What’s So Great about Christianity

THE PREDICTABLE backlash is now underway.

In response to the popular atheist books of Susan Jacoby, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, we find that Regnery Publishing, “the nation’s leading conservative publisher,” released two anti-atheist polemics at the end of 2007. The latest is The Politically Incorrect GuideT to the Bible by Robert J. Hutchinson, for which an online promotional headline says it all.

    Fed up with smug atheists claiming that the Bible is full of intolerance, violence, hatred, and outlandish fables? Here’s the antidote.

But the first title out of this publisher’s gate, and the one most appropriate to review, is What’s So Great About Christianity by New York Times best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza. He’s a former Ronald Reagan White House domestic policy analyst who is currently the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In this book D’Souza sets out to prove, first, that Western civilization is the crucible of humanity’s most cherished values and that Christianity is the main foundation for it: being the source of such ideas as human dignity, romantic love, family values, equality, and human rights as well as the originator of the republican form of government, science, and even secularism itself. Then he sets out to prove the existence of God as first cause, creator, and source of morality as well as make a case for miracles, faith, and free will.

With eyes fixed on such a grandiose vista–and with his sources limited almost exclusively to popular magazines and newspapers, mainstream books, and popular websites–it’s no surprise that he stumbles. In the end all we get of value is a handy compendium of pop evangelical apologetics as applied to the arguments of the so-called new atheists. But this is important in itself. Even in the absence of anything really new, this book is worthy of study by all who would effectively engage American evangelicals.

D’Souza commences as if he’s adopted some of the formula Eric Hoffer spelled out in The True Believer. That is, he appeals to the resentment of his Christian readers by declaring that, though they are under siege and on the run from a dominant secular society and militant atheism, they are actually winning. Conservative religion is flourishing in the non-Western world, he reports, and these religious believers are having large families while secularists in the West are having abortions. Hence, in the world as a whole, “God is the future, and atheism is on the way out.”

One flaw in this claim, of course, is that the largely Christian and Islamic growth in the southern hemisphere shouldn’t be treated as a “new” upsurge of religion. These populations were religious before–just differently so. Hence there is no gain for “religion,” merely a shift of allegiance away from indigenous beliefs to Christianity and Islam. One can also wonder how much of the fervency of this “revival” is due to temporary fears that come with rapid cultural change in the developing world–and to what degree family size will go down if opportunities and affluence increase, or if the human carrying capacity of the environment is catastrophically exceeded. Time will tell.

D’Souza next argues that atheists are alarmed by the rise of religion and are engaged in a backlash. In truth, it is really the religious backlash against modernity brought forth by the Christian Right in the United States and militant Islamism in the Middle East that has caused atheists to finally become popular for speaking up.
Nonetheless, D’Souza wants to characterize atheists as frightened oppressors. So, via selective quotation, mostly from the new atheists, he gives the impression that professors in secular institutions of higher learning are largely atheists themselves, working as conscious change agents in a desperate effort to undermine parental religious values. He neglects to mention that knowledge itself changes people. Indeed, it wouldn’t be of much use if it didn’t.

Next we are treated to a history lesson aimed at revising the view that the disappearance of ancient European civilization into the Christian Middle Ages was in any way a bad thing. But his first step in this is, paradoxically, to shift the blame as if this development were indeed unfortunate. The Christians didn’t destroy Roman civilization, he tells us; the “barbarians” did. But, the Goths and Vandals, whose revolts led to their taking over large regions of Roman territory, had already been Christianized. Furthermore, there’s no getting around the fact that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire happened on Christianity’s watch.

So D’Souza later switches to a good-riddance-to-bad-rubbish strategy. On the subject of family values he makes the sweeping, sneering generalization on page 58 that “when we rhapsodize about ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,’ we should keep in mind that the sexual practices of these civilizations live on today only in prisons and in the ideology of marginal groups like the North American Man/Boy Love Association.” This blatantly ignores all the testimony supporting lifestyles similar to those of mainstream Western society today offered by ancient authors like Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Seneca the Younger, Plutarch, and others. D’Souza would also have us believe that family life was hardly valued in the ancient world but Christianity made it central. To say this he must ignore the well-documented “family values” policies of Augustus Caesar, the depictions of family life found in numerous examples of Greco-Roman art, and so much else. He even claims that consensual, romantic love didn’t really exist until Christianity introduced it–despite it being featured in a host of ancient Greek romantic novels that profoundly influenced both medieval and Renaissance literature.

Regarding ancient Greek and Roman religion, D’Souza unabashedly declares on page 46: “Today the ancient paganism lives on only in the names of planets and for those who follow astrology charts.” But only in the narrowest sense is the religion of the Olympian gods dead. Romanized parts of it continue in disguised form within the rites of the Roman Catholic Church and the legends of saints. Moreover, the poetry and drama of ancient Greece and Rome, filled as they are with references to their gods, live on as well, as do all those beloved works of art and literature from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and nineteenth century that also include the ancient gods. Beyond these there are the characteristics of many Christian holidays and even the names of the months in our calendar. Ancient Greco-Roman religion is also echoed in the modern Olympics, many corporate logos old and new, and even the monuments and buildings in Washington, DC.

Turning to science, he claims that the first hospitals were of Christian origin. Never mind the ancient Greek temples of Asclepius, the god of healing, that served the same purpose. Indeed, the snake and staff symbol of that god is the standard medical symbol in use today. Then came the valetudinaria, the secular hospitals of the Roman Empire. Christianity can be credited with building more of them and thus bringing medical care to a wider population. But in tracing the history of the actual practices that have gone on in hospitals, the work of the leading ancient physicians, such as Hippocrates in Greece and Galen in Rome, can hardly be ignored–yet D’Souza manages to do just that. Moreover, he makes no mention of how contact with Islam through Spain and the Crusades helped foster the High Middle Ages, bringing Muslim science and math to Europe.

The reason D’Souza has to trash classical culture, ignore non-Western influences, and then lay claim to the European Enlightenment is because he needs to give the Bible credit for all things he considers good, especially those things he knows humanists admire. So, for example, on page 45 he asserts that Matthew 22:21, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,” is the source for the idea of church-state separation! (Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West gives a much better accounting.) He goes on to argue that such notions as the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances find their roots in Christianity–claims which totally ignore the much earlier roots to be found in such authors as Aristotle, Cicero, and Ulpian. And he reads into selective scriptural quotes very modern ideas, like human rights, that didn’t actually emerge until late seventeenth century England as a product of social evolution.

A high school student armed with a good encyclopedia could spend all day refuting this sort of revisionist history. So let’s turn to theology. Starting with chapter 8, D’Souza proceeds to build his case for God.
He begins with a defense of Thomas Aquinas’ first cause argument, saying that everything needs a cause. He further develops this thought later in the book. On page 125 he writes: “When events occur–we see a huge crater where level ground used to be, a famous movie star is found with his head cut off–we immediately ask what caused these things to happen.” That’s an interesting second example–especially since there appears to have been no case of a famous movie star murdered in this way.

Anyway, though everything in the universe needs a cause, God is outside the universe and therefore no part of the chain of causation. So we don’t have to explain where he came from. By that logic, however, we don’t have to explain where causality came from, either, and therefore we don’t need a god to cause it. In fact, causality itself can’t require a cause because it’s only within the context of causality that talk of causes even makes sense. But even if an uncaused God were outside causality, and therefore not part of the cause-and-effect universe, he would by definition be incapable of causing anything. God can only be a cause if he’s inside causality, in which case it becomes necessary to posit a cause for God, also.

D’Souza thinks an analogy will help here. We are characters in a novel of God’s authorship, he says. As in novels generally, the causation affecting the characters can’t, by extrapolation, be applied to the causation affecting the author.

But of course it can. The author models the causation affecting the characters after the causation affecting him or herself. So, although the causation affecting the characters isn’t in the same string as that affecting the author, one may still reasonably ask questions regarding the author’s background, just as one asks such questions about the novel’s characters. Indeed, literary scholars constantly try to learn more about authors, the times in which they wrote, the literary influences on their work, and so on. Thus D’Souza’s analogy has only made matters worse.

Next we are treated to the ontological argument of Anselm of Canterbury that God is “that which no greater can be thought.” But the key word “greater” isn’t defined. Is this word a measure? A valuation? Because if “God” is a being to which nothing greater can be imagined, that could mean, for instance, that he is infinitely large, has a temperature of absolute zero, and is incomparably evil. Or perhaps God is infinitely small, infinitely hot, and infinitely good. Or maybe he’s all of these things at once.

To avoid such problems, one can abandon the notion of God as a being. Then God becomes a mere synonym for, and deification of, the concept of infinity. If one believes in infinity then one believes in God. Problem solved. Though this isn’t what theists are looking for.

Later in the book D’Souza offers a moral argument for God. He starts by asserting the necessity of a universal, objective, absolute morality. What he means by this is that human beings think, speak, and act in moral terms, whatever may be the specific content of their moral systems. Thus he concludes that, because moral values can’t be proved scientifically true, we must live in two realms, one physical and one moral.

Are humans the only beings like this? Yes, he says. Chimpanzees have nothing even close to the human moral sense or human conscience. But the only source he cites on chimps is from a single 1996 book by primatologist Frans de Waal–providing one ambiguous quote out of context. From that tidbit of science, coupled with an a priori claim from Immanuel Kant, D’Souza leaps to the conclusion that there is a bright metaphysical line of separation, indeed a deep “chasm that separates human beings from the rest of the universe.” Following Christian novelist and scholar C. S. Lewis, D’Souza then maintains that “conscience is nothing other than the voice of God within our souls.”

But he doesn’t carefully build his case for this. As a result, he doesn’t notice the numerous holes that can be poked in it along the way.

First, it was reported in 2006 and 2007 that Felix Warneken and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology had found through experimental studies that both chimpanzees and human infants would help unrelated humans without expectation of reward. Moreover, Jane Goodall’s longitudinal studies of chimpanzees in the wild have revealed important similarities in the social and family life between chimps and humans. The more we learn about these amazing animals, the more similarities we find between them and us, and the less unique humans become.

Second, chimpanzees are only our nearest living relatives. What if our now extinct nearer relatives were still alive today, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, and others? Would the line of demarcation between humans and the rest of nature still be as bright?

Third, among all social animals, behavioral characteristics vary widely within each species. Humans are no different. The promptings of conscience and resultant altruistic behavior are different for different people, positioned along a bell-shaped curve like all other features of our psychology. And D’Souza is forced to acknowledge a bit of this. On page 236, regarding conscience, he writes: “Except in pathological people its voice is clear and incontrovertible.” That exception is the fly in his soup that ruins the meal. He can’t get away with claiming the issue is rigidly either-or, with no gradations in between. In the real world, beyond his neat philosophical categories, some people are more or less pathological than others and some are more or less saintly. Our own personal experience tells us that D’Souza is trying to stake out a nonexistent gap within what is actually a wide continuum of human difference. His beliefs, of course, require that he establish such a gap, lest he find himself unable to justify divine reward and punishment for the way each human being uses her or his metaphysical free will in response to the supposedly objective, universal, absolute, and undeniable promptings of conscience.

Of course, in D’Souza’s view, “Moral laws presume a moral lawgiver.” He doesn’t consider such things as natural-law theory or the Buddhist law of karma, both of which can be nontheistic. Nor does he consider a scientific explanation: that the evolved capacity for empathy can contribute to the foundation of conscience.

There’s more to tell about this book, including its whitewash of Christian persecutions, its denial of significant conflicts between religion and science, and its constant use of evangelistic argumentative techniques. Suffice it to say there’s a full package here of false or exaggerated arguments and errors of logic. But the package is persuasively presented in ways that can trap the unwary. As a result, familiarity with it is necessary for all who would avoid being blindsided in the culture wars.