What’s So Great About Atheism?
Into the maelstrom of festering atheists, sneering critics of Christianists, biological reductionists, and secular salvationists lately arrived from the denuded shores of Marxism to proffer their advice on forestry steps the intrepid missionary. That Dinesh D’Souza is an Indian-American raised in Bombay (now Mumbai), who arrived in the United States at age 17 (in 1978), only adds to the flavor of his fetching defense of Christianity. The Christian message has always been in transit, from Jesus’ mysterious comings and goings among Galilean hamlets to the fanning out of Western emissaries to the Congo and the cannibal isles of the South Pacific.
So it makes a certain sense that a Catholic from India whose Hindu ancestors were more or less coerced into Christianity by the Portuguese colonizers of Goa should answer deracinated Western intellectuals who have declared God dead—yet again. Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, offered that diagnosis some 125 years ago. Today’s atheist crowd provides thinner gruel: God is an unnecessary hypothesis; God is a mass delusion; God is an evolutionary vestige from the time when our ancestors needed to buck themselves up in the face of saber-toothed tigers.
Some of today’s prominent atheists find the staying power of the Christian God particularly annoying. Christopher Hitchens says all religions are “equally demented,” but it takes the God of the Torah and the Gospels to move him to highest dudgeon. As D’Souza puts it, “Christianity is typically the focus of atheist moral critique.” The bill of particulars includes the medieval crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, resistance to scientific progress, anti-Semitism, forced conversions, and, well, much more. Some atheists also contrive to blame Christianity for the mass murders of the decidedly un-Christian Hitler and Stalin. D’Souza quotes Sam Harris’s End of Faith: “the Holocaust marked the culmination of … two hundred years of Christian fulminating against the Jews.” Stalin, according to Harris, contrived a “political religion” modeled on, of course, Christianity.
D’Souza nicely points out the double standard employed by atheists when they argue in this vein: “[Steven] Weinberg apparently believes that the crimes of religious regimes reflect the true face of religion, while the crimes of atheist regimes represent a distortion of the atheist spirit of rational and scientific inquiry.”
What’s So Great About Christianity is no fine-tuned theological argument. D’Souza has chosen to take on the whole tribe of atheists at once, which is like challenging a swarm of gnats. Accordingly, the book consists of many small chapters, each of which takes aim at a separate department of gnatdom. Did Christians persecute Galileo? See Chapter 10, where “the whole [atheist] melodrama of science in conflict with religion is exploded.” By D’Souza’s reckoning, Galileo only got in trouble when he ventured beyond the available facts in his support of the Copernican model of the universe. All good Cardinal Belarmine of the Inquisition wanted in 1616 was crisp scientific demonstration: “I shall not believe that there are such proofs [of heliocentrism] until they are shown to me.”
In this account, Galileo enjoyed respectful relations with the Church and, contrary to “atheist propagandists…[was] never charged with heresy, and was never placed in a dungeon or tortured in any way.” D’Souza thus pegs the bad faith of many atheist writers, who distort the historical record.
D’Souza depicts the hostility toward Christianity of some atheistic scientists as a bit churlish in light of their dependence on the underlying metaphysical idea that the universe is an orderly, law-governed place open to human understanding. There is no scientific reason for the universe to be like that. As D’Souza observes, “It is easy to imagine a universe in which conditions change unpredictably from instant to instant, or even a universe in which things pop in and out of existence.” D’Souza proposes that Christianity posited the idea of a “unified, ordered, and accessible universe” that gives science its warrant.
D’Souza argues much of his case against atheists with short sharp stabs. His points are always lucid but also likely to leave even mildly skeptical readers with an unresolved set of “but what about…?” questions. The atheist at the dissecting table can raise his scalpel and say, “Well and good. I’m grateful that the Christian presumption about logos got the ball rolling for Roger Bacon, but these days we can perfectly hypothesize an orderly universe without encumbering ourselves with God.”
Or we could imagine the physicist at CERN pondering the bubble tracks of mere nothings smashing into each other. “Well indeed,” he might say, “conditions do change unpredictably from instant to instant, and things pop in and out of existence all the time. Here’s proof.”
Such ripostes are answerable, but D’Souza is the Light Horse Harry, not the General Grant, of Christian apologists. Those who want to stand and fight for a particular point can find virtually all of his arguments developed at book length by other writers. D’Souza limits himself to three main arguments. Chapter one: The secularists are wrong; Christianity is thriving. Chapter 2: Religion aids human survival (“Atheism is a bit like homosexuality: one is not sure where it fits into a doctrine of natural selection.”) Chapter 4: Atheists seek to propagate their non-faith through schools,” where religion can be pushed “outside the bounds of acceptable debate.” (Chapter 3 just reminds us that atheists are on the move.)
D’Souza scores his little victories. What about the bigger picture? The book is welcome as an intelligent reply to the current surfeit of anti-Christian polemics. American churches have acquitted themselves poorly under these attacks. We have many theologians and popular Christian writers but few who can capably address themselves to the witty nihilism and atheistic panache of our age. Christian students make do with C.S. Lewis, who died in 1963, and Lewis’s writings are more than 50 years behind the current debates. I see him standing in an empty field shaking a stick at the sky, as the stealth aircraft of today’s atheists whisk past.
D’Souza, therefore, supplies a need—the need of intelligent Christians who, in good conscience, are worried that the arguments Hitchens, Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, and others might have some merit and look in vain to church leaders for a serious and informed Christian reply. But contrary to the hopes he expresses in the preface, D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity is probably not the book to win over people relaxed in their skepticism. He calls on “unbelievers” not to read the book as “merely an intellectual exercise” but to take it as practical advice. “How long do you intend to continue this joyless search for joy?” he asks. And then the hard sell: “Death forces upon you a choice that you cannot escape. You must choose God or reject Him, because when you die all abstentions are counted as ‘no’ votes.”
I suspect that such language appeals more to convinced Christians who like to think they are talking tough than to the “unbelievers” to whom it is ostensibly addressed. D’Souza’s words have an air of intimidation that people who are not worried about imminent dismemberment by an Iraqi IED or not gasping their last on nursing-home deathbeds would find merely annoying. Perhaps the theology is right, but the psychology is misjudged, and it reveals much about D’Souza’s unevenness as a writer that the threat appears in the same paragraph as his much more powerful evocation of the secular hedonist’s “joyless search for joy.”
D’Souza, in choosing breadth over depth, inevitably stumbles. His three chapters on philosophy seem superficial. From Kant he takes the idea that reason has its limits, which leads him to declare, “The atheist is now revealed as dogmatic and arrogant, and the religious believer emerges as modest and reasonable.” D’Souza himself doesn’t exactly come across as “modest and reasonable” in such passages. Hume, who rejected miracles, is miraculously employed to account for skepticism about the uniformity of scientific laws. Points to D’Souza for rhetorical cleverness, but still…
D’Souza is, however, exhilarating when he attacks the atheists in a series of chapters on “Why Man is More Than Matter,” the imperial self, the psychological appeal of atheism, and its moral poverty in the face of human suffering. Atheism, in D’Souza’s mind, is “driven by base motives.” It is “moral revolt. Atheists don’t find God invisible so much as objectionable. They aren’t adjusting their desires to the truth, but rather the truth to their desires.”
Spanning the whole book is D’Souza’s argument that Christianity “is the very core and center of Western civilization. Many of the best things about our world are the result of Christianity and some of the worst things are the result of its absence, or of moving away from it.” It is easy to see why D’Souza goes down this path. He is defending Christianity against critics who blame it for all manner of social ills, from sexism to imperialism to genocide. But can the “greatness” of Christianity be properly said to reside in the civilization that it gave rise to? D’Souza’s answer is a version of Jesus’ pronouncement in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He warns about false prophets: “By their fruits you shall know them.” D’Souza thinks we can judge Christianity by its fruits as well, and those include respect for human rights and human dignity, our concept of moral freedom, and basic notions of equality. He sees capitalism as one of those fruits: “Capitalism satisfied the Christian demand for an institution that channels selfish human desire toward the betterment of society.”
He also claims that Christianity elevated family life above other allegiances, such as the loyalty the ancient Greek felt towards his city-state. On this point, the anthropologist in me quails. Family life is and always has been a central concern in all human societies.
But if one of D’Souza’s arrows misses, he has many more. Christianity, in his view, lies at the base of our modern idea of the rule of law, since it held that “power should be very cautiously entrusted to fallible human beings.” Christianity gave the West some of its notions of political accountability, through the idea of “servant leadership.” (I hear Christopher Hitchens hooting in the distance, “But not the idea of the divine right of kings with no accountability?”) And Christianity gave rise, says D’Souza, to “the idea of progress.”
Which of these claims would stand up to objective scholarly examination? The West surely is very different from the rest of the world and provides the only example we have of Christianity working itself out in the development of society over 2,000 years. No doubt Western institutions and deep-seated cultural premises were shaped by Christian ideals, but how do we disentangle the Christian contribution from everything else: Greek and Roman legacies, pagan Celtic culture, Islamic scholarship, and so on?
This isn’t a pitch for the vapid “multicultural” revision of Western history that has swept through the universities, but a plain hard question. Western civilization is a complicated story that, to modify D’Souza slightly, had Christianity at its core for a long stretch. Today, maybe not so much.
What’s So Great About Christianity testifies to the insecurity of Christians who realize that contemporary Western civilization is no longer centered on Christianity. The Gospel of John tells of the apostle Thomas, who doubts the resurrection until he is able to touch Jesus’ wounds. Legend has it that the chastened Thomas later took the faith to India, where he was martyred. Perhaps D’Souza is best seen as an heir of Thomas—come back from India to dispute the latter-day doubters.
Peter Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars and the author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.