Volume X - (2009)
BOOK REVIEW: What's So Great about Christianity, by Dinesh D'Souza. Regnery Publishing, 2007, 348 pp.
- Written by Tyler O. Hendricks Tyler O. Hendricks
Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 10, 2009 - Pages 201-205
Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great about Christianity is a no-holds barred affirmation of the greatness of Christianity. It is as much journalism as scholarship, but it is intelligent and well-informed journalism. D'Souza takes on "the anti-religious arguments of prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens." He argues that it more rational to believe in God than not to believe, that Christianity is the foundation of western civilization, that atheism is a symptom of moral failure, and that Christianity is the only way to go. One can never fault D'Souza for holding it back. I enjoyed reading this book and find myself largely in agreement with what he affirms but uncomfortable with a one-sidedness and lack of Christian spirit. After a review of his central arguments, I will present my reflections on the value of the book to Unificationists.
D'Souza demonstrates first that "Christianity is the main foundation of Western civilizations, the root of our most cherished values." (xvi-xvii) The values he deals with first are those of limited government, the rule of law and the separation of church and state, first conceptually and then substantively. Here he presents a rendition of the well-known history-an important aspect of the rise of the West. The notion that government should be limited "derives from the Christian notion that the ruler's realm is circumscribed and there are limits beyond which he simply must not go." (49) The separation of church and state arose in late antiquity, not with the Enlightenment. (50) Though Christians abrogated this, other Christians opposed them and ultimately have prevailed.
Second is the notion that of human fallibility and "the affirmation of the ordinary life." (55) Jesus was a "low man," who lived more or less an ordinary life. Thus "Christ produced the transformation of values in which the last became first, and values once scorned came to represent the loftiest human ideals." (56) Christianity thus re-envisioned society's purpose from that of serving the high-born to that of giving the common man a rich and meaningful life, and institutions should "be designed in such a way that sinful impulses...could nevertheless be channeled to produce humane and socially beneficial outcomes." (57) The immediate impact was to elevate the value of the family. The second was economic-all people are worthy customers-and "capitalism civilizes greed in much the same way that marriage civilizes lust." (62) The idea of progress, both material and moral, arose out of Christian societies that capitalism made prosperous. The third was political: the notion of human equality. What Jefferson called a "self-evident truth," D'Souza points out, is not self-evident in any culture or civilization other than Christianity.
D'Souza then discusses the theological roots of science and presents an interesting chapter on the Galileo case, concluding that it was "'a momentary break in the otherwise harmonious relationship' that had existed between religion and science. Indeed there is no other example in history of the Catholic church condemning a scientific theory." (110) D'Souza also argues for the compatibility of belief in miracles and in science. He utilizes Hume's critique of cause and effect to point out that laws of nature are not empirically verifiable. For example, a ball bouncing one million times does not prove that it will bounce the next time one throws it on the ground. Such repetitive behavior becomes a law only as an inference, an expectation based on habit, as Hume proved. Therefore, in principle their violation is possible, and hence miracles, defined as a violation of a known law of nature, is possible. (182ff.) Scientific laws are only provisionally true.
The author concludes with a chapter on Pascal's wager. In the face of an uncertain outcome, no rational person would refuse to give up something that is finite if there is the possibility of gaining an infinite prize. ...If you win, you win everything. If you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate, then: wager that [God] does exist." (198) D'Souza asserts that the honest skeptic who has no grounds to believe in God cannot formulate reasonable grounds to deny God's existence and hence should "live a good and moral life, ...live as if God did indeed exist ...and pray the prayer of the skeptic" to seek the truth. (199)
D'Souza then takes the offensive. He defends Christianity against the accusation that it perpetrates violence. While not denying this, he calls the reader to compare the crimes committed in the name of religion, the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, with those carried out under the atheistic banners of communism and fascism. He begins with the numbers: add a few zeros to the number of dead on the basis of religious agendas and you will arrive at the cost of atheistic mass slaughter. The Spanish Inquisition killed between 1,500 and 4,000 people and "Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people"-equivalent to one million today, over a period of 500 years, "only 1 percent of the deaths cause by Stalin, Hitler and Mao in the space of a few decades." (215) He rejects as self-serving and untrue the atheist arguments that these atheist atrocities "represent a distortion of the atheist spirit of rational and scientific inquiry" while insisting "crimes of religious regimes reflect the true face of religion." (216) He points out that religion preaches against such crimes, while communism and fascism justify such crimes, and that theism holds perpetrators guilty while atheism denies any principle upon which guilt can be assigned.
This leads him to a discussion of morality. He outlines the hypocrisy of the atheist exaltation of relative morality, concluding that one need only "find a value they cherish and excoriate it" to witness their relativism dissipate. Defend the cause of the Confederacy, gay-bashing, or question saving the planet for future generations. "Before you are finished, I think you will find your relativist up in arms, insisting that prejudice and racism are immoral and unjust, and that we ought to have laws restricting them and protecting the environment. ...In short, his actions confess that despite his loud denials, he too espouses morality as an absolute." (232) The atheist ignores the moral law with reference to his/her actions toward you, but "is quick to invoke it as a standard for how he expects you to act toward him." (Ibid.)
He moves on to argue for the eternal soul, calling flimsy and clumsy the attempts to explain human experience without it, and then criticizes the secular exaltation of the "self as its own law" as a standard of morality. He unearths the desire for liberation from sexual restraints as the real source of this so-called morality. (256) "Love of this kind [passion] is, quite literally, 'beyond good and evil,' and that is why the new morality has become such a powerful justification for adultery. When the inner self commands love, it does so authoritatively, defiantly, and without regard to risk or cost or all other commitments." (256) The deepest problem finally is the secularist assumption that the inner self is good, which is a departure from Christianity. Appealing to history and the observation of universal human behavior, he argues that "'original sin' is not a theological proposition but an observation of the human condition to which all rational people can give assent. A realistic assessment of human malevolence should convince even secular people that secular morality is based on an inadequate anthropology." (258)
He then turns the tables on his atheist foils. If it is so irrational to disbelieve in God, then why do these people not accept reason? Why are they, in fact, so vehement and belligerent in their rejection of God? Their behavior requires "a fuller psychological explanation." (261) The real motive, he argues, is the desire for liberation from "a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom." (266, citing Aldous Huxley) As Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out, "eroticism is the mysticism of materialism." (269) Calling orgasm, abortion and infanticide the three sacraments of atheism, D'Souza concludes that "atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt, it is a moral revolt." (272)
His handling of the theodicy question is interesting and new to this reader. He approaches it existentially or, more to the point, pastorally. He points out that atheists have nothing to say in the face of evil and suffering. No one stood up after the killings at Virginia Tech and explained to everyone not to be bothered because life has no purpose anyway. The atheist argument that the existence of evil and suffering proves that a sovereign God of goodness does not exist turns back upon them, because it presupposes that evil and suffering are real and are unjust. But "if evil is real, then good must be real as well," which means there is a standard to judge between the two. "And what is the source of that moral standard if not God?" (276-7) He concludes, "the existence of evil in the world is entirely consistent with a God who despises evil but values freedom." (277) This leads him into his discussion of the core Christian teachings of the ultimate injustice, the crucifixion of Christ, accepted by God out of His love of humanity.
D'Souza's witness to the Christian faith exposes his view of non-Christian religions. He states, "I am not trying to prove that Christianity is the best religion, but I am trying to show in what respect Christianity differs from all other religions." (285) As one would expect, the way in which it differs is the way in which it is superior, not just to any particular religion, but to all religions. He goes on to argue that Christianity is not a religion at all, if religion is defined as "man's strategic manual for how to reach God," and he presents the Pauline gospel as the counterproposal to traditional religion. (286 ff.)
I will point out three values in this book for Unificationists. One is its value as a primer on the challenge of doing interfaith while espousing the absoluteness of one's own faith. D'Souza criticizes interfaith efforts that ascribe a notion of equal value to all religions. All people are equal before God, perhaps, but their faiths are not. And yet D'Souza is careful here, even equivocal, which is unusual for him. "Well-meaning people eager to avoid controversy commonly insist that all religions are different ways of comprehending the same truth. This is an erroneous view, although it contains an element of truth." (284) He does not pursue the matter of the "element of truth," and this is an opening for an enterprising Unificationist interfaith thinker to explore.
Second, D'Souza's writing and public speaking present a bold, clear-cut, well thought out ideological position. He is fairly precise; his arguments are well-documented, he takes on very specific positions represented by specific contemporaries and tells the reader or listener what he thinks and why. In my opinion, Unificationism needs such a voice. I believe that D'Souza's views are fairly consistent with Unification theology and social theory. Maybe they aren't. Maybe the Unification movement needs to address them. D'Souza exemplifies a model for public debate on difficult issues, and the Unification movement would do well to have people in the field engaging these same issues.
Third, while D'Souza shows Unification thinkers what they should do, he also shows them in this book what to avoid. "What's so great about Christianity" needs to be supplemented by "what's not so great about Christianity" if we are going to make progress. This is a call for sobriety and self-reflection. No Christian has met his or her Master's call to "be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." As D'Souza knows well, Christian societies countenance divorce, adultery, pornography, prostitution, militant homosexuality, racism, drug abuse, the degradation of the environment and the unhealthy social structures that house such behaviors. Granted, the world that Christianity has had such a large part in shaping is, to utilize Churchill's phrase, the worst except for any other that's been tried. Nonetheless, after twenty centuries it remains nothing like the vision of Christ.
In such a circumstance, to spend one's time lauding Christianity is to celebrate the cup half-full. It is good to affirm oneself, and D'Souza is a champion at that. But it is not the time for Christians to rest on their laurels or consider that they are doing just fine by continuing religious business as usual. The times call a brilliant thinker such as D'Souza to add a dash of humility to his recipe. Some aspects of Christianity are not all that great. Unificationists are in a position to affirm the greatness of Christianity, but Reverend Moon has introduced a paradigm that provides the basis to do so while sustaining a friendly critique and illuminating possibilities for development.