What's So Great About Christianity?

"Atheists have very clearly said that their goal is to go after our children." - Christian, and Domestic Policy Expert Dinesh D'Souza.
"Theology is not little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed it is ignorance with wings." - Author and atheist Sam Harris
"The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be" - Astronomer and TV personality Carl Sagan

Is Christianity obsolete? Do the atheists have it right? Has Christianity been disproven by science, debunked as a force for good, and discredited as a guide to morality? Dinesh D'Souza looks at Christianity with a questioning eye in his book What's So Great About Christianity? in which he also treats atheists with equal skepticism.

Albert Mohler recently interviewed D'Souza about this book:

Albert Mohler: These are interesting days, the public airwaves and so much of the media context is now taken up with the discussion that has featured a great deal of what can be described as militant atheism. Whether it's Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or others, there is a new sense that a militant atheism is projecting itself into the public square. Dinesh D'Souza ... has written a new book entitled What's So Great About Christianity. Dinesh, why did you write the book, What's So Great About Christianity?

Dinesh D'Souza: Well, I've been, for 15 years, a secular writer. I've written seven books, but I felt that something new is happening today. That is, we're seeing for the first time atheism become a serious option for people and particularly for young people. A generation ago the poster child of atheism was someone like Madeline Murray O'Hare, or some ACLU lawyer-not a very attractive image for atheism worldwide. Now this atheism is coming out of the universities, they have scientific credentials, or like Christopher Hitchens, they're stylish, they're witty, and many young people are attracted to this kind of thing. I felt that it's important to have, if you will, a twenty-first century apologetic that took the atheist argument seriously-that meets it on it's own ground of reason and science and evidence. That's the goal of What's So Great About Christianity-to challenge atheism on its own terms and defeat it.

Mohler: I think one of the things you acknowledge in your book is that this new breed of militant atheists really looks at what they acknowledge to be the Christian foundations of civilization and argues that they are negative, evil, oppressive, intolerant, and as something we should simply repudiate and grow beyond.

D'Souza: Years ago Bertrand Russell, after he wrote his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, somebody asked him, "If you die and you find yourself before God what would you say?" And Russell, very pompously, said, "I would say, 'Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.'"So, this was the old banner of atheism-it claimed intellectual superiority, this sort of search for evidence. The new atheism, however, is also strangely clothed in the garb of morality. It accuses religion, and specifically Christianity, of being behind most violence and evil and war and suffering-and even terrorism in the world. This is atheism that is flying on the wings of 9/11. It demands a new kind of an answer.

Mohler: You talk about the global triumph of Christianity and the twilight of atheism. If atheism represents so few worldwide, why does it get so much attention?

D'Souza: It gets so much attention because it occupies very influential sectors of American and Western life. Atheism is strong in the universities, it is strong in the media, it is, perhaps, not as strong in politics, but because we have this notion of separation of church and government, the political square is dominated by ... secularists. They figured out a very clever con in which the religious people are driven out of the public square and the atheist idea of fairness is to have a monopoly of the public space. So, for all these reasons, we live in a culture that is publicly secular. If someone was to come from Mars and visit America, and walk around our public buildings, watch television, turn on the music, read books, you would have no idea that a majority of Americans are Christians. You would have no idea that you are in a society that is a Christian society.

Mohler: So when you look at that picture what would you suggest that Christians should do? Simply sit back and make observations about the growing secularism of the elites, or engage the issues?

D'Souza: I think we have a clear biblical mandate to be "not of the world, but in it." We are all told to love God not just with our hearts, but with our minds, and we are told to give the reasons for the hope that is within us. So, I think as Christians we should be in the culture, fully engaged. Not, if you will, conceding all this territory to the atheist because, let's remember, this is not just a debate about putting a monument in a public building. The atheists have very clearly said that their goal is to go after our children. In other words, they know that they have not won the battle for the current generation, but they are hoping that through the schools, and through the universities, as young Christians come into school, come into college-and remember, as in my case, when I went to college I was a Christian, but the Christianity I learned was very juvenile. You could call it Crayon Christianity, and so it was very vulnerable to skeptical assault. So, as Christians we are sending our children off and they are going to get a withering attack on their faith. We've got to prepare ourselves-even more important-we have to prepare them [our children]. We can't just prepare them with, ultimately, scriptural truth, we also have to prepare them with intellectual and moral defenses, so that they can fend off the attacks that will surely come.

Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine said:

“As an unbeliever, I passionately disagree with Dinesh D’Souza on some of his positions. But he is a first-rate scholar whom I feel absolutely compelled to read. His thorough research and elegant prose have elevated him into the top ranks of those who champion liberty and individual responsibility. Now he adds Christianity to his formula for the good society, and although non-Christians and non-theists may disagree with some of his arguments, we ignore him at our peril. D’Souza’s book takes the debate to a new level. Read it.”

On October 22, 2007 at The Kings College Dinesh D'Souza debated Christopher Hitchens under the question “Is Christianity the Problem?”

Dinesh D'Souza, a former White House domestic policy analyst, is currently the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the bestselling author of What's So Great About America, Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, and many other books.

Is Christianity A Problem?

Posted November 24, 2007

14 comments:

Philip Kurian said...

D’Souza is a great intellect – I think at one time was with National Review magazine – perhaps he still is?

In the great atheist/theist debate that is raging at the moment there are three good theist polemicists; Alister McGrath, John Lennox, and Dinesh D’Souza.

McGrath comes at theism from a theological perspective; Lennox from a strong mathematical and science perspective; D’Souza comes at it from a ‘renaissance man’ perspective. Of the three I think D'Souza is the most ‘educated’ in the sense that he has a greater depth of reading in all of the topics under discussion than the others. (I would include some of his main opponents Dawkins, Harris and Dennett in this comparison. Hitchens is also highly ‘educated’ in the sense that I am speaking of but somehow Hitchens doesn’t present his side of the arguments with the same style or ‘class’ as D’Souza.)

D’Souza is not a literalist with respect to the bible but then he is also not like you, Michael, a metaphorist in its reading. He reads the bible from a contextual perspective i.e. those things that are clearly meant to be factual would be understood by him from that perspective while other events read by ‘fundamentalists’ (for want of a better word) as factual would be interpretated by him from a metaphorical perspective.

The key point that I got out of this book is contained in a quote from Lee Smolin’s book “The Life of the Cosmos” in which he said:

We will never know completely who we are until we understand why the universe is constructed in such a way that it contains living things. What D’Souza does a very nice job of showing is that science has completely failed in any rational explanation for this phenomenon and that even science itself must operate from the standpoint of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ if it to move forward. I will wind up this comment by quoting this from the book:

Faith is not a highly acclaimed word in the scientific community. “I do not believe that the scientist can have that same certainty of faith that very religious people have,” writes physicist Richard Feynman in ‘The Meaning of It All’. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson complains that “the claims of religions rely on faith” and boasts that “the claims of science rely on experimental verification.” Feynman and Tyson seem quite unaware that at the heart of their cherished scientific enterprise is a faith-based propostion no less mysterious than any religious dogma. This the presumption, quite impossible to prove, that the universe is rational. The universe seems to be ordered. “Seems” because there is no way to prove this is so.

Despite any way to obtain this proof scientists operate in the ‘belief’ that it is ‘true’ and therein lies their ‘faith’.

Phil

Joan Ferguson said...

Phil: Good points. I like how he brings the question of separation of church and state back to its roots, not in the Enlightenment but as an early Christian idea originating in Matthew 22:21 where we read: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”.

I also agree with his argument that “the separation of church and state in the U.S.A. has become distorted to mean that religion has no place in the public arena and that morality derived from religion should not be permitted to shape our laws. Somehow freedom for religious expression has become freedom from religious expression. Secularists want to empty the public square of religion and religious-based morality so they can monopolize the shared space of society with their own views.”

Joan

Philip Kurian said...

I think he is mistaken, however, when he quotes Paul

“For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

and says that in this single phrase Paul repudiates the classical tradition founded by Plato. He says that for Plato the problem of evil is knowledge and people do wrong because they do not know what is right. He says that Paul denies this by saying that the problem of evil is not one of knowledge but one of ‘will’. Because human will is corrupt the problem of evil is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of will.

I think that the problem of ‘evil’ is best phrased as the problem of ‘suffering’. Why do bad things (evil?) happen that cause ‘suffering’?

Somewhere else on this blog we discussed the case that if a rock falls on one’s head and one is severely injured or even killed that we don’t refer to the rock as ‘evil’ yet the one on whose head the rock has fallen has ‘suffered’. No amount of will would have affected the rock’s actions. Now as we discussed before … if someone pushes the rock then the question of ‘evil’ and ‘will’ takes an entirely different tack but the problem of ‘suffering’ does not.

Phil

Derek Bell said...

Phil

As a scientist I was impressed by his excellent arguments on the theological roots of science. I was not aware of Augustine’s arguments on the infinite regression problem and whether time extends infinitely into the past and Augustine’s solution that God created time at the same ‘time’ that He created the universe. Thus God stands outside of time and that this is what is meant by the word ‘eternal’ – eternal not meaning ‘going on forever’ but meaning ‘standing outside of time’.

Interestingly, this seems to be the position of some of the best physicists at the moment that there was no time before the big bang.

I seem to remember, Michael, that you presented a definition of ‘eternal’ which was the moment of ‘now’ which is ‘forever’. You were making the point that this definition of ‘now’ does not have a ‘time arrow’ i.e. time moving in one direction from the past to the future. I guess Augustine’s position was that God does not have an arrow of time but is present now in all time.

While I can understand these arguments I have a hard time getting my mind around them as I do with D’Souza’s description of the proof of God based on causation. If everything has a cause then ‘God’ must have a cause. The example of thinking of God as the author of a novel or a narrative was intriguing where the author of the narrative and his act of creating the novel can not be understood as being a section of the novel itself. Thus we can ask and answer questions of cause within the narrative of the novel but we can say nothing about why the author wrote the novel unless the author ‘reveals’ this to us say in a TV book interview.

Otherwise we can only theorize about his motives for writing the story based on what we think the author is trying to tell us through the narrative. This approach is very similar to that of John Lennox where in his book God's Undertaker that we recently discussed on this blog he talks about Aunt Matilda’s cake and how we can't know why she baked it.

This stuff certainly makes me think and it strengthens my analysis of my work in the sciences.

D. Bell

Philip Kurian said...

Derek:

Agree with what you write. Atheists knock theists as being irrational and acting on faith alone when both are incorrect as I indicated earlier. John’s Gospel says that in the beginning was the “Word”. I would bet that most atheists and many theists, including our own Christian compatriots do not realize that “Word” refers to “logos” which is a Greek term that includes the concepts of ‘thought’, ‘reason’ and ‘rationality. And the statement from this gospel that the “Word was God” refers to the concept that the our human reason is derived from the intelligence that created this apparently ordered cosmos which moves rationally and can be studied by us through the application of reason.

Phil

Michael N. Hull said...

Phil

E.O. Wilson has an article in the New Scientist entitled “Can Biology Do Better Than Faith” in which he writes:

In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.

The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature", people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.

Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called "the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin".

It strikes me that Wilson, despite his Harvard credentials, doesn’t understand that the questions studied by biology regarding evolution etc are widely accepted by most theists and are now irrelevant to the debate.

It is questions of physics around which this debate is now evolving e.g. why does the universe have ‘laws’? How did the universe begin – Big Bang by naturalist cause or ‘Big Bang’ by theistic cause. What is the nature of time? Is there indeed a beginning to time?

Theists argue as we have seen in this thread above that we can envisage something standing outside of linear time. Physicists (Hawkings for example) present concepts of ‘imaginary time’, string theories, multiple universes etc.

None of these questions have anything to do with biology!

Regards,
Michael

PRD said...

The chapter on the anthropic principle was well done even though I think the puzzlement over the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is a bit of a red herring. I like the argument that you gave, Michael, in an earlier thread where you said in the thread “Has Science Buried God”:

I have been wondering about the fine tuning argument which supposedly supports theism by arguing that if one or other of the universal physical constants was off by 1 part in some huge number, the universe, stars, life etc could not exist. For example, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by 1 part in 10 to the power of 16 stars could not have formed. But are these arguments not the same as saying: Here I have a series of circles. I have discovered that if I divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter I get a number (3.141592…) which goes out to infinity. This number is exactly the same and infinitely ‘fine tuned’ no matter how many circles that I examine. Now if I change just one integer in this number, say I substitute the one millionth integer in this number by changing it up or down by 1, then circles can not exist!

D’Souza analyzes the problem of ‘fine-tuning’ by defining three positions: Lucky Us, Multiple Universes, and Designer Universe. I loved the comment that “Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich seems to be the first to have noticed: anyone who can believe in multiple universes should have no problem beleving in heaven and hell. Just think of them as alternate universes, operating outside space and time according to laws that are inoperative in our universe. Even the atheist should now be able to envision a realm in which there is not evil or suffering and where the inhabitants never grow old. These traditional concepts, which have long been dismissed as preposterous based on the rules of our world, should be quite believable and perhaps even mandatory for one whoholds that there are an infinite number of universes in which all quantum possibilities are realized.

Maybe the theological concept of multiple universes is the concept of a heaven and a hell?

But seriously I tend to agree with Michael’s circle analysis. Taking D’Souza’s three positions: First, is the value of pi lucky? I think not. Is the value of pi only obtained for one circle out of multiple circles? I think not. Is the value of pi the result of a circle that is ‘designed’. I think not. Pi is simply the description of a circle in numbers (mathematical terms) while a circle drawn on paper is simply a description of a circle in visual terms (artistic rendition).

My point is that I think the whole of the anthropic principle reduces to no more than a debate as to why a circle is ‘round’!

prd

Joan Ferguson said...

I loved the comment that Dawkins et al are members of the “Church of Infinite Universes” and that for scientists to abolish one unobservable God it takes an infinite number of unobservable universes.

Priceless
Joan

Avid Reader said...

Good discussion!

I enjoyed this book. Nice thing each chapter seems to be stand alone like a separate essay on each topic.

His summary of Kant and the limits of reason was well summarized and everytime I see The Spinning Dancer Illusion I know the truth of what Kant said. Take a look at the link; some people see the dancer spinning clockwise, others see her going counter-clockwise. Indeed if you look away from her and blur your eyes you can make her go in the reverse direction to the way you normally see her. She obviously can’t be spinning in both directions at once so what are our senses telling us? What is the truth?

The weakest chapter in the book is D’Souza’s defense of why he thinks miracles are possible. I disagree totally with him when he says “only if miracles are possible is Christianity believable”. To try and use Hume to refute Hume’s own arguments against miracles was quite ingenious but I didn’t buy into it. D’Souza’s whole defense of miracles boiled down to the fact that scientific laws themselves can not be verified to 100% certainty and thus violations of natures laws are possible if highly improbable and thus miracles can occur. OK it is an argument but one that is stretching credablilty.

Ever
DM

Michael N. Hull said...

DM:

Here is another link to The Spinning Dancer Illusion. with some explanation of the phenomenon or would Kant have me say 'noumenon'?

Regards,
Michael

Joan Ferguson said...

DM:
In my view the weakest chapter was on "Pascal and the Reasonableness of Faith". To argue that one ought to back something (i.e. belief in God) in the case it might turn out to be right does not strike me as a strong argument for such a belief. If I followed this thought I wouldn't get on an airplane because if it crashes that might be the end of me.

Joan

Arthur McCorry said...

DM:

Even weaker was the chapter entitled ‘Opiate of the Morally Corrupt’ in which I lost all my good impressions of D’Souza up to that point. I couldn’t believe it when I read:

It is chiefly because of sex that most contemporary atheists have chosen to break with Christianity. “Th worst feature of the Christian religion,” Bertrand Russell wrote in ‘Why I Am Not a Christian,” is its attitude toward sex.” Hitchens writes that “the divorce between the sexual life and fear …. Can now at last be attempted on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse.” When an atheist give elaborate justification for why God does not exist and why traditional morality is an illusion, he is very likely thinking of his sex organs.

Then he goes on to say:

The orgasm has become today’s secular sacrament … because .. it gives people a momentary taste of eternity…… Atheism’s second sacrament is abortion …

From all of this he concludes:

that contrary to popular belief, atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt, it is a moral revolt.

I thought Dawkins went off the rails in some of his rants in ‘The God Delusion’ but D’Souza had gone off them just as far in the other direction.

Disappointing end to what started off as a very promising read.

AMC

MIchael N. Hull said...

AMC:

I agree with your interesting comment on D'Souza's opinion of sex and atheism.

You might read Christopher Hitchens' latest book The Portable Atheist in which he accuses theism of a similar hang up with sex. Hitchens writes:

If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life. The disease is pervasive, from the weird obsession with virginity and the one-way birth canal through which prophets are "delivered," through the horror of menstrual blood, all the way to the fascinated disgust with homosexuality. Male and female genital mutilation; the wild prohibition of masturbation ...

Hitchens gave an example of this sexual hangup writing aboout the 2007 floods in the north of England saying:

The Church of England was not slow to rush to the aid of the stricken. "This is a strong and definite judgment," announced the Bishop of Carlisle, "because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation." From a list of possible transgressions the bishop selected recent legal moves to allow more rights to homosexuals. These, he said, placed us "in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance." Many of his senior colleagues, including one who has been spoken of as a future Archbishop of Canterbury, joined him in blaming the floods - which had only hit one geographical section of the country - on sexual preference.

Regards,
Michael

CJ Dates said...

Thank you for this post on D'Souza's book. I was recently debating whether to read it or not and your post piqued my interest.

As for Christianity being a problem, I think I usually answer it based on D'Souza's answer of the new atheism being clothed in morality. People accuse Christianity of being a violent religion, or at the very least a justification for a lot of killing in the past 2000 years. The truth of the matter, as I see it is that groups of people commit all kinds of atrocities and rationalize them based upon anything they can find. Christianity serves as that justification for many people, just as every other religion or philosophy has served that purpose. I guess I could sum it up by saying, Christianity doesn't kill people, people kill people. They just sometimes use Christianity to excuse it.

Which, I believe is just ridiculous, as it is clear to any careful reader that the a key tenant of the faith is LOVE and NOT KILLING others. But that is another issue I guess.

Anyway, thanks for the post. I appreciate your topics.