Monthly Archives: December 2013

D’Souza challenge: Chapter Two

Chapter two is titled “Survival of the Sacred: Why Religion is Winning.” D’Souza begins by imagining evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins and anthropologist Scott Atran as being dumbfounded when it comes to supplying a rational evolutionary explanation as to why religion survives. He brings up some valid points. Religion is costly to individuals and to societies. It consumes a great deal of resources especially in our monument-building past. This is nothing new. Religion helps cement a society together, that doesn’t make it right, good, or true. Being at war with a common enemy accomplishes the same thing.

He refers to several atheists as “Darwinists,” a term only used pejoratively by theists to describe a person who understands the theory of evolution. He writes that “Darwinists are hoping that by explaining the existence of religion they can expose its natural roots and undermine its supernatural authority” (14).  D’Souza then quotes Dawkins as saying, “The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain.” D’Souza intentionally chose a weak sentence, making Dawkins sound like he was guessing or just thinking aloud. He didn’t cite the quote either so I’m not sure exactly where it came from, but the topic is discussed at length in chapter five of The God Delusion. Dawkins combines his ideas with Dennett’s work and explores the ways in which we are “psychologically primed for religion” (208). It’s a great read if you haven’t read it already. Our pattern recognition “software” finds faces in the darkness and sees spirits everywhere. Early forms of religion, like ancestor worship, are partially explained by this human trait.

D’Souza’s main argument in his short 2000 word “chapter” is that religion is growing because religious people are having more babies. He brings up some sociological factors dealing with the decline of fertility rates in Europe and attempts to explain this phenomenon as being directly related to the happiness and sense of community created by religion. He even claims that society, in the past, viewed children as gifts from God and that “traditional cultures still view them that way” (18). He failed to mention that more traditional cultures also practice infanticide, genital mutilation, and child marriages. But that isn’t the worst of it, his entire diatribe about fertility rates and religion completely ignores one extremely important factor; women. He claims that religious people have more children because they have a “zest for life” and because in poorer countries sex is “one of their only means of recreation.” Even his explanation of lower birth rates in Europe leaves out the role of women. The truth is that more educated, egalitarian societies have less children because women are in control of their own reproductive rights. The religious countries that D’Souza refers to, but never specifically names, are the countries where women have no freedom, no access to contraception, and no chance at upward mobility through education. That’s why he leaves out specifics. Even in America some women are trained from birth to be subservient baby machines and punished for independent thought. This is where religion wins, this is where freedom loses. D’Souza intentionally puts the right’s of women aside in his explanation of fertility rates among religious people.

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D’Souza challenge: Chapter One

This is the second installment of my commentary on Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, What’s so Great about Christianity? Check out the first part if you missed it. It covered the introduction.

Chapter one is modestly titled “The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of Christianity.” It is a parade of half-truths and not-so-cleverly worded lies.

God has come back to life. The world is witnessing a huge explosion of religious conversion and growth, and Christianity is growing faster than any other religion. Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead” is now proven false. Nietzsche is dead. The ranks of the unbelievers are shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population. Secularism has lost its identification with progress and modernity, and consequently it has lost the main source of its appeal. God is very much alive, and His future prospects look to be excellent. This is the biggest comeback story of the twenty-first century.

D’Souza is correct in that some religious groups are growing. It would be hard to defend his second statement however. A huge explosion? This statement only works if you include Mormonism, which I doubt the majority of D’Souza’s fan club would honestly include. Mormons have more families with three or more children by nearly double any other religious group. They also have a fairly rigorous conversion campaign. So they are out-breeding and out proselytizing all other American groups. America aside, the fastest growing religion is Islam.  Although there are several that aren’t far behind, including the nones.  D’Souza is right about Christianity’s growth in South America and Africa, but what he fails to mention is that in those places, especially in Africa, Christianity is just a relabeling of what they already believed. West Africans are practicing a highly syncretic version of Christianity and their own tribal beliefs, probably Yoruba or another form of ancestor worship. And while it is successful the results can be terrifying.

Watch this:

The American forms of Christianity that are growing are doing so because our culture and our Constitution have created an environment that is extremely habitable to them. Evangelical Christianity thrives on consumerism and our competitive religious marketplace has helped it evolve into a money machine. American televangelists and superdome mega-church clerics pedal a slick combination of fear and hope and walk away billionaires. They write, or have written for them, hundreds of books a year. The kinds of books New York Times contributing author Ross Douthat wrote about in Bad Religion. Douthat derides Osteen for being “promiscuous in his get-rich-quick anecdotes” and taking advantage of the lowest point in the recession to feed on people’s fears and financial instability (209). This is the Christianity that is growing, a predatory, feverish, consumer-driven, exploitative religion that selectively forgets Jesus’s many explicit warnings against worshiping money and possession.

D’Souza claims that Secularism has lost it’s “identification with progress and modernity.” This is an odd statement. I doubt that most people could define secularism correctly, much less comprehend its impact on our lives. The growing trend away from identifying with any religious group is not a trend toward identifying as a “secularist.” It represents a decline in the appeal of what religious groups offer. People are more connected then ever before and no longer require a local group of family or friends in order to support their social well-being. Those are great things, and it is good to have close friends to spend real time with. But what churches offer can be provided by simple groups of like-minded people finding each other online and meeting for coffee every once in awhile.

The religions that D’Souza claims are making a huge explosion in humanity are doing so for reasons he glosses over or fails to mention entirely. Greed, fear, and high birth-rates are the only thing holding these groups afloat. The non-believers may soon be the third largest religious demographic in the world, trailing only behind the many facets of Christianity and Islam. Covering the rest of the chapter would be a waste of my time and yours. D’Souza can’t defend what he writes against the most cursory of google searches or even a little common sense.

D’Souza’s Challenge Accepted

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Dinesh D’Souza (yes, the guy that referred to President Obama as a “grown-up Trayvon” that America should “survive”) is a former White House policy analyst and a research scholar at Stanford. He was often the punching-bag at debates with the late Christopher Hitchens. I believe he has also debated Sam Harris and I’m sure many others. He wrote What’s so great about Christianity?, a rebuttal to several books commonly grouped together as the “New Atheist” collection. They include both Hitchens and Harris, as well as Dawkins, Dennett, Stenger, and a handful of others. Flipping through the sections and scanning the table of contents I can see it includes many of the more current Christian arguments against atheism and rationalism. My goal is to rebut each short chapter of D’Souza’s book in order and with references, beginning with the introduction.

D’Souza begins reminding Christians that they must know what they believe and be able to communicate and explain Christianity to skeptics. He is correct to point this out. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has shown that when it comes to facts about religion, atheists are the most informed. Clearly Christians know the least about what they claim to believe when compared to the people who claim not to believe. As a rationalist this points toward a very obvious conclusion, but I’ll just let that go for now.

D’Souza, unsurprisingly, frames several arguments as black or white. Christians commonly see things in this polarized way. You are either a brother or a sworn enemy, nothing exists in between. He states that “Either the universe is a completely closed system and miracles are impossible, or the universe is not a closed system and there is the possibility of divine intervention in it” (xiv-xv). This is textbook false dichotomy, he also begs the question by including his miracle nonsense with his system types. The universe could be a closed system where miracles are possible, or it could be an open system where miracles are impossible. Or what all evidence points toward today, a closed system where miracles are the wishful-thinking of one tiny insignificant group of evolved, self-aware apes on a single planet in an unremarkable back alley of rather boring solar system. Please enjoy this short vignette:

The saddest bit in the introduction is a laughable biblical reference. He refers to Atheists as money-changers that must be driven out of the temple. This just fails to make any sense at all. The money-changers provided a service to temple-goers and were just one part of the religious money-sucking machine that hopefully peaked with today’s mega-church super-structure personality cults. The prosperity gospel preachers are today’s money-changers, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, the list goes on an on. Even many Christians see them for what they are. To label atheists as the temple money changers is to completely misunderstand either the purpose and symbol of the money changers or to misrepresent the atheists, or both. D’Souza writes that atheists want to “discredit the factual claims of religion” (xv), another laughable line plucked from many. What claims does “religion” make that are not, in truth, the claims of psychology, sociology, or some other science? Does he really think that “thou shalt not murder” was original thought? Nobody else had considered not murdering everybody? What factual claims does “religion,” a naked concept, make? None.

D’Souza lists what he plans to demonstrate in his book with a handy numbered list, conveniently recreated here, with my comments in italics:

1. Christianity is the main foundation of Western civilization, the root of our most cherished values. OK, the first part I will give him, but he should have stopped there. Religion is a major cultural cornerstone and it has been argued satisfactorily that Christianity could be considered the foundation of Western civilization and thought. Some people want to claim that rationalism was born of Christianity, those people are unaware of the pre-Socratics I suppose. I would argue that rationalism, which found an outlet in monastic tradition, and breeched Christianity like that alien baby-thing in the first Alien movie, was the real foundation of Western Civilization, but that is a big claim to make and I would need more to argue that point. Where D’Souza went wrong was adding that bit at the end about Christianity being the root of our most cherished values. That is just plainly incorrect. How could it be that Hindus share many of the same values? Also Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, humanists etc…
Christianity is just one of many value systems that are rooted in universal human values, values that survived because of natural selection. D’Souza is misinformed and demonstrating truth in his statement will doubtlessly prove very difficult.

2. The latest discoveries of modern science support the Christian claim that there is a divine being who created the universe. I imagine he plans to seriously cite articles from Answers in Genesis, and the Discovery Institute. This statement is an example of the way Christians have been historically guilty of moving the goal posts. Evolution was the devil until the evidence was too great to argue with, then it was god’s handiwork. I’m sure it’ll be easy for D’Souza to make these kinds of claims, and unfortunately such claims are completely unfalsifiable, making them basically immune to reason.

3. Darwin’s theory of evolution, far from undermining the evidence for supernatural design, actually strengthens it. See above, I guess he dedicates a whole section to Darwin. I find it odd that Christians continue to attack a 150 year old theory, as if it hasn’t been built upon and clarified by thousands of dedicated scientists, from anthropologists to zoologists.

4. There is nothing in science that makes miracles impossible. He is right, science just makes them so improbable that it would be absurd to believe in them.

5. It is reasonable to have faith. I imagine in this section he will use the word faith vaguely when it suits him and then specifically when he tries to make a point that ties in to Christianity. The English language is not perfect and sometimes people use the multiple meanings of words to confuse those that aren’t paying attention.

6. Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history. This is an old argument, thoroughly trounced by Hitchens in several of his debates and in his book “God is not Great,” which I thought I had a copy of around here somewhere… I will likely post a video of Hitchens rebuttal to this question when this section arrives because he has already put it far more eloquently then I ever could.

7. Atheism is motivated not by reason but by a kind of cowardly moral escapism. Well that is just mean. I’ll have to work hard to overcome my cowardly moral escapism to find what will likely be gaping holes in that argument. Christians imagine Atheism as a complete value system and, ironically, attempt to discredit it that way.

 

The very last paragraph of the introduction is my favorite. Here D’Souza addresses the non-believers specifically. He asks “You have been engaged in the pursuit of happiness for a very long time; ever wonder why you haven’t found it?” “How long did you intend to continue this joyless search for joy?” Older societies had much less and felt abundant; why do you, in the midst of plenty, continue to feel scarcity pressing down upon you?” (xvii) This will only work on people very susceptible to suggestion. Notice advertisers use the same tactic to sell you things you didn’t know you needed. At least he comes out and tells the readers honestly he is intending to convert them, what he doesn’t mention is that it is with fear, coercion, and misdirection.

 

 

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