Saturday, February 21, 2009

D'Souza, What's So Great About Christianity (Part One)

Dinesh D’Souza’s “What’s So Great about Christianity” is, according to his preface, a book whose goal is to answer the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris; D’Souza takes them to be representative examples of modern atheism. He intends his book to be for believers and unbelievers alike, but as we’ll see, much of the book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. It could be argued that some of the writers he’s targeting are guilty of some rhetorical excesses, but D’Souza returns excess for excess, and his argument erodes into ad hominem at several points.

In addition to attempting to tackle the criticisms of these writers, he wants to show that historically Christianity has been a force almost exclusively for good, that the discoveries of science don’t force Christians to give up any of their core beliefs (on the contrary, he finds confirmation of the Christian account of the way the world is in modern science), that faith is eminently reasonable, that the mass murders of the 20th century are the logical extension of acquiescence to atheism, and that the real motivation for atheism is “cowardly moral escapism” (xvii). Clearly there is no way that any author could thoroughly cover all the topics he proposes, considering counterarguments and evidence that is in tension with the arguments presented. I actually think that this is part of his rhetorical strategy, which I think can justifiably be called “scattershot argumentation”. Fire a collection of half truths, distortions, carefully mined quotations, and cobbled together arguments at your target, all the while ignoring the logical consequences of your conclusions or whether things you’ve said before are in conflict with what you’re claiming now. While the reader is trying to come to terms the barrage of fallacies and lacunae, reload and fire again.

Before I start to discuss the specifics of D’Souza’s book, I think it is important to note that it is at least possible that every one of D’Souza’s conclusions could be true (at least the ones that don’t contradict each other, and there are a few of those). The issue, though, is whether he has given us any reason to believe those conclusions. I’m going to argue that in fact he hasn’t, and that each of his arguments either fails or is irrelevant to the truth of the propositions he is defending.

That said, on to “Part One: The Future of Christianity.” There are two kinds of arguments in D’Souza’s book: those which are invalid and those which are irrelevant to the truth of Christianity (some fit in both categories). The first part of the book is full of arguments of the latter kind. In chapter one he trumpets the growth of traditional Christianity in the US and worldwide. Liberal Christianity is shrinking, and conservative Christianity is growing. He cites statistics showing the Southern Baptist Convention has grown from 8.7 million members in 1960 to 16.4 million now. What he fails to mention is that the population of the US has grown from 179 million in 1960 to 306 million today, making that near doubling of members a little less impressive: it represents an increase from 4.86% to 5.35% of the total US population. Growth to be sure, but the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. He also ignores data that show that as people receive more education (which one would think is a good thing), they are less likely to believe religious accounts of the world. See this Gallup poll for instance. At any rate, the popularity of Christianity doesn’t bear on whether or not it’s true.

Chapter two offers a quasi-evolutionary account of why religion is becoming more popular, but it is important to note that if this argument is correct, it doesn’t entail anything at all about the truth of the teachings of religion.

Chapter three gives what I think is a fairly accurate (if simplified) summary of some the arguments of the “New Atheists” but a consequence of trying to argue against multiple authors simultaneously is that you have to lump together people who may not all hold the same beliefs. The implication of addressing them as the New Atheists is that one can lump them together without distortion on a broad range of issues, which may or may not be true.

One example of the type of rhetoric that I think demonstrates that this book is not really a serious attempt to engage those who disagree with D’Souza can be found on page 31, where he says that “the Christian villain, Satan, has now become the atheist hero.” I get his point, that Milton’s portrayal of Satan’s refusal to accept God’s authority is like the atheist’s refusal to do so, but this is a problem on two levels. I haven’t read Milton (well, I’ve tried, but… so boring…), but presumably Satan believed in the existence of the God he was flouting, whereas the atheist does not. But more to the point here, does D’Souza really think that it is conducive to the productive exchange of ideas to tell your opponent that if he disagrees with you he loves the Devil? It’s a silly rhetorical device designed to rally the troops and give them a quotable little turn of phrase.

Chapter four is an attempt to scare Christians about the motives of atheists. Apparently atheists want to steal your children. It’s true that some writers seem to advocate educational or governmental agencies interfering with the rights of parents to control what their children are taught, but the same is true of Christians who want to mandate that creationism is taught alongside evolution in science class.

He complains that the ACLU is advocating in court on behalf of proponents of evolutionary theory but not for proponents of Boyle’s Law (34). Fair enough, but I suppose if there were an organized effort on the part of Boyle’s Law deniers to teach a religious alternative to Boyle’s Law, they might be.

He criticizes Daniel Dennett’s proposal to teach religion as a “natural phenomenon,” saying that by this Dennett means that it should be taught as if it is untrue. Dennett neither says this nor implies it. In his book “Breaking the Spell” he offers the suggestion (page 25) that courses in comparative religion should be taught in public schools in which students are introduced to the ideas of the major religions without one religion being advocated. That doesn’t have anything to do with any of those religions being true or untrue.

D’Souza also seems to think there is a sneaky cabal of literature professors trying to destroy western civilization on college campuses. There are certainly some people who think that religions are all false, and want other people to believe that way, and some of those people are university professors, but he doesn’t offer any evidence that there is a widespread abuse of authority or belief coercion being practiced in universities. He offers up a few quotes from a couple of professors indicating that they think that they should try to dissuade students from holding their parents beliefs, and an uncited quotation from a “champion of agnosticism” to the effect that atheists try to get college students to have sex in order to break them of their religious beliefs (38). I’m inclined to view this quotation as a fabrication, if for no other reason than the fact that nobody has to encourage college students to have sex with each other.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit that I am absolutey shocked by a comment you made. You said - "I haven’t read Milton (well, I’ve tried, but… so boring…)"
    How can someone who spends his days pouring over (and blogging about) 2400 year old philosophy books find anything boring?