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Review of What's So Great About Christianity (2007)

William Faris

 

ImageReview: Dinesh D'Souza. 2007. What's So Great About Christianity. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing. 348 pp.

Several years ago Dinesh D'Souza wrote What's So Great About America; this is now followed by What's So Great About Christianity. There's no question mark in either title. D'Souza has read the new atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. His goal is to argue on their own ground and prove them wrong. Right at the outset he rejects relativism: "The atheists have a point: there are not two truths or multiple truths; there is one truth" (p. xiv). According to him, the atheists have had it too easy; their arguments have gone unanswered. Now he will take up the task of answering them, covering the relation of Christianity to such topics as Western civilization, science, philosophy, and morality, and exposing throughout the errors of atheism.

D'Souza gives credit to Christianity for everything from the principle of limited government to the development of the scientific method. However, to make his argument work, D'Souza must first argue for the existence of a God who cares for humans, and then for the truth of the specifically Christian account. After all, if these claims are not supported, then the role of Christianity in history is merely an interesting topic, one among many others. If the claims are justified, then the resulting worldview is of supreme importance in the scheme of things.

Thus I begin with D'Souza's arguments for theism, which he does not seriously address until Chapter 11. His first main argument is worth quoting at length, since it shows his style of argument:

In a stunning confirmation of the book of Genesis, modern scientists have discovered that the universe was created in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space and time, but the origin of the universe was also a beginning for space and time. Space and time did not exist prior to the universe. If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe had a nonmaterial or spiritual cause. This spiritual cause brought the universe into existence using none of the laws of physics. The creation of the universe was, in the quite literal meaning of the term, a miracle. Its creator is known to be a spiritual, eternal being of creativity and power beyond all conceivable limits. Mind, not matter, came at the beginning. With the help of science and logic, all this can be rationally demonstrated (p. 116).

Notice the passage from a "nonmaterial" to a "spiritual" cause and then to a "creator." One would hope that these transitions would be supported later in the chapter. However, the same style of reasoning persists and is used again at the end of the chapter. In another long passage, D'Souza writes:

It seems that at this point we have established the existence of a creator, but nothing can be known about the nature of such a creator. I submit that this is not so. Many attributes of the creator remain unknown or hidden, but there are some conclusions that we can reasonably draw from what we know. As the universe was produced by a creative act, it is reasonable to infer that it was produced by some sort of mind. Mind is the origin of matter, and it is mind that produces matter, rather than the other way around. As the universe comprises the totality of nature, containing everything that is natural, its creator must necessarily be outside nature. As the creator used no natural laws or forces to create the universe, the creator is clearly supernatural. As space and time are within the universe, the creator is also outside space and time, which is to say, eternal. As the universe is material, the creator is immaterial, which is to say, spiritual. As the universe was created from nothing, the creator was incomprehensibly powerful or, as best as we can tell, omnipotent (p. 126).

Here the progression is from creator to mind to supernatural and eternal to spiritual and omnipotent. This style of argumentation is not likely to convince atheists, or even doubters.

In Chapter 12, D'Souza continues with a discussion of the anthropic principle, where he argues that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of human life. If the constants of nature had been different, even by a small amount, then the world as we know it could not have existed. He has little new to say on this topic, and some would argue that there is no particular conclusion to be drawn with our present state of knowledge. In Chapter 13 D'Souza says that he has no problem with evolution, but he distinguishes the fact of evolution from the ideology of Darwinism, which he rejects. In his terminology, evolution is a scientific theory, while Darwinism is a metaphysical stance that rejects the idea that the universe is the product of invention and creative design.

D'Souza's other main argument for theism is not from science, but from philosophy. It relies on an argument he derives from Immanuel Kant, to the effect that there is a reality not apparent to the senses. According to Kant, there is the world we perceive in our minds, the world out there independently of our minds, and some mysterious connection between the two. In Kant's terminology this is the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon. The phenomenal world is the world of direct sensory experience, while the noumenal world is the reality beneath the appearances. Here is D'Souza's description: "There are things in themselves--what Kant called the noumenon--and of these we can know nothing. What we can know is our experience of these things, what Kant called the phenomenon" (p. 171). The author emphasizes that, "For Kant, the noumenon obviously exists because it gives rise to the phenomena we experience. In other words, our experience is an experience of something" (p. 173). His reasoning then makes a transition. Here is the key quotation:

No one who understands the central doctrines of any of the world's leading religions should have any difficulty understanding Kant, because his philosophical vision is congruent with the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It is a shared doctrine of these religions that the empirical world we humans inhabit is not the only world there is. Ours is a world of appearances only, a transient world that is dependent on a higher timeless reality. The reality is of a completely different order from anything that we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality that there is, and it sustains the world and presents it to our senses. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, this is where reason stops: it cannot on its own investigate or comprehend that domain. But one day, it is promised, when our earthly journey is over, we will know the higher realm and see things as they really are (p. 177).

D'Souza seems particularly proud of this use of Kant's philosophy to maintain that there is a reality of a completely different order. However, his chapter citations make essentially no reference to the huge philosophical literature exploring Kant's reasoning and its underlying assumptions. Kant's ideas have been around for over two hundred years, and many philosophers have not found them decisive. It is not clear that anything has changed in this respect.

Furthermore, while Kant's philosophy is notoriously difficult to interpret, it may be that the distinction he makes has little to do with religion. As D'Souza himself observes, the noumenon is supposed to exist because it gives rise to the phenomena we experience. But these are everyday phenomena, so the noumenon actually underlies the natural world, not a world beyond nature. Here is a modern analogy: we may see a table, but we may also have reason to believe that it is made of atoms of which we have no direct perception. This does not mean that atoms live in another timeless reality; in fact they move in space according to precise physical laws. At least on the face of it, Kant's noumenal world is not the place to search for spiritual reality.

Timeless reality is a convenient parking place. D'Souza appears to believe in some concept of Heaven and Hell. The relevant passage is in Chapter 16:

For God there are clearly no constraints outside the natural realm. Even modern physics concedes that beyond the natural world the laws of nature do not apply. There is noting 'miraculous' about heaven and hell for the simple reason that there are no laws of nature that operate outside our universe (pp. 188-189).

He is willing to use Hell as a threat, maintaining that, "You must chose God or reject him, because when you die all abstentions are counted as 'no' votes" (p. xiv). On the other hand, neither Heaven nor Hell appears in the index.

The Kantian argument is also presented as a justification for faith:

The important point here is that in the phenomenal or empirical world, we are in a position to formulate opinions based on experience and testing and verification and reason. In that world it is superstitious to make claims on faith that cannot be supported by evidence and reason. Outside the phenomenal world, however, these criteria do not apply, just as the laws of physics apply only to our universe and not to any other universe (p. 193).

Thus, according to the argument, it is in no way unreasonable to make decisions based on faith. Faith, D'Souza maintains, is "God's way of disclosing Himself to us through divine revelation" (p. 196). He relates faith to Pascal's wager, but does not mention the problems with this line of argument.

Pascal's argument is famous. A person must decide between a wager for God and a wager against God. If the wager is for God, and if God exists, then the payoff is an infinite gain. In all other cases the gain or loss is finite. Stated this way, the case might seem convincing, but even a quick glance at standard philosophical sources would reveal a host of difficulties. For instance, the entry on Pascal's wager in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions the many Gods objection. There are a number of candidate Gods out there, some of whom may seem to offer an infinite payoff. The alleged reward of the God of the Sunnis might be quite competitive with that of the God of the Mormons. One might easily bet on the wrong God, and it seems odd to bet on them all. Ignoring such issues is at best naïve.

The book presents a number of other arguments. D'Souza maintains that there is no explanation of how atoms and molecules can produce something as radical and original as subjective consciousness. This suggests that "there is a ghost in the machine, which we may for convenience term the soul" (p. 249). The author claims that "human consciousness seems to be of a different order from animal consciousness" (p. 244). He writes: "To some, it may seem fantastic that all nature should obey fixed laws but a single type of animal, hairy, omnivorous, and bipedal, should be able to act in violation of these laws. But there is, and we are that animal" (p. 249). It is certainly true that consciousness is a topic that has generated considerable discussion. The book by Susan Blackmore entitled Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005) introduces some of the issues; in particular, she describes the difficulties in getting an understanding of animal consciousness. However, D'Souza does not display an interest in this sort of investigation.

It is hard to believe that D'Souza thinks that his arguments could convince someone who is not already committed to a theistic point of view. In any case, they would only establish the existence of a supernatural being of some sort. What is amazing, then, is that his arguments for Christianity in Chapter 25 consist almost exclusively of straightforward assertions of Christian doctrine. Almost nothing he says would be persuasive to someone with a different religious view. In effect he admits this when he writes: "In this chapter I am not trying to prove that Christianity is the best religion, but I am trying to show in what respect Christianity differs from all other religions and, in this sense, is unique" (p. 285).

What is really going on? Why are these arguments so weak? What indeed is so great about Christianity? D'Souza's real interests are revealed by the remainder of the book, which constitutes the great bulk of it. He wants, most of all, to argue that Christianity is superior to atheism in all spheres. Thus there is a long discussion of the current global triumph of Christianity in such places as Africa and Latin America. Christianity is responsible for capitalism and even for the concept of progress. Christian ideas are behind our ideas of equality. Christianity can take credit for science. There is an amazing chapter on Galileo, which purports to show that he got more or less what he deserved. The Inquisition was not so bad. Relatively few witches were burned. Finally, "if human horrors show us our dependency on God's love and restorative powers, that's not such a bad thing. In no way is God responsible for evil; He is only responsible for using evil to bring forth good" (p. 278).

On the other hand, for D'Souza atheism has little to offer. In Chapter 19 he correctly states that the one-party dictatorships of Stalin and Mao were responsible for great atrocities. However, his rhetorical device is to refer to them as "atheist regimes," thus treating atheism as their defining characteristic. This is an error; it is perfectly consistent for an atheist to reject such pseudoscientific cults.

Furthermore, D'Souza speculates that the atheist seeks to free himself from religion "in order to escape from an eternal fate in which our sins are punished" (p. 267). If you are an atheist who wants to lead a degenerate life, then God is your mortal enemy. It is in your interest to "do whatever you can to rid the universe of His presence" (p. 267). D'Souza appears to find it difficult to enter the mind of an atheist who is not at all concerned with ridding the universe of God. Such an atheist does not believe that there is such a being, so the issue simply does not arise.

A curious feature of the book is that there is no list of recommended reading. One would think that the author would want to direct the reader to more systematic and complete arguments that support his fundamental theological positions. Is C. S. Lewis still the best source of supporting material? Or has something better come along? This superficial treatment leads to the supposition that the book is ultimately political; arguments about religious truth are perhaps necessary, but of secondary interest. While D'Souza's work makes appropriate concessions to other points of view, sometimes even treating atheists with courtesy, the general tone is aggressive. It would seem that its implicit goal is to reassure those who are already convinced that they are indeed on the right side.

The principal intellectual defect of the book is that it presents too many different reasons for its theistic conclusion. A few decisive arguments, if strong enough, should suffice to make the case. It would be well, however, to treat them in depth, considering the skeptic's most likely responses and addressing why these are not adequate. This is where D'Souza falls short.


Copyright ©2007 William Faris. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of William Faris. All rights reserved.

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