What's so great about Christianity? (Dinesh D'Souza)

(1) The value of clarity

Dinesh D'Souza is a bestselling author and conservative Christian activist, who has achieved success by writing books such as "Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11". Now he is turning his talents to religious apologetics. In "What's so great about Christianity?" D'Souza presents himself as the man to defend theism in general and Christianity in particular against the recent upsurge of atheist argumentation from authors such as Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. D'Souza starts off with a reasonable-sounding manifesto, to take an attitude of equally healthy skepticism to all irrational claims, those made in the name of science as well as those made in the name of religion. The stage seems set for an exciting intellectual confrontation, with overblown atheists at last feeling the "horse kick of a vigorous traditional Christianity".

D'Souza writes well. He works hard to engage and persuade the reader. But the clarity of his writing serves mainly to illuminate the flaws in his thinking. The most positive thing one can say about this book is that it beautifully illuminates how intelligent people can get trapped in incredible belief systems. D'Souza probes each topic until he finds a result congenial to his prejudices, and then stops. Very often a mere quotation from an agreeable authority is enough for him. Obvious counter-arguments go unexplored. False dichotomies and sloppy scholarship abound. This book would not pass the kind of peer reviewing that is applied to articles submitted to scientific or philosophical journals. It was surprising, on reaching the end of the book, to find that D'Souza had help from three research assistants, as well as feedback from a physicist and a philosopher.

(2) Extreme atheism and moderate atheism

The major crack in this book's foundation is revealed in the introduction. D'Souza presents the issue as follows:

Either the universe is a completely closed system and miracles are impossible, or the universe is not a closed system and there is the possibility of divine intervention in it. Either the big bang was the product of supernatural creation, or it had a purely natural cause. In a larger sense, either the religious view of reality is correct, or the secular view is correct (or both are wrong).

The final escape clause ("or both are wrong") is never followed up. The whole book is built on the false dichotomy expressed in the previous sentences, between the most extreme variant of materialistic atheism, and an elastic religiosity that varies conveniently from orthodox Christianity to a vague credulity towards the supernatural.

To state the obvious up front, it is not necessary to choose between a dogmatic insistence that the universe is closed, and an uncritical acceptance of any particular religion's claims about the supernatural. It is possible to acknowledge that we simply don't know what caused the big bang, we don't know whether the universe is "closed", and we lack reliable evidence for God or the supernatural. What D'Souza glosses over is the wide spectrum that lies between the most extreme form of atheism, which claims that God can be proven not to exist, and his own "vigorous" theism. This spectrum includes moderate ("negative" or "weak" atheism), which puts the burden of proof on the theist, and merely refutes the theist's arguments for the existence of God X1,X2. There is also agnosticism, which is less clear about where the burden of proof lies, and deism, which allows for some form of God about which very little can be said. Moderate atheism, in particular, is the application to religious debate of exactly the sort of healthy skepticism that is the guiding principle used in courts of law, commisions of enquiry, and by police, doctors, genealogists, and all seekers after reliable knowledge of the world. It is valuable to keep these real-world examples in mind when evaluating D'Souza's arguments.

D'Souza repeatedly imposes incomplete menus of choices on his reader. His arguments typically have the following structure

  1. Select a question for discussion, for example "why are there laws of nature?", or "what is the basis for moral judgements?"
  2. Present some extreme form of the position he opposes, which is atheism, scientism, materialism, and moral relativism.
  3. Criticize this extreme viewpoint. His criticisms are often valid, but not particularly incisively expressed, perhaps because D'Souza cannot bring himself to think through the extreme atheist position in any depth. (There is an interesting symmetry here with Dawkins, whose arguments against religious belief I find similarly superficial).
  4. Neglecting more moderate forms of atheism or non-theism, offer God and the supernatural as the alternative viewpoint.
  5. Claim that the validity of religious belief is thereby proven.

D'Souza also spends several chapters on historical questions, arguing that secularism is dying out, that atheism is the source of much evil and suffering, and that Christianity is the source of all good things, including science and democracy. This review focuses on his scientific and philosophical arguments, but in the few cases where I studied it closely, his historical scholarship also turned out to be flawed (see section (5) below).

(3) The misuse of science

Science, methodological atheism and philosophical atheism

Science has been impressively successful in explaining a huge number of features of the world. As a result, many thinkers, including some eminent scientists, have been seduced into scientism, meaning that they take the current scientific picture of the world as the final metaphysical truth. Scientism, with its assertion that everything reduces to particles obeying mathematical laws of nature, naturally leads to materialism and philosophical (i.e. strong) atheism. D'Souza marshals a sobering collection of quotations that illustrate this tendency, including Carl Sagan's slogan "The cosmos is all there ever was or ever will be", and Will Provine's confident pronouncement "Modern science directly implies that that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature."

For the purposes of this review I will not address D'Souza's critique of philosophical atheism. Instead I will concentrate on his attempts to refute more moderate atheist positions, in particular the approach known as "methodological atheism". Methodological atheism is essentially just the normal scientific method, which seeks natural explanations for phenomena, without dogmatically asserting that the search will be successful. It is epitomized by Laplace's modest rejection of the supernatural, "I have no need of that hypothesis".

D'Souza's criticisms are hobbled by the fact that his description of methodological atheism is simply wrong. Firstly he characterizes methodological atheism as a matter of faith:

the presumption, quite impossible to prove, that the universe is rational...
these articles of faith are essential for science to function. (p92-93)

Secondly, he implies that methodological atheism is an arbitrary limitation of human enquiry to a certain class of theories, namely materialist and naturalist ones,

The theist... is much more open-minded and reasonable.
...he also admits the possibility of other types of knowledge. (p164)

These are deep misunderstandings.

  1. The scientific method is not a matter of faith. In particular, the existence of rational theories that accurately describe nature is not a leap of faith, nor even an assumption. It is a hypothesis. This means that we believe in such theories only as long as the evidence supports them.
  2. The scientific method is not an arbitrary limitation of our search for reliable knowledge. It is the application in a particular context of the universal and standard way of acquiring knowledge, namely assembling verifiable evidence. This is not limited to science. Even when we ask questions about non-scientific things, such as how people feel and why they do things, we still base our conclusions on the available evidence.

The essential point is the one mentioned at the beginning: remember how all truth-seeking enterprises, from courts of law to genealogical research, are conducted. They do not employ supernatural explanations or invoke acts of God. That is not because they are based on faith in an "atheistic methodology" nor because they are arbitrarily limited to a subset of possible explanations. They simply recognize that there is nowhere near enough evidence to justify the inclusion of God or the supernatural.

Unfortunately, having criticized the dogmatism of the materialists and the metaphysical excesses of the philosophical atheists, D'Souza forgets the lesson that he is teaching, and immediately starts trying to build his own theistic metaphysics on the foundation of current scientific theory. I will discuss two examples: the big bang, and the laws of nature themselves.

The big bang and the "first cause"

D'Souza gives a heavily ideologized overview of the current "big bang" theory of the universe, painting all the skepticism that the theory faced as being motivated by atheism. Then he deploys the argument from first cause:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. Science shows that the universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause. That cause we call God.

The second claim is, obviously enough, pure scientism. The claim that space, time, and matter began in a singularity 14 billion years ago is not a solid scientific result but an uncertain extrapolation. Like the origin of life, the initial singularity is a very tentative fragment of an otherwise well-confirmed cosmological model of the development of an expanding universe. We can extrapolate back to very early times X11, but the further back we go, the less certain our picture becomes. As we get close to the notional singularity, the uncertainty becomes very large: the extrapolation assumes a classical (non-quantum mechanical) theory of gravity, whose apparent singularities will be modified by quantum mechanical effects. And our current quantum mechanical theories have only been tested at much lower energies: these theories, and indeed quantum mechanics itself, may break down at high enough temperatures. These uncertainties leave us completely ignorant about the earliest stages of the current expansion. There is ample room for the possibility that the universe may not begin at all. In fact, speculatively inclined physicists have already offered theoretical scenarios in which the big bang is just part of a repeating cycle X3.

If that is not enough, even if there were a "first cause", does it provide evidence for the existence of a supernatural being? D'Souza quickly forgets his early promise to take a healthily skeptical attitude to the irrational claims made in the name of religion. Piling up a teetering structure of speculations, he asserts that the first cause can be reasonably inferred to be "some sort of mind" (as if we know that much about the properties of first causes), must be supernatural because it used no natural laws, must be eternal "because it is outside space and time" (yes, he really said that), must be "spiritual" because it is immaterial which is the same thing (fame and nausea are immaterial: are they spiritual?), and of course omnipotent because it created a universe. At every point he is trying to foist properties of Gods as humans imagine them onto a speculated first cause of which we know absolutely nothing. If there is a first cause then it is utterly unlike anything else of which we have any experience, and none of his inferences stand up. And finally, even if there were a supernatural first cause, is there any reason to identify it with the Christian God any more than with Brahman, or Izanagi, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

The "fine-tuning" of the laws of physics, the anthropic principle, and the argument from design

In recent years some cosmologists, in an effort to extract even deeper-sounding consequences from their discoveries, have begun to talk about the "fine-tuning" of the laws of physics or the "Goldilocks effect". This would be a very good place for D'Souza to show his healthy skepticism, but, like other religious apologists, he eagerly accepts these controversial ideas, since they allow him to offer a supernatural being as the "explanation" for this supposedly improbable occurrence. This is another example of religious scientism.

The fine-tuning enthusiasts focus on the fact that the laws of physics contain many numerical parameters, whose values have to be set to the right values to give accurate predictions of the world around us. They rightly observe that some of these values have to be very accurately specified: even if one choses a very slightly wrong value, the predictions will change dramatically, often predicting a very different universe, for example one which only existed for a very short time, or contained no atoms.

They then raise the question of why our universe should "happen" to have "the right" values for life to occur. This is an inversion of the correct perspective. The laws of physics are inferred from the world itself. It only makes sense to ask how likely the observed values of physical constants are if one knows something about the range of values they might have had, but of course we know nothing about that. As an example, consider two simpler questions. (1) How likely is it that a random person will have exactly 206 bones in their body? (2) How likely is it that a random person will have exactly 206 hairs on their head? In the first case it is highly likely. In the second case it is incredibly unlikely. But if we had only measured these numbers for one human body we would have no way to know this. In order to know what is likely one has to have some information about the range of variation of the human population. Since we have no empirically-supported knowledge of the population of possible universes, we cannot say whether our measured values of the parameters of physics are highly likely or highly unlikely.

D'Souza follows the standard apologetic strategy, offering a supernatural being as an "explanation" for the supposed fine-tuning of the constants of nature. He continually calls fine-tuning "the anthropic principle", when actually the anthropic principle is a non-theistic explanation for the supposed fine-tuning. (It says that if there were a huge number of different universes with different values of the fundamental constants, it would not be surprising that lifeforms sophisticated enough to observe their surroundings would find themselves in one of the few where the values were conducive to the evolution of life X4.)

D'Souza makes his standard move of trying to box the reader into an incomplete list of possible solutions to the fine-tuning question. He offers three possibilities:

  1. "Lucky us": the constants just happened to have the right values.
  2. Multiple universes and the anthropic principle (described above)
  3. A supernatural being designed the universe and the laws of physics

In order to discredit answer number 2, he finds a sudden enthusiasm for Occam's razor: why postulate billions of universes, for which we have no evidence at all, in order to explain just one? I completely agree. My only regret is that Occam's razor did not come to D'Souza's mind more often in the course of this book; it would have saved him a lot of ink. Answer number 3 provides an immediate example: as in the argument from first cause, a supernatural designer is an unnecessarily complex answer. Perhaps the laws of physics that we observe flow inevitably from a more fundamental physical theory which has not yet been discovered. Such a "theory of everything" has been a goal of physicists for many years. No sentient or supernatural being is required X5.

Evolution and atheism

It was quite a relief to read D'Souza's views on evolution. He firmly argues that theists should not be afraid of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He shows a clear awareness that the theory is good falsifiable science, and has been abundantly confirmed by a huge body of evidence. He correctly points out that there are some things Darwin's theory does not yet explain, such as the origin of life. He warns against using the success of evolutionary theory to argue that there is no God. Concerning the teaching of evolution in schools, he says

Evolution should be taught, but it should be taught without the metaphysics of Darwinism. Instead of suing to get theories of creationism and intelligent design into the classroom, Christians should be suing to get atheist interpretations of Darwin out. (p153)

This is completely correct. If any science teacher were found to be telling students that because of Darwin's theory they shouldn't believe in God then of course such conduct would be unacceptable and should be stopped. D'Souza offers no evidence that this is actually happening anywhere. He makes no comment on the rampant efforts by biblical literalists to muffle the teaching of the evolutionary ideas whose scientific merit he has just defended.

(4) Nineteenth century philosophy

Having used cutting-edge theories of physics and cosmology to motivate a belief in the Christian God, D'Souza takes quite a step backwards in time when it comes to philosophy. Caricaturing his opponents, he writes

But there is one subject on which the atheist requires no evidence: the issue of whether human reason is the best---indeed the only---way to comprehend reality...
These men simply presume that their rational scientific approach gives them full access to external reality. (p168)

He then deploys a typical false dichotomy, offering as the only alternative a "religious view",

There is the human perspective on reality...reality as it is experienced by us. Then there is the transcendent view of reality, what may be called the God's eye view of reality, which is reality itself. (p168)

The "religious view", D'Souza then informs us, is incontrovertibly correct because it is the transcendental idealist philosophical position, advocated by Immanuel Kant in the nineteenth century.

To put it briefly, Kant did not say what D'Souza thinks he did, and in any case Kant's views are not the final word on the subject. D'Souza explains Kant's distinction between the "phenomenal" (our experience of the world) and the "noumenal" (the thing that gives rise to those appearances), and then claims that the noumenal realm constitutes a separate reality, inaccessible to ordinary empirical investigation, with its own set of truths:

Kant's accomplishment was to unmask the intellectual pretensions of the Enlightenment: that reason and science are the only routes to reality and truth.

Apparently he is hoping that the noumenal realm will be the place where supernatural and divine truths can shelter from rude empirical enquiry. Unfortunately for this hope, Kant did not endorse it. He argued that the concept of a noumenon can only be used in a negative sense, to say what we do not know about it. There are no truths, no knowledge, of the noumenal realm: "The division of objects in to phenomena and noumena, and the world into a world of the senses and a world of understanding, is...quite inadmissible in the positive sense" X6. Later philosophers, whose work D'Souza prefers to ignore, took a stronger line. Wittgenstein, for example, famously pointed out that "a nothing would do as well as a something about which nothing can be said".

D'Souza avoids mention of several other points: Kant's demolition of traditional arguments for the existence of God (including the "first cause" argument), his strong criticisms of the organization and practices of Christianity and Christian theology, and the fact that he regarded God not as a being about which we can know things, but as a "regulative idea" that should be adopted to ease the contradiction between the pursuit of moral virtue and the pursuit of happiness. Kant's conception of God has naturally been analyzed and criticized by subsequent philosophers X7, but D'Souza does not touch on this either.

D'Souza ends his philosophical discussion with a striking claim:

While the atheist arrogantly persists in the delusion that his reason is capable of figuring out all that there is, the religious believer lives in the humble acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge, knowing that there is a reality greater than and beyond that which our senses can apprehend.

This is just another of D'Souza's false dichotomies. The most extreme adherents of scientism or atheism may believe that they can figure out everything, but moderate atheists, agnostics, and deists have a healthy respect for mystery, and surely show more "humble acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge" than those who claim to have access to revelations of divine truth.

(5) The historical evils of atheism and religion

Atheist writers such as Dawkins and Hitchens have argued that religion is the major source of evil and suffering in the world. D'Souza offers some reasonable criticism of these arguments. People are easily persuaded to perpetrate horrible cruelties on those they perceive as different, and it seems that almost any difference will do: class, race, or religion. D'Souza notes that some atheist writers focus exclusively on the religious dimension of historical conflicts, and don't bother to assemble convincing evidence that religion is the cause as opposed to a marker of conflict.

However, as in so many other instances, D'Souza then makes the reciprocal error, arguing that atheism is actually the great source of evil in the world. He leans on the unsupported assumption that belief in God is the only source of moral restraint, and uses examples such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. But he never produces any evidence that disbelief in God was particularly essential to their cruelty. Under these regimes, secular humanists and free-thinking atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens fared no better than Christians like D'Souza. Nazis hated and persecuted fellow-atheist Communists (see below). Mao destroyed Chinese Buddhism, and D'Souza would presumably regard Buddhists as more atheistic than theistic X8. Pol Pot unselectively annihilated the entire intellectual class of Cambodia. These regimes were hostile to all competing ideologies, including other brands of totalitarianism and also liberal and atheistic political philosophies as well as all varieties of religion. It makes no sense to label them simply by their antipathy to theistic religion.

Case study: Atheism and Nazi Germany

The role of atheism in Nazi Germany provides a typical example of D'Souza's surface-skimming approach. In a deft piece of one-quote-shopping, he cites an eminent historian, Richard Evans, as saying that the Nazis regarded churches as the strongest reservoirs of opposition to their ideology X9. But Evans is making a historical and comparative statement, not a philosophical and absolute one. His point is that in Germany in the late 1930s, small pockets of anti-Nazi activity in the Catholic church were the last feeble source of organized resistance. The main global ideological enemies identified by Nazis were actually the communists: Jews and communists were lumped together under the label Judeo-Bolshevism as the great enemies of Germany. By the late 1930s, the Jews were cowed and, as Evans documents, the communist party had been crushed by the Gestapo. And the church's resistance was half-hearted at best: directly before the quote selected by D'Souza, Evans states that the German churches "broadly welcomed the suppression of Marxist, Communist, and liberal political parties, the combating of 'immorality' in art, literature, and film, and many other aspects of the regime's policies." This sort of complicity went beyond the boundaries of Germany. One of the reasons for the fall of France and the quick establishment of the Vichy collaborationist government was that a significant segment of conservative, Catholic French leadership regarded the Nazi German invasion as a way to save France from Bolshevism X10. And the Nazis never issued any blanket order to exterminate Christians that could parallel the infamous "Commissar order", which stipulated that all "active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology" should be killed. The Nazis may have despised Christianity, but clearly the Christian church was not their mortal enemy, indeed it was sometimes their collaborator.

D'Souza concludes that the victims of Hitler and other despots were killed "in the name of atheism" , but the evidence shows that Hitler's victims were killed in the name of Naziism, which included anti-communism, anti-semitism, and anti-liberalism as well as anti-clericalism. And clearly it would be nonsense to suggest that all anti-communists have to apologize for Hitler's pathological version of their political position. It is equally wrong to suggest that atheists and secularists, no matter how liberal or humanistic, must take responsibility for Hitler.

(6) Why read this book?

By writing this uninhibited and wide-ranging book, D'Souza has achieved several things. Theists can read it and enjoy seeing the standard arguments for their position presented in a simple and appealing form. Non-theists (in the broadest sense) can read it and get some insight into the ideas that underlie the theistic mindset of large numbers of Americans. But above all, D'Souza has illustrated the importance and difficulty of maintaining a critical stance to all beliefs, even ones to which one is intensely attracted. As Richard Feynman famously pointed out, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Following Feynman's principle is not easy. The success of "What's so great about Christianity" demonstrates, in case it wasn't already obvious, that there is a continuing need for outspoken individuals and organizations to help us all maintain just the right amount of skepticism to avoid getting fooled.


[X1] The Positive Atheism FAQ (retrieved 29-Dec-2008)
[X2] Michael Martin, "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification", Temple University Press, 1992.
[X3] P. Steinhardt and N. Turok, "Endless Universe: Beyond The Big Bang", Phoenix, 2008. For technical details, see their paper Cosmic Evolution in a Cyclic Universe (Physical Review D65, 126003 (2002)).
[X11] S. Weinberg, "The First Three Minutes", Basic Books, 1993.
[X4] G. Starkman and R. Trotta, Why anthropic reasoning cannot predict Lambda (Physical Review Letters 97, 201301 (2006)).
[X5] Simple explanations of striking coincidences are a typical part of scientific progress. For example, in elementary quantum mechanics there is no reason why all electrons should happen to have the same mass and charge to very high accuracy. In quantum field theory, this extraordinary coincidence is explained by identifying them as quanta of a single electron field.
[X6] I. Kant, "Critique of Pure Reason" (2nd edition) p311.
[X7] P. Rossi, "Kant's Philosophy of Religion" The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[X8] See, for example, Basic Buddhism (retrieved 29-Dec-2008).
[X9] R. Evans, "The Third Reich In Power, 1933-1939", Allen Lane, London, 2005; p 256.
[X10] R. Paxton, "Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944", Columbia University Press, 2001.

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