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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dinesh D'Souza does not impress me.

Lots of you are probably familiar with Dinesh D'Souza, conservative thinker cum Christian apologist. What you may not be familiar with is his book "What's So Great About Christianity." Unsurprisingly, this is a question that I have asked several times myself, although I did not do so in the manner of D'Souza. That is to say, he asks the question in a book length format and with irony.

Given that D'Souza is one of the more recent darlings of the right wing, his book is netting a fair amount of attention, including an interview over on Intellectual Conservative. I became somewhat interested in this interview since the headline for it is "Dinesh D'Souza on atheism, his debate with Christopher Hitchens, and his book What's So Great About Christianity." Really? D'Souza was going to comment on my religion? How fascinating!

For the most part the interview is quite the opposite, particularly the bit where he remarks that arguing with atheists by using scripture is pointless. Yes, I think we'd all have to agree that's true. But the issue that really got my attention was the following exchange:

Bernard Chapin [interviewer]: What would you say is the most potent argument offered by atheists? By this I mean the one most difficult to refute.

Dinesh D’Souza: The goal of my book is to not only fortify the believer of Christianity but also to challenge the atheists while showing the seeker that they are rebelling against a childhood version of Christianity — one that they learned in Sunday school and catechism. Their opinion of it now is rooted in what I call “crayon Christianity.” What we must also realize is that when atheists use the word “fundamentalist” it is but a big ploy. When they say fundamentalist and mount attacks against fundamentalism what they really are attempting to do is to go after traditional Christianity.

That being said, I think the atheists make two arguments which must be responded to. First, they posit that Christianity is opposed to reason and science which it is not. My historical chapters show that Christianity had a lot to do with the origins of science. Most of the leading scientists of the last 500 years have been Christian. We should not go on the defensive when the name of science is invoked. Second, atheists claim that Christianity is a major cause of violence and war in the world which is also untrue and I illustrate why this is the case in my book.

Now, I find this response interesting. First, because I have been an atheist for a long time and have spent a lot of the time exploring supposedly "sophisticated" arguments for the existence of god. They have, by and large, been quite unconvincing. I also frankly get bored when someone tells me that this or that isn't "true" Christianity. The definition, as it turns out, tends to flex depending on the argument being made. For example, in his review of Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Michael Ruse remarked:

More seriously, Dawkins is entirely ignorant of the fact that no believer - with the possible exception of some English clerics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - has ever thought that arguments are the best support for belief.

On the other hand, in reviewing the same book, Terry Eagleton remarked:

Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.

So, until D'Souza and his co-religionists can all get together and agree on exactly what the hell Christianity is I have zero interest in being told that my criticisms are invalid because I don't understand "true" Christianity. And of course I know that isn't going to happen, but if D'Souza is going to wave a rhetorical wand and claim that all Christians subscribe to his "sophisticated" version of the faith, I can certainly wave mine and expect some sort of religious constitutional convention.

Second, when I refer to fundamentalists, I mean fundamentalists. I have a number of Christian friends, some very close, whom I respect a great deal. I don't believe in god, I don't really understand why or how they believe in god, but I respect and love them a great deal and have no interest in telling them what they should or should not believe. D'Souza's blanket assertion about what atheists mean is nothing more than a transparent attempt to cloak his militant conservatism in the armor of a successful faith.

Finally, however, I have to simply state my total surprise at what he views as the most potent argument to use against religion. That Christianity is anti-science? That Christianity causes violence? Hell no. Look, he's right, natural philosophy gave rise to science and science was, originally, a very religious enterprise. Even today many scientists are deeply religious- including some very prominent ones. I think an argument could be made that an emphasis on faith is somewhat at odds with science, but I see no reason why science and religion cannot coexist.* Likewise, I think it inarguable that Christianity has helped facilitate violence, but it doesn't inevitably do so. Are these arguments against Christianity? Sure. Are they devastatingly powerful ones? No, and I'm fairly sure D'Souza knows that. The interviewer more or less offered D'Souza the chance to swing at a softball, and D'Souza took it eagerly.

You want to know what I think the most potent argument is?

There is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of god apart from folk tales and personal credulity.

Compared with that little issue, complaining that religion is anti-science is a bit like criticizing the manicure on a severed arm. I mean, maybe you're right, but who the hell cares?

* Of course, opinions on this subject vary.

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