Published February 18, 2008
Weekly Standard, Volume 013, Issue 22
What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza
(Regnery, 348 pp., $27.95)
In the last few years we have seen a spate of bestselling anti-God books from a group of prominent writers and first-rate minds, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. These men, deeply hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular, are also formidable debaters. Last fall, I attended a debate in which Hitchens carved to pieces a leading Christian theologian who conceded far too much, defended his faith far too little, and sought common ground where none exists.
Dinesh D'Souza has seen the same thing. “Precisely because the Christians usually duck and run, the atheists have had it too easy,” he writes. “Their arguments have gone largely unanswered. They have been flogging the carcass of 'fundamentalism' without having to encounter the horse kick of a vigorous traditional Christianity.”
D'Souza's horse kick comes in the form of this new book. And quite a kick it is. D'Souza offers a persuasive, scholarly, and intelligent rebuttal to the main charges made by those who proudly carry the banner of atheism. And unlike the work of some leading atheists, D'Souza's book is blessedly free of rancor and reckless statements.
It is also filled with interesting and surprising facts, especially regarding the demographic shifts in global Christianity. For instance, D'Souza notes that Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world today (although Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Europe). In 1900, more than 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and America; today, 60 percent live in the developing world–with more than two out of three evangelical Christians now living in Asia, Africa, and South America. Today there are more churchgoing Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland. Christianity is thriving in China and India, nations which have the fastest growth rates in the world–and at current growth rates, China will, in a few decades, become the largest Christian country in the world.
“The vital centers of Christianity today are no longer Geneva, Rome, Paris, or London,” D'Souza writes. “They are Buenos Aires, Manila, Kinshasa, and Addis Ababa.”
But the core of D'Souza's book is a systematic response to the main arguments put forth by contemporary atheists and the historical figures on whom they rely. D'Souza sets out to demonstrate seven things: First, Christianity is the main foundation of Western civilization and the root of our most cherished values. Second, the latest discoveries of modern science support the claim that a divine being created the universe. Third, Darwin's theory of evolution strengthens, not undermines, evidence for supernatural design. Fourth, nothing in science makes miracles impossible. Fifth, it is reasonable to have faith. Sixth, atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history. And seventh, atheism is motivated not by reason but a kind of “cowardly moral escapism.”
All seven arguments are worth examining–but it is on the issue of evolution, Darwinism, and morality that I found D'Souza's discussion most interesting. He distinguishes between evolution, a scientific theory which is not hostile to religion, and Darwinism, which is a “metaphysical stance and a political ideology.” (D'Souza believes in the former and rejects the latter.) When Darwinists like Dennett invoke evolution as an “all-purpose explanation in cosmology, psychology, culture, ethics, politics, and religion,” D'Souza writes, they go far beyond the evidence. And in appropriating Charles Darwin's name, they actually do a disservice to it.
Evolution explains a great deal, but it is a theory with inherent limits. For one thing, evolution cannot explain the beginning of life, and Darwin didn't even attempt it. And among the limitations on evolution is that it cannot explain human rationality or morality. Of all the differences between man and the lower animals, Darwin said, the moral sense (or conscience) is the most important.
Leading Darwinists like Dennett, Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, D'Souza tells us, attempt to explain morality as a product of evolution and natural selection. What appears to be altruism is actually a genetically programmed strategy for survival and reproduction.
Thus the theory of “kin selection,” a form of genetic selection, provides an explanation for why we behave more altruistically toward relatives than strangers. It has to do with ensuring our genes get passed to the next generation. And the theory of “reciprocal altruism,” developed by the biologist Robert Trivers, argues that it will benefit an animal to behave altruistically towards another if there is an expectation of the favor being returned in the future. The cost of an altruistic act is off-set by the likely benefit of a future favor. Morality, then, is based on self-interest.
Yet, as D'Souza points out, the entire framework of Darwinist analysis does not come close to providing a comprehensive account for morality. We frequently see examples of people acting morally and against self-interest; in fact, we hold a special place of honor for those who die while trying to save people whom they have never met. The late Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist, admitted that “altruism toward strangers is a behavior not supported by natural selection.”
Beyond that, we should ask: On what grounds does a person who does not believe in God make the case for inherent human dignity and worth? How does one create a system of justice and make a compelling case against, say, slavery if you begin with three propositions: the universe was created by chance, it will end in nothing, and there is no external source of authority to which to resort?
If you are a materialist, how do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? And how do you respond to a Nietzschean who tells you “your belief is fine for you, but it is not binding to me. God is dead–and I choose to follow the Will to Power”? An atheist may disagree with this Nietzschean sentiment, but he has no persuasive philosophical or moral ground on which to make his stand.
Even supposing that human beings have a moral sense based on evolution, why choose to follow it? After all, we have lots of instincts–some noble and some base. Why choose the more noble ones, like cooperation and sympathy, fidelity and fair play? Why not use your power against those you have authority over? Why not rig the game in order to advance your own self-interest?
This does not mean atheists cannot live ethical lives or advocate moral principles. Many do. It's just that they cannot anchor it in anything durable (an appeal to “human solidarity” won't do the trick). Another reason for this is parasitic. Certain religious precepts are now part of our social DNA. And so we take it for granted that, as the Founders said, all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. We believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.” The moral atheist certainly exists, but it is because he lives in a society that takes a transcendent morality for granted. If the atheistic enterprise were to prevail, these beliefs would be unmoored–and the moral world it would create would be barren and bleak.
In the end, of course, atheists are not attacking simply a religious institution or set of theological beliefs; they are attacking a person, and not just any person. The target of their wrath is the most compelling figure in human history, a man full of grace and truth. What dr
ives this animus toward Christ is hard to fathom; perhaps it is the notion of the perfect dying for the imperfect. In any event, their unceasing invective is less shocking than it is tiresome and even childish.
The Apostle Peter wrote to his fellow Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian born in India and educated in America, has provided the reason for his hope. That he has done so in such a comprehensive and impressive fashion is a testimony to the quality of his mind and the depth of his faith.
— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.