, “then the psychological argument against Christianity collapses.”
Dopamine — the brain chemical associated with pleasure — looms large in the narrative, because Gravino defends Christian asceticism on neuroscientific grounds. He marshals evidence to show that people operating from materialist assumptions suffer from more neuroses than people who practice self-denial of the kind recommended by people like Paul of Tarsus. Unfortunately for atheism (not to mention hedonism and materialism), a landscape that is immoral also turns out to be unreasonable.
There is more here than defense. Advancing the ball on cultural turf, Gravino cheerfully asserts that “Christianity has produced an unmatched, empirically verifiable transformation of mind and civilization.” It could hardly have done otherwise, given the “Grace Hypothesis,” which Gravino describes as “the Christian spiritual theory of mind laid out by Saint Paul in Galatians 5 and 6.” The defining concept of that scriptural touchstone, in Gravino’s exuberant paraphrase, is that “to reap the fruits of the Spirit and good mental health…you must live a spiritual life.” Moreover, he writes, “the best practice of Christianity will always outperform the best practice of any other discipline because mental health is a fruit of the Spirit, and Christ and his Church are the best means to communion with that Holy Spirit.”
The obvious objection to that argument is that it sounds triumphalist. Gravino intuits as much, but remembers enough history to rob that objection of any force in the same way that a chain mail shirt blunts an edged weapon used against the man wearing it. Gravino cites the work of Thomas Woods for “documenting the Church’s role in the creation of just about everything we take for granted in Western culture, including the university system, charitable work, international law, [and] the sciences,” in addition to widely acknowledged influence in “music, art, and architecture.”
If Gravino had warmed to his subject any more ardently, his book would ship with oven mitts. That enthusiasm atones for a pair of minor miscues. First, the book has generous endnotes, but no index.
Second, from a stylistic rather than structural point of view, the fellowship of first-time authors is full of cowboys who spur their readers toward understanding by becoming “Riders of the Purple Page.” Gravino occasionally belabors points that he has already made, or abbreviates unnecessarily (using “GH” for “Grace Hypothesis” and “VTP” for “volcanic theory of the passions”).
Neither its lack of an index nor its less-than-draconian editing keep The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism) from being a gripping read and a valuable contribution to contemporary Christian apologetics. Gravino confronts professional atheists head-on, addresses the “priest scandal” intelligently, and leverages current research to cast new light on scriptural wisdom. His dense little paperback deserves a wide audience.
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