Dinesh D’Souza is a conservative Christian apologist who served as a policy analyst under the Reagan administration and is also a former Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Published in 2007, What’s So Great About Christianity is D’Souza’s response to the criticisms of the New Atheists, as well as a defense of Christianity. Some of his other books include What’s So Great About America (2002), The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (2007), Life After Death: The Evidence (2009), and The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010). D’Souza served as president of The King’s College until a scandal in late 2012 caused him to resign.
At the beginning of the book, we are offered D’Souza’s approach to interpreting the Bible. To call it bold and arrogant might be an understatement. D’Souza claims that he endeavors to “discover what [the Bible] actually states and means,” and he adamantly denies that this is biblical literalism, providing a list of the literary devices he finds in scripture. The obvious problem with this is that, by such a definition, no biblical literalists exist. Even those believers who take Genesis at face value recognize that the parables in the gospels are not intended to be true stories in the historical sense. Literalism does not mean one takes every single word of the Bible at the surface level without any thought.
In fact, one great example of literalism is a comment D’Souza makes on how the church fathers took the Exodus narrative to be both a description of an actual event and a sign of spiritual liberation. All literary devices are not dismissed under biblical literalism, they are simply used to derive a symbolic meaning from what is considered a true story. Though centuries of investigation have turned up nothing for evidence of the exodus from Egypt, literalists continue to believe the story is true, not merely because the Bible says so, but because their ‘analytical tools’ give them no reason for believing the passage to be purely allegorical in its intent. D’Souza’s approach to biblical interpretation is literalist, despite his attempt to transcend a label that might be harmful to his cultivated image as ‘objective’ scholar.
By contrast, D’Souza blasts liberal readings of scripture, calling them “cafeteria Christianity,” even stating that such an approach is worse than literalism. “At the least the literalist is trying to learn from scripture,” he says. “The cafeteria Christian simply projects his or her prejudices onto the text”.1 It’s hard to imagine a remark more hypocritically prejudiced than this baseless attack on liberal interpretation of the Bible. Although I am also an outspoken critic of the cherry-picking that some liberal Christians do with scripture, I would not be so bigoted as to assume that these individuals have no desire to learn from the Bible. The fact is that all Christians cherry-pick scripture because everyone has an interpretation, and the 66 books that compose the Bible do not all agree on every detail. Can one not learn from the Bible while separating out history from metaphor, morality from theology, and so forth?
Most amusingly, D’Souza claims to have an interpretation of scripture that is neither liberal nor literal, but “contextual.” Of course, both liberal and conservative Christians believe their approach is contextual, so this assurance from the author is meaningless, but D’Souza wants to have his cake and eat it, too. It’s difficult for one to play the role of a skeptic or an honest and objective investigator while holding to a doctrine of literalism that will be seen as an a priori assumption. It’s also difficult to play that role coming from a liberal standpoint that might be criticized as dismissive or arbitrary. ‘Well, then,’ D’Souza says, ‘I’m going to put myself above these terms and avoid all the hard work of defending my approach. No one will object to a contextual angle.’
D’Souza’s delusion of objectivity will quickly unravel once he starts appealing to scripture, but suspicions arise even from the preface, where he declares that atheists “want to monopolize the public square and expel Christians from it” (p. xv). Although this might be true of some of the more hot-headed atheists, many non-theists enjoy polite debate and discussion with believers, and would much rather see religion phase itself out peacefully over the course of time than be forcefully excluded from public life. But D’Souza has already set up atheism as his arch-nemesis, and so little things like facts can’t be allowed to get in the way. Objectivity, get thee hence!
Part I: The Future of Christianity
1 – The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of Christianity
In the first four chapters, D’Souza focuses on the prosperity of religion, particularly Christianity, and its reaction to criticism. From page one, he pronounces the failure of Nietzsche’s famous declaration of the death of god, and returns with the tired old cliche that Nietzsche is dead. Like many Christians, D’Souza doesn’t seem to have grasped what Nietzsche meant when he declared god to be dead, for he thinks the statement is proven false by statistics about the growth of religion. For Nietzsche, “God is dead” signified the collapse of theistic absolutes, namely Christian presumptions about truth and morality. Rather than a statement demanding universal acknowledgment, it primarily addresses the non-theist, presenting the challenge of finding values and meaning outside of religion. Nietzsche even predicted that the majority of the world would not recognize the death of god because of fear or angst.
Throughout the first chapter, numerous references to the decline of secularism are made, with little to no citation or sourcing. Apparently D’Souza sees the conflict between religion and secularism as a popularity contest, one which religion is obviously winning. Does this mean that religion meets some concerns which are not met by secularism? Sure it does. Religion sells a pre-packaged bill of goods, complete with a sense of purpose, comfort, and morality. Secularism is not about comfort, it doesn’t offer transcendent purpose, and it has no single inherent moral system. What D’Souza misses, though, is that secularism is not synonymous with atheism, nor is it the enemy of religious belief. To live the secular life is to live with a practical focus on human affairs. One can advocate for secular ethics or secular government, yet retain belief in god, as did a number of the American founders.
While religion offers things secularism cannot, secularism offers things that pure religion cannot. Your freedom to believe one religious claim often means you have freedom to not believe another; freedom from religion is essential to the free exercise of religion. Thus, the best course of action for government to take is to separate itself from religion. Political secularism strives for co-existence, not the annihilation of faith, and so ‘winning’ a kind of competition is not even the goal. Fundamentalist Christianity, on the other hand, has made converting others almost as important as having a relationship with Jesus, and so it’s no wonder that its adherents, like D’Souza, see nearly everything as a battle for control. Dinesh is right to say that religion offers things that secularism does not, but he misses the other side of the coin: secularism offers each religion the chance to offer those things it promises without interruption or interference from the others.
Why is secularism not as popular as religion? Because of people like D’Souza who misunderstand secularism and fear that the ultimate goal is no less than the suppression of religious faith from every corner of public and private life, leading to its eventual destruction. There are also those who would genuinely prefer an oppressive theocracy to a secular democracy. Do these individual concerns mean that secularism is somehow less valuable than a theocratic state? Not at all. D’Souza may have statistics on his side, but he misinterprets their meaning, fails to grasp the concept and usefulness of secularism for religion, and he ignores the testimony of history against religiously-controlled regimes.
2 – Survival of the Sacred: Why Religion is Winning
Moving on from social preference, our author turns to evolutionary preference in chapter two. Does religion serve an evolutionary purpose? D’Souza does not seem to distinguish biological evolution from evolutionary psychology, or what is known as memetics. As an idea or belief, religion is not tied to our genes, and so its popularity would not necessarily mean that religion has been ‘selected for’ because it aids in our reproduction or survival. Memes, the psychological versions of genes, are taken to propagate themselves to the benefit of the host, and this perceived benefit need not be physical. Aaron Lynch postulated that Christianity’s promise of heaven or hell is a powerful incentive to spread the meme of Christian belief, but Christianity also has many other methods of meme transmission.2 It is important to note, however, that memetics is often a speculative field, having little hard evidence that corroborates it at the moment. For one who rejects memetics, the prosperity of religion may have no evolutionary implications at all.
We have evolved to the point where natural selection no longer holds unbreakable sway over our species. So when D’Souza brings up martyrdom or the lower numbers of children among atheists, his suggestions truly are misplaced. With minds capable of problem-solving and analyzing consequences, we are now in a state of self-selection most of the time. We choose our mates, we choose the activities that may put us in harm’s way, or keep us out of it, and we have devised ways of reshaping our habitats so that the environment no longer always dictates our survival. This means that propagating our genes is not our ultimate concern anymore, for though we may retain that primal instinct, we are capable of overcoming it. D’Souza’s conclusion that religion thrives “because it helps people to adapt and survive in the world” (p. 18) is not necessarily true, under biological evolution or evolutionary psychology. In fact, we have reasons to suspect it is even plain false.
The same goes for atheism. There is nothing about atheism being a minority position that tells us whether it aids in survival or adversely affects it. If atheists eventually grow to outnumber religious believers, there will still be nothing about the expansion that can tell us that atheism has an evolutionary advantage. Religion may be winning the popularity contest for any multitude of reasons, such as the comfort it brings, the ready-made social group it often features, the abundance of fear in a culture due to a crisis of some sort, and so on. D’Souza does not provide any objection to these possibilities, nor does he try to link them to evolutionary advantage in any way. Because of this, his conclusion is left as one big gaping assertion with no basis of support.
3 – God is Not Great: The Atheist Assault on Religion
For the third chapter, D’Souza presents a summary of several atheist positions on religion. Actually, a more accurate way to put it would be that D’Souza presents a summary of one position on religion, espoused by several atheists. Of course, that position is anti-religious, in keeping with D’Souza’s own agenda. There are many atheists who are not anti-religious, but you won’t find them mentioned in What’s So Great About Christianity, because the intent is to portray atheism as the arch-nemesis, or great enemy, of religion. Despite using a cherry-picked sample of atheists, D’Souza does offer the opinions of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and others without much distortion in this chapter. In fact, the overwhelming majority of it is spent summarizing and quoting atheists, with little interjection by D’Souza. However, there are still a few problems worth focusing on here.
One of these problems is the second misconstrual of Nietzsche that D’Souza has committed in less than 30 pages. The German philosopher is depicted as endorsing the right of the greater man “to subdue and crush the inferior man” (p. 27). Although Nietzsche developed the concept of the Ubermensch, or Over-man (a more accurate translation than “greater man”), he did not develop any notion of an Untermensch, or under/inferior man, aside from using the term for mythical humanoid creatures such as dwarves, centaurs, and so forth. The Over-man is also envisioned more as a goal for humanity, such that one becomes an Over-man by achieving their full potential. Nowhere in Nietzsche’s writings is there talk of the Over-man crushing an archetypal inferior man under his heel. D’Souza’s inclusion of this unsourced distortion may be to set up a line of thought that will be evoked in chapter nineteen during discussion of Nazism.
A second problem worth mentioning is how D’Souza attempts to portray atheism as some sort of secret ideology:
He almost gets it right here, but then quickly makes a 180-degree turn back to nonsense. Atheism is an ideology, he tries to tell us, but his only argument for this is that there are “hints” of what he considers religious sensibility, found in statements about the grandeur of science and the natural world. By this rationale, music is also a secret ideology, because some people experience awe and wonder while listening to their favorite bands. Ideologies are much more than warm and fuzzy feelings, and D’Souza is only abusing the term by conjuring it up here in so inappropriate a case. His conflation of concepts like a worldview and a philosophy with ideology is suspect as well, since there is an all too familiar pejorative sense of the term “ideology.”
Then D’Souza drops a bombshell on his readers. “[T]he best way to understand this ideology,” he claims, “is to consult the most villainous character in the Christian story” (p. 29). Yes, atheists are just like Satan in terms of ideology. What Dinesh really means is that we like the idea of an independent struggle against a tyrannical dictator, and we approach our fate guided not by blind faith, but by the “flame of reason.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with the subtext of this, the association with Satan is a blatant propaganda tactic. In light of what D’Souza says, would not the character of Prometheus be a better analogy? Why Satan? Because D’Souza knows that Satan carries a particular connotation in most of the world – that of a destructive and malevolent force bent on corrupting humankind. Though he may truly believe this is what atheism is, his comparison is far from objective or fair. It’s an underhanded attempt to lead his readers to a conclusion about the ‘real’ motivation behind atheism.
4 – Miseducating the Young: Saving Children from Their Parents
Chapter four is a major shift in tone and tempo, where D’Souza makes his modus operandi unmistakably clear. From the very first sentence, he declares that “atheists are not content with committing cultural suicide – they want to take your children with them” (p. 31). This rings familiar to the blood libel of the medieval ages, when Christians used to charge Jews with kidnapping and killing Christian babies in grotesque rituals. D’Souza’s warning to parents in this chapter is nothing short of sheer fundamentalist paranoia. As he explains:
You think your children made up their own minds to walk away from faith after entering college? Wrong! Your children weren’t smart enough to have come to their own conclusions, nor were they strong enough to withstand the challenges posed to them by university professors. The only explanation is that they must have been brainwashed by an elite conspiracy of liberal educators aiming specifically to destroy your child’s religious beliefs. Why would these teachers and educators do such a thing? Because they’re atheists, and an atheist – just like Satan – is out to eradicate religion wherever it’s found. So pray… and fear for your children, parents!
Dramatic phrasing aside, D’Souza’s argument certainly plays to the emotions of his Christian readers. What is his evidence for this conspiracy against your children? Well, Richard Dawkins once did a series of Christmas lectures for children, called Growing Up in the Universe, and they’re now available on DVD (p. 33-34). No, lord, say it ain’t so! D’Souza claims the DVDs promote Dawkins’ “secular and naturalistic philosophy,” but no specific examples are provided. Are these videos shown in colleges across the planet? Just how does D’Souza think this supports his paranoid thesis?
Another claim is that Daniel Dennett advocates teaching religion as a “purely natural phenomenon,” which D’Souza translates to teaching religion “as if untrue” (p. 34). But is this really what Dennett means? We are given a quote from Dennett, where he says that religion is “a human phenomenon composed of events, organisms, objects, structures, patterns.” Certainly this is true of religion, whether or not one believes it to also be anything more. Religion is something humans experience, and when we study religion, this is all that can be studied objectively. It doesn’t mean that the study of religion treats religion as if it’s untrue, but it simply means that perception is inescapable, and because of this it’s best to deal in terms of experience, rather than making controversial judgments about ‘true religion.’
Next, D’Souza moves on to Sam Harris, who he says “argues that [atheism] should be taught as a mere extension of science and logic” (p. 34). The only source we’re given for this characterization of Harris’ views is a quote from Letter to a Christian Nation. However, this quote seems very unrelated to D’Souza’s use of it, because there is nothing in it, or in the surrounding context, about teaching atheism as part of science and logic. I provide my own quote of this below, with D’Souza’s excerpt highlighted in bold:
The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence – and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl – even once in a million years – casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.3
As we can see from the full context, Harris is not saying anything about teaching atheism as an extension of science or logic. He may imply that atheism is such an extension, but it is disingenuous of D’Souza to put words into the mouth of Harris, when Harris has said nothing here about his opinions on teaching. This is the third instance we see of a very poor attempt to justify a preconceived conclusion about an anti-religious agenda in the higher education system. Worse yet, these three men (Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris) do not speak for all university educators, even if their views are exactly what D’Souza says they are. There are many liberal teachers who disagree vibrantly with the opinions of the New Atheists.
But D’Souza really loses the benefit of a doubt in two further ways. First, he claims that there is a “well-organized movement to promote Darwinism and exclude alternatives [that] is part of a larger educational project in today’s public schools” (p. 32). No evidence of this is presented. Not a single source. From there, D’Souza moves on to the three atheists already covered. Though it was not yet out by the publication of What’s So Great About Christianity, D’Souza’s statement immediately calls to mind the film Expelled, which has been thoroughly exposed as the piece of deceptive propaganda it is by numerous critics, including myself. Secondly, Dinesh explains that another strategy for crushing your child’s religion is using “the vehicle of adolescent sexuality” (p. 36). Holding up this assertion is nothing but one quote from an unnamed agnostic D’Souza spoke to once upon a time.
In summary, chapter four offers absolutely nothing that serves as legitimate support for D’Souza’s alarmist claims. Being an ex-Evangelical myself, I know that there has been widespread concern for years over the transformation from belief to disbelief that many college students undergo. Yet chalking the reason up to some mysterious and evil cabal of atheist professors is not only a wild conspiracy theory completely lacking in any evidence, it also greatly underestimates and insults the intelligence and resolve of our college students. Parents, if you have such a low opinion of your own child, then perhaps you should turn the critical eye on yourselves to see why your son or daughter has not consulted you on matters of belief.
Part II: Christianity and the West
5 – Render Unto Caesar: The Spiritual Basis of Limited Government
Having argued for the success of religion in the popularity contest, and having warned parents of the dangers of higher education for their college-aged children, D’Souza proceeds to outline the achievements of Western culture which he believes are rooted in Christianity. What would we have, he asks, without the Christianity that inspired Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Handel, and Mozart? Quite obviously, I think, we can’t really say. Certainly there have been many great artists and composers who found inspiration apart from religion, so we would not be justified in presuming that Christianity is necessary to have wonderful masterpieces of art and music. D’Souza claims that: “Nowhere has human aspiration reached so high or more deeply touched the heart and spirit than in the works of Christian art, architecture, literature, and music” (p. 44). This is a highly subjective statement, but the real issue here is that D’Souza bewails the thought that some of his favorite works might not exist without Christianity. Yet how would we miss what would never exist? Who knows what could have been produced that might equal or even exceed the beauty of religious works?
D’Souza’s main focus in chapter five is to argue that limited government is an idea with its origins in Christianity. As he states, “there are some things even elected governments cannot control” (p. 49). But does such a simplistic and easily observable truth have to originate from Christianity? There is no reason I can imagine for assuming so, and Dinesh doesn’t bother to give us an argument for it, either. His notion is especially suspect given the existence of many Christian governments that were not limited in power, as D’Souza himself notes (p. 50-51). If Christianity does not guarantee limited government, then why think that it is necessary for limited government? Our author does attempt a little whitewashing of the ‘big government’ Christian theocracies by implying that they were confused about the difference between Christianity and Christendom, but this won’t get Christianity off the hook.
The main thrust of D’Souza’s argument is not just history, but scripture, particularly Matthew 22:21, which instructs to, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.” You will recall that D’Souza blasted “cafeteria Christians” in the introduction for cherry-picking their Bibles, and now it’s time for D’Souza to eat some crow. When we compare Matthew 22:21 to Romans 13, we find that god’s answer on limited government is anything but clear. “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,” Romans 13:1 states, “for there is no authority except that which God has established.” “Consequently,” verse two continues, “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” In Romans 13 we learn that obedience to government is obedience to god, because god has put the elected leaders in their positions of authority. If our ancestors had really observed the teaching of this passage, they might never have rebelled to establish limited government in the first place.
Limited government may have come out of a country with a predominantly Christian populace, but this does not mean it is based on Christian principles. Even if his assumptions were correct, D’Souza’s appeal to acknowledge and respect the Christian origins of small government as more than just an heirloom is a ludicrous request. Since democracy has its origins in pagan Greece, should we acknowledge and respect Greek polytheism as more than just an heirloom? There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the heritage of ideas, but the ideas themselves are what matter most, not the mode of their transmission, which may, more often than not, be entirely incidental.
Coming to the Revolutionary Era, D’Souza claims that the founders “in no way denied the Christian foundations of the American experiment” (p. 52). This is in stark contradiction to Article XI from the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by our founding father and third president John Adams. “[T]he Government of the United States of America,” the document reads, “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.4 D’Souza bemoans that “freedom for religious expression has become freedom from religious expression,” yet we are not provided with any specific examples of this suggested trampling of religious freedoms. I suspect this is because D’Souza, like so many right-wing Christians, has mistaken religious freedom for the freedom to proselytize at any cost. Religious expression is still very much alive in America. Student prayer has not been taken out of schools, religious beliefs are not somehow being kept out of politics… without listing examples of these infringements on religious liberty, it’s impossible to imagine what D’Souza means and whether or not his idea of what constitutes a right is actually a right.
6 – The Evil That I Would Not: Christianity and Human Fallibility
In chapters six and seven, D’Souza goes through a grocery list of things that he credits to Christianity. Among these in chapter six are the “dignity of fallible human beings,” the value of the underdog, the traditional family, marriage, consent between husband and wife, servant-like leaders, capitalism, progress, and compassion. If it seems like D’Souza merely pulls this assortment out of his undignified fallible end, it’s because he more or less does. As an example, he claims that the underdog, or common man, was not held with much esteem in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (p. 56). The obvious ‘origin’ of the value of the underdog, according to D’Souza, is in Jesus Christ. However, there are figures from pre-Christian myths who show a similar triumph in the face of adversity. Hephaestus managed to be the only god to return to Olympus after being cast down by Hera because he was crippled and considered ugly. The story of David and Goliath, though Christians have incorporated it within their history, is another example of a positive, pre-Christian take on the underdog.
D’Souza’s focus seems to be exclusively on Greece and Rome when he claims that Christianity can take credit for some practice. If Greece and Rome don’t match Christianity, then Christianity is the origin in his mind. Yet D’Souza’s emphasis on traditional marriage and the importance of family are present in Confucianism, and one can hardly say that Christians were the earliest forward-thinking persons when the Greeks, despite believing in world-cycles, also spoke of progress (Plato even draws an outline of human progress in The Statesman). Other examples provided, such as compassion and capitalism, are arguably at odds with the Christianity taught in the New Testament.
The claim that Christianity is responsible for capitalism is accompanied by no scripture, only by the vague notion that “channel[ing] selfish human desire toward the betterment of society” is a Christian assumption (p. 62). D’Souza may have it half right. Christianity does appear concerned with ‘improving’ society, in its own twisted way, but does it pursue that goal by utilizing human selfishness? How can it when selfish desires are discouraged in Christianity (1 Corinthians 10:24, Philippians 2:21, Romans 15:1)? In fact, when we turn to the bible, we find the opposite of the self-centered capitalism that D’Souza describes, we actually find what looks more like socialism:
Acts 5:1-11 tells the disturbing story of a couple that is killed by god for holding back some of their money from the communal fund. Clearly, there’s no room for selfishness in Christianity, and no room for capitalism as a consequence. Perhaps this is why D’Souza neglects to cite any Bible verses in support of his claim. On a related note, where is this Christian compassion in the murder of Ananias and Sapphira? The two are not lovingly rebuked, for Peter flat out accuses Ananias of lying to god and being overcome by Satan. After being scolded by the apostle, each one simply dies on the spot. The love of Christ covers all indeed.
7 – Created Equal: The Origin of Human Dignity
For chapter seven, D’Souza proceeds to credit Christianity with the developments of equality and human rights, focusing primarily on the liberation of women and slaves. I have written my own separate articles analyzing each of these issues (Women in the Bible and Christianity and Slavery), so I will not rehash much of that material here. D’Souza admits that some Christians did use scripture to justify pro-slavery views (p. 70), and there are also verses that were doubtlessly used for the subjugation of women (1 Timothy 2:11-13, 1 Peter 3:1-7). We often see this perplexing double standard in D’Souza’s claims, where he acknowledges the attitudes of other Christians that clashed with his ‘heroic’ Christians, and yet he chooses to ignore their objections and give Christianity all the credit for an issue based solely on one half of the debate. Let’s draw an analogy to make this absurdity clear.
Suppose I tell you that men were responsible for ending slavery and for liberating women. While I accept the fact that there were many men who advocated slavery and wanted women to remain second class citizens to their husbands, I also point out that there were lots of men who did oppose slavery and encourage women’s rights. Would I be justified in ignoring all these pro-slavery, anti-woman males to make the argument that men were responsible for abolitionism and women’s liberation? Not remotely. And what of the women who participated in these movements? Is it right to overlook them, even if (we presume) their numbers were lesser? I would argue that such an arrogant claim of responsibility is insulting to women and unfairly dismisses all those who held contrary views.
D’Souza’s attempt to give Christianity the responsibility for abolitionism and women’s liberation is no less insulting or unfair. It is insulting to all the non-Christians who denounced slavery (Muslims, Jews, and even non-theists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert G. Ingersoll), and it is unfair to the Christians who opposed abolitionism and women’s rights. Some might say that the beliefs of the liberator Christians came directly from Christianity itself, whereas the beliefs of the oppressor Christians did not, but this is just not demonstrable. As already shown in various instances, the Bible can offer support for either side of an issue, because it was composed by different men each writing with different agendas. Since D’Souza rarely uses scripture to attribute these ideas to Christianity, and he frequently mentions movements led by Christian persons, without explaining which Christians on what side have it right, there is quite literally nothing connecting D’Souza’s assertions.
Another thing that Dinesh seems to miss is the fact that, for most of the time periods he discusses, Christians were the predominant force in the world. Would a Muslim or atheist of the 19th century have been successful in persuading a Christian to give up slavery? Not likely. Is it truly some wonderful feat, then, that certain Christians had to convince other Christians to change their minds about these issues, when Christians outnumbered everyone else? Hardly. One should also not forget that the Atlantic slave trade did not emerge out of an atheistic or secular society, but out of Christian Europe. This is not to say that Christianity bears responsibility for slavery, of course, but that abolitionism, if it was a Christian solution, came as the response to a problem that was just as much a Christian problem.
If we’re to believe D’Souza, then the end of Christianity in the West would spell the end of equality and human rights. However, these ideas may be found in a simple line of ethical thinking that pre-dates Christianity and Judaism by many centuries. The golden rule teaches us to treat others as we want to be treated, to not do what we would not want done to us. Such consideration for our fellow human beings does not depend on any god or any religious creed. Thus, the golden rule itself constitutes a powerful objection to both of D’Souza’s assertions about the origins of equality and the future of morality without the Christian faith. Nietzsche feared the collapse of Christian values would lead to nihilism, but he did not leave it there. In the absence of Christianity, we are still capable of re-evaluating our values to arrive at a new morality. D’Souza fears this new morality will be un-Christian, and indeed it will, at least in the sense that Yahweh and Jesus are made obsolete. But the ideas of human rights and equality will survive, strengthened by their independence from a god that steals away our rights at will and rewards and punishes us inequitably.
Part III: Christianity and Science
8 – Christianity and Reason: The Theological Roots of Science
“The way to see by faith,” Benjamin Franklin said, “is to shut the eye of reason.”5 This sentiment is also heard from the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:7, where he declares, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” According to Dinesh D’Souza, however, these men are simply wrong. Christianity, he argues, was based on reason from the very beginning (p. 84). How does he figure this? D’Souza claims that Christianity is about creed, and theologians are charged with using reason to understand the things of god. Although this is fairly true for the medieval era, from whence D’Souza derives his two examples, it’s not clear that Christianity was always that way (it certainly hasn’t stayed that way). A look at the earliest accessible accounts of Christian doctrine – those in the New Testament – shows us a different picture.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Christianity has arguably never been that focused on reason. Human modes of thinking are discouraged in scripture, and only thoughts that conform to the narrow box of faith are tolerable (2 Corinthians 10:5). Reason is based on experience that includes our five senses, but we see such things frequently derided in the Bible, as in Paul’s declaration of walking by faith instead of sight, the warning to “lean not on your own understanding” in Proverbs 3:5, and many other passages that stress strict and blind obedience to god in place of human reason. Paul admits that the ways of Christianity are considered “foolishness” by the rest of the world, because they are discerned spiritually, not by reason (1 Corinthians 2:14-15).
At several points in chapter eight, D’Souza makes demonstrably ridiculous claims about Christianity’s uniqueness among other religions. There are “no theologians in Hinduism and Buddhism,” he states (p. 84). In fact, Hinduism has a long-standing tradition of theologians going back to the medieval ages and before, with figures like Ramanuja Acharya, Adi Shankara, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who each contributed varying ideas about the nature of the Hindu deities, the relationship of the human and the divine, and other markedly theological concepts. Buddhism, as a non-theistic religion, doesn’t really have a “theos,” or god, on which to structure a theology, but some Buddhist scholars have nonetheless argued for a Buddhist theology. What D’Souza aims to get at, though, is the uniqueness of Christian theology in its use of reason.
To make his case, our author calls upon the medieval Christian theologians Anselm and Aquinas. Aquinas’ cosmological argument is used as one example of reason within Christianity. Put simply, the cosmological argument postulates that every thing that exists has a cause, and since the universe exists, the universe must have a cause. D’Souza briefly mentions one objection of the New Atheists: that god should not be exempt from requiring a cause. Dinesh attempts to knock down this rebuttal by saying that Aquinas’ argument only applies to things that exist “in the universe” (p. 86), and because god exists outside of the universe, there is no need for god to have a cause.
There are two significant problems with D’Souza’s response. First of all, since causality implies time, a cause outside of our space-time universe makes little sense. If Aquinas’ argument truly applies only to what exists in this universe, then it can’t possibly get us to where it intends. D’Souza uses the example of an author who “causes” some crisis among his characters in the fictional world of his making. Contrasting this to god, it is argued that god is like the author – a cause on a “different level.” But is the author of a story really causing discord among his characters? There is no event that I bring into being when I say that Jane slapped Michael. Rather, you understand this relationship of causality based on the words I use and their analogy to what we experience in the real world. The cause is illusory; only the words exist.
The second problem is with the contention that all things that exist must be caused. At the subatomic level, it is theorized that virtual particles can pop in and out of existence at random. Though some have questioned such bizarre science, there are observable effects to these particles, and their properties and consequences are well understood in quantum mechanics.6 More importantly, however, is the issue this sets up for an eternal god. If something that exists must have a cause, what is the cause of god? D’Souza might reply that god has always existed uncaused, but then why could this not be true of the universe itself? If there can be one uncaused thing that exists, the principle of causation should not be granted.
Moving on, D’Souza brings up Anselm’s ontological argument for god. According to the argument, we can imagine a being that is greater than anything else. Because it would be greater for this being to exist both in reality and the mind than only in the mind, it must be that this greatest imaginable being really exists, and it is god. I cover this claim more in-depth in my article on The Ontological Argument, so I will not focus on it much here. But I do want to point out one extremely presumptuous statement made by D’Souza. “[E]ven an atheist,” he says, “should have no problem” with Anselm’s idea of god as the greatest conceivable being (p. 87). Not so fast! It’s far from clear that any of us actually understand what the greatest conceivable being would be, and even a theist might agree on this.
A monk named Gaunilo, who lived in Anselm’s time, pointed out that understanding the concept of a perfect lost island would not mean the lost island must exist. Gaunilo also questioned our ability to understand such a perfect island, because even though we might think of an island with many riches, an abundance of food, and so forth, how do we know that what we’re thinking of is the most perfect island conceivable? And what if different people conceive of different degrees of perfection? Which person’s conception is closer to the truth? Interestingly, D’Souza does mention Gaunilo, but neglects to include any summary of his perfect island analogy.
Dinesh begins and ends the chapter with remarks about the uniqueness of Christianity in terms of science and reason. Science, “as an organized, sustained enterprise,” he explains, “arose only once in human history,” in medieval Christian Europe (p. 83). Note how D’Souza qualifies what he means by science. It’s not just the scientific method or the study of the natural world, but the “organized, sustained enterprise” of science. This is because D’Souza knows that Christians were definitely not the pioneers of science in those respects. He has to define science as a massive, collaborative effort in order to implicate Christianity as its origin. I would argue that this is quite irrelevant, though, because, once the foundations are laid, growth relies on little more than luck, persistence, and climate. If we should praise Christianity for promoting science into the widespread discipline it is today, then we ought to also praise the Roman Empire for promoting Christianity into the widespread belief it is today. Let’s see D’Souza advocate that!
For the final comment on this chapter, I want to address the assertion that reason and science are predominantly Christian. The heroes of medieval Christian Europe exalted by D’Souza were beat to the punch in many ways by Islamic thinkers. The 10th century Muslim scientist Alhazen experimented with optics and published a seven-volume work on the subject long before Newton. Avicenna, another 10th/11th century Muslim, wrote a cosmological argument for god that is strikingly similar to Aquinas’, but pre-dates his by a century or two. Some have also argued that it was the culture of Islamic Spain that gave Christian Europe its foundations for achievement after the Catholic Church finally reclaimed Spain.7 The Islamic Golden Age was itself fueled by the works of ancient Greeks like Aristotle and Plato. In short, Christianity’s progress was only one further step in a line of reason and science descending back several centuries, through different religions and cultures.
9 – From Logos to Cosmos: Christianity and the Invention of Invention
Chapter nine is another laundry list of noteworthy Christians, this one made up of men who contributed major scientific discoveries. D’Souza asks where modern science would be without the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and others. As with his musings about Christian art, there’s just no way of telling what might have happened without Christianity. Perhaps those men would have found some other source of inspiration? Perhaps we would have made those discoveries sooner, without the Catholic Church to impede controversial studies? We can speculate all we wish, but we cannot simply assume that modern science would have slowed to a halt, or even a crawl, if Christianity had never existed. Many of Isaac Newton’s contributions to chemistry were the result of his interest in alchemy. Does that mean that without alchemy we would have no modern chemistry? Does it mean we should revere alchemy, as D’Souza expects for Christianity? Who knows what other institutions could have arisen to promote science?
The only other claim worth addressing in chapter nine is the accusation of faith in a rational universe that is said to be at the heart of science (p. 91-92). D’Souza argues that the orderliness and sensibility of the universe is unprovable. This strikes me almost as a weird subset of solipsism. Though we are capable of observation, testing theories, making successful predictions, and other means of establishing coherent and largely reasonable explanations within science, D’Souza wants us to suppose that the scientific method and our experience might be illusory. Why? Just so that he can find something in science to label as faith, allowing him to flaunt it to the New Atheists, who rely so greatly on science in their criticisms of religion.
Science is about finding the most reliable way to study the world around us. The best method for investigating the natural realm in an objective manner is reason. Nothing else has come close. Supernatural explanations have succumbed to reason time and time again. When we interact with and study the world, we find that it responds in a rational way. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Continued observation has found this to be true – we have not seen an action with no reaction. If the universe were irrational, we might expect it to be unpredictable, incomprehensible, and unstructured. Yet this is not what we find. When we say the universe is rational, all we mean is that it appears to be directed by laws which are understandable to us. These laws are not prescriptive, like rules or commands, but they are descriptive – they are observed and interpreted by us.
Certainly our observations and interpretations can be inaccurate, and it may one day turn out that the universe is a lot less rational than we suppose. But until something overthrows it all, reason is currently the best way of understanding the world around us. To label it an article of faith would seem to inflate faith into a concept applicable to almost anything, and if that’s the case, one wonders at exactly how useful the concept really is. There is also a false equivalency here between faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving superbeing beyond the bounds of our universe and the kind of provisional faith we could be said to have in reason or science.
D’Souza’s universe is arguably not a rational one. His world is populated by invisible and immaterial beings that are somehow capable of affecting material reality. At certain moments in history, a being outside of our universe has reached into ours, disrupted the rational laws of the cosmos, and performed wild, unnatural effects that have no cause (remember that causality doesn’t exist outside time). These uncaused effects are called miracles, and among them are such things as raising the dead to life and stopping the sun in the sky. D’Souza’s view of the universe is not as rational as he’d like to think, because if the orderly function of the natural laws can be interrupted at any time by miracles, then the universe is truly unpredictable and can become unstructured in those moments. A space-time universe where timeless immaterial beings can pass through is also incomprehensible, it could be claimed. A world that features divine intervention is not the most rational world.
10 – An Atheist Fable: Reopening the Galileo Case
Have you heard the story about the Catholic Church persecuting Galileo for his crazy theory that the earth orbits the sun? If you have, Dinesh D’Souza is going to set you straight on the ‘real scoop’ that you may not have heard. In chapter ten, we get a defense of the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo. Yes, you read that right. D’Souza strives to dissolve the “myth” of a conflict between science and religion by exposing what really happened with the Galileo affair. Some of the things pointed out are correct, such as the fact that Galileo was never actually tortured, and that he never whispered under his breath, “Yet it moves,” after being made to recant. These myths are debunked by practically all serious scholars on the subject. D’Souza still manages to recast the story in a way that is not entirely accurate, however.
For context, let’s talk about Galileo. In Galileo’s time there were two competing astronomical models: geocentrism and heliocentrism. Geocentrism was the view that the earth is stationary and orbited by the sun. This view had held sway over most of the world for centuries, and was initially proposed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Heliocentrism argues that the sun is the stationary body, orbited by the earth and the other planets in our solar system. Copernicus had advanced this view with the publication of a book in 1543, and when Galileo’s improvements to the telescope gave him new observations of the cosmos, he rallied behind the Copernican theory. As heliocentrism began to acquire support, the Roman Inquisition decided to investigate the two models in 1615.
When the Inquisition received reports of Galileo’s involvement, Cardinal Bellarmine ordered him not to hold or defend the heliocentric position, and issued a certificate signed by the cardinal himself, explaining the agreement and exonerating Galileo of slander.8 The certificate states in no uncertain terms that heliocentrism “is contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore cannot be defended or held.” For several years, Galileo respected the cardinal’s order, until Pope Urban VIII ascended to the papacy. Before his election, the new pope had been a champion of Galileo’s work, and so Galileo felt the time was right to publish his argument in 1632. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was authorized by the Inquisition and the papacy, with Pope Urban VIII requesting a balanced presentation of both astronomical models, and also for his own opinion to be included.
Galileo honored the pope’s request for his opinion to be in the book, but did so in a discrete way. The dialogue of the text occurs between a heliocentrist figure, obviously modeled after Galileo, and a geocentrist critic named Simplicio, through whom the views of Pope Urban are espoused. D’Souza notes that Simplicio means “simpleton” in Italian, and the character seems to be portrayed as a fool in some of his questions and statements. However, what we are not told in D’Souza’s account is that Galileo himself explained in the preface of his book that Simplicio was modeled after Simplicius, a famous Aristotelian philosopher who advocated geocentrism. In fact, most historians believe this was Galileo’s true intent, that he was not arrogantly trying to embarrass the pope,9 as D’Souza implies.
At the ripe old age of 70, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and forced to recant his theory, under extensive interrogation and threat of torture.10 D’Souza agrees that the church should not have tried Galileo, but still seems willing to defend them. The factual inaccuracies in the Dialogue, the controversy with Simplicio and the pope, and the inclusion of Galileo’s opinions on scripture all testified against him, according to D’Souza (p. 108-109). Of course, these are no moral grounds for threatening someone into recanting their beliefs. D’Souza’s urge to downplay the role of religion in Galileo’s trial should tell us something about his agenda in What’s So Great About Christianity. While he attempts to disspell some imaginary atheist propaganda version of the tale, he offers a relatively whitewashed Christian version. But who was it that outlawed the belief in heliocentrism on scriptural grounds, and banned Galileo’s book until 1758?
Part IV: The Argument from Design
11 – A Universe with a Beginning: God and the Astronomers
For the next four chapters, D’Souza struggles to take on the argument from design. He begins boldly in chapter eleven, declaring his intentions to accept the challenge of E.O. Wilson, who said: “If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force… it would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time” (p. 115-116). This statement will be an important one as we look at the trail of premises with which D’Souza attempts to justify his predetermined conclusion. First among them is the suggestion that the Big Bang theory implies a beginning to the universe. Confirmed by general relativity, by Edwin Hubble’s famous observations, and by the presence of cosmic microwave background radiation, the Big Bang theory proposes that the universe expanded from an infinitely dense point, called a singularity, around 13.7 billion years ago. According to our author, this event was the beginning of the universe.
Now, D’Souza cannot take all the blame for the wrongfulness of this idea, because he does offer the statements of several scientists who also speak of the Big Bang as the origin, or beginning, of the universe. Unfortunately, scientists are not always clear in explaining advanced concepts, and they have been known to wax poetic on several occasions, including the misleadingly named “Mitochondrial Eve.” Yet D’Souza can be held accountable for failing to do his research, and he leaves out a significant part of modern Big Bang cosmology from his discussion of it.
When we trace back the expansion of space-time in the Big Bang, there is a point at which the universe is so small that general relativity is no longer useful in explaining things. Even by 1977, physicists had known of this problem, as Robert M. Wald explains:
In other words, we still don’t know if the universe has a beginning or not. We can get back to a moment in time where things were extremely, incredibly small, but we can’t yet say for sure what is beyond that time. Some have speculated that, once we are able to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity into a theory of quantum gravity, we will find a first point in time. Others have suggested that the singularity itself might be the result of some quantum mechanical effect, that time may be infinite after all. A third option would, of course, be that there is some entirely new explanation that is currently unknown to us. The main point here is that D’Souza is premature in declaring that a beginning of the universe has been scientifically demonstrated.
However, even if we proceed with D’Souza’s assertion, purely for the sake of argument, we can still see that he makes many hasty claims. One of these is that, “If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe had a nonmaterial or spiritual cause” (p. 116). Non-material things are conflated with spiritual things, but the two are not the same. Ideas and emotions are non-material, because they are not physical objects, and yet I think D’Souza would agree with me that socialism is not a spiritual thing, nor is sadness spiritual in itself. He might well believe that socialism and sadness can have a spiritual cause behind them, but this just goes to show that there is a distinct difference between what is non-material and what is considered spiritual. The notion that something may have an immaterial cause does not mean that the cause is also spiritual.
This leads to a great point about the problem of defining the spiritual and supernatural. D’Souza supposes that “supernatural” merely means non-natural, as in anything that is outside the natural universe (p. 126). What is a supernatural agent that acts in the natural world, then? Does an angel or demon become a natural being by entering the material plane? How else could it interact with our realm? Monists believe that the supernatural, rather than being non-natural, is another part of nature that is just not understood by methods like science and philosophy. The implication that anything outside nature is supernatural by fiat is a highly suspect one, and the understanding of spiritual is even worse, as it varies widely from person to person. If D’Souza wishes to claim that a cause outside our universe is supernatural in the way he has defined it, I won’t stop him. By these loose standards, some immaterial quantum weirdness could be the cause – something quite the opposite of D’Souza’s personal god. Of course, there still remains the difficulty in understanding how causality can exist outside of time, and for this paradox our author has offered no solution whatsoever.
D’Souza makes a few additional statements in chapter eleven that are worth critiquing. The Bible, he alleges, is “unique among the documents of ancient history in positing an absolute beginning” (p. 122). Once again, Dinesh appears to have little to no knowledge of other religions. Creation out of nothing is positing an absolute beginning to the universe, and many religions of antiquity, like the Egyptians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and some animistic Eastern groups, all had such creation accounts.12 D’Souza’s belief that the Bible speaks of six day “periods” in its creation account is not supported by the facts. The Hebrew word for “day” in the Genesis creation story is yovm, and although some liberal theologians have argued that the word can mean “age” or “years,” not just a literal 24-hour timespan, the instances of these alternate usages are reliant on derivative words (i.e. yamim or baiyamim), not simply yovm, as it is found in the Genesis account. D’Souza’s invocation of 2 Peter 3:8 is also arguably irrelevant, since it refers more specifically to how god experiences time, not how he represents it to his people in scripture.
To add one last criticism, our author claims that when god creates the light before the sun in Genesis, what we have is not actually a mistake, but a report about the “explosion of light” that was the Big Bang (p. 123). This sort of wishful thinking doesn’t really demonstrate anything about the intent of passages like Genesis 1:3. All it demonstrates is a deep-seated desire to find amazing and miraculous confirmation of one’s faith in the Bible. D’Souza says he accepts that the Bible is not a science textbook, but he simultaneously asks us to believe that it contains accurate scientific information written in by bronze age nomads, and only recently discovered by humanity in the last century or two. The sole argument he offers for this is similarity; light comes first in Genesis, light came first with the Big Bang. Once more, D’Souza fails to understand that apparent similarity is an insufficient basis to rest a conclusion on.
12 – A Designer Planet: Man’s Special Place in Creation
Chapter twelve invokes the anthropic principle to argue for the evidence of design in the universe. The anthropic principle is a philosophical statement about how observations of the universe are compatible with the conscious beings that observe it. D’Souza takes this principle to mean that the “entire universe with all its laws appears to be a conspiracy to produce, well, us” (p. 129). This is only one interpretation, however, and it’s not even the most common one. To see the other side of the coin, let’s turn to Douglas Adams:
As Adams explains, it is not that the universe is tailor-made to fit us, but rather that we are tailor-made to fit the universe. The puddle of water ignores the more likely alternative that it formed according to the specifications of the hole, and D’Souza and other design advocates ignore the fact that the universe’s conditions are what formed us. None of the examples used about the habitable zone, the strength of gravity, or other fine-tuning parameters (as they’re sometimes called) even need to be discussed, because D’Souza has reversed the implications of the anthropic principle completely back-asswards.
Dinesh mischaracterizes this position as “luck”; all the fine-tuning parameters just happened to be what they are. But this is an extremely dishonest portrait of the alternative, and our author knows it. D’Souza is well aware that the New Atheists think evolution accounts for much of the appearance of adaptation in our world. It is not blind chance that steered the development of human beings, but a process of natural selection aimed at assisting in survival. D’Souza forgets that most of our own planet is uninhabitable, covered by water and ice. If we were to venture into many parts of the world without the technologies we’ve created to adapt to certain environments, we would die in a short time. Outside of this little planet, the chance of surviving without technology is zero. Does it really seem like the universe is fit to our existence, or that we’re fit to the universe in only one small portion of one small planet within the grand scope of things?
It took no less than nine billion years in the history of the universe before the earth was formed. Our emergence on the scene is a tiny fraction of the 4.5 billion years the earth has been around for. If a grand designer was behind the creation of the universe, and his primary focus on creating it was for us to exist in it, then why wait so unimaginably long? The universe was in no hurry to bring us into being. D’Souza wants to pretend that the conditions that eventually developed and allowed for our formation somehow point to a benevolent designer that’s looking out for humanity. But in reality, we are the only ones who have ever kept a vigilant eye. Now that we live in luxury with our air conditioning, medicine, and cars, thanks to untold millennia of toil and suffering on the part of our ancestors, we look around and arrogantly proclaim that it’s all been made for us? So much for Christian humility.
13 – Paley was Right: Evolution and the Argument from Design
If you found Dinesh D’Souza lying down in the middle of a forest, would you think that nature made the D’Souza, or that an intelligent designer had designed and placed him there? Personally, I would assume that D’Souza grew from the weeds in the forest, fashioned by evolution into some bizzare plant monster like we read of in science fiction. The watchmaker argument of William Paley is the subject of chapter thirteen. The argument, put briefly, supposes that if we find a watch in a forest, we will recognize it as the product of design, based on the complexity and order evident in the watch. D’Souza only addresses one objection: that evolution makes the design argument superfluous.
First of all, I have to commend our author for a change, because he offers a relatively decent explanation of the evidence for evolution, and also contends that evolution does not have to be incompatible with religion. However, D’Souza draws a distinction between evolution and “Darwinism,” the latter of which he defines as “a metaphysical stance and political ideology” (p. 152). In support of the distinction, he quotes a number of biologists on the subject of evolution’s implications about religion. To be sure, there are many who believe that evolution and religion are incompatible, but does that really constitute a metaphysical and political ideology, as D’Souza suggests? Creationists believe the two are incompatible, often for some of the same reasons that “Darwinists” do. While there may be individuals who are ideologically driven on both sides of the debate, D’Souza’s concept of Darwinism is vague and weakly supported.
As one example, consider the ‘limits’ delineated for evolution. Darwin’s theory cannot explain the origin of life, the origin of the first cell, consciousness, or rationality, D’Souza claims. “Any theory that cannot account for these landmark stages,” he says, “can hardly claim to have solved the problem of origins, either of life or of the universe” (p. 150). According to Dinesh, this is where the New Atheists make their unwarranted assumptions and expose their Darwinistic ideology. The problem is, however, only in D’Souza’s mind, because evolution does not need to account for these things. Evolution is a theory on the diversity of life, and questions about the origins of life and the universe are handled by another theory called abiogenesis. That evolution may not currently have an absolute understanding of consciousness or rationality is hardly relevant either, since one can conceive of many possibilities for how they aid in our survival.
D’Souza says he’s not posing a god of the gaps fallacy, but that he wants to avoid “atheism of the gaps,” which he explains as the belief that a natural explanation for an unknown phenomenon is forthcoming (p. 150). This mock retort is so full of absurdity that I don’t quite know where to begin. I guess for starters I can point out that ANY religious believer can believe that a natural explanation will eventually be found for consciousness. If human beings could have evolved from ancestral apes and still be considered part of god’s plan, why can’t we have evolved consciousness and still be considered part of god’s plan? The fact that a theist could accept the likelihood of a natural explanation eviscerates D’Souza’s unimaginative wordplay of “atheism of the gaps.” Now for a lesson on why god-of-the-gaps arguments are a fallacy.
The god of the gaps argument is a form of the argument from ignorance – it points to some current gap in our understanding of the natural world and then declares that “god did it” must be the explanation. The flaw is not with venturing to speculate, but with making an unwarranted assumption. Atheists who believe that some unexplained phenomenon will eventually be explained naturally are not just making a blind guess. Natural explanations have many times supplanted supernatural ones, but never the other way around. Then there is the evidence of great apes and dolphins that show the signs not just of consciousness, but even of metacognition.14 God of the gaps reasoning is fallacious because it makes the unwarranted assumption that a deity must be behind what we don’t understand. When we’re dealing with the things of nature, it is not unwarranted to suppose that a natural explanation may be found.
Finally, let’s look again at Paley’s design argument. I might agree with D’Souza that evolution does not entirely undermine design, because one could still claim that the mechanism of natural selection itself is complex and orderly in a way that implies design. There are, however, other objections that do undermine Paley’s argument, and none of these receive any attention from D’Souza in the book. The most obvious of these is that Paley commits a fallacy in his analogy known as begging the question. A watch is a designed object by definition, so Paley (perhaps unwittingly) assumes the truth of his conclusion in the premise of watch. It is for this reason that we recognize the watch as designed, not because of its complexity or orderliness, as Paley believes.
Following on that last thought, the major undemonstrated assumption behind the design argument is that complexity and order imply design. Nature gives birth to complex and ordered things all the time, though, such as snowflakes and crystals. We don’t automatically think some being had to have designed them, and this is because design is a concept present in a mind, not something inherent to certain objects. What intelligent design advocates point to are the effects of design, but design itself is a cause. Order and complexity are ideas we use to express the sorts of design plans we formulate, while disorder and simplicity are usually defined as what is not commonly in keeping with our plans. Thus, design proponents cannot argue for the effects of design in the universe without first demonstrating their assumption that a mind exists which has designed these effects. Otherwise, all we have is the mere appearance of design, and, as it’s often said, looks can be deceiving.
14 – The Genesis Problem: The Methodological Atheism of Science
The fourteenth chapter is another puzzlingly mixed bag of claims. While D’Souza states that there is a “dogmatic” aspect of modern science that has led to the denial of empirical evidence based on fear of supernatural implications (p. 157-158), he also says he understands and approves of the methodological naturalism employed in science (p. 161-162). Not surprisingly, no sources or citations are given for the former statement, so once again, D’Souza seems to trust that we’ll just take his word for it. Yet the quotes he provides to argue that atheist scientists are out to deny all supernatural implications are weak and highly suspect.
It’s particularly ironic that D’Souza mocks the view of Francis Crick that aliens seeded life to Earth (p. 159). Aliens are at least a real plausibility, whereas D’Souza’s alternative is that an unverifiable being that lives beyond our universe created us. Crick’s idea is a hypothesis, but D’Souza’s isn’t even that. Secondly, it is suggested that Richard Dawkins thinks “absence of evidence is itself proof that the theory [of evolution] is correct” (p. 159). D’Souza refers to Dawkins’ explanation of how the perceived gaps in the fossil record are actually what we should expect to find with evolution. Even William Lane Craig has noted that absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when we should expect to find evidence of something. This means that if we should not expect to find a complete fossil record, then Dawkins is justified in his statement and D’Souza is mistaken.
But more importantly, our author seems to have engaged in some misleading quote mining. Here is the actual quote from Dawkins, with a bit more context:
D’Souza omits the quote markings around “gaps,” and fails to explain that this passage is part of a discussion on the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins is not admitting to any gaps in the modern fossil record, but only to the appearance of gaps in Darwin’s time, before we found many of the transitional forms we have since discovered. Far from basing his argument on “absence of evidence,” Dawkins offers two good reasons for why some regions don’t have many intermediate fossils: (i) evolution happens rapidly at times, according to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and (ii) most of the fossils we find in one specific location are from migrations, not the evolution of local species. With this quote back in the proper context, we can plainly see that D’Souza misrepresents Dawkins. Interestingly, no page number is given for the quote in What’s So Great About Christianity. D’Souza seems to be no fan of readers checking his sources.
One admittedly disturbing quote in the chapter that does appear to be legitimate is a comment from Richard Lewontin, that scientists are “forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation” and “that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door” (p. 161). As Lewontin sees it, scientists apparently have a duty to defend metaphysical naturalism for the sake of keeping supernatural explanations out of science. Although I believe methodological naturalism is all that’s necessary to science, I can sympathize with the concern about religion infiltrating it. Even so, Lewontin does overexaggerate the importance of this, and he is known for being a man of strong opposition, not only to supernaturalism, but even to genetic determinism.
Take note from these references the small sample set of views that D’Souza has provided us with. While he wants us to see that there are two sides to theism (creationist and evolutionist, literalist and non-literalist), he gives no balanced account of atheism. What’s more is that some of his references are out of context or interpreted presumptuously. Is this not sad hypocrisy from someone who wants to combat what he sees as a one-sided presentation of Christians by atheists? “The theist does not deny the validity of scientific reasoning,” D’Souza boldly states (p. 163), conveniently ignoring the many who have openly professed reliance on faith while rejecting science. D’Souza’s game is clear, and the deck has been rigged from the beginning.
Part V: Christianity and Philosophy
15 – The World Beyond Our Senses: Kant and the Limits of Reason
Reason is not flawless. It is not the answer to every question. It can’t tell us if our perception of reality is an accurate reflection of reality itself, because reason is an extension of our perception. This simple yet profound insight, first raised by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, is taken up by D’Souza in chapter fifteen to argue for the limits of reason. “[T]here is one subject on which the atheist requires no evidence,” he claims, and it is “the issue of whether human reason is the best – indeed the only – way to comprehend reality” (p. 168). Contrasting all of this with the theistic view of a supernatural reality that is inaccessible to human inquiry, D’Souza claims that he will probe for the truth on the “ground of empiricism and reason alone” (p. 169). Which view is right? Not surprisingly, D’Souza accuses atheists of dogmatically ignoring the limits of reason while he extols the religious believer for holding to a “modest and reasonable” position.
Do atheists really not recognize the limits of reason? Do we presume to have access to reality that is unfiltered by perception? I can’t speak for Dawkins, Dennett, and the other atheists often criticized by D’Souza, but I can say that I have never met an atheist who denies the issue of subjective perception and its impact on reason. Science and reason are not taken to be absolute, but are rather seen as the most reliable methods for dealing with that subjective perception, in an attempt to minimize bias and try our best to get as close to reality as we can. It’s possible that we may never get that close at all, but we currently have no other means for comprehending our world with the track records of science and reason. They at least allow us to form the most objective explanations from the human vantage point.
However, I can’t agree with D’Souza when he claims that we have no basis for thinking our reason even “resembles” reality. We have come to formulate ideas about the world that appear very consistent, some of which can even be used to make successful predictions relating to other ideas. Why should this be the case if our perception of reality doesn’t even slightly resemble reality? It seems like such a conclusion is also rooted in the problem of perception: how can we claim reality is nothing like what we perceive unless we believe that we have some understanding of what reality is? This leads to a major and troubling omission from D’Souza’s discussion of Kant.
From his realization of the limits of reason, Kant came to understand the fruitlessness of metaphysical illusions, as he called them. Reason is useful for contributing to our understanding of the world around us, because perception is precisely our understanding. It’s good to recognize that our understanding may not always reflect what really exists, though, and part of this means that certain metaphysical claims are inappropriate to be reasoned for, since they are outside of our perception and experience. D’Souza’s implication in chapter fifteen that Kant’s argument on the limits of reason somehow vindicates religious belief in a supernatural reality beyond physical reality is a distortion of Kant. A warning on the danger in equating perception with reality is not any kind of justification for postulating an imperceptible second level of reality populated by magical beings.
D’Souza fails to demonstrate his claim about atheism being an arrogant or dogmatic rejection of the limits of reason. While I don’t doubt that there are some atheists who believe reason gives them unhindered access to an external reality, it is a fallacy to assume that all atheists fall under this view. D’Souza also fails to justify his assertion that theism is the more modest and reasonable position. If theism is the better view simply because it stresses the limits of human reason, then why isn’t D’Souza a believer in other paranormal claims, like psychics, crystal healers, ghosts, fortune tellers, past life regression, and so on? Their advocates often stress the limits of reason as well.
Theism does not stop at the problem of perception, but proposes a very unreliable and inconsistent way of picking up where reason can’t take us: faith. If we have faith, many say, we can experience the supernatural side of reality that is inaccessible to reason. This is a topic we will continue with in chapter seventeen, though for now it is enough to recognize that theism is not the more reasonable or modest view when it arrogantly claims for itself the capability of transcending the limits of reason by using faith.
16 – In the Belly of the Whale: Why Miracles are Possible
In chapter sixteen, D’Souza endeavors to show us that miracles are not impossible. This was curious to me at first, since I’ve found more arguments against the probability of miracles than against the possibility of them, but it all starts to make sense when we note that D’Souza pulls this ‘refutation’ out of his own misunderstanding of David Hume. Hume claims that a miracle is “a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”16 The consequence of this, he says, is that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” In other words, our experience of the laws of physics is no less of an argument than the experience of those who allegedly witness a miracle.
D’Souza interprets Hume as arguing positively against any possibility of miracles, but this is just not true. We can see in the statements quoted above that there is no absolute declaration of miracles being impossible. What Hume puts forward is more like Occam’s Razor – it’s a rule of thumb for judging the probability of an explanation by sorting out the wildly imaginative from the reasonable. A miracle claim has centuries of human experience working against it, Hume points out, and so it better have some darn good evidence to go with it if we’re to suppose that natural laws were suddenly interrupted to allow decomposing matter to reconstitute itself into a living body, for example.
Our author makes an especially bold claim when he says that he will refute Hume’s case against miracles by using Hume’s own work. We first find D’Souza making the foolhardy claim that Hume’s verifiability principle is self-refuting. It isn’t true by definition, nor can it be empirically verified itself, so therefore we can “commit his principle to the flames,” as Dinesh puts it. Unfortunately, the debate is not so simple, because D’Souza ignores the difference between theory and meta-theory. A theory is a unifying explanation of facts, and although theories are empirically verified to judge their worth, empirical verification as a method cannot be empirically verified itself. This is because the verifiability principle is a meta-theory that seeks to justify the theory of empiricism. Meta-theories do not need to be subject to empirical verification, because they demonstrate their reliability by how they function heuristically. Metaphysics is a meta-theory that tries to account for the observations of physics through questions about being and nature. Certainly D’Souza would object if we were to use his poor reasoning to dismiss all of metaphysics on the grounds that it is not empirically verified.
So does this mean that scientific laws could possibly be wrong? Well, yes, but just as it would be an overreaction to never drive a car based on the sheer possibility of being killed in an accident, it is also an irrational overreaction to act like the possibility of scientific laws being wrong might bring science to a grinding halt, or might undermine scientific explanations that enjoy some of the best confirmation available.
It deserves to be shown exactly how little D’Souza understands science and reason (if it hasn’t become clear already), while he yet feels knowledgeable enough to criticize them. To make his point on the unverifiable nature of scientific laws, he uses the discovery of black swans.
What do swans have to do with scientific laws? D’Souza seems to mistake longstanding conventional wisdom for “a scientifically inviolable truth,” and he offers no sources or evidence for his claim that the Europeans took a metaphor like “white as a swan” to be a scientific law. The first European discovery of a black swan was made by Willem de Vlamingh in 1697, so it’s not as if there was a substantial body of scientific literature propagating the idea that all swans are white. This poorly thought-out analogy just goes to show that D’Souza is truly grasping at straws to support some of his claims.
Another example of this comes from D’Souza’s discussion of falsification. The discussion itself is actually pretty good, as Dinesh explains how scientific laws are not “laws of nature” (or laws of nature’s god, I would add), but only human explanations of the world around us. If D’Souza had thought through this admission, he might have scrapped the entire chapter on the anthropic principle. If the parameters and laws of the universe are really just models formed from our observations, then there is no need to posit a divine law-maker that put them into place.
Miracles are improbable by definition, as D’Souza seems to agree (p. 188), and because of this, the refutation laid out in chapter sixteen hardly matters. It’s possible that Xenu and his race of evil aliens are the reason for the many false religions in the world, but without some measurement of probability, what’s the sense in believing it? I am perfectly willing to concede that miracles are a possibility. Even then, D’Souza is still left with the daunting task of justifying the probability of any given miracle.
17 – A Skeptic’s Wager: Pascal and the Reasonableness of Faith
In chapter fifteen, D’Souza argued for the limits of reason, and in chapter seventeen he picks up the trail again in an attempt to justify religion’s use of faith as a means for going beyond the limits of reason. I have to wonder why our author chose to put a chapter on miracles in between these two very related chapters. Perhaps he doesn’t want you noticing the way that he chastises atheism for not respecting the limits of reason while he proceeds to claim that only religion has the proper way of getting past reason to the things of a ‘higher’ reality. The transition is quite a sloppy and questionable one, but with a chapter on miracles breaking the flow, maybe the readers will overlook that stuff anyway.
“[F]aith,” D’Souza boldly states, “is the only way to discover truths that are beyond the domain of reason and experience” (p. 191). How does he know that faith actually gives us access to such truths? No explanation is given; in fact, there isn’t any argument for the reliability of faith at all. That may be hard to believe, because it is so tremendous an oversight for a chapter intent on showing that faith is a useful method of ascertaining truth, but D’Souza really gives us nothing. The closest he comes is in saying that the believer “hopes that revelation will expose truths otherwise hidden to reason” (p. 196), yet there is no attempted justification of that hope. Instead, D’Souza structures his case on the prevalence of faith in our decision making, coupled with arguments for the compatibility of reason and faith. Neither of these show that faith can actually impart truths to us, however.
First of all, let’s look at how D’Souza defines faith. “Faith,” he says, “is a statement of trust in what we do not know for sure. Faith says that even though I don’t know something with certainty, I believe it to be true” (p. 195). This is too broad a definition. Because of the problem of perception, it’s debatable if we can ever have absolute knowledge of anything, and so, according to D’Souza, it would seem that we take everything on faith. However, the real thing we ought to be considering is not if something can be known beyond any doubt, but with what degree of reliability it can be known. The more knowledge we have for a given subject, the more likely our belief about it is to be informed or justified. When we believe in something without good reason, that is just uninformed belief, and when we believe in something with a lot of good reason, that is informed belief. Unwavering certainty need not play a role.
D’Souza makes the mistake of conflating faith with trust and belief. Although faith can, and often does, involve both belief and trust (i.e. belief in a religious tenet, or trust in a deity), it is not synonymous with these concepts, despite the fact that many laypeople do use the terms interchangeably. Belief is a psychological state in which a person holds a particular statement to be true. Trust is the reliance of one party upon another. Faith, according to D’Souza, is a means of attempting to uncover truth. But if this is right, then it cannot be that faith is the mere trust or belief in something uncertain, for knowing that something is true is different from knowing why it is true. Dinesh can’t have it both ways, but in fact he gives us no grounds for accepting that either of his definitions of faith are correct. And, as previously noted, there is a false equivalency here between religious faith and provisional ‘faith’ in the operation of reality that is not addressed.
Based on Mark 9:17-24, our author tries to argue that there is room for doubt in faith. The passage gives the story of a father of a demon-possessed boy who pleads with Jesus to heal his child. Jesus tells the father that “Everything is possible for one who believes,” to which the man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” How is this meant to support the idea that skepticism is “natural” to Christianity, as D’Souza puts it? Clearly, the encouragement to believe is an encouragement to suppress doubt, not to persist in it or accept it. Ironically, while championing Christianity’s alleged skepticism, D’Souza also blasts agnostics for ‘refusing’ to choose sides “when there is no option to abstain” from what is “a matter of life and death.”
Finally, we come to D’Souza’s advocacy of Pascal’s Wager, which he believes is an argument that demonstrates the reasonableness of religious belief. His conclusion has to be quoted in full to give the total effect of its absurdity.
It has already been pointed out many times before, by many different people, that Pascal’s wager contains a presumption about only the Christian god existing. What would if I have to lose if Zeus is the god that exists, or Odin, Osiris, Krishna, or some other deity? What if a non-orthodox god exists who might condemn orthodox theists to hell? If the Christian god exists and is the moral monster described in the Bible, then couldn’t I lose some integrity if I aligned myself with him just to gain entry to paradise? It’s far from sure that Christians have nothing to lose and atheists have everything to lose, but D’Souza doesn’t address a single sort of this criticism of the wager. It’s also disturbing that our author seeks to impugn resilience in the face of doom by asking, “what would we think of a man who stands ready to face a horrible fate that he has a chance to avert?” Has D’Souza even read the story of Jesus? Socrates? Their willingness to accept preventable death is far from ridiculed in our Western society.
Another flaw in Pascal’s wager is that it treats belief as a choice that can be made on a pragmatic basis. If someone thinks Christianity is untrue, the wager will not persuade them of its truth, since it only endeavors to serve as a cost-benefits analysis of sorts. A cost-benefits analysis can’t help anyone to truly believe, because we are not capable of believing what we consider false. Thus, all that Pascal’s famous and beloved wager can potentially accomplish is instilling fear that may prime one for eventual conversion. Noting that Dawkins offers this objection to the wager, D’Souza responds: “the real issue is whether he wants to believe and whether he is open to the call of faith.” Of course, the assumption behind this is that those who truly want to believe will always eventually come to believe. Otherwise, D’Souza’s reply is a non-answer. Yet no real support can be given to so grand an assumption.
Part VI: Christianity and Suffering
18 – Rethinking the Inquisition: The Exaggerated Crimes of Religion
With the same gusto he used to defend the church for its treatment of Galileo, in chapter eighteen D’Souza takes up the defense of religion for its role in the crusades, inquisitions, and witch trials. His intent, he states, is to show that “the widely held view that religion is the primary source of the great killings and conflicts of history is simply wrong.” It’s worth stating that not all atheists, myself included, hold this zealous and overly simplistic view of things. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of different causal factors behind the atrocities of history, but we also need to be careful not to minimize the role played by some influences. Even if religion is not the sole or primary source of all the violence in the past, the question of how much suffering it has contributed can’t be as readily dismissed.
Do you think the Christian crusaders were a bunch of bloodthirsty zealous knights bent on raping and pillaging innocent Muslim lands? If you’ve received the slightest education in history, you probably don’t think this. Muslims took Jerusalem from Christian hands, and crusaders were not always knights, but even average men who felt called to defend the ‘holy’ land. On these details, D’Souza is correct: “The Christians fought to defend themselves from foreign conquest, while the Muslims fought to continue conquering Christian lands” (p. 206). Does this mean religion was not responsible for the crusades?
Consider what the value of Jerusalem is to Christians and Muslims. For Christians, it is part of the region where Jesus was born, lived, preached, and died. For Muslims, it is where Muhammad was taken before ascending to heaven, and it was also the original direction of prayer before later being changed to the Kaaba. Jerusalem is a sacred site and holy land for both Christians and Muslims, and this was the principle reason why each side desired to possess it during the crusades. Religion was the motivating factor for Muslims to conquer Jerusalem and it was the motivating factor for Christians to recapture the city. Pope Urban II promised that all who fought in the first crusade would be immediately forgiven of their sins,17 something that, in addition to his many invocations of god and Christ, certainly communicates a religious imperative behind the fight for Jerusalem. D’Souza does not address this point about the crusades at all.
Concerning the Spanish Inquisition, D’Souza observes that there are exaggerations surrounding it, as elaborated by Henry Kamen in his book The Spanish Inquisition. Two of Kamen’s revisions are provided: only Jewish converts to Christianity were punished, and the Inquisition trials were fairer than most secular trials of the time. Regarding the first revision, D’Souza notes that the Jews were expelled from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, which forced those who wanted to remain to convert to Christianity. But of course many of these converts were Christian in name only, continuing to practice their Jewish faith in secret. D’Souza also claims that it was other Jews who turned these new ‘converts’ over to the Inquisition, feeling that they had betrayed their Jewish heritage just to avoid relocation. Kamen also shows that Torquemada himself had “known Jewish ancestry,” D’Souza tells us.
What in the world does Torquemada’s Jewish ancestry have to do with religion’s role in the Inquisition? Christian Spain had no problem with Jewish ancestry, as long as the individual had sincerely converted to Christianity, as Torquemada had more than likely done. What else could D’Souza’s implication be, other than that Torquemada’s ancestry played some role in his persecution of the ‘secret Jews?’ It seems as if D’Souza wants to lay the blame on his stereotype of the self-hating Jew, however the Inquisition was more than the persecution of Jews who had converted to Christianity. Protestants, Muslim converts, and those found guilty of blasphemy, witchcraft, bigamy, and sodomy were all suppressed by the Inquisition.
Once again, we have to ask what the basis was for the oppression, and it seems an unavoidable fact that religion was a significant, if not predominant, influence. Why were the Jews expelled from Spain and why was Judaism viewed as an intolerable offense? Because the Jews were seen as a threat, “always attempt[ing] in various ways to seduce faithful Christians from our Holy Catholic Faith,” as quoted by Kamen, D’Souza’s own source.18 Oppression of other religious minorities was due to the same perception of a seductive threat. There is no denying that the Inquisition was carried out for religious reasons, and it doesn’t matter if most of the conflict was between Jews or between Christians, nor does it matter how fair the trials were in contrast to secular trials. Religion provided the climate for the Spanish Inquisition, and difference of belief is no justifiable reason to hold a trial against someone in the first place.
Throughout the chapter, D’Souza reveals a callous disregard for human life.
Wrong though the [Salem witch] trials were, they harmed a relatively small number of people. Few casualties, big brouhaha. (p. 207)
D’Souza doesn’t inform us of why we should remember that the Inquisition killed so many people over a few hundred years. Does the amount of time that elapsed somehow diminish the tragedy? Do fewer casualties mean less horror and suffering? These are not just my interpretations of D’Souza, because he goes right on to make this claim himself.
The fact that D’Souza wants to question Harris’ statement is bad enough, but that he uses such a poorly thought out example makes it even worse. For starters, 5,000 casualties is still double the amount of deaths at Pearl Harbor, so the biblical nonsense of “eye for an eye” couldn’t even justify D’Souza in this hypothetical case. Secondly, the bombing of Japan killed mostly civilians, as our author even notes, while the attack on Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military base. I say this not to excuse or trivialize the horror of Pearl Harbor, but merely to show that D’Souza’s claim about a lower number of casualties ‘virtually eliminating’ moral debate on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is both offensively stupid and stupidly offensive.
I can’t imagine how D’Souza can believe that fewer deaths would dispel the horror of anything. Shortly after the September 11th attacks, some news outlets were reporting as many as 6,000 casualties.19 Does the eventual discovery that the death toll was actually less than half of that number mitigate the horror and injustice of 9/11? According to D’Souza, it should, and yet you won’t probably ever hear him admit such a thing. We find an event tragic for a lot of reasons, and the death toll does sometimes factor into our sense of horror, especially in cases of genocide, like the massive number of concentration camp deaths in Nazi Germany. But to say that a revelation of less deaths than initially reported mitigates the horror of the situation is controversial because the death toll is not the only factor in our reaction. To downplay the disturbing nature of September 11th would consequently be to downplay the immorality of terminating life, the injustice of terrorism, and more. Whether 6,000 or 60 people had died, the fact remains that innocent lives were extinguished for an unjust cause, and that is the real horror – maybe not to Dinesh D’Souza, but at least to those who are rational and caring individuals.
I suspect that the actual reason for why our author feels comfortable downplaying these tragedies in human history is precisely because they are part of history. The inquisitions, crusades, and witch trials are all far behind us now, and they have taken on an almost mythical character with the various stories that have circulated about them. Events lose their intrinsic meaning to an extent when they pass beyond the veil of collective human memory, and this is why we must never forget the principles involved in those events that made them matter in the first place. D’Souza is either unable or unwilling to appreciate the principles behind the crimes of religion that truly made them crimes, and so he presents a lop-sided apathetic appraisal of their horror and injustice. We catch a glimpse of this when he says that “for Christians the tragedy of violence in the name of religion is thankfully in the ancient past” (p. 210). Out of sight, out of mind.
But is it the case that Christian violence is long behind us? Numerous attacks on homosexuals, Muslims, and abortion providers have been carried out by Christians in the name of their faith in just the last two or three decades alone. These cases may involve fewer Christians and fewer deaths than the religious violence of the Middle Ages, but it does not make them any less tragic, nor does it magically resolve Christianity of responsibility. D’Souza’s argument for exaggeration in the crimes of religion is irrelevant because it does not in any way point to anything other than religion as the primary source of conflict. Saying that ‘x wasn’t really so bad’ tells us nothing about whether or not y was responsible for x. D’Souza doesn’t even try to attribute the crimes of religion to other causes, like social, ethnic, or cultural tensions, and so his stated intent of exonerating religion is a complete failure.
19 – A License to Kill: Atheism and the Mass Murders of History
Chapter nineteen begins with a quote from Dostoevsky which suggests that without god, “everything is permitted.” Here D’Souza argues not only that atheism is responsible for the mass murders of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, but that, as Dostoevsky states, godlessness leads to an amoral outlook on life. The irony with the opening quote is that the apostle Paul declared that everything was permissible for him because of his faith (1 Corinthians 6:12).
D’Souza is a divine command theorist, which means that he wants rules laid out for him and he wants them to be enforced to the letter. If we don’t recognize these rules, he believes, then we aren’t moral, making us therefore capable of the most horrendous moral behavior. We will deal more with the absurdities and assumptions of divine command theory in the next chapter, where D’Souza addresses it, but it’s worth pointing this out here to show that there is already a gross assumption made from the first few sentences of chapter nineteen. Being permitted in everything does not mean one will act on everything. As a self-professed small government conservative, D’Souza should be well aware of this. There are many things that we permit as a right or freedom and yet do not partake of ourselves. Paul puts the ethics of the believer on equal footing to the ethics of the atheist, as characterized by D’Souza, and so we can see that the thesis of chapter nineteen is off to a bad start already.
“Can anyone seriously deny that Communism was an atheist ideology,” D’Souza asks (p. 215). Yes. In fact, anyone who has read the writings of Karl Marx can see that D’Souza has gotten things backwards. Marx wanted to free the working class from the oppression of the bourgeoisie, and one of the tools of oppression that he identified was religion, the “opium of the people.” However, the real issue Marx was noting was that problems in religion are problems in society, not that religion itself is a disease to be exterminated, as D’Souza and many others carelessly imply. We can tell from the way that religion is discussed in Marx’s writing that it was part of a larger concern – a political concern – and so rather than Communism being an atheist ideology, it is more accurate that atheism is only incidentally associated with Communism, because Marx interpreted religion as a symptom of social inequity. I think a better question for D’Souza might be: can anyone seriously deny that religion has been a major force for social conflict in human history?
Unfortunately, Dinesh goes beyond sources that are fair game for debate and plunges into the realm of pure fallacious speculation. “All Communist regimes have been strongly anti-religious,” he notes, “suggesting that their atheism is intrinsic rather than incidental to their ideology” (p. 215). It appears that D’Souza was progressively losing brain cells as he wrote What’s So Great About Christianity, because there’s little other explanation for how he could write such a sentence and miss two major mistaken assumptions. First of all, anti-religious sentiments are not synonymous with atheism. There are anti-religious atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but then there are other atheists who have more of a live and let live philosophy toward religion, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Gates, and Dave Matthews (not to mention atheists who actually praise religion, like D’Souza’s fellow conservative S.E. Cupp).
Second, correlation does not necessitate causation, so if D’Souza wants to argue Communism is intrinsically atheist, he has to demonstrate a clear line of causality, not just throw up a vague and unsourced claim about how all Communist regimes have been anti-religious. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao were all men, but it’s unfair to say that the male gender in general is responsible for their crimes. No one questions that they were atheists, but the more controversial thing here is to assume that their actions somehow stemmed from their atheism, rather than their own moral (or amoral) compasses, or their political ideologies. D’Souza would have to make some kind of argument for this, yet he relies only on observation and carelessly draws a conclusion from correlation alone.
Finally, there is a major problem with a generalization based on observation, and D’Souza explained this fallacy himself in chapter sixteen when he talked about the presumption that only white swans exist. Europeans had only observed white swans, so they assumed that swans are intrinsically white; D’Souza has only observed Communist regimes of an anti-religious strain, and so he assumes that Communism is intrinsically atheist. However, it’s even worse for our author, since he conflates opposition to religion with atheism, with no justification for it at all, as previously noted. D’Souza could, at best, argue that Communism appears intrinsically anti-religious, but as the ‘swan fallacy’ shows, such a conclusion is highly suspect.
Here we have yet another bold claim from D’Souza that has no accompanying sources, and, as usual, we are only given half of the story. The Nazi Party certainly opposed churches that denounced the ideologies of Nazism and fascism, but there were also churches that endorsed Hitler’s regime, such as the German Christian Movement. As historian Doris L. Bergen reveals in her important book, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich, some churches did have support from the Nazi Party, and were not the marginal institutions they are often portrayed as by religious apologists. The simple fact that D’Souza misses here is that the oppression of a number of churches does not mean Nazism was secular, anti-religious, or atheistic. Indeed, the history of Christianity is filled with schisms and subsequent fits of violence that erupted over religious disagreements!
In attempting to rewrite historical evidence and claim that Adolf Hitler was an atheist, D’Souza relies on a text called Hitler’s Table Talk. The text includes several purported statements of the fuhrer, given in private, that show a less-than-favorable opinion of Christianity. Historian Richard Carrier has persuasively argued that many of the anti-Christian passages in the table talk are likely forgeries from one erroneously produced manuscript, which may be contrasted to better and more accurate sources.20 “No one who quotes this text,” he states plainly, “is quoting what Hitler actually said.” Predictably, D’Souza tells us nothing about the debate over the authenticity of these passages in the table talk, even though Carrier and others were raising suspicions at least five years before the publication of What’s So Great About Christianity. Even if there were no doubt of the authenticity of the passages, Hitler could have criticized certain dogmas and sects in Christianity while still ultimately holding his own faith in Christ, as many Christians have been known to do. D’Souza gives us no real argument for Hitler being an atheist.
After citing the questionable Hitler’s Table Talk, D’Souza moves on to citing Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler in order to conclude that “Without Darwinism, there might not have been Nazism” (p. 219). This suggestion is made on the grounds of loose connections and disjointed quotes strung together in a mish-mash of bad logic. Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, favored races… ta-da: Nazism! Of course, it was Protestant theologian Martin Luther who sowed the seeds of anti-semitism in Germany long before Darwin was even born, but that’s another correlation D’Souza will choose to ignore because it doesn’t fit his predetermined vilification of atheism. From Darwin to Hitler is a supremely biased and unreliable source as well, funded by the creationist Discovery Institute, and overwhelmingly criticized by Weikart’s fellow historians.21
So far in defense of his argument for atheism’s responsibility in the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we’ve seen D’Souza offer us correlations that are by no means universal, appeals to sources that are by no means objective or indisputable, and hypothetical fever-dream scenarios conceived by the author himself to draw that line of causality from atheism to mass genocide. This pathetic ‘evidence’ is the best D’Souza can muster because atheism alone has no basis for such ideology. Atheism is the absence of theism, or the lack of belief in god(s). There is no logical progression from this to Nazism, Communism, amorality, or any of what Dinesh implies. That lack of belief doesn’t mean an atheist is anti-religious, nor would being anti-religious mean that one supports violent opposition to religion. Recall what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:13 – “everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial.” How might an atheist reason his or her way to valuing life and the diversity of human beings? It could be as simple a thing as accepting the idea that you should do to others as you want done to you (or do to others as they want done to them). No god or god-belief required.
Part VII: Christianity and Morality
20 – Natural Law and Divine Law: The Objective Foundations of Morality
“[E]ach of us knows,” D’Souza states in chapter twenty, “however disingenuously we deny it – that there are absolute standards of right and wrong.” Despite this assurance, it has yet to be shown that there are such standards. I see this claim as no better than the one for relativism which D’Souza vigorously denounces in the chapter. Looking at the diversity of moral views in the world is not sufficient grounds for declaring morality to be a subjective illusion, nor is the conviction of a few absolutists sufficient grounds for declaring morality to be absolute. The worst part of D’Souza’s statement is to presume the moral sensibilities of every man, woman, and child on the planet: you may think morality is an illusion, but deep down you know there are absolute answers! This seems to be just the kind of presumptuous arrogance that turns off many people to moral objectivism. D’Souza actually goes so far as to encourage his readers to punch a relativist in the face to “educate” them on what they really believe (p. 231).
The case for moral laws, or absolute values, is practically non-existent in the book. A lot of space is spent on criticizing relativism, and the only argument our author seems to put forward for the existence of his moral laws is the fact that we can’t always get along well without making an appeal to some sort of independent standard for morality. We all have strong convictions about right and wrong, he says. Relativists will often express themselves in non-relative terms when they are punched in the face. This paltry bit of speculation amounts to nothing more than a convenience in believing moral absolutes exist. Far better cases for objective values have been made by philosophers, but I will not go into them here. What matters for this chapter is exposing D’Souza’s utter failure to link any of this to god or faith.
For exposing this failure, Dinesh gives us a priceless opportunity when he states that, “Without heaven and hell, life on earth becomes very unjust” (p. 232). Does the promise of an afterlife judgment truly justify what we endure on Earth? One may think that a lifetime of suffering could be made right by an eternity in paradise, but is it fair or just to punish a lifetime of sin with an eternity of the worst suffering? Why doesn’t D’Souza seem to think that suffering is unjust in itself? Is someone who lost an entire family of loved ones in this life going to be that better off in heaven than someone whose family made it well into their later years? It is not self-evident that an eternity of bliss can right all wrongs, and it is especially controversial that an eternity of pain can set anything right. I learned at a young age that life isn’t fair, and often times you just have to play the hand you’re dealt, but D’Souza seems unsatisfied with living in reality. He wants that ‘happily ever after’ at the end of the story. But even with it, life on Earth would remain unjust.
One of the most puzzling statements in the chapter is where D’Souza explains that “it is the essence of morality to operate against self-interest” (p. 235). Yet again this betrays his bias toward his favored moral framework: deontological ethics. Utilitarianism, egoism, and other consequentialist theories of morality actually operate by self-interest. Even deontology can be based on self-interest depending on the rules or duties one chooses to follow. If D’Souza considers the Golden Rule to be a moral duty – as it seems he does from the chapter – then his own framework is structured around self-interest, for how can the Golden Rule successfully promote good unless we have our best interests in mind when we consider how to treat others? Morality is not about always working against self-interest. The very question of why we should be moral is a question of self-interest, dealing as it does with the personal motivations we have toward ourselves and others.
No one should be surprised that D’Souza uncritically endorses C.S. Lewis’ view that human conscience is “nothing other than the voice of God within our souls” (p. 237). He doesn’t have much of anything else to go on for this chapter. But this casting of conscience as the Holy Spirit stands in danger of making an idol out of one’s own intuitions and desires, confusing our will with god’s will. I doubt any Christian would argue that we have our own inner voice, our own will, and yet no explanation – from D’Souza, Lewis, or anyone – has been able to reliably distinguish this internal human voice from an alleged voice of god. There’s just something about naively simplistic answers that seems to resonate with D’Souza, coming out on almost every page of What’s So Great About Christianity.
21 – The Ghost in the Machine: Why Man is More Than Matter
I’ve never understood why some people think that recognizing the human as a purely natural organism, with no touch of the divine, will somehow devalue human life. Believing in a soul or ‘godly image’ in man hasn’t stopped countless Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religious believers from killing their fellow humans. There is no demonstrated progression from materialism to murder. But D’Souza has it half right: man is more than matter. We are conscious, self-aware beings capable of forming advanced and meaningful relationships with one another. We are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children. Though we may be composed only of matter, there is so much more to us than that. And there’s no need to think the supernatural is involved.
For chapter twenty-one, D’Souza attempts to argue that there is something immaterial to humans, namely the soul. Once again, no definition is provided, and the sole (excuse the pun) argument given seems to revolve around the lack of a convincing naturalistic explanation for consciousness. D’Souza begins by disputing Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that we may overcome our genetic imperative to reproduce.
What strikes me as far more strange is how D’Souza can believe in evolution, accept the descent of man from ancestral primates, and still think that modern humans hold some special place of advantage among the animal kingdom, thanks to a thing called the soul that’s been bestowed on us by a supreme being. At what point did the soul come into the picture? If it’s far back in the past, D’Souza runs the risk of implying that some other primates also have souls. But any point on the timeline will be arbitrarily chosen, because there is no indication in scripture or in science for when such an event of soul-installation may have happened. Does this not make it abundantly clear that D’Souza is interested in the subject for religious reasons, rather than providing a real and useful explanation for the origin of consciousness?
It is possible for us to rebel against our genes because we have evolved into conscious beings that can make the choice to rebel. Computers, cheetahs, and meteors are incapable of that kind of choice because they just don’t have the mental equipment that we do. Consciousness may have arisen as an evolutionary advantage that allowed us to contemplate our actions and think about the world around us. An animal that is able to premeditate a course of behavior may be more likely to survive and prosper than one that does not. The fact that human beings dominate the earth in such large number today would seem to confirm this. In a bizarre way, natural selection gave us the ability to override its driving impulses, so that we might increase our odds of survival.
D’Souza’s approach to consciousness is known as Cartesian dualism, which is the idea that the mind and the brain are separate things that interact with each other. Under this view, “I,” or the self, is an immaterial phenomenon called the mind/soul, to be distinguished from the organ in our head called the brain. This is why D’Souza scoffs at the portrayal of the brain as “perceiving, feeling, thinking, or even being aware of anything” (p. 243). The self and the brain are distinctly different things to D’Souza. But his simple disagreement is not an argument against materialism. If the self is a product of the brain – the compilation of various perceptions, as David Hume believed – then it is fitting to say that the brain is actually responsible for perceiving, feeling, thinking, and awareness. Of course, this is much too great a subject for this review to cover, and it is still a hotly debated issue today, but the point here is that, once again, D’Souza pretends his bias is non-controversial fact.
The main argument made against materialism in the chapter seems to be the experience of “unity.” Our author draws two analogies to Shakespeare’s Othello and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, saying that it would be inappropriate to reduce either one to a collection of words or a collection of notes. We experience them differently, just as we experience life as more than just matter interacting with other matter. But why is it that we find Othello and the Fifth Symphony to be more than the sum of their parts? It is because, through experience, we have given them purpose and meaning. As I said previously, I also think humans are more than bundles of atoms and molecules. We are more than that because of the purpose and meaning we give to our own lives, that we give to others, and which others give to us. It doesn’t take a belief in the soul or anything supernatural to value human beings.
22 – The Imperial “I”: When the Self Becomes the Arbiter of Morality
For the twenty-second chapter, D’Souza argues that secular morality elevates the individual as the source for a standard of right and wrong. “The ‘culture wars’ in America,” he says, “involving issues like abortion, divorce, and homosexual marriage, can be largely understood as a clash between traditional morality and secular morality” (p. 251-252). While I would agree that an issue like gay marriage is mostly opposed on the basis of religious teaching, other issues, like abortion, and especially divorce, are far more diverse in reasoning than D’Souza suggests. Divorce is one of the most hotly debated subjects among modern Christians, and there are many who do use scripture and theology in support of their views, not preferring to simply leave religion out of it, as a secular moralist would. The same can certainly be said of abortion. These issues cannot be boiled down to religion versus secularism.
D’Souza explains that, “Secular morality differs from Christianity not in rejecting the notion of the good but in positing a self-sufficient inner source for what is good” (p. 255). I think a better way of rephrasing this would be that while Christianity believes the individual consults an external source of morality by inner reflection, secular morality either omits the external source of morality or locates it in something aside from a deity. Secular morality is not a denial of the divine, it is simply morality that is independent of religious doctrines. As said before, the Golden Rule is an example of secular morality because it makes no appeal to gods, and it also assumes a self-sufficient inner source of morality, as D’Souza puts it. One wonders why D’Souza doesn’t seem concerned with Jesus’ advocacy of the Golden Rule, considering all the garbage Dinesh implicates as the result of secular morality in this chapter and the next. If it was good enough for Jesus, is it good enough for us?
The main criticism of secular morality offered by D’Souza is that it tolerates specific issues of which our author is not a fan. Aside from this, he claims that, “Secular morality in most prevalent forms is irresponsible. It offers no check on those who invoke ‘self-discovery’ as an excuse to engage in behavior traditionally considered improper and immoral” (p. 258). I am of the opinion that issues like abortion, divorce, and homosexual marriage are not terrible immoralities that secularism is wicked for tolerating, and I am joined in this view by many non-secularists who happen to find no scriptural or theological reason for accepting D’Souza’s fundamentalist interpretation. Remember when D’Souza told us all about his superior Bible comprehension skills in the introduction? You may notice that he hasn’t really made much use of them. Sure, he’ll quote scripture when it suits his purposes, but there’s almost never an actual exegesis or a critique of alternate interpretations. It’s as if D’Souza wants his readers to assume that all true Christians think like he does, and if you don’t, then you’re just plain wrong.
Let’s return for a moment to look at some of the more outlandish statements and implications made in this chapter. My personal favorite is the claim that “art has largely replaced religion as the institution to which secular people pay homage.” Come again? No explanation or citation for this comment is given, making it hard to know exactly what D’Souza is referring to. Yet the National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2008 that there has been a long pattern of declining interest in the arts here in the United States.22 According to a recent article in The New York Times, art institutions in Europe are also suffering, to the point that some have begun integrating advertisements.23 Even if there was a rise in art interest corresponding to a decrease in religious observance, D’Souza’s remark would still not fly, since correlation does not imply causation.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that Oprah’s guests could be evidence for how secular morality retains some Christian influence. According to our author, the “confessions” of guests on the Oprah show and the general popularity of self-disclosure can be traced back to Christianity. Yes, D’Souza apparently thinks that remorse itself is an originally Christian trait! Next thing you know, he’ll be claiming that Christianity invented repentance. One primary thing Dinesh blames on secularism is the excuse of personal feeling: ‘I felt like doing x, so I did,’ or ‘Love made me do it.’ This, he suggests, has resulted in high divorce rates in the Western world, among other so-called ills. But what is the real difference between this and claiming that ‘I felt the spirit tell me to do x, so I did,’ or ‘God made me do it’? D’Souza doesn’t bother to account for these possible excuses for divorce, which I in fact heard from more than a few believers when I was a Christian.
Finally, it seems that in this chapter D’Souza throws his whole case straight out the window when he announces that the Christian solution is conscience. Just how does this differ from relying on our “higher self” or that inner voice that Dinesh is so critical of secular morality for trusting? He may believe that human conscience is “nothing other than the voice of God,” but he makes no argument to back it up, while simultaneously attacking another morality that also advocates listening to our conscience. Everything D’Souza raises against secular morality can be raised against his Christian morality, now complicated by the addition of a god and its association with conscience. How does D’Souza know the inner voice he calls conscience isn’t the devil speaking to him? Isn’t it more dangerous to fool yourself into thinking you have a divine mandate from the creator than to think that you are simply internally wrestling with your own behavior and emotions?
23 – Opiate of the Morally Corrupt: Why Unbelief is So Appealing
In chapter twenty-three we have a new contender with chapter four as the worst and most presumptuous topic in What’s So Great About Christianity. Although it’s hard to beat the ravings of an ultra-conservative Christian about the evil secular liberal education system, here D’Souza takes on the task of explaining the psychological appeal of unbelief. And wouldn’t you know what his thesis is: the real reason people don’t believe is because they want to sin! “[A]theism provides a hiding place for those who do not want to acknowledge and repent of their sins” (p. 267). Is it really that significant that atheists persist in “sin” when sin is a religious concept that the atheist rejects? Why would we feel the need to repent for blaspheming a god we don’t believe in? D’Souza wants his readers to think that atheists have rejected faith specifically so that they can sin, but this is pure conjecture.
First of all, I have to agree with Dinesh that most of the attempts to psychoanalyze religious belief are unconvincing on the whole. The explanations offered by Marx and Freud are descriptive of many religious believers, to be sure, but they do not account for all believers. If D’Souza realizes this, he should also realize that, even if his caricature fits 75% of atheists, it doesn’t serve as an explanation for the appeal of atheism itself. I don’t doubt that there are atheists who disbelieve because they dislike the constraints of religious morality, but this is no more of a basis for presuming an insight into the reason behind all atheism than it would be to presume that fear is the reason behind all religion because we’ve noticed a good number of fear-infested believers.
D’Souza seems to imply that most, if not all, atheists are incredibly immoral hedonists. But what does he base this claim on, and what does he think atheists are doing that is so condemnable? “It is chiefly because of sex that most contemporary atheists have chosen to break with Christianity,” he states (p. 269). Sex? As in the illicit kind that our primarily Christian nation likes to engage in? D’Souza apparently believes that religion is so powerful that it drives some sinners to quit because they want to keep on sinning, and yet the statistics on adultery, divorce, and promiscuity in the United States are taken from a population that has the largest amount of Christians of any nation – over 220 million.24 None of these men and women felt compelled to renounce their faith in order to commit these so-called sexual sins.
While we’re on the subject, it seems that the idea of divine forgiveness is more likely to foster an apathy to sin than non-belief is. Atheists feel no guilt because we reject the concept of sin along with the existence of god. You can’t really disobey an imaginary being. If a person is forgiven of sin, then they are freed of guilt as well. Acknowledging forgiveness means that the wrongdoing is left in the past, that we let bygons be bygons. It is taught in numerous passages of scripture that god remembers our sins no more once we are forgiven (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12). If anything is done with the intent of sinning without guilt, it seems that it would be accepting Jesus as your savior!
On the issue of sex, D’Souza quotes Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens, hoping you will ignore the fact that neither one says anything about sexual immorality being the cause of their unbelief. Russell and Hitchens merely criticize religion’s relationship with sex and Dinesh attempts to spin this into a confession about their ultimate reason for being atheists. Let’s see how it looks when I play this game with D’Souza. In chapter 19, D’Souza downplays the oppression of the Spanish Inquisition and criticizes atheist use of the Inquisition as an example of religious violence and intolerance. This must mean that D’Souza is really a Christian because he wants to be allowed to torture, suppress, and murder anyone who disagrees with him. Perfectly fair, right? Least of all, an atheist denouncing sexual oppression in religion would not necessarily engage in the sexual freedoms they advocate, let alone partake of adultery or promiscuity, as D’Souza implies.
But the real icing on the cake for this chapter is the declaration that abortion is a “sacrament” of atheism. “If America were a purely secular society,” D’Souza says, “there would be no moral debate about child killing” (p. 271). This is ignorance and agenda-bias on a scale usually reserved for whackjobs like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Dinesh completely disregards groups like the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League, which has been in operation since 1999, as well as the testimony of Christopher Hitchens, who is an outspoken pro-life atheist. Abortion is also accepted by many Christians, which D’Souza undoubtedly knows. There is absolutely no grounds for considering abortion an atheist “sacrament.”
D’Souza stretches his argument paper thin while trying to argue that unbelief is the result of immoral behavior. It’s never wise to presume someone else’s motivations, since you can’t get into their head. The only time one is really justified in making such a statement is when you’re given enough information to form an accurate assessment, but even then that line is still not often easy to find. In the chapter, D’Souza not only assumes way more from his subjects’ statements than he is warranted in assuming, but he goes further yet, claiming to uncover the real, hidden psychological motivation for unbelief that Hitchens, Dawkins, and other atheists would never fess up to in person. When one so detaches himself from reason and evidence in order to endorse a preconceived bias, he can make up any claim about motivation. What Dinesh D’Souza would never fess up to is that his whole reason for writing this book was not to argue the truth but to capitalize off his fellow religious conservatives.
24 – The Problem of Evil: Where is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?
In my critique of chapter three, I explained that atheism is not an ideology or even a belief itself, but is the absence of a belief (that being theism). For chapter twenty-four, D’Souza persists with his inaccurate and biased definition of atheism as ideology. “Atheism may have a better explanation for evil and suffering [than theism],” he admits, “but it provides no consolation for them” (p. 274). First of all, I object to the notion of atheism offering any explanation for evil and suffering. As the lack of belief in any god, the most atheism can say on such things is that they don’t come from a deity. But describing what something is not is not the same as explaining what it is and why it exists. Atheism provides no explanation of evil and suffering, nor does it need to.
The same goes for consolation. Atheism is a response, a reactionary position, not an ideology or belief system that sells a bill of goods, like religion. If one is seeking consolation, there are plenty of ways to feel better about the problem of evil that anyone can participate in, such as doing humanitarian work to relieve suffering, keeping accountable with trusted friends, and so forth. Of course, D’Souza wants more consolation than that, but pie-in-the-sky promises are often wishful thinking, and too much comfort is probably not desirable when there is so much injustice to be dealt with in this world.
Dinesh asks where atheism was after the Virginia Tech shooting, noting that religious sentiments seemed to dominate the media. Should this be surprising, given that the overwhelming majority of America is religious? In fact, this raises a big question about the implications drawn by D’Souza in the chapter. If these people have been conditioned to think that only a certain kind of consolation works for them, what is the real significance in atheism’s absence from these predominantly religious crowds? Actually, then, atheism is there for some people – for those who find consolation in knowing that evil is not an insurmountable cosmic force, and that an allegedly loving supreme being is not turning a blind eye to suffering throughout the world, because it doesn’t exist. And just as atheist explanations may not console most religious Americans, religious explanations are unlikely to console non-religious persons. Realizing this, D’Souza’s suggestion practically vaporizes.
This mishmash of muddled logic shows just what an amateur philosopher D’Souza is. We are certainly not rivers. We are complex sentient beings that form attachments, have memories, and much more. These facts hold true even if we are purely material beings, which means that the comparison in D’Souza’s analogy is unsuitable. We are capable of objecting, yet a river cannot object, nor can it feel or think. D’Souza plays dumb about the reality of differing types of material arrangements, some which constitute beings like ourselves, and others which constitute non-living, non-sentient pathways of water. Our author also takes it for granted that we can distinguish between good and evil, when this apprehension of right and wrong is nowhere near as clear cut as he makes it sound. Just look at the diversity of views among Christians regarding what is and is not sinful. Sure, there may be some things we usually recognize as bad, and others we usually recognize as good, but generally popular moral sentiments are no reason for presuming the existence of an external moral standard. Finally, D’Souza’s ending question from this excerpt amounts to an argument from ignorance. Your inability to imagine what other source could account for a moral standard does not justify you in plugging in whatever you prefer as the answer.
Free will is a common excuse among Christian apologists for the existence of evil, and D’Souza invokes it too on page 277. Such an argument presumes that there is greater good in allowing choice than in eliminating evil, but this has yet to be demonstrated, it carries some troubling theological implications, and it is a problem that goes entirely unacknowledged by D’Souza. Evil being a product of free will is not a view that finds any support in scripture. Still, D’Souza assures us that “In no way is God responsible for evil; He is responsible only for using evil to bring forth good” (p. 278). But if god operates by a perfect plan and if he created all that exists, then it stands to reason that god is responsible for evil, since he would have to allow for its existence so that it would serve in his plan to bring about good. Evil, under this view, is a means to an end for god, and Christians ask us to believe that, in this case, the end does justify the means. Couldn’t an all-powerful deity have done things differently, though, giving us free will without the byproducts of evil and suffering? Isn’t that what Christians believe Eden and heaven are like?
D’Souza believes that “the only way for us to really triumph over evil and suffering is to live forever in a place where those things do not exist” (p. 279). The irony is that D’Souza also believes those who reject his Jesus will be spending their eternity in a place of tremendous suffering along with those who have committed atrocious evils. So “those things” will certainly exist in the afterlife, but they will be out of sight and out of mind. The triumph is not ours, then, and not even god’s, because evil and suffering will persist. In fact, it seems like they will be preserved for all eternity thanks to D’Souza’s god! On the other hand, if death is the end, we will no longer be plagued by such problems when we die. It turns out that materialism is what truly provides a release from evil and suffering.
Part VIII: Christianity and You
25 – Jesus among Other Gods: The Uniqueness of Christianity
If you were to personally interview a number of conservative Christians and ask them to explain how Christianity is different from other religions, it’s very likely that you’d hear just about the same thing from each of them. D’Souza’s case for the uniqueness of Christianity contains lines that I was exposed to in youth groups, during sermons, while studying apologetics, and while reading various internet forums and websites. The number one mantra of conservative Christianity for this topic seems to be that other religions are about man trying to work his way to god, but Christianity is about how god worked his way to man. D’Souza expresses this view on page 286.
It deserves to be pointed out that this idea causes a lot of theological dissonance. If Christianity is not about man’s effort to reach god, like with those other religions, then is it really appropriate to say that people accept Jesus as their savior? Rather, it seems that Jesus accepts them, but if this is the case, then where does free will or choice come into it? People like D’Souza make a big fuss about how god wants ‘willing believers,’ not flesh-covered robots, and yet this would imply that man does play a role in reaching out to god. It may be more subtle than in Judaism or Islam, where rituals are regularly performed as part of the religion, but Christianity is still a human attempt to connect with the divine, and pretending otherwise won’t make it so.
Oddly, D’Souza bashes reformed Jews and Muslims for ‘giving up’ on their religious codes (p. 288), yet seems to ignore the fact that Christianity itself is a massive abandonment of the laws of Judaism. Sure, Dinesh would probably object to calling it that, specifying that god just “fulfilled” his law by Jesus’ sacrifice. But since Christians no longer observe the food commandment, and many don’t consider circumcision to be anything more than a preference or choice now, it is undeniable that Christianity has dropped some of the religious code it originated from, and is, in a sense, a kind of reformed Judaism. What’s the big deal about changing one’s view on a religious code anyway? Didn’t Dinesh just get through saying that Christianity is unique (and he would presumably say it’s better, too) among other religions because it doesn’t have that aspect of man trying to reach god by his own actions? Following a code of laws would be an example of just that.
Another unique aspect of Christianity, according to D’Souza, is that “in order to enter God’s kingdom we must be perfect. Not good, but perfect” (p. 288). This, he says, is impossible for humans to achieve on their own, which is where the sacrifice of Christ comes in. Even if this is a feature that’s truly unique to Christianity, it strikes me as a condemnable difference rather than a praiseworthy one. It’s significant that D’Souza explains that it’s not about being good, it’s being perfect, because the way in which perfection is understood in his brand of Christianity makes goodness completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how good you are in this life, because the only way to salvation is to believe in Jesus. You can be a horrid monster to everyone around you, you could rape and kill children your entire life, and if you sincerely repent before you die, then god will accept you into his kingdom. This is one of those unique features that shows what’s so wrong about Christianity, or at least what’s wrong with D’Souza’s conservative brand of it.
Finally, D’Souza asserts that the notion of god becoming a man is unique to Christianity. The problem with this claim is that there are various ideas of the incarnation, and it’s not quite clear when the idea of god becoming a mortal man really emerged. The synoptic gospels give, at best, a portrait of a man called Jesus who has some relationship to the divine, though it is never explicitly stated that he is god in the flesh. John’s gospel, written nearly 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ alleged death, gives a very different picture of Christ as a divine being, but here his humanity is now downplayed. Early Christians debated the incarnation fiercely, with some believing Jesus was merely a human messenger of god, others considering him to be a purely spiritual being, and still others believing something in between. What the Bible collects is only part of the picture, as the ‘accuracy’ of theological teachings was one of the criteria used in selecting texts for the canon.
If there’s one thing in this chapter that I can agree with D’Souza on, it would be that all religions are not the same, nor can each one really be called a path to god. Christianity makes very distinct claims from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions. I have no trouble agreeing that there are unique aspects to Christianity, but where I part company with Dinesh is in his belief that these differences somehow reveal the superiority of Christianity. Common themes don’t necessarily reveal that there is some universal truth behind it all, neither does uniqueness necessarily mean a greater chance of truth.
26 – A Foretaste of Eternity: How Christianity Can Change Your Life
Part eight is what the entirety of What’s So Great About Christianity should have focused on. Why is Christianity appealing? What are the reasons for belief? How can Christianity benefit me, as opposed to any other religion, or to abstaining from religion? These are the questions that can make a case for the perceived greatness of something. Instead, D’Souza has spent much of the book making razor thin arguments based on correlation, tying Christians into abolitionism, science, reason, and other Western developments. Even if his claims are true, it doesn’t give us reason to think Christianity is great, only that these certain Christians were great people. Even if Christianity did provide a thought, verse, or concept that inspired a particular movement that we value in the West, it doesn’t mean Christianity alone was responsible or that only Christianity could account for such a thing. Inspiration comes by many different avenues, as does greatness. And this is where D’Souza’s case for Christianity is most inadequate: it persistently fails to explain why Christianity’s greatness should matter.
In the final chapter of the book, we are given several benefits of Christianity. It makes sense of who we are, it gives purpose to life, it teaches that it’s better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, it enables us to become better persons… but why does any of this matter? D’Souza is making the case for Christianity as some kind of self-improvement therapy, but not as a source of truth. On the one hand, I think this is the best chapter in the book, because it avoids the farsical accusations against atheism and secularism, it omits the philosophical arguments for god that only truly supplement faith, and it cuts right to the core of why D’Souza believes, and it’s the strength and encouragement he finds in his religion. This is all well and good for a personal testimony, but, on the other hand, it doesn’t establish that Christianity is great. Truth, I believe, is always greater than comfort or personal utility. If there’s no reason to think that Christianity is true, then its greatness occupies the same gallery as any other greatness found in mythology, fiction, poetry, and the other religions.
To show the reality of this, let’s take a few of the benefits D’Souza attributes to Christianity and see how they can apply to other religions, maybe even sources outside of religion. “Christianity makes sense of who we are in the world” (p. 300). What religion doesn’t attempt to account for humanity’s place in the universe? Creation myths abound in ancient history and each one provides a theory on how we got here and where we stand amidst the rest of the cosmos. “Christianity also infuses life with a powerful and exhilirating sense of purpose.” Krishnans can and do say the same about their religion. Even a musician like myself could say that music has infused my life with a powerful and exhilirating sense of purpose. “The Christian knows that… it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” (p. 301). Non-violence is the cornerstone of Jainism, and Buddhists and Krishnans could also make such a statement regarding their own religions. Despite D’Souza’s assertion here, some Christians have adopted the opposite view, preferring to oppress others, such as homosexuals, instead of ‘suffering’ the tolerance of divergent opinions.
“Christianity also offers a solution to the cosmic loneliness we feel” (p. 301). Frankly, I don’t feel any “cosmic” loneliness when I’ve got plenty of family and friends to actually interact with in this life, but such a need (assuming it isn’t just apologetic lip service) could be met by any religion that posits cosmic beings or forces. “Another benefit of Christianity is that it helps us to cope well with suffering and death.” Denying the finality of death is coping with death in the same way that denying the severity of pain is coping with pain. It may provide superficial comfort, but there’s no guarantee that it’s any better than simply accepting the intensity of pain or the permanence of death. “Christianity enables us to become the better persons we want to be.” I prefer to say that hard work and diligence are the root cause of that, not Christianity, but once again, a Muslim, Buddhist, Krishnan, or other religious believer could make the very same claim.
But it’s not just about making the same claims, it’s also about the fact that there is no demonstrable reason for assuming that a Muslim is any worse off in these benefits than a Christian. Or that a religious believer is any better off than an atheist. What can D’Souza say to those of us who don’t feel his “cosmic loneliness” and who find greater comfort in accepting the finality of death than pretending that life goes on? He may suspect we’re lying or that our lives are emptier because of it, but this is why, as I said, it’s unwise to presume the feelings and motivations of others without good reason. I am a genuinely happier person now as an atheist; while I used to dread and fear death as a Christian, I look upon it quite differently as a non-believer.
D’Souza concludes the book by discussing Christianity’s promise of an end to this world, saying “come, Lord Jesus. We are ready.” It’s interesting that there is no wrap-up to recall and justify the greatness of Christianity. Instead we have something more like a benediction from a sermon, and perhaps this once again reveals D’Souza’s true aim behind the book, not as an intellectual case for Christianity, but as a devotional intended to placate a certain audience of believers distressed by the so-called New Atheists. Nonetheless, we find very little about Christianity that can be called great in D’Souza’s book. What we do find are plenty of half-truths, whitewashings of history, fallacious arguments, and non sequiturs in practically every single chapter.
[This review originally published September 9, 2011]
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