Confound the Unbelievers
Dinesh D’Souza is a bestselling conservative who in previous books has praised Ronald Reagan and blamed the left for 9/11. In his latest he answers the atheists, humanists, materialists and rationalists who are knocking religion down. Why bother, if, as he believes, ‘God is the future, and atheism is on its way out’? (:11). Because, as he explains in a recent interview, atheism is for the first time a serious option for young Americans.
The God option, on the other hand, involves thoroughly confusing one’s readers. Take for example the argument that moral laws are ‘absolute’. According to D’Souza, this corresponds to the Christian idea of heaven and hell, places where we will be measured against a common standard and given our just deserts. But moral laws are only ‘absolute’ in the sense that, like soccer rules, they have a collective purpose. Sure, soccer, like life, can be unfair – some players cheat, others are unlucky – but that doesn’t mean there is an afterlife to put right all the wrong scores.
If D’Souza can spin heaven and hell out of human morality, wait until you see his treatment of Hume, Kant, the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle, to pick a few samples. For, daringly, he sets out to build God’s future with his opponents’ own tools – with Enlightenment philosophy and with recent scientific findings, no less.
He recruits skeptical Enlightenment philosopher David Hume easily enough. As is well known, Hume highlighted the limitations of the inductive method of science. For example, we can’t conclude that ‘all swans are white’ from the fact that every swan we ever saw was white, because tomorrow we might discover a black swan. This, according to D’Souza, means that the laws of nature are unverifiable and consequently that miracles such as resurrections and virgin births are possible. In fact, he adds for good measure, the laws of nature were made by God and so they can be broken by God.
We can make at least three obvious objections to this. First, the moment we see a black swan we verify that ‘not all swans are white’ and thereby also verify the verifying powers of induction. Second, induction is not the only scientific method. Depending on age, nutrition, heredity, etc, swans might come in different shades and sizes, but they’ll never be found growing on bushes. By deduction, we can rest assured that tomorrow we won’t discover any swans growing on bushes, because bushes aren’t part of the animal kingdom. And, third, supposing the laws of nature weren’t really natural but divine then everything would be a miracle, so nothing really would be. Turning water into wine would be as remarkable as turning it into ice.
Another Enlightenment thinker D’Souza tries to enlist is Immanuel Kant. Kant famously distinguished between the noumenon, the thing-in-itself that isn’t available to our senses, and the phenomenon, the thing’s appearance, which is. We can’t sense an orange-in-itself, only its color, taste, etc. According to D’Souza, this implies that ‘the empirical world we humans inhabit is not the only world there is. Ours is a world of appearances only’ (:177). But this supposedly Kantian argument is a mere word trick. D’Souza uses the term ‘empirical’ to include the orange-in-itself as well as the orange’s color and taste, pretending that all of this together would correspond to Kant’s phenomenon; he then pulls the vacant noumenon out of his sleeve to refer to something entirely different – whether the god of the orange, the spirit of the orange, or both, we have no way of telling.
But there must be some justice in this life, because D’Souza’s mishandling of Enlightenment philosophy gets him into a hell of a pickle. Is our world only a world of appearances? Then oranges, swans, bushes and galaxies are all appearances, and God’s powers of creation amount to creating an apparent universe instead of a real one. D’Souza is blissfully unaware, but the miracles he makes with Hume he unmakes with Kant. After all, resurrections are hardly impressive if dead bodies are only appearances of dead bodies.
Unaccountably, elsewhere in the book D’Souza writes as though the world was real. Updating the theologians’ ‘first cause’ argument for God’s existence, D’Souza proposes that since the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe, and everything that has a beginning has a cause, the universe must have had a cause, namely God. ‘The finding of modern physics that the universe has a beginning in space and in time … provides, for all who take the trouble to understand and reflect upon it, powerful and convincing evidence of the existence of an eternal, supernatural being that created our world and everything in it,’ he says (:126). D’Souza’s error here is to assume that the beginning of the expansion of the universe 13.7 billion years ago was the absolute beginning of nature. And had he taken the trouble to understand and reflect upon his own argument, he would have seen that if everything that has a beginning has a cause, then nothing really has a beginning.
But the most mindboggling argument D’Souza puts hard to work must be the Anthropic Principle, which notes that the universe is fine-tuned for human life. An Intelligent Fine-Tuner must therefore exist, says D’Souza. Alas, he’s fallen into the same trap the Aztecs, with their sophisticated solar calendar, fell into centuries ago. The Aztecs were so spooked by the sun’s finely-tuned journey across the sky that they inferred this sun was a god, whom they fed and propitiated with human sacrifices. With this they rightly recognized the sun’s life-giving powers, but wrongly read a divine purpose into them. The fine-tuning of the universe need not imply anything supernatural, only that human life, like everything else, requires specific conditions.
To be fair, D’Souza has a point when he criticizes modern science for its tendency to reduce reality to fundamental components. A person, for example, is ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’ in the opinion of Nobel laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Such a simplistic approach can’t possibly account for the depth and variety of human experience, from performing ritual sacrifices in ancient times to playing soccer in our own.
Reductionism is a major weakness of the New Atheist literature – the recent spate of popular anti-God books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others – that D’Souza is responding to. By and large, this literature reduces religion to processes inside the brain. But studies of the brain will never tell us why our evolved capacity to believe in things unseen often takes religious forms. The New Atheists therefore tend to dismiss such forms as irrational, which is no explanation at all. Instead, religious phenomena should be explained in an all-round manner involving everything else that goes on in society. Human sacrifice in ancient civilizations, for instance, was, among other things, an instrument of social and political power, a military technique and a method of population control. If such civilizations explained their own actions to themselves the same way they explained the movements of celestial bodies – through religious myths – it’s because it made the best sense to them in their circumstances. Such phenomena, therefore, aren’t purely irrational, but understandable in their context. In abstracting from that context the New Atheists eschew a full scientific understanding of religion.
D’Souza skillfully exploits this weakness. Slapping the New Atheists’ own biological argument back on their faces, he suggests religion makes more evolutionary sense than atheism does. And he also copies their crude methods of historical interpretation. ‘Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the worst mass murders of history,’ he says (:221). But atheism and religion can’t be responsible for any mass murders. Rather, mass murders are carried out by entrenched interests powerful enough to develop means of mass destruction. In the last century this has typically been the secular state, which only shows that secular society hasn’t yet progressed far enough to abolish states, social conflict and war.
Secularization is nevertheless hugely progressive, and D’Souza, though a conservative, isn’t foolish enough to reject it. Instead, he boasts that ‘secularism is itself an invention of Christianity’ (:45). Like so many of his slippery and mixed-up arguments, this one contains a small grain of truth. The long path to a religion-free world is littered with old faiths left behind by more secular ones. Christianity, especially in its Protestant version, has been a step in the right direction, but it has rarely led the way; on the contrary, like every other religion it has usually trailed behind society’s own changing needs, eventually becoming what it is today – little more than a petty provider of community services and emotional therapy. This kind of religion is the weedy, worn-out crutch humanity leans on during the last stage of the journey, and what worries D’Souza is that today’s young might be about to kick it off.
There is a new secular morality in the West, he warns, particularly among those pesky youths. We mustn’t trust it, because people are fundamentally corrupt. This anti-humanist credo should repel anyone, young or old, who hopes for a radically better future on earth. D’Souza of course has no such hopes. Religion has a transcendent purpose, he insists, but don’t even try transcending the fundamental injustices of present-day society. ‘Some critics accuse capitalism of being a selfish system,’ he says, ‘but the selfishness is not in capitalism – it is in human nature’ (:62).
What’s So Great About Christianity. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2007.
1 Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (Free Press 1997). The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (Broadway 2007).
2 Bernard Chapin, ‘What’s So Great About Dinesh D’Souza? An Interview’, Conservative Crusader 17 August 2008.
Paula Cerni is an independent writer. For a list of publications please visit her website.