Monday, 1 July 2013

What's So Great About Christianity

My search for a decent Christian apologetic has had mixed results so far.  I have read many fascinating books, as well as some disappointments, and seen some very silly claims made in the name of the Christian faith.  The search has recently brought me to Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity, the lack of a question mark providing a most eloquent summary of the author's views.

I was nervous before I picked up this book.  D'Souza is an unlikely person to write something I would enjoy.  Born in Mumbai, India, he moved to the USA as an exchange student in 1978 and stayed to become a professional right-wing nutter.  He worked as an advisor in the Reagan White House, and has written books with titles like What's So Great About America (also without question mark), The Enemy At Home: The cultural left and its responsibility for 9/11, and most recently The Source of Obama's Rage in which he suggests that Obama's foreign policy is driven by a desire to live out his father's dream of undermining American power.

I was encouraged to read this book by positive reviews from non-nutters, and as it turns out I was pleasantly surprised.  Whats So Great About Christianity is a lucid, well reasoned defence of faith and critique of atheism.

The title is a misnomer, perhaps coined to match his earlier book on America.  Only two chapters at the end discuss Christianity specifically.  The vast bulk of the book is a defence of theism against atheism, and would do equally well for a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu.  In each section and each chapter he begins by quoting the argument of some noted atheist, and moves rapidly through his refutation using the ideas of thinkers who range from avowedly Christian to ambivalently deist.  He covers a vast territory and we can hardly complain if his wide scope means that his analysis is sometimes a little shallow.

I particularly like the way he clears the decks of some typical atheist misconceptions.  In response to the argument that Christianity is a force of oppression and persecution, he traces the origins of the concept of liberty and equality to the Christian notion of the sanctity of life.  The classical philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome which some atheist apologists like to cite as the bedrock of Western liberalism were exclusive, upholding the dignity of patrician men while downgrading that of women, children and slaves.  Christianity, by contrast, regarded all humans as equally created by God and valuable in his sight.  This provided the foundation for the idea of social liberty, the equal application of the law to all citizens, the duty of kings to protect the powerless, and ultimately the modern notion of human rights encoded on the various UN declarations.  Far from being an oppressor, he says, Christianity is the source of the freedoms we enjoy in the West today.

Later on, he discusses the crimes of Christianity such as the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-hunts and the European wars of religion. While he acknowledges that evil has indeed been done in the name of Christianity, he argues that the contemporary atheist view (and to a large extent the popular view more generally) is greatly exaggerated.  For instance, he points out that there were two sides to the Crusades and that the Islamic side was far from passive; that the Inquisition was responsible for the execution of at most 4,000 peope over more than three centuries; and that no more than 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft over the course of European history.

In order to put these historical realities in perspective, he engages in a little statistical exercise.  He estimates that those three medieval ills, the Crusades, the witch-burnings and the inquisition, between them resulted in about 200,000 deaths.  Given that world population increased five-fold between 1450 and 1950, this translates into the equivalent of a million deaths in mid-20th century terms.  By contrast, he estimates that the three most brutal atheist regimes of the mid 20th century - the German Nazis, the Soviet Union under Stalin and the Chinese Communist Party under Mao - were responsible for approximately 100 million deaths between them. 

I suspect the statistics are not worth the envelope on the back of which they were calculated.  However his general point is a good one.  If the undoubted crimes of religion are to be used as arguments against faith, then the crimes of atheist worldviews must be treated likewise.  These crimes are great, and cannot be swept under the carpet by suggesting, as Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris do, that these murderous ideologies are really religions under another name.  Using that logic, all worldviews are religions and it becomes impossible to have any discussion at all.

This is all, in a sense, just preliminary sparring.  The most telling part of D'Souza's book from an apologetic point of view is his discussion of the relation between science and religion.  He starts by pointing out that the notion of the two as opposed is another caricature.  The foundations of science as we know it were laid in Christian universities, by scientists who more often than not were also religious believers, with the approval and cooperation of the church.  The famous religious disputes over science, such as the controversy over the theories of Copernicus and Galileo, were as much scientific as they were religious.  Copernicus and Galileo were subsequently proved to be correct, but the evidence they presented in their lifetimes was far from conclusive and was a matter of great scientific as well as religious controversy.

From here D'Souza moves to the heart of his argument.  Science, he says, must by its nature adopt a kind of "methodological atheism".  Science is the search for natural causes, so to do its job it must assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no divine intervention.  This assumption is a way of defining and limiting the scope of inquiry, of saying what science is all about.  It is not a statement of any kind about religion, it is a statement about science itself. 

Our current crop of atheist scientists have forgotten this and assert that science has disproved God.  Physicist Victor Stenger says, "If we do indeed possess an immaterial soul then we should expect to find some evidence of it," by which of course he means scientific, material evidence.  The answer to his question (even though he believes he is not asking one) is, "no, you wouldn't."  After all, what does the word "immaterial" mean?  It is not possible for science to disprove God's existence because its method rules God out from the beginning.  Science literally and by definition has nothing to say about God's existence.

This leads D'Souza into a discussion of the philosophical limits of science as outlined by Immanual Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason.  I never really understood Kant, but D'Souza's simplified explanation makes sense.  Our current scientific atheists laud reason as the ultimate source of truth.  We should believe what we have evidence of, and disbelieve anything for which there is no evidence.  However, Kant questioned the basis for this rationality.  How do we know that our reason is reasonable?  How do we know we can trust the evidence of our senses?  The answer is that, by definition, we have no way of knowing this.  What we perceive is not reality itself, merely our perception of it.  Ultimately we have no way of proving that this perception actually matches reality because we can only test reality by our senses.  In the end, we are forced to take it on trust.

This is a viable position to take in relation to the material world, and delivers us working models which are useful to us.  However, once we step beyond the physical world into the realms of the unseen or unknown, beyond what we can experience or test, we reach the limits of reason because it has nothing to work with.  Reason on its own can tell us little or nothing about the ultimate nature of reality. 

To my mind it's a shame he didn't leave it there.  He moves on to Pascal's Wager, the notion that the risk of not believing and then finding out there is a God after all is greater than the risk of believing and then finding out there is no God.  In doing so he undermines his own case, trying to reason his way to faith via a kind of cost-benefit analysis, a form of insurance against eternal damnation.  Faith doesn't work like that and the notion of eternal damnation creates more problems than it solves.

The rest of the book is anticlimactic.  His comments on Christian ethics, natural law and atheism as a psychological excuse for bad behaviour are weak, both as logic and as theology.  His reasoning from the Big Bang to the existence of God as necessary cause, and his re-purposing of the argument from design, are decidedly tenuous. 

However, he does make an interesting point about the idea of a designer universe.  Physicists have observed that for whatever reason, our universe is set "just right" for the existence of life.  Miniscule changes to the temperature, level of background radiation, amount of matter or various other constants in the universe would make life impossible.  Religious apologists like to point to this as evidence of design.  One popular atheist answer to this is interesting - our universe, they suggest, may be just one of an infinite number, each of which varies slightly.  Ours just happens to be the one with the right settings and so we came to be. 

The problem, says D'Souza, is that this is a faith position.  We have no way of detecting the existence of such universes since we are unable to go beyond our own.  Furthermore, it is an explanation of stunning complexity.  Why, he asks, are people with such a high view of science able to believe without evidence in an infinite number of universes constantly generating and regenerating, but find a single infinite God incredible?

His closing piece of Christian evangelism comes out of nowhere, as if you can't write a book about Christianity without trying to convert people.  I doubt many will convert as a result.  This is not because this is a bad book but because apologetics is not addressed to non-believers.  Just as you can't reason your way to atheism, you can't reason your way to faith.  The most apologetics will do for you is assure you that your faith has not been disproved, that it is not the nonsense our popular atheists proclaim, and that their arguments are themselves riddled with holes.

Apologetics will take you no further.  You are on the edge of a moving stream.  No logic will tell you whether you should dive in and swim across, or turn back.  You must decide that for yourself.  Good luck and swim well, I'll see you on the other side.

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