Sunday, October 28, 2007

D'Souza's Arguments via Kengor: Hardly Persuasive

In an interview with Dr. Paul Kengor, Dinesh D'Souza lays out some of his major arguments in his book What’s So Great About Christianity. Needless to say, I was neither surprised nor impressed.

"In a way, the atheist attacks on God and religion are a bit odd. I don’t believe in unicorns, but I don’t go around writing books about them."

Well no, that is because there is no group of unicornists running around trying to outlaw ice cream cones because of their resemblance to the Holy Horn, or trying to suppress scientific findings and indoctrinate children with bronze age creation myths, or trying to prevent people from using birth and disease control. Many atheists lack belief in astrology and the Loch Ness monster as well, but we don't attack that nearly as much as we attack religion. Same reason: the astrologers for the most part leave us alone and don't try to force their views on the rest of us. Let Christians develop the same tolerance for differing views, and rest assured, the atheist attacks on them would abate.

This is a Coulteristic non-argument. It's just a smart aleck claim akin to what a 10 year old might conjure up. Why isn't it spelled out logically? Because D'Souza knows how absurd it would sound to say "Gosh, atheists sure criticize belief in God a lot. They must really believe in Him." It is not the stuff of serious scholarship, and certainly not the sort of thing that is going to be a challenge to atheists.

"I suspect what has given atheists a boost is the Islamic radicalism we’ve seen in the wake of 9/11. The atheists glibly equate Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism, and then conclude that religion itself is the problem. "

It is not glib, it is an acknowledgement of the basic similarity between the two. Christians believe by faith, Muslims believe by faith. Christians believe paradise awaits them in heaven, Muslims believe paradise awaits them in heaven. Those Muslim hijackers were driven by the exact same blind faith that Christians so revere, and which so many incomprehensibly believe is crucial for a head of state to have. When D'Souza can explain exactly what is different about the way Christians discover truth and the way Muslims do, then his objection will have some substance. Until then it is just so much reality denial of the dangers of blind faith.

"My book What’s So Great About Christianity is consciously written in the C.S. Lewis tradition...I want to show Christians and religious believers that theism makes vastly more sense of the world and of our lives than agnosticism or atheism. I also want to persuade genuine seekers that they should take Christianity seriously, and give it real consideration. I don’t expect to convince dogmatic atheists, but I do intend to expose and refute and embarrass them."

Well DiNesh, if you follow in the Lewis tradition of MSU - Making Shit Up ("the thing that controls instincts cannot itself be an instinct" - really? Why not?) and playing semantic games (which is all his talk of the Natural Law was), you will have as little success as he did. As long as you pretend there is such a thing as a dogmatic atheist, you have no chance of success, for such reveals a complete lack of understanding of how the opposition thinks. We atheists deal with facts and logic, not faith and dogma.

"There is a whole body of data showing that the world is growing more religious. One reason for this is that religious countries and religious people are having more children, while secular countries and secular people are not reproducing themselves... This is very disturbing news for atheists."

Hardly. While we are certainly not thrilled by the growth of religion in the world, the implication of the argument D'Souza makes here is that the religious are winning the cultural war, not because they are right, or because they have the more persuasive arguments, but simply because they have more children. The conversion rate strongly favors the atheists, as believers converting to atheism outnumber atheist conversions to religion 1,000 to 1. Being angry at the gods doesn't make you an atheist, as so many Christians claim when attempting to refute this. If it were not so, the world would become almost completely religious in short order, since the best correlate of a child's religious view is his parents religious view. Instead, the world is about 30% or so nonreligious, and in some places like the United States, that figure has been steadily growing for decades.

"Not so long ago the typical atheist could be comforted by the idea that as the world became more modern, more urbanized, more educated, it would also become more secular. Religion would wither away. This hasn’t happened, and the trend is actually in the other direction. In fact, religion is booming in rapidly modernizing countries like India and China. Perhaps the new atheism is a backlash against the unforeseen success of religion."

Without a doubt, it is. Religious thinking has plunged us into meaningless wars, denied birth control to millions who need it, and stunted the science education of millions of innocent children. You are damned right it is a backlash against the success of religion in it's superior rate of procreation, and against it's failure in every other aspect.

"There is no sustained historical clash between science and religion. In fact, Christianity was crucial in giving birth to modern science, and the vast, vast majority of leading scientists over the past 500 years have been Christians."

D'Souza is making a very flawed argument here. His tacit assumption is that the social balance between atheism and Christianity has remained constant all these years, and it hasn't. Christianity was the dominant belief system for all but the last couple of hundred years in Europe, even among prominent scientists. So of course there wasn't much of a clash between atheism and Christianity, because there wasn't a whole lot of atheism. To give Christianity credit for advancing science because so many great scientists were Christians would be like crediting slavery on the same basis, or even patriarchy. His argument here is circular, because he does not seem to understand that correlation does not imply causality. The causality he assumed.

" Well, on the Christian side we have Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Brahe, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Gassendi, Pascal, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Farady, Hershel, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ohm, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel and Lemaitre. Einstein too was a believer in God as a kind of supreme mind or spirit discernible through the complex and beautiful laws of nature."

More MSU from D'Souza. Newton denied the trinity, and Einstein most forcefully denied believing in a personal god or anything like it. Einstein's religious views were far more compatible with Dawkins' then they are with D'Souza's.

The question that begs to be asked in any case is: so what? Practically everyone was a Christian back then. I would likely have been a Christian then, as would most of you reading this. The question is not what is reasonable for a person to believe based on 17th century knowledge (or less), but what is reasonable for a person to believe with 21st century knowledge. If D'Souza is going to argue that all these men would have been Christians were they alive today, he need to back up that claim, not just tacitly assert it. At first glance, it appears preposterous.

"... science itself, in its assumption that the universe is rational and obeys laws discoverable by the human mind, is based on Christian precepts and cannot in fact be done without Christian presuppositions. "

[Yawn] More MSU. The Greeks, as well as other cultures, made the same assumptions long before Christianity came to be. In fact, it is difficult to see how any sane person could assume anything else. One doesn't have to be too observant to notice regularity in the world around us. It is not as if we find ourselves disappearing and appearing, or walking into invisible walls, or finding ice cream burning.

This is just another of the many numerous occasions where Christian apologists co opt others' discoveries as their own. Thus, they claim to have laid the foundations of the constitution (English common law and John Locke did that), the golden rule (which appears in practically every culture, many predating Jesus), and science. None are the slightest bit true. Science is based on falsifiable experimentation, and collective public evaluation of the evidence. There is nothing in Christianity that comes close to expressing such views.

If this is the best D'Souza has to offer, he will be merely another clanging bell of criticism as the atheist train runs merrily by. What he needs to ask, is not whether many scientists of antiquity, people of their culture and time as we all are, fell for the Christian myth. He needs to come up with a good explanation for why, with modern knowledge of the universe, a tiny percentage of scientists are traditional Christians, or why belief in gods is so consistently correlated with a lack of intelligence and education. Arm waving about what Kepler did or did not believe doesn't change the good reasons why Dawkins, Hawking, and yes Einstein, didn't.

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