Posted: June 2, 2008
confess that I approached this book with a certain degree of trepidation. Our moment feels ripe for a revival of Christian apologetics, and there was a time when I would have thrilled to see Dinesh D'Souza enter the lists on Christianity's behalf—the D'Souza of Illiberal Education (1991) and The End of Racism(1995), the D'Souza who was combative and compelling, polemical yet rigorous, eager to take the fight to his opponents on turf they thought they owned. Since then, though, D'Souza has gone from disappointment to disappointment, penning a series of books (including a Reagan hagiography and a post-9/11 ode to American exceptionalism) generic enough to have been written by any right-of-center pundit, and then stumbling into the debacle that was last year's The Enemy At Home, which called for cooperation between American social conservatives and Muslim traditionalists, and seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between a social conservatism that frowns on abortion and pornography and one that endorses polygamy, genital mutilation, and the execution of adulterers.
I'm pleased to report, then, that What's So Great About Christianity, D'Souza's defense of the faith that he and I share, is a considerable improvement on its immediate predecessor, a reminder of its author's skill as a polemicist, and a fitting rebuke to the recent spate of atheistic tracts that it sets out to contend with. His measured tone alone makes for a refreshing contrast with the bitchy, condescending style favored by the bestselling anti-theists, and his promise "to meet the atheist argument on its own terms" likewise stands in sharp contrast to the "new atheist" habit of making a caricature of religious belief and then gleefully smacking it around. (One can only hope that his antagonists will make a careful study of D'Souza's habit of actually quoting those with whom he disagrees.)
The book is organized around the various strands—political and moral, scientific and philosophical—of the "atheist argument" that it sets out to unravel. Against the secularization hypothesis, with its vision of a humanity moving steadily away from superstition toward the broad sunlit uplands of godlessness, D'Souza argues for religion's resilience, and indeed for the demographic advantages enjoyed by religious populations, who multiply fruitfully while secular societies grow steadily more sterile. To the litany of crimes against liberty and progress that are laid at Christianity's door, the author responds by tracing everything that contemporary atheists claim to value—human rights and church-state separation, the faith in reason and progress that makes scientific advancement a possibility—to the modern West's Christian roots. Against the argument that the universe itself seems essentially meaningless and accidental, D'Souza lays out the not-inconsiderable evidence that the entirety of creation has been designed with conscious life in mind, and then dryly limns the attempts by modern scientists to explain this possibility away with ever-more-elaborate, ever-less-testable hypotheses.
Much of this argument I would happily recommend to anyone foolish enough to believe that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their co-believers have permanently settled religion's hash. But the strength of D'Souza's book as a rejoinder to atheism sometimes feels like its weakness as an apology for Christianity. D'Souza seems constrained, in a sense, by the narrow-mindedness of his antagonists. Nothing has distinguished the "new atheism" so much as the predictability of its case against religion, and perhaps inevitably, What's So Great About Christianity's rebuttal sometimes feels predictable as well. D'Souza is engaged in intellectual brush-clearing and by the end of the book the weeds have been cleared away—but many thorny questions remain untouched and unaddressed.
Part of the problem is that one can only spend so much time rebutting glib and facile arguments without slipping into glibness oneself. It ought to be enough, for instance, for him to note that the Christian emphasis on charity is distinctive and its influence on world affairs unique, without claiming that "nowhere else" besides Christendom do we find icons of unselfishness like Vincent De Paul and Mother Teresa. It ought to be enough to note that the crimes committed in the name of Christianity pale before the mass murders perpetrated by secular regimes without seeming quite so blasé about, say, the Inquisition, Reformation-era witch-burnings, or the slaughter that accompanied the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem. It ought to be sufficient to demonstrate the folly of the atheistic dream of a world without religion, without being quite so confident about the looming "global triumph of Christianity." (One billion Muslims—and counting—might yet have something to say about that.)
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More importantly, though, D'souza only occasionally acknowledges that the militant atheist case against Christianity is not the only case there is. I do not blame him for training his fire on the noisiest anti-Christian writers, but I wish he were more humble about what such a rebuttal is capable of proving. Consider, for instance, his treatment of Darwin's theory of evolution. So long as he is refuting the suggestion that evolution by natural selection is incompatible with theism of any sort, his argument proceeds briskly and persuasively. But his conclusion is more sweeping than the evidence allows. He writes that "Christians should not be afraid of the evolution debate," which is true enough, but then he goes on to insist that since "the Christian position is that God is the creator of the universe and everything in it," and "the evolution debate comes down to competing theories" about how the Almighty went about that creation, "there is nothing about it [evolution] that threatens [Christian] faith."
That "nothing" seems to me to go too far. Certainly, evolution does not preclude an intelligently designed universe. But it does not necessarily require a Christian universe, and just a few pages earlier we find D'Souza noting, correctly, that "the broader anxiety" about Darwin's theory has less to do with the literal belief in Genesis than with the moral and philosophical lessons suggested by a creation red in tooth and claw. Every believer has thrilled to God's promise to the prophet Isaiah that He intends for the lion and the lamb to lie down together and for pain and death to perish. But evolutionary theory might be taken to imply that this same God designed the world in such a way that millions of years of pain and violence and death were necessary to bring forth humankind.
This implication does not vindicate materialism by any stretch, but at the very least it poses a problem for Christianity, and troubles the minds of would-be believers. From such disquiet comes not atheism, necessarily, but pantheism or gnosticism or deism, or the sort of pagan pessimism that led Robert Frost to wonder, at the sight of a spider devouring a moth:
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.
There are responses to this difficult objection, but D'Souza's breezy assurance that evolution is just the way God chose to make the world seems insufficient. And similar difficulties crop up throughout the book. For instance, he invokes Kant to defend the reasonableness of taking leaps of faith, and the plausibility of the notion that there exists a world beyond what our senses can perceive. As a rebuttal to materialist hubris this arrow finds its mark, but as D'Souza himself notes, the Kantian vision "is congruent with the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity." (And many more visions besides, one might add—an open-minded agnosticism among them.) So too with the invocation of Pascal's Wager, which persuades only so long as the gambler is faced with a binary choice between Christianity and unbelief. In each case the question remains—why believe in the Christian revelation? Why assume that the world our senses fail to apprehend contains seraphim and cherubim, resurrected saints, and the triune God?
D'souza has some answers, but they feel like an afterthought. What's So Great About Christianity devotes 24 chapters to defending Christianity "largely from a secular viewpoint," as D'Souza himself puts it, and just two to making the case for its distinctiveness among other world religions and philosophies as a true account of God's purposes and a blueprint for altering one's life. Which means that while the introduction casts the book as "an invitation to convert," the arguments that follow provide insufficient grounds for accepting that invitation. That a religion is consistent with reason, socially beneficial, and demographically resilient does not make it true. ThatRichard Dawkins is wrong does not mean that Pope Benedict is right.
Given the sales figures enjoyed by Dawkins, Hitchens, and their imitators, it's understandable that D'Souza would treat dogmatic atheism as Christianity's natural sparring partner. Understandable, but to my mind mistaken. The "new atheism," for all its pretensions to philosophical and scientific depth, is ultimately more a political statement than anything else—a reaction against Osama bin Laden abroad and Pat Robertson at home. Christianity has less to fear from these slings and arrows in the long run, I think, than from religious indifference on the one hand—what Jonathan Rauch has memorably dubbed "apatheism"—and a spirituality of self-fulfillment and self-worship on the other.
It's the latter, in all its myriad forms (paganism and gnosticism, pseudo-Buddhism and the prosperity gospel) that's the real religious alternative to Christianity: The Secret has a wider readership than The God Delusion, and Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown easily outsells atheist Daniel Dennett. Against its blandishments, Christians need an apologetics that begins where D'Souza's arguments leave off. The case against atheism remains necessary and important. But that case—and thus this book, for all its strengths as a polemic-will not suffice against the rivals Christians face.