Dr. Paul Kengor: Dinesh, I can’t help but begin by tossing you a big softball: I’m impressed by the endorsements for your new book. This is quite an eclectic bunch: Francis Collins of the Human Genome Institute, academic Stanley Fish, the Rev. Robert Schuller, Oxford’s Daniel Robinson, historian Paul Johnson and even Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine. Clearly, you’ve done something right. The title of this book, What’s So Great About Christianity, is a natural follow-up to your earlier work, What’s So Great About America, but the theme is really a follow-up to a bunch of recent books by others attacking religious belief generally and the Christian faith in particular. This book is obviously an answer to the polemics by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and others. What’s your answer?
Dinesh D’Souza: We’re seeing a surge of atheist confidence and atheist belligerence. The best-selling atheist books like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dawkins’ The God Delusion are one indication of this. Another is the militancy of atheism on many campuses today. 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. 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.
My book What’s So Great About Christianity is consciously written in the C.S. Lewis tradition. Just as Lewis, writing after World War II, dealt with issues specific to his time, such as “How can a just God allow the Holocaust?” so too my book is a response to the intellectual and moral attack on Christianity launched by the new atheists. I take the atheist argument seriously, and meet it on its own ground, which is the ground of reason and skepticism. 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.
Kengor: In a recent interview, Oxford’s Alistair McGrath said that he is somewhat shocked by the lack of new insights in these best-selling books by Hitchens and Dawkins and the like, and how they are actually, in his view, filled with hackneyed, easily refutable arguments served up for years. He said it seems clear—and very surprisingly so—that these authors don’t appear to read the many readily available counter-arguments that quickly refute their assertions. McGrath believes they have constructed very weak cases that any rank-and-file minister worth his salt could dissect paragraph-by-paragraph with little effort. That’s pretty harsh. Likewise, Dr. Stanley Fish—not exactly a conservative—calls these books unsophisticated “rants.” Do you agree with these judgments?
D’Souza: While there are a lot of shallow arguments made by Dawkins, Hitchens, [Sam] Harris and the others, behind them there is the formidable atheism of philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. My book takes the new atheists to task on specific fallacies and whoppers that they routinely make. But I’m not content to defeat them on their weakest ground. So at times I strengthen their arguments, remove contradictions, and give them the benefit of every doubt. I attack their argument not at its vulnerable point but at its strong point. If I succeed there, then I have defeated atheism in its strongest and most coherent form. Ultimately, it is Russell and Heidegger and Nietzsche who pose the greatest challenge to believers, not intellectual snipers like Hitchens and Dawkins.
Kengor: Despite all the noise being made by atheists lately on the New York Times Best-seller List, you believe that we are now witnessing what you call, “The Twilight of Atheism,” and a triumph of not only religion around the world—you note that the continued growth of religion around the globe has gone unnoticed (or at least not remarked upon) by atheists—but of Christianity in particular. Is that wishful thinking on your part? What’s your evidence?
D’Souza: 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. Interestingly while Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are all growing worldwide, Christianity is the fastest-growing religion. Islam grows mainly because of Muslims who have large families, while Christianity is also growing through rapid conversion. Once a religion confined mostly to Europe, Christianity has become a truly universal religion and over time it will increasingly be dominated by Asia, Africa and South America. This is very disturbing news for atheists. 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.
Kengor: You have some surprises in here even for Christians, including those Christians who have bought into the caricature of the Galileo incident as a case of science and reason being trashed by close-minded religious fanatics—centuries-ago precursors to the Salem witch-hunters and, of course, George W. Bush—who opposed not merely scientific inquiry but progress itself. You re-examine the Galileo case, calling it “an atheist fable.” Tell us about this.
D’Souza: It seems like every year or so one of the news magazines does a cover story on Science vs. Religion. It turns out that this whole framework is a 19th-century fabrication. 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. The whole warfare model relies on a handful of examples, mostly exaggerated or made up. Perhaps the best example that the atheists can cite is the Galileo case. I re-examine this case in the light of the best scholarship about it. We discover that the evidence for heliocentrism was not definitive in Galileo’s day. With hindsight we know that Galileo was right, but the arguments he made for heliocentrism were actually wrong. The Church’s position was far more open-minded and reasonable than Galileo’s. He made agreements that he didn’t keep, and blatantly lied about his views before the Inquisition courts. Still, he was treated leniently and allowed to continue his scientific work and died in his bed. I’m only giving hints of a remarkable story that readers should digest in full in the book.
Kengor: You continue this thought by, quite the contrary, arguing that the Church from the beginning was not anti-science and anti-reason but pro-science and pro-reason, and credit Christianity with “the invention of invention.” Who were these oddball Renaissance Christian scientists who believed in God—surely there weren’t many of them, right?
D’Souza: 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. So none of these folks saw theism or Christianity as incompatible with science, as Richard Dawkins and others would have it. Dawkins is a decent popularizer of science but compared to Kepler, Newton, and Einstein he is a Lilliputian. So he works very hard to make Einstein look like an atheist. His proof is a complete failure, but give the man credit for effort. The deeper point to be made here, however, is not merely that leading scientists over the centuries have been Christian, but that 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.
Kengor: So, are you saying that many of the comforts that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins take for granted—like electricity and the law of gravity—stem from the scientific breakthroughs of devoutly Christian men who judged that God was great?
D’Souza: I could give numerous examples here—Boyle, Newton, Kepler—but let me focus for a moment on Kepler. Kepler wanted to become a theologian, but he finally decided to become an astronomer to demonstrate God’s hand in creation. When Kepler realized that planets don’t move in circular orbits, he was criticized by some for rejecting the creative beauty of God’s plan. These critics reasoned that surely God would have used perfect circles to choreograph the planetary motions. Kepler was sure, however, based on his deep Christian faith, that God had employed an even more beautiful pattern, and he labored hard to decipher it. When he discovered what it was—his three laws of planetary motion—he experienced something of a spiritual epiphany. In a prayer concluding his “Harmony of the World,” Kepler implored God “graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to the salvation of souls.” I don’t think we can understand the motivations and greatness of scientists like Kepler and Newton if we ignore their theological and specifically Christian beliefs.
Kengor: Dinesh, there’s this quite stunning, inexplicable refrain that we hear constantly today, from the op-ed pages of the New York Times to email blasts from my atheist friends, about the alleged incompatibility of faith and reason—as if you are either a person of faith or a person of reason. They genuinely seem to have no knowledge that the Church from the very beginning—for 2,000 years—has argued that faith and reason reinforce one another and are mutually compatible. Protestants believe this, and the Catholic Church has noted this vigorously not only since the writings of Thomas Aquinas but all the way back to Clement of Alexandria, and has kept it out front with regular homilies by the current pope, Benedict XVI, and major encyclicals from the last pope, John Paul II, who reaffirmed the “two wings” of faith and reason that lift us to truth and Truth. Anyone with a modicum of religious knowledge would know this. And yet, few secularists seem to be aware of this history, while they simultaneously portray believers as stupid and themselves as smart. What explains the ignorance and the arrogance?
Dinesh D’Souza: The new atheists like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and Victor Stenger are all theological ignoramuses. Their work shows little or no understanding of either Catholic or Protestant thought. I shouldn’t even mention other religions, about which they know even less. One critic, Terry Eagleton, says of Dawkins that his writing about Christian theology has all the credibility of a Christian who attempted to criticize modern science based on knowledge derived solely from a single book on British birds. Not that this stops our intrepid atheists from charging forward. Their motto is, “Take that, Aquinas!” Even Christopher Hitchens, who has a wider literary and cultural range, shows that he has no understanding whatever of thinkers like Augustine and Anselm. At one point he accuses Anselm of arguing that if you can imagine God in your head, then God must exist. This is a very stupid argument, but then Anselm doesn’t make it. Hitchens is a veritable pyromaniac in a field of straw men.
Kengor: Is this what you mean by “miseducating the young?” As for those of this mindset, have they been miseducated on these basics of religion, and are they, in turn, continuing the process now with the next generation?
D’Souza: Something a bit more insidious is going on here. The new atheists realize that the world isn’t going their way and religion is not about to disappear. So they want to take over the minds of the next generation. They want to do this through the schools. Of course, they know that religious parents might want to have something to say about this. Consequently, all the atheist tracts are filled with attacks on the idea that parents should have the authority to teach their children about religion and values. From the atheist point of view, religious education is a form of brainwashing. So schools and colleges are viewed by the atheists as institutions for deprogramming. It’s a little Orwellian, but, of course, the advocates of these schemes present them in the attractive language of “open-mindedness” and “liberation.”
Kengor: How much of this is the fault of not only the lack of religious education in public schools but modern education at secular universities? Some parents reading this right now may be surprised to hear that if their son or daughter takes an elective on religion at many (if not most) of our major universities, the course is likely to be taught by a skeptic if not an atheist, one quite often outright hostile to Christianity, and who at the least sees all religions as basically equal, with none having a rightful claim of truth over the others.
D’Souza: I’m not against the study of comparative religions, or even having skeptics and atheists teach such courses. But if you are going to teach religion you should be knowledgeable about religion and you should approach the subject fairly. When a professor teaches Hamlet in English class, or Hegel in philosophy, you don’t demand that your students believe everything that Shakespeare or Hegel says. But you do ask that they plunge into Shakespeare’s world and Hegel’s thought. You want students, at least provisionally, to go along with the playwright and the philosopher at least to get a sympathetic understanding of what they are trying to convey. Why should religion and Christianity not be taught in the same way?
Kengor: You write that the thinking of the atheist professor toward today’s youth goes like this: “Let the religious people breed them, and we will educate them to despise their parents’ belief.” Thus, you maintain that the secularization of young people in college, for instance, is not so much a natural process of alleged enlightened maturation but one guided and orchestrated by teachers with an “anti-religious” agenda.
D’Souza: I illustrate with a quotation from the atheist philosopher Richard Rorty, who died recently and is, I suspect, now having a lengthy conversation with his maker. Rorty argued that secular professors ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” The goal of education, in his view, is to help them to “escape the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.” Indeed, Rorty warned parents that when they send their children to college, “We are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” Rorty keeps using the term “fundamentalism” but I think he means traditional Christianity. Of course, he is quite oblivious to his own secular fundamentalism, which is just as narrow and bigoted as anything you will find among religious people.
Kengor: So, quite often, two parents spend 18 years inculcating certain religious beliefs and values into their child only to turn over that child to a university that in four years undermines those beliefs and values—and the parents pay big bucks for that process of deconstruction?
D’Souza: Who said atheists weren’t clever?
Kengor: This doesn’t describe a college like Grove City College, but it really does describe so much of academia, which is easily among the most secular institutions in America. You and I could back that up with hundreds of examples and even survey data. One 2007 survey, for instance, showed that professors harbor a hostility toward evangelical Christians in particular. For the sake of academic honesty, should these universities redo their mission statements to make clear their belief in secularism and cultural and moral relativism?
D’Souza: When I speak on college campuses and point out that there is so much closed-mindedness and political correctness going on, even in our most elite universities, inevitably some professor will ask me about Bob Jones University or Jerry Falwell’s university. The professor’s point is, “Aren’t they just as closed-minded over there?” But, of course, Bob Jones University and Liberty University are very clear about their religious commitments. They state them up front. By contrast, secular universities promote an ideological agenda, but they pretend to be broad-minded and open and intellectually diverse.
Kengor: Having said all of this, your book is positive. You think Christianity is not only “great” but in great shape. Why are you such an optimist?
D’Souza: Theism in general, and Christianity in particular, make so much more sense of the world than the doctrines of unbelief. This is in a way the great secret that my book communicates to Christians. There’s no reason to be on the defensive. Ours is a set of beliefs that are completely supported by modern science and modern thought. For example, the Bible says that through the design of the universe we can see the handiwork of God. The Anglican theologian William Paley made design arguments 200 years ago. Richard Dawkins tries, in The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, to show that Darwin overthrew the design argument. But if you look at the totality of the discoveries made by modern science, it’s evident that the argument from design is vastly stronger today than it was when Paley wrote. I’m genuinely excited by modern science because it’s proving propositions that were boldly advanced in the Bible thousands of years ago.
Kengor: Dinesh, what about the “antithesis” of belief in God? In your book, you address the consequences of non-religion, of atheism as a system of belief; here you point to the destruction and death wrought by atheist ideologies in the 20th century in particular. Tell us about that.
D’Souza: We keep hearing not only from the new atheists but also from political pundits that religion is responsible for most of the conflicts and violence in the world. Not true. Atheist regimes have killed more people in the past century than all the religions of the world have managed to do since the beginning of time. Let’s not even count the lesser atheist dictators like Pol Pot or Castro or Ceausescu or Hoxha or Kim Jong-Il. Focusing just on the regimes of Mao, Stalin and Hitler, we have a body count that exceeds 100 million people. Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history.
Kengor: But aren’t you being selective with the evidence, Dinesh? Sure, atheistic communism produced more than 100 million deaths in less than 70 years in the last century—70 million dead in China, 30 million in the Soviet Union, two million in Cambodia, two to three million in Kim’s North Korea today, to cite only a handful of communist killing fields—but Christians had the Inquisition. Are you ignoring the historical incidents that hurt your case?
D’Souza: Well, the best scholarship on the Inquisition shows that approximately 2,000 people were killed by the Spanish Inquisition over a period of 350 years. I would never apologize for the Inquisition, which I think represented a terrible strain in late-medieval Christianity. I am glad that Christianity is different now, and the closest thing you have to a religious inquisition today would be something like the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran. Still, how can you even compare the casualties of the Inquisition to those of the atheists’ regimes? Even a second-rate atheist despot like Pol Pot killed more people in a month than the Inquisition managed to do in three centuries.
Kengor: What about the Crusades?
D’Souza: The Crusades were a belated and necessary Christian enterprise to block Islamic invasion and conquest. Remember that before Islam, virtually the entire Middle East was Christian. Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan—these areas were predominantly Christian. The Muslims conquered the region, and then Muslim armies invaded Europe, conquering parts of Italy and virtually all of Spain, which the Muslims ruled for nearly 700 years. The Muslims over-ran the Balkans and were at the gates of Vienna. Edward Gibbon, no friend of Christianity, says that if the Christians hadn’t fought back then, today at Oxford and Cambridge—and by extension Harvard and Duke—we’d all be studying the teachings of Muhammad in the Arabic language. Western civilization, then called Christendom, was mortally threatened. The Crusades, for all their excesses, helped to prevent this disastrous outcome.
Kengor: Curiously, this atheist-government/mass-murder thing seems to have not been a major thrust of these recent best-selling atheist books. How do those authors defend that omission?
D’Souza: Here is where atheist sophistry reaches Himalayan heights. Richard Dawkins writes that atheists might do bad things, but they don’t do them in the name of atheism. Someone should enroll the man in an introductory course in Marxism and Communism. Of course the Stalinists and the Maoists committed their crimes in the name of atheism. Ever heard of “godless communism?” The reason these regimes targeted the churches and the clergy is that they were officially and explicitly dedicated to the creation of a new man and a new society free from the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality. Again, Hitchens is one step ahead because he knows this, but being one step ahead of Dawkins doesn’t get you very far in this race. Hitchens tries to argue that Communism was a kind of surrogate religion because it imitated religious rituals and so on. This I think is a bit much. Should religion now be blamed not only for the crimes committed in the name of God but also those committed in the name of atheism?
Kengor: Naturally, it goes without saying that you are not arguing that every atheist is a potential murderer. We know atheists who are gentler people than the Christians we know. Clarify that, if you could.
D’Souza: This is not the point at all. Consider what the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett says in discussing religion. He says judge it by its consequences: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Dennett says he doesn’t care if these consequences were intended by the founders of the religion or if they represent its highest and noblest values. He writes: “It is true that religious fanatics are rarely if ever inspired or guided by the deepest and best tenets in those religions. So what? Al Qaeda and Hamas terrorism is still Islam’s responsibility, and abortion clinic bombing is still Christianity’s responsibility.” Fine: I accept Dennett’s standard. But then by the same criterion, the mass murders of atheist regimes are atheism’s responsibility. If the ordinary Christian who has never burned anyone at the stake must bear some responsibility for what other self-styled Christians have done on behalf of religion, then atheists who think of themselves as the kinder, gentler type do not get to absolve themselves for the horrible suffering that their beliefs have unleashed in recent history. If Christianity has to answer for Torquemada, atheism has to answer for Stalin.
Kengor: Non-believers and even many believers ask, “Where is God?” when something bad happens. You flip this on its head by asking, “Where is atheism?” when something bad happens.
D’Souza: It’s interesting that whenever there is a real tragedy, such as the serial shooting at Virginia Tech, even the most secular campus becomes transformed, and everyone begins to use religious language and religious symbolism. Suddenly atheism disappears from the scene.
Kengor: Dinesh D’Souza, thanks for talking to us. It has been a while since you’ve been to Grove City College. Maybe we can bring you back again soon, maybe in a debate with one of these atheists?
D’Souza: It would be a pleasure.