Dwight Longenecker Beheads the Atheist Hydra

“We do not simply live in a ‘post-Christian society.’ We live in a society that is deeply atheistic and therefore anti-Christian,” writes Catholic priest and commentator Dwight Longenecker in his new book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age. In this insightful volume, he lucidly reviews for laymen the various pernicious beliefs that over centuries have overthrown Western society’s Judeo-Christian faith and offers a plan for spiritual restoration.

Longenecker notes that Americans “are experiencing a colossal collapse of organized Christianity,” such that, for example, the number of Catholic priests dropped from 60,000 in 1966 to 37,000 in 2018. This “crisis of faith is combined with a philosophical implosion and a cultural and moral maelstrom all at the same,” he adds. “This perfect storm is the culmination of five hundred years of devious philosophies, half-truths, godless ideologies, false religions, and rebellion against God, His Church, and His timeless truths,” a “septic tank of subterfuge.”

“We must choose to recognize the lies for what they are: different masks of atheism -- and atheism is itself a costume of the Antichrist,” Longenecker concludes. Satan, after all, is the “Father of Lies.” Leading institutions like “American schools, colleges, and universities… are, in fact, institutions of atheist propaganda.”

Turning to ancient Greece, for Longenecker the “powerful serpentine image that illustrates the battle at hand is the Hydra -- the mythical water serpent that lurked in the swamps of Lake Lerna -- one of the entrances to the underworld.” “When one head was cut off, two more grew back in its place,” he recalls this monster’s famed characteristic. This provides an important intellectual metaphor, for “Socrates used the Hydra as an illustration of the deceitful person who, when his argument is proved to be a lie, immediately comes up with two more arguments.”

Longenecker analyzes “sixteen heads of the modernist Hydra,” beginning with materialism. “Materialism itself is the main head of the Hydra. Put simply, it is the proposal that this physical world is all there is,” he observes. “If materialism is a mask of atheism, it is also a mask of nihilism. If there is nothing but this physical world, then ultimately there is nothing at all, because you and I and all things will die and decay into dust.”

Another materialist corollary is Scientism. This “refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences, and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy,” Longenecker quotes from Pope John Paul II. “Looking for scientific evidence for the eternal realm is like taking apart an alarm clock to look for time,” Longenecker trenchantly observes.

Materialist Utilitarianism with its “pleasure principle” of the greatest good for the greatest number, as developed by English nineteenth-century atheists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is also nonsense on stilts. “Who decides what happiness is… Would base physical pleasures be lower and intellectual pleasures be higher? For example, would watching pornography be better than reading Plato?” Longenecker queries. For Christians, moreover, faith and morals ultimately define pleasure, for the “greatest happiness is eternal life and… therefore, the greatest happiness for the greatest number means opening the door to eternal life to the greatest number of people.”

By contrast, Utilitarianism seeks fulfillment through the denial of ethical standards in what Pope John Paul II called pragmatism. The resulting amoral “utilitarian pragmatist does not see himself as cruel. Indeed, he always veils his cruelty with the euphemisms of kindness,” Longenecker notes. Such kindness kills, as “eugenicists and abortionists don’t want just ethnic cleansing: they want to cleanse the whole human race” of any deemed unfit to live, like “pulling weeds or exterminating rats.”

Unborn life has lost sanctity in a culture of unbridled lust, or what Longenecker terms eroticism, emotions enabled by modern technology. “The invention of artificial contraception is more shattering than any other invention in human history.” such as the wheel or fire, he concludes. The resulting

change in sexual beliefs and behaviors in the second half of the twentieth century was the most revolutionary of all the revolutions in the five hundred years that had gone before. We now live in a society in which the general rule about sex is that there are no rules about sex.  

Eroticism corresponds to Sigmund Freud’s understanding of “sex as mere instinct,” Longenecker observes, and under this Freudianism, the “whole meaning of life itself… becomes no more than the quest to find genital contentment.” Yet the real “definition of a man is a human with male reproductive organs, and the definition of a woman is a person with female reproductive organs,” he counters. Thus “to be fully human -- to operate as a human was designed -- is to be a father or a mother.”

Longenecker’s reasoning is exquisite, but he doubts reason’s ability to slay modernity’s Hydra. “If one side believes in a greater source of truth, however, and the other not only denies it but doesn’t even have a concept of a transcendent source of truth, debate is dead,” he notes. “Arguing with a relativist is like wrestling with an octopus in oil in the dark.”

Meanwhile, a relativistic society is unlikely to doubt itself, given Romanticism’s influence. Contrary to Christian understandings of humanity’s sinful nature, eighteenth-century Geneva philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached the “total goodness of man,” Longenecker writes. Among other things, this means that the fallible “will of the majority is also automatically and essentially good.”

The fallen world has also infiltrated modern Christian communities, Longenecker observes:

The Hydra heads wear bishops’ miters, and the dragons are clothed in the rich robes of popular priests, the academic gowns of theology professors, the sober suits of Protestant pastors, and the sleek suits of prosperity-gospel preachers.

“Only by the light of our lives will we defeat the darkness. Debate and dialogue now are pointless. Our lives must be our argument,” Longenecker concludes. Therefore, Rod Dreher in his writings like The Benedict Option “has read the signs of the times and has called for local units of faith and family to be the depositories of Christian culture and the seedbed for renewal.” “We are conditioned to expect instant success, but this will not happen,” Longenecker wisely, yet reassuringly, warns of the struggle ahead. As with Saint Benedict, who did not live to see the fruits of the centuries-long civilizational renewal he initiated following the Roman Empire’s fall, and contrary to material atheists, an eternal “God plays a long game.”

Image: Sophia Institute Press

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