November 17, 2010

"What’s So Great About Christianity" by Dinesh D’Souza – A Review

UPDATE
What's So Great About Kant?  A Critique of Dinesh D'Souza's Attack on Reason by Michael Dahlen, Skeptic, August 17, 2011


ORIGINAL POST
Everyone has an understanding of what the world is and how it works, and what human beings are and should do in the scheme of things. These understandings vary in content, scope and accuracy.  All such understandings should be respected.  However, not all understandings, worldviews or points of view are worthy of reverence.  All are not truthful or valid for describing the realities of life on Earth or man’s place in the universe.  All do not provide good guidance for individual and group behavior.  One need not accept all others’ perspectives on life as equally valuable.  Some are less truthful, are harmful to individuals and humankind and should be opposed.  Such is Dinesh D’Souza’s view of the universe, life, Earth and humankind as presented in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity.

At first glance the book appears to be a treatise in defense of Christianity under attack from atheism, secularism and science.  There is more to the book than this.  Essentially, D’Souza’s book is about what he believes to be the natural intellectual and moral depravity of the human individual and humankind.  He has no respect for or confidence in human empirical investigation, experience and knowledge regarding the most human of matters – human nature and humankind’s place in the biosphere and universe.  For him humans are incapable of understanding their nature and natural history.  They are insufficiently endowed to develop a moral belief system.  They are incapable of guiding and controlling their behavior on Earth or in the universe without supernatural intervention.

D’Souza believes that human-derived knowledge based on evidence is inadequate and therefore unacceptable.  For him, humankind cannot survive and prosper without the faith-based knowledge and morality provided by Christianity.  Throughout his book, he therefore extols and tries to impose a Christian worldview on his reader, and retain what he sees as Christianity's rightful place – the source and moral core of Western civilization and the vanguard of global human progress.  He believes Christianity’s God and moral principles, to the exclusion of all other gods and morality, have always been and remain essential for all human life to prosper and progress.  D'Souza's theo-centric worldview and disdain for the reasoning capabilities of the human mind and all non-Christian human experience are an arrogant and unjustifiable condemnation of all humanity.

When D’Souza and others accept faith over evidence as a basis for knowledge they show a lack of courage, desire or ability to think freely.  To them their knowledge is perfect, final and suitable for all.  To label non-Christians as arrogant and egotistical, as he does, is nothing but utmost hypocrisy.

Here is a worldview or moral belief system not dependent on D’Souza’s Christianity and its creator God:  Be kind and loving toward all.  Cultivate humility and gratitude in yourself and encourage these virtues in others.  Work so that the Earth is a better place when it is your time to die.  Respect others’ views but remember all views are not equally valid or useful.  Some are better than others at revealing the truth about your life and all other life on Earth.  Some are better than others as guides for human behavior.  Oppose ideas that degrade or seek to enslave your mind and the minds of others, or ideas that block the human search for new truths and the improvement of evidence-based knowledge.  Be skeptical of certainty.  Be unafraid and willing to change your views when new knowledge or evidence become available and make such a change necessary.  Embrace good ideas from any source.  Act based on truths that are proven by your experience and evidence, not faith.  Do not fear death.  It is a part of all life and therefore good.

D’Souza firmly believes that such a worldview is impossible without Christianity.  If allowed to spread in the world, he believes it will lead to a depraved state of selfishness and anarchy that will bring an end to Western civilization.  His message is:  Do not think for yourself for your thinking is inherently inferior and will lead you and humankind to destruction.  Adopt the worldview of Christianity and thereby be saved from destruction and eternal damnation, live well on Earth and forever in heaven.

Within over three hundred pages of effort using outdated, misconstrued or incorrect science, flawed arguments, factual errors and faulty logic, D’Souza fails to make his case.

From reading his book it is obvious that D’Souza has read a lot about religion and science.  He admits in his preface that there is but one truth about the world and the universe – that of the believer or that of the atheist.  I totally agree with him on this.  He then casts the differences in these understandings as polar opposites and sets up the generic atheist as his one-dimensional straw man.  He falsely claims that atheists believe that “the universe is a completely closed system and miracles are impossible.”  Whereas Christian believers accept that “the universe is not a closed system and there is the possibility of divine intervention.”  The truth in this regard is quite different.  Atheists believe the universe to be an open system and are willing to accept the existence of miracles if conclusive evidence supports such a claim.  The Christian universe is, in fact, very closed in the sense that its adherents reject non-Christian understandings of what it is how it works.

D'Souza makes no distinction between atheists, scientists, scientific free-thinkers and secularists, and lumps them together as having one unified worldview.  He declares it is time to “drive the money-changers from the temple” because “they want to make religion – especially the Christian religion – disappear from the face of the earth.”  This is simply untrue.  Atheists are without a belief in a deity, a Creator God.  Scientific, secular thinking people rely upon objective, verifiable evidence for understanding Earth and Man’s place in it.  Not accepting the existence of a deity and seeking evidence as a basis for knowledge is not an effort to rid the earth of Christianity.  It is an exercise in courage, freedom and humility in the face of a very complex and often threatening world and universe.

There is one truth, as D’Souza correctly puts it.  For him that truth has already been found, is complete and final.  He believes it is all one needs to live well and happy in the world, in the company of one’s fellows, forever.  For atheists and secularists, most of whom have a science-based worldview, the questions of human life on earth and the universe are much older than the answers provided by Christianity and the other monotheisms.  Scientific knowledge is open to and invites revision, including its most profound core concepts.  Religion is closed to all but its own core understandings.

Some Specifics

D’Souza makes the following claims (pgs. xvi-xvii):
     ·       Christianity is the root of our most cherished values;
·        Science supports the existence of a divine being;
·        Darwinian evolution supports and strengthens the evidence for supernatural design;
·        Science hasn’t proved miracles are impossible;
·        It is reasonable to have faith;
·        Atheism, not religion is responsible for the mass murders of history;
·        Atheism is not motivated by reason but a cowardly moral escapism.

Not one of these is true.  The origins of human values are far older, diverse and complicated than the version given by D'Souza.  No God gene has been found and there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a divine being.  Darwinian evolution provides an explanation of plant and animal diversity and differentiation on Earth – that being natural selection, not supernatural design.  The onus of proof for the existence of miracles is on those who claim they are real, not those who ask for proof.  By definition it is a contradiction in terms to claim that it is reasonable to have faith.  Mass murder under regimes whose leaders and beliefs were atheistic was not carried out against believers in order to promote atheism, it was commited to promote political ideologty, not atheism.  Atheists do not seek an escape from morality, rather a more practical, earthly basis for their values and morals.

In concluding his preface, D’Souza portrays unbelievers as:
·        Darwinian about science, anti-Darwinian about morals;
·        Revering science and reason but questioning if they give a full grasp of the world;
·        Rationalists at work, romantics in their personal lives;
·        Pursuing happiness but wonder why you haven’t found it;
·        Stuck in a joyless seeking of joy;
·        In the midst of plenty, feel scarcity pressing down on you;
·        Not having seriously faced their impending death;
·        At death having to choose or reject Christianity’s God;
·        In need of conversion to Christianity.

Darwinism has nothing to do with morality.  Having reverence for science and reason yet continuing to question the knowledge they produce is a virtue, not a shortcoming.  It keeps such knowledge as accurate as possible in an ever-changing world and universe.  Not all unbelievers are unhappy.  Those who are unhappy usually know why.  More often than not it is not because there is no God.  Unbelievers portrayed as joylessly seeking joy is an odd expression and an assertion, not a fact.  Are Christians happily seeking happiness and, if so, why should others buy into such blind certainty?  Such pressures unbelievers feel have nothing to do with being ignorant of a bountiful world.  They are very reasonable, non-delusional responses to the difficulty and uncertainty inherent in life on Earth.  Facing death need not be the daunting, fearful experience D’Souza portrays it to be.  For most unbelievers the Christian belief in or desire for everlasting life is self-indulgent, narcissistic and delusional.

Unbelievers do not choose or reject God, they choose or reject a belief in a God.  They do not presume that God exists and that he is therefore something to reject.  The need for conversion from free-thinking to received thought is a need felt by believers, not unbelievers.  To them the bliss of living a delusion is not preferable to living truthfully, practically.  Unbelievers prefer the reality of a worldly truth over the alleged happiness of supernatural myth.

From here D’Souza poses arguments for what he sees as the ascendancy of Christianity and the decline of secularism.  That the origin of all which is best in Western Civilization, including science, derives form Christianity.  Even if I replied with a resounding YES, to all his assertions about the grandeur of Christianity, I am still left with the question:  So what?  D’Souza illogically concludes that if he positions Christianity as the originator of all Western morals and values such as justice, conscience, human rights, fairness, democracy, and science, for example, we must conclude that Christianity’s worldview has proven itself and therefore should not be questioned, much less rejected.  And he thinks atheists are arrogant and egotistical?

I do agree, however, with D’Souza, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville (The Little Book of Atheistic Spirituality (2007)) and Stuart Kauffman (Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (2008)) - there are some values in religion that have validity for living a happy and wholesome secular life, and that the values and beliefs of religions should not be rejected until new or revised values and beliefs have been put in place.  Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)) has a slightly different view of this:

Q: What do you think the role of religion is in determining human morality?

Harris: I think it is generally an unhelpful one. Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one. Of course, there are a few gems to be found in every religious tradition, but in so far as these precepts are wise and useful they are not, in principle, religious. You do not need to believe that the Bible was dictated by the Creator of the Universe, or that Jesus Christ was his son, to see the wisdom and utility of following the Golden Rule.

The problem with religious morality is that it often causes people to care about the wrong things, leading them to make choices that needlessly perpetuate human suffering. Consider the Catholic Church: This is an institution that excommunicates women who want to become priests, but it does not excommunicate male priests who rape children. The Church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realize that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic Church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.

Q: So people don’t need religion to live an ethical life?

Harris: No. And a glance at the lives of most atheists, and at the most atheistic societies on earth—Denmark, Sweden, etc.—proves that this is so. Even the faithful can’t really get their deepest moral principles from religion—because books like the Bible and the Qur’an are full of barbaric injunctions that all decent and sane people must now reinterpret or ignore. How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious. We are the guarantors of the wisdom we find in scripture, such as it is. And we are the ones who must ignore God when he tells us to kill people for working on the Sabbath.  (Amazon Exclusive Interview)

It is simply preposterous to believe that 100,000 years of human existence on Earth was nothing more than abject barbarity and savagery until 2000 years ago when Christianity began civilizing us.  Humanism, including its basic tenets of family and group fidelity, social partnership and cooperation, friendship, and other virtues, are as old as humankind itself.  Humanity was surely not cowering in abject brutality and depravity before Christianity arrived.  There is historical and pre-historical evidence to the contrary.

D’Souza portrays Darwinian evolutionists as wanting to explain the existence of religion and thereby “expose its roots and thereby undermine its supernatural authority (pg. 14).”  He says:  “The atheist’s real target is the God of monotheism, usually the Christian God (pg. 46).”  Evolutionary biologists, many of whom are atheists, are not first and foremost interested in undermining Christianity.  Their primary pursuit is truth, through reason and evidence, regarding earth, life and the universe.  The fact that such truths are found to be more acceptable as provisional explanations of the universe, biosphere and humankind and, in turn, have replaced all supernatural explanations (including Christianity) in human endeavors such as medicical practice, is an incidental outcome, not a goal or objective.

Soon after D’Souza presents a ludicrous juxtaposing of believers and secularist, a descent into Social Darwinism, a long ago rejected accounting for the evolution of society:

“Now imagine two groups of people -- let's call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe -- who subscribe to one of these two views. Which of the two is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.

“Should evolutionists like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing around the world? Across the globe, religious faith is thriving and religious people are having more children. By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves.

“The important point is not just that atheism is unable to complete with religion in atracting followers, but als that the lifestyle of practical atheism seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themelves (pg. 17)."

The proof of the valildity and usefulness of Christianity over secularism for living a good life is not a greater compartive number of offspring produced.  The ability to go forth and multiply as advocated in the Bible is not an indicator or a more valid, useful truth about today's and tomorrow's world and universe.  The quality of human life and health of the biosphere are measured by more than who is better at producing offspring.

Finally, one last misrepresentation of atheists and secularists.  D’Souza finds it “perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no higher purpose to life or the universe” compared to the rapturous life here and hereafter espoused by Christianity.  At this point D’Souza is not far from labelling scientists, securlarists and atheists as amoral, knuckle-dragging troglodytes unfit to co-exist with the people of God.  The Wilberforce-Huxley debate of 1860 lives on!  The highest purpose in the life of most atheists, secularists or free-thinkers is no higher that the heart and mind of a fellow human.

D’Souza’s understanding of the goals, objectives and methods of science is outdated, incomplete and often wrong.  He incorrectly portrays science as pursuing grand theories of humankind reducible to the laws of the natural sciences, physics and chemistry (pg. 25).  He fails to mention anything about the origins of “agency” and the process of “emergence” in evolutionary biology.  He, unlike virtually all who are knowledgeable about the brain and consciousness, accepts Decartes’s division of human individual existence into mind and body.  That when the body dies, the mind, or soul, lives on, in heaven or hell.

D’Souza ethnocentrically and xenophobically believes that “believer and non-believer alike should respect Christianity as the movement that created our civilization.  We should cherish our Christian inheritance not as an heirloom but as a living presence in our society, and we should worry about what will happen to our civilization if Christianity disappears from the West and establishes itself in non-Western cultures.”  He does not explain why we should worry about a world having a secular West and other areas being Christian.

D’Souza then enters into a consideration of the moral nature of humankind.  “People do wrong because they do not know what is right.  If they knew what was right, obviously, they would do it.  …the human will is corrupt.  The problem of evil is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of will (pg 56).”  He believes that “as a consequence of Christianity, new values entered the world.  For the first time people began to view society not from the perspective of the haughty aristocrat but from that of the ordinary man (ibid).”  D’Souza does not give consideration to the fact that other kinds of morality existed before the age of aristocracy he refers to.  He also cites Christianity as the origin of family and marriage.  Prior to this, presumably, for 98,000 years the world was populated by ungodly savages possessing nothing more than a sinful lifestyle of primordial promiscuity.  This is simply not true.

As for leadership and service he declares that “Christ invented the notion that the way to lead is by serving the needs of others, especially those who are the most needy (pg. 61).”  This implies that prior to 2000BP there was no such leadership, anywhere on Earth.

As for progress in terms of societal development and the improvement of humankind, D’Souza once again posits no foundational source other than Christianity.  “Our modern ideas of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ are a secular version of the Christian idea of providence.  The Christian narrative of history guided by God from beginning to end – a story of creation, incarnation, and last judgment – is converted into a story of human advancement.  Thus through human effort we fulfill a kind of spiritual mandate to continually make things better (pg. 64).”  Without Christianity there would have been no human advancement?

As for atheist morality, D’Souza claims “they derive their morality not from external commandments but from an inwardly generated calculus of costs and benefits (pg. 29).”  Here is what D’Souza says we risk if the West gives up Christianity as a source of values and morals:  “If the West gives up Christianity, it will also endanger the egalitarian values that Christianity brought into the world.  The end of Christianity also means the systematic erosion of values like equal dignity and equal rights that both religious and secular people cherish (pg. 67).”  Are the beliefs of the Christian minority all that is keeping Europe from descending into a war of all against all?  Hardly.

“Christianity is also responsible for the modern concept of individual freedom," he says (pg. 75).  D’Souza has a very peculiar and suspect definition of “freedom” for there has been little to no freedom to reject or leave the Christian church throughout most of Western history.  In fact, millions were at best socially ostracized and at worst boiled, roasted or otherwise tortured to death for exercising such freedom.

D’Souza concludes his book with the following:  “For the Christian, human joys are a small foreshadowing of the joys that are in store.  Terrestrial happiness is only a foretaste of eternity (pg. 304).”  The pursuit of eternal life and happiness is an unfounded, delusional and profoundly egotistical endeavor.  If his book is the irrefutable, conclusive evidence for the greatness and truthfulness of Christianity, I think it is safe to say the invitation D’Souza issues to convert to Christianity found in his preface will not be accepted by many unbelievers.

Here are two additional reviews of D’Souza’s book.  Both are excellent and provide a more detailed assessment of D’Souza’s questionable assertions about religion, science, intelligent design, atheism and secularism:

What's So Great About Dinesh D'Souza?  What's So Great About Christianity (2007) by Dinesh D'Souza reviewed by Tim Callahan, Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2008.

What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza Reviewed by William Faris 2007.

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