One of the most notable features of Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great about Christianity? is how well it states the arguments of major atheist authors, and how casually it ignores them. Take the issue of whether religion is responsible for violence. D’Souza freely admits that the Torah condones the killing of those who follow other religions, and that from the day Christianity gained political power, up through the seventeenth century, Christianity used violence to enforce its viewpoint. There is also an odd passage on the Spanish Inquisition: D’Souza claims “The idea that the Inquisition targeted Jews is a fantasy,” explaining that it only targeted those Jews who attempted to evade the mass-expulsion of Jews ordered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
In a similar vein, the chapter on the relationship between Christianity and science contains a prominent quote from Carl Sagan saying that Galileo was threatened with torture. We are informed that this picture of the Galileo affair was a distortion, and it was Galileo’s fault, and he wasn’t tortured. The question of what would have happened had Galileo not given in to the Church’s demands is set aside. Note to self: look up Sagan’s treatment of Galileo in the book version of Cosmos, it may contain useful information. (D’Souza also has a hard time noticing when his opponents have done their homework; he claims Sagan has no source for his claims about witchcraft in _Demon Haunted World_, when in fact an important historical study of witchcraft is clearly listed in Sagan’s bibliography.)
In the face of these facts, D’Souza claims that Christianity gets credit for the rise of modern liberalism, mainly because Augustine drew a distinction between the city of man and the city of God. This is a tenuous connection, especially given that Augustine advocated using torture to keep heretics in line, something D’Souza is somehow unaware of even though it has been repeatedly pointed out by Sam Harris (_The End of Faith_, p. 85 in paperback; _Letter to a Christian Nation_, p. 12 in hard cover).
When D’Souza tries to tie atheism to violence, we get this gem:
Dawkins seems to have deluded himself into thinking that these horrors were not produced on atheism’s behalf. But can anyone seriously deny that Communism was an atheist ideology? Communism calls for the elimination of the exploiting class, it extols violence as a way to social progress, ,and it calls for using any means necessary to achieve atheist utopia.
Uh, doesn’t this mean that maybe Communism’s crimes happened because it called for the elimination of the exploiting class and so on, and not because of just atheism?
Similarly, with Hitler, D’Souza acknowledges Hitler’s public invocations of God, and then goes on to argue that Hitler wasn’t a Christian. I agree that Hitler had an odd mix of beliefs that couldn’t be described as orthodox Christianity, but that just plain doesn’t make Hitler an atheist.
D’Souza tries to justify his disregard for the actual connections between beliefs and actions by quoting Daniel Dennett: “It is true that religious fanatics are rarely if ever inspired by, or guided by, the deepest and best tenets in those religious traditions. So what? Al Qaeda and Hamas terrorism is still Islam’s responsibility, and abortion clinic bombing is still Christianity’s responsibility.” D’Souza sets Dennett up against people like Dawkins, who insist that the crimes of Communism are irrelevant unless the crimes of Communism were motivated by atheism, not merely committed by atheists.
However, supposing this set up is accurate, D’Souza would actually have to explain why Dennett is right, which he never does. Worse, the Dennett quote is ripped out of context: by “responsibility,” Dennett doesn’t mean that terrorism is some kind of damning commentary on religion as a whole, only that “the moderates in all religions _are being_ used by the fanatics, and should not only resent this; they should take whatever steps they can find to curtail it in their own tradition.” Dennett compares the sort of moral responsibility moderates have to the moral responsibility people have if a child accidentally drowns in an unenclosed swimming pool. They aren’t cases of actively caused harm, but that doesn’t excuse negligence. This is one of two big instances where I had to question D’Souza’s honesty.
The other big one is when D’Souza sets out to show atheists are moral degenerates. The main evidence for this is that they find the doctrine of Hell objectionable. What’s next–atheists are corrupt because they object to the Spanish Inquisition? The latter would be less grotesque, as human crimes like the Inquisition are nothing compared to what orthodox Christians attribute to God. Run together with these moral objections are a couple of quotations from Aldous Huxley and Thomas Nagel, giving less reputable reasons for rejecting Christianity. However, both quotes are out of context: Huxley wasn’t an atheist confessing a deep dark secret, but a mystic attacking materialism. Nagel, similarly, is an anti-materialist atheist who was making an accusations against materialists, and calling for greater objectivity in general. Note that the Nagel quote is especially popular among religious apologists, but it takes the opposite of the usual religious position: preachers regularly tell people to believe in God because they want it to be true, Nagel says some people don’t want God to exist, but says we shouldn’t let this influence our beliefs.
At other times, D’Souza embarrasses himself by the presumption that he knows better than the experts in a wide variety of fields. There is much, he claims, that evolution cannot explain. We get muddled arguments about abiogenesis, and a claim that because Steven Pinker hasn’t had children, he must be exercising libertarian free will to rebel against the forces of evolution. D’Souza fails to understand one of the basic points in Pinker’s popularisations of evolutionary psychology: evolution doesn’t turn us into perfect gene-spreading schemers, it merely gives us what drives tended to spread genes in the past. This is why men spend a lot of effort trying to have sex with women on birth control, but don’t line up to donate to sperm banks. (Though for the record, Pinker is officially agnostic on a number of philosophical issues, including free will, so D’Souza’s arguments don’t really refute anything Pinker’s said anyway.)
As a philosophy student, I got an especially good kick out of D’Souza’s boosting of Kant, which is supposed to show that science doesn’t really tell us how the world is:
Kant asks a startling question: how do we know that our human perception of reality corresponds to reality itself? Most philosophers before Kant had simply taken for granted that it does, and this belief persists today. So powerful is this “common sense” that many people become impatient, even indignant, when Kant’s question is put to them…
So powerful is Kant’s argument here that his critics have been able to answer him only with what may be termed the derision of common sense. When I challenged Daniel Dennett in a _Wall Street Journal_ article to debunk Kant’s argument, he posted an angry response on his Web site in which he said that several people had adequately refuted Kant. But he didn’t provide any refutations, and he didn’t name any names… In fact, there are no such refutations.
Shame on Dennett for not being more thorough about dispatching poseurs, but the idea that D’Souza, who obviously has no idea of the sheer amount of philosophical discussion that has taken place since Kant, could know that there is no refutation of Kant anywhere, is hilarious. Here’s a famous counterpoint to Kant, derived from the work of G. E. Moore: any argument has to start somewhere, and common sense is a far more certain basis for arguments than the speculative philosophical assumptions of someone like Kant. No one is really more sure of Kant’s philosophical assumptions than they are of the fact that they have hands. That is a very superficial discussion compared to what you could get in an advanced philosophy seminar, but D’Souza seems ignorant of even that.