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Further Reading

Society: Feature

The Apologist

An Interview with Dinesh D'Souza, Author of "What's So Great About Christianity"

by Marcia Segelstein

The first thing you notice about Dinesh D'Souza is an intellectual swagger that borders on cockiness without crossing over. Such confidence could be attributed to his Dartmouth education, to his position as policy advisor in the Reagan administration, to his near ubiquitous presence on television news shows, or to the library of critically acclaimed books that he has published on everything from racism to economic prosperity. But you get the feeling that it actually stems from the knowledge that, at any given moment, he is probably the smartest person in the room. Don't get me wrong; he's not arrogant in the least. It's just that he knows, deep down, that he's smarter than you; he's smarter than me; and perhaps most importantly, he's smarter than the New Atheists whom he routinely debates at universities across the nation.

D'Souza's most recent book, What's So Great About Christianity, confirms this impression. It doesn't just counter New Atheist arguments; it annihilates them—and with cocksure prose that only a thinker at the top of his game could muster. So masterful is its defense of religion, and of Christianity in particular, that D'Souza has quickly become the world's foremost religious apologist— a C. S. Lewis for the postmodern set. Here we talk to him not about the merits of religion (Buy the book!), but about the assumptions and motivations behind the escalated assault on religious belief. Even on this topic, D'Souza's intrepid intellect will make you exceedingly thankful that the guy is on our side.

What do you think has caused atheists to move from a desire to be tolerated to a desire to make religion—especially Christianity—disappear?

For a number of decades, the atheists had embraced what might be called "the secularization thesis," which maintains that the world is automatically becoming more secular. In other words, they believed that as society becomes more modern, educated, technological, and scientific, it will naturally become less religious. The atheist expectation was that religion is a product of the ignorance of the childhood of man.

Interestingly, the world has not met this expectation. As the last century ended, the atheists looked around the world and said, "Wait a minute. The world isn't becoming more secular; it's becoming even more religious." After all, there are revivals occurring in a number of religions, including Hinduism and Islam. And many people don't realize this, but Christianity is actually the fastest growing religion in the world.

I thought Islam was the fastest growing.

That's actually not true. Islam is indeed growing, but primarily through reproduction. Muslims have big families, which translates into an increase in their numbers. But Christianity is growing both by reproduction and by conversions. The rate of Christian conversions in places such as Africa and Asia is really startling. Even the U.S., which is in some respects more modern, affluent, and technological than any other nation in the world, has also remained perhaps the most religious country in the West.

Now if there's one continent that would seem to confirm the secularization thesis, it is Europe. As Europe advanced, it did become more secular, and atheists have always assumed that the U.S. would go the same way, but it just hasn't happened. Consequently, atheists have realized that they must become more aggressive in promoting their agenda. So what we are seeing here in the 21st century is something new. You could almost call it "missionary atheism" or "evangelical atheism"—an atheism that seeks for the first time to win converts.

How has Islamic terrorism played into this new "missionary atheism"?

Quite simply, it is what has given atheists the confidence to market their claims. For a long time now, atheists have been accusing religion of being ignorant—of being unscientific and preferring blind faith over critical reason—but that could have been attributed to just harmless error. Atheists can now argue, however, that religious people are not merely ignorant; they're also dangerous. Religion is not merely irrational; it's also toxic. It sets man against man. It produces carnage. It causes people to fly planes into buildings after reading holy books. Atheists have been able to surf on the wave of 9/11 by generalizing the crimes committed in the name of Islam to crimes committed in the name of God. This has given modern atheism a certain sort of relevance, currency, and confidence.

How do atheists explain the continued existence of religion?

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, says that religion is a kind of virus. In other words, just as we have parasites that survive in Darwinian fashion, but that do so at the expense of something else, religion does benefit some people—priests, the hierarchy, the powers that be—but it does so at the expense of society.

Now that, in a way, is the crude Darwinian explanation. The more sophisticated explanation, which has been advanced not by Dawkins but by others, is that while the claims of religion are false—or, from a scientific point of view, unverifiable—religion itself does perform social functions. For example, it brings people together; it inspires people to do noble projects and to undertake grand ventures, whether it's building pyramids or cathedrals or going off on crusades; it solidifies the community; and it's a mechanism for the transmission of education and ethics to younger people. In this sense, religion survives because it is a social adaptation that confers benefits on the groups that embrace it. This doesn't make religion true, the atheists say, but it does make it useful.

You write in your book that "the Christian villain, Satan, has now become the atheist hero." What do you mean?

If you read John Milton's Paradise Lost, you discover that the book is populated with heroes and villains. The heroes, of course, are God, Jesus, and the good angels, man is sort of in the middle, and then you have the bad guys: Satan and his legion of deputy devils. Critics have noted that the action in the book always intensifies when the devils come into the picture, and Satan himself is an irresistibly attractive character. God is changeless; he always takes the same position and says the same things. But Satan is incredibly creative. Every time he is thwarted, he comes up with a new scheme or a new project. He is, from a literary perspective, a very rich and adaptive character.

Years ago, the suspicion began to arise that Satan was actually Milton's hero. As one critic put it, "Milton is of the devil's party without even knowing it." Look at Satan's reason for rebelling against God. It's not that he doesn't recognize that God is greater than he is. He does. It's just that he doesn't want to play by anybody else's rules. This idea that it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven is Satan's motto, and it turns out that this is also the motto of contemporary atheists such as Christopher Hitchens.

How so?

Hitchens has argued in his debates with me that he is not an atheist at all, but rather an anti-theist. It's not that he doesn't believe in God; it's that he rejects this kind of God who acts in this kind of way and demands this or that of us. This is not scientific atheism; it's more like the atheism of Nietzsche. Unlike Dawkins, Hitchens is not spending much time in the biology lab. His idea is that God is interfering with the way he wants to live his life. He simply doesn't like this Christian God with all of his commandments, the demand for complete allegiance, and his divine observance and scrutiny. Hitchens asks, "If I play by the rules, what's my reward? Well, I basically get to be a servant boy in heaven. I don't want any of that. It sounds terrible."

So Satan's doctrine—I will not serve—is the poetic root of the New Atheists, many of whom claim that they would rather go to hell than heaven. "All my friends will be there," they say. "We're all going to party; it's going to be great." The Satan whom Milton portrayed as a resourceful and ingenious villain has to some degree become a modern atheist hero.

What is your reaction to Richard Dawkins's suggestion that the state should stop parents from raising children to believe in God?

Dawkins argues that parents do have rights over their children, but that those rights are not absolute. Just as parents are not permitted to beat their children, they should not be allowed to brainwash their children into their religious faith. In a sense, argues Dawkins, you are retarding your children's future development by implanting myths into their young heads that they will have a very difficult time getting rid of later.

I have two thoughts about this. First, I think it represents a little bit of desperation on the part of modern atheism, by which I mean that this apparent willingness to tell parents what they can and cannot do borders on the totalitarian. This idea that the state should intervene in parenting practices shows that there is a kind of hard edge to the New Atheism.

At the same time, with a guy like Dawkins, you always have to pause because he knows so little about subjects outside of biology. In certain sectors of society, there's an awed reverence of Dawkins because he is a very learned and eloquent defender of Darwinian evolution. He has explained it beautifully and written about it very well. We often forget that the guy is a biologist, however, who actually doesn't know a whole lot about anything else. His knowledge of history is poor; his knowledge of philosophy is abysmal; and his knowledge of theology is non-existent. When Dawkins wanders out of his field, he thus makes uninformed and often idiotic statements. So while in some ways I feel indignant about what he says, I also feel almost a sense of pity for him. The poor fellow is wandering around in intellectual fields where he is such an innocent.

You write that "sex is the primary reason most contemporary atheists have chosen to break with Christianity." What do you mean?

Atheists spend a lot of time thinking about the motives for belief. Why do religious people believe these ridiculous things? When you turn the tables on atheists and ask them why they don't believe, they will answer, "Because we don't have enough evidence. We don't believe because there's no proof." But if you think about it, this is an inadequate explanation, because if you truly believe that there is no proof for God, then you're not going to bother with the matter. You're just going to live your life as if God isn't there.

I don't believe in unicorns, so I just go about my life as if there are no unicorns. You'll notice that I haven't written any books called The End of the Unicorn, Unicorns Are Not Great, or The Unicorn Delusion, and I don't spend my time obsessing about unicorns. What I'm getting at is that you have these people out there who don't believe that God exists, but who are actively attempting to eliminate religion from society, setting up atheist video shows, and having atheist conferences. There has to be more going on here than mere unbelief.

If you really look at the motivations of contemporary atheists, you'll find that they don't even really reject Christian theology. It's not as if the atheist objects to the resurrection or the parting of the sea; rather, it is Christian morality to which atheists object, particularly Christian moral prohibitions in the area of sex. The atheist looks at all of Christianity's "thou shalt nots"—homosexuality is bad; divorce is bad; adultery is bad; premarital sex is bad—and then looks at his own life and says, "If these things are really bad, then I'm a bad guy. But I'm not a bad guy; I'm a great guy. I must thus reinterpret or (preferably) abolish all of these accusatory teachings that are putting me in a bad light."

How does one do that? One way is liberal Christianity—you simply reinterpret Christian teachings as if they don't really mean what they say. The better way, of course, is to ask where morality comes from. Well, it comes from one of two places. It either comes from ourselves—these are the rules that we make up as we go along—or it comes from some transcendent source. To get rid of God, then, is to remove the shadow of moral judgment. This doesn't mean that you completely eliminate morality, but it does mean that you reduce morality to a tool that human societies construct for their own advantages. It means that morality can change, and that old rules can be set aside. You can see why this would be a very attractive proposition for the guy who wants to live his life unmolested by the injunctions and prohibitions of Christian morality.

Is it likewise a powerful conversion tool for atheists?

Definitely. Think about young people who go off to college. An atheist could say to a student, "Hey, I can help you become more rational. Don't believe in religion or any of that other stuff that your parents taught you." Well, that might work to some degree, but it would be far more effective to say, "Did you know that the moral rules that your parents taught you are just in your head? I've got a way for you to get rid of those rules."

See, if you reject the idea of God, then you don't have to do any of those things that God supposedly commanded you to do. Atheism can be a sort of manifesto of moral liberation from rules. And the rules that are most objectionable in our day and age are those that basically say, "Thou shalt conduct thyself with responsibility, chastity, mutual fidelity, and so on."

You write that "God is the future, and atheism is on its way out." How can you be so sure?

It's a matter of demographics. For example, one could make the argument that democracy is the future, and totalitarianism is on the way out. This doesn't mean that there won't be totalitarian governments, but it does mean that the ratio of totalitarian governments to free governments has been declining. A hundred years ago, there were only a dozen or so democracies in the world. Most other societies were governed by monarchs, tyrants, or inherited rulers. But by the 1940s and 1950s, you began to see an expansion of democracy. Another huge wave of democracy came along in the 1980s, and today, if you look around the world, you'll see that over half of the governments in existence are democratic. Clearly, democracy is the future. It's a prediction rooted in data.

You can make exactly the same claim for Christianity. The reason some people don't is because many of us live in secular neighborhoods, so we don't see Christianity around us. The truth is, however, that if you go to South America, you will find a huge number of conversions to Protestant Christianity. If you go to Korea, you will find Christian churches with 100,000 members. If you go to China, you will find 100 million Christians. And if you go to Africa, you'll find that countries whose populations were only five percent Christian 100 years ago are now 50 percent Christian. These trends have not gone unnoticed by historians, who are startled by them and have attempted to explain them away, and they are the empirical basis for my claim that God is doing very well in this world. What's important to understand is that the New Atheism is not a triumphant cry of success, but rather a bitter reaction to the success of religion. •


Mixed Motives

Atheists claim that their atheism is purely rational—that it is the calm, reasonable response to all things supernatural. Not so fast, says Dr. Benjamin Wiker, a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, whose fabulous essay "Emotional Atheism" reveals just how mixed the motives of most atheists actually are.

Wiker begins with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who became an atheist not because he stopped believing in the gods, but because he had grown tired of constantly dreading them. "Atheists tell us that it was human fear that created religion," writes Wiker. "But for Epicurus, fear of the gods created atheism." He then turns his attention to the writer Aldous Huxley, who candidly admitted that he and his contemporaries rejected theism "because it interfered with [their] sexual freedom." In this case, argues Wiker, "the desire for sex untethered to morality demanded that God be cut loose from the world."

The same is true of today's New Atheists. Wiker cites Richard Dawkins's amendment to a proposed set of Atheist Ten Commandments: "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else and leaves others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business)." Clearly, writes Wiker, Dawkins's atheistic crankiness stems in part from the fact "that Judaism and Christianity have moral prohibitions in regard to sex."

Christopher Hitchens's atheism seems likewise inspired by a desire for sexual freedom. "The human species is designed to experiment with sex," he contends in his book god is not Great, later alleging that science has proved that inhibited sex makes us dysfunctional. "Can it be a coincidence," Hitchens then asks, "that all religions claim the right to legislate sex?"

Wiker concludes his essay with reference to the sentiments of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who owns up in his book The Last Word to a "fear of religion itself." "I don't want there to be a God," Nagel maintains. "I don't want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time." "One only wishes," writes Wiker, that the New Atheists "were as candid about the emotional source of [their] atheism." •


Bigger and Better

Contrary to popular belief, the fastest-growing religion in the world is not Islam but Christianity. Why the misconception? As usual, we Americans and Europeans tend to be quite nearsighted when it comes to global affairs, mistaking our own cultural developments for worldwide trends and our own preoccupations for a universal zeitgeist. Thus, the increasing secularization of Western Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.), when combined with the growing Muslim presence in this same region, has fooled us into thinking that Christianity is on the decline.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. All we need do is glance below the equator to see that the world is becoming more Christian by the day. In 1900, for example, there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa. By 2000, that number had grown to 360 million, and experts predict that it will rise to 633 million by 2025. The same goes for Latin America and Asia, which are expected to have 640 million and 460 million Christians, respectively, within fifteen years. Indeed, by 2050, there will be a whopping three billion Christians on this planet—or one and a half times the number of Muslims. •

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