Monday, November 19, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 2

People believe that this disease is sacred simply because they don't know what causes it? But some day I believe they will, and the moment they figure out why people have epilepsy, it will cease to be considered divine.


The man pictured here on an Iraqi currency is

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, better known as Al Hazen.

He is a titanic figure in the history of science. His works on optics were absolutely critical in Europe in the 15th century when Europe was pulling it's ignorant ass out of the dark ages during the
Renascence. It was Al Hazen, a 10th century Arab, who figured out why we see what we see. That is, how light works.

He used logic, reason and experiment to demolish all the old theories about how we saw things - like the idea that light came from your eyes to light up what you were looking it. Al Hazen figured out that light came into your eye from all the objects around you. And the reason that your eye didn't get confused by all this input was that most of the light rays were refracted in your eye, allowing you to see some light, but not all of it. His work was used later in Europe to figure out problems in geometry, optics and architecture.

There is a pretty good chance you've chance you've not heard of Al Hazen. His name doesn't come up much in high school history lessons (or university lessons for that matter) and it appears, neither has Dinesh D'Souza.

You see, D'Souza likes to claim that everything good about the western world is the baby of Christianity. He really does. And this includes science. Take this from one of his recent blogs promoting his new book:

..where did Western man get this idea of a lawfully ordered universe? From Christianity. Christians were the first ones who envisioned the universe as following laws that reflected the rationality of God the creator. These laws were believed to be accessible to man because man is created in the image of God and shares a spark of the divine reason.
It's a lovely conceit I suppose. It's also completely wrong. Now it is true that for believers, a rational universe created by god makes sense, and explains for them why science works. However, it is utterly false to say that "Western man" first got his idea that the universe was knowable through reason from Christianity.

Apparently, D'Souza has never heard ofAnaxamander
, Epidicles or Anaxagoras or Hippocrates. These men went about figuring out how the universe worked long before a certain Hebrew carpenter was a twinkle in a virgin's eye. All of them opperated on the notion that the universe was knowable through reason. Not because a god had created it thus, but because that was how the universe was. Men like Democritus weren't even sure the universe and the Earth had been created at all, and suggested that everything had existed forever. Moreover, they looked for material explanations of the universe. In fact, it is from these Greeks that we get the term "cosmos" - the orderly universe. The important thing to note here is that these men came about to this realization without Christianity and their ideas formed the spine of what would become modern science.

Indeed, once the Christians had finished, or thought they had finished, crushing the Greek schools of philosophy with their crazy ideas of rational inquiry and logic, and Europe plunged into the dark ages, did they continue or improve upon the traditions of Greek science? Not in the least. They turned instead to mysticism and superstition. The bible was all the education anyone needed. Augustine's maxim, "believe and then you'll understand" ruled the day. The natural world, from this point of view, wasn't worth bothering about. You know, life is a veil tears and that sort of thing? That was dark ages Europe for the most part.

But, as Jonathan Miller points out, the term "dark ages" is little more than a cliche because it is impossible to totally wipe out free thought. But it is true that this period was one of deep ignorance compared to what came before it.

Yet rationale inquiry lived on, particularly in the Muslim world. It might be hard for us to imagine it now, with rise in Islamist terrorism and draconian Muslim laws regarding women and blasphemy, but there was a time when the Arab world was the most sophisticated culture on the planet. Long before Muslim clerics came up with the bizarre notion that in order to please god, Muslim societies had to try and restore their world to the days of the prophet, the scholars of Islam were the leading scientists on earth.

Men like Al Hazen had kept the old Greek knowledge alive and were taking the next steps. Picking up where the Greeks left off and advancing human knowledge about the universe. And what is critical to remember about this is that Europe began to dig itself out of the dark ages because of an influx of Arab texts. Where once all Europe had was the bible, religious writings and scraps of Aristotle and
Ptolemy, now they had volumes of long forgotten Greek and Roman texts, complete with Arab commentaries - not to mention the direct writings of men like Al Hazen. All of these texts operated on that Greek idea of cosmos. That the universe was knowable through reason. An idea much older, and more profound, than any revelation found in the bible or koran.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Defend Freedom of Speech.

Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
-Salman Rushdie

Take a look at the cartoon posted here. Last year this was one of several cartoons printed in Danish newspapers that triggered violent riots in the Muslim world.

The problem for the faithful was twofold. One, in Islamic culture depictions of the prophet Mohmmad is a big no-no. Second, being commentary on the on going problem of the religiously motivated terrorism of Jihadists, they weren't the most flattering depictions of the prophet.

Of course some people will find this cartoon offensive. That is their right. But in a society with freedom of speech, it is also the right of the cartoonist to make such a drawing. However, in North America the cartoons were not republished out of fear of Muslim backlash. When newspapers and TV stations should have shown the cartoons as part of their coverage, and to stand on the principle of free speech, they trembled like cowards. Not long afterward, the United Nations began to consider adding blasphemy as a violation of human rights. This is effectively saying freedom of speech should bow to religious authority, when the fact is
freedom of expression means we have the right to blaspheme all we want. And it shouldn't be any other way.

The violent aftermath of the images,' publications, an aftermath that included the burning of churches and the death of people caught in the wake of the enraged mobs, lead several influential writers to sign a manifesto declaring the importance of freedom of speech.

Although a year old, the world hasn't changed much, so I am posting the manifesto here on the Atheist Handbook. Please take the time to read it. Add your own comments if you like or just repost it on your own blog or webpage. I won't comment further on the manifesto because it speaks for itself:

"After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism. We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.

The recent events, which occurred after the publication of drawings of Muhammed in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field. It is not a clash of civilisations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats.

Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations. The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose a liberticidal and unegalitarian world. But we clearly and firmly state: nothing, not even despair, justifies the choice of obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man’s domination of woman, the Islamists’ domination of all the others. To counter this, we must assure universal rights to oppressed or discriminated people.

We reject cultural relativism, which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical intelligence out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia”, an unfortunate concept which confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with stigmatization of its believers. We plead for the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical intellect may be exercised on all continents, against all abuses and all dogmas.

We appeal to democrats and free spirits of all countries that our century should be one of Enlightenment, not of obscurantism."

The original 12 signatories to this manifesto were
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Chahla Chafiq, Caroline Fourest, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Mehdi Mozaffari, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Antoine Sfeir, Philippe Val and Ibn Warraq.

More information can be found here

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sept. 24. Richard Dawkins Interview.

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses.
-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

During the run up to the Ontario provincial election I was doing the lion’s share of coverage for the St. Catharines Standard, the newspaper I work for.

It was a rather odd campaign, as far as these things go, because it become dominated by a single issue – the proposal by John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, to use tax dollars to fully fund faith based schools. What was odd about this was that this was not an issue on the public front burner when the writ was dropped. Indeed, the idea that this was a serious election would have been laughed at only a few months before. But the issue, manufactured thought it was, overshadowed everything else. Taxes, health care, transportation, the environment. All issues that were being talked about before the election played a second fiddle to the issue of faith based schools.

The original plan was to do a single comprehensive feature on the subject. And part of that feature was to look other places where public money is being directed at faith schools. As it happens, there were at least two places that could provide Ontarians with interesting case studies – British Columbia and the United Kingdom. When it came to the UK, I could think of no more fitting than Richard Dawkins to interview, and though his schedule is unsurprisingly busy, Prof. Dawkins took some time to talk to me about the issue.

But, as go the best laid plans of mice and men, the feature didn’t exactly pan out as planned. Space restrictions prevented me from writing the story as I had wanted and several bits were cut out. In order to save as much material from my interview with Prof. Dawkins and Jean Barman, a historian with the University of British Columbia, I wrote a second story exclusively focused on them.

But newspapers being what they are, I was unable to include the entire interview with Prof. Dawkins. Which was a pity as the content of the interview was great. So here is the transcript of the interview I did with Prof. Dawkins – an interview which began interestingly enough with him asking me a question, which nicely framed the entire discussion into its proper context:


Richard Dawkins: What is the current situation in Ontario?

Grant LaFleche: At present, the Ontario government funds a public, secular education system and a Catholic system. All other religiously based schools have to funded privately….

RD: Why Catholic?

GL: It goes back to the British North America Act that created the country. The act does not require a Catholic system, but allows for it.

RD: “So you are saying that Protestants don’t get government funding, but Catholics do…

GL: “Yes, that’s right.”

RD: “That’s bizarre.”

GL: It is bizarre, and that is one of the reasons one of the political parties is suggesting the extension of funding to other religious schools.

RD: Ah, ok. Yes.

GL: What is the current situation in the UK? Are there religious schools that receive public funding?

RD: For quiet some time there have been Protestant schools, Catholic schools, and I think Jewish schools which are partly funded by their respective churches and partly funded by with government aid. So there has long been such schools. And they represent most of the Christian denominations, plus Jews and what is going on now there is agitation from Muslims. It’s a kind of ‘me too’ agitation and it sounds like you’ve got the same problem. Instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that the me-toos should all go, I mean all drop their faith affiliation, the government is sympathetic to the me-tooism saying well if the Christians have the faith schools the Muslims should get it too.

GL: Is there any way to determine at this point if this has had an impact on education, particularly around an issue like evolution which for some faith communities is very contentious?

RD: Up until recently I would have said no but there is some indication that the American disease of creationism is starting to infect British schools.

GL: What has this done to scientific education? The Christian schools I speak to here are very adamant about this. They want to teach creation, as early as grades 2, 3 and 4, and if they teach evolution is it taught as “just a theory.”

RD: My impression is even though you get a proper scientific education in British schools at a later age, young children are still taught the creation story. The people who lay down the national curriculum must know its nonsense, but somehow think its ok for children.

GL: Can you even teach something like science properly if a school say they have a theological objection to geology or biology or...

RD: Well of course you can’t teach it properly. It is a total and complete subversion of scientific education and a scandal when that happens.

GL: Why do suppose it is that the, as you call it, “America disease of creationism” has reached British schools, and I suppose somewhat to Canadian schools as well?

RD: Well, I have heard that about Canada and that is very worrying. I don’t have an explanation for it. It seems to be a wide spread infection. I guess we all of us get infected by what is going on in America sooner or later.

GL: Now, when I asked you previously about British religious schools you said that even a few years ago would you have said Anglican schools teach well…

RD: Yes. But even then I forgot to remember that young children were also taught about Noah’s Arc and Adam and Eve and that sort of thing. Not because, it seems, the teachers think it’s factually true but they just think it’s sort of what children ought to be taught as part of their culture I suppose.

GL: Does that have an impact on a student’s ability to learn fact based science later on? If you are a student who was brought up in a system that teaches you one thing in what we could elementary, jr. high and high school, and then toward the end they say tell you ‘Well, in fact things are much different that you were previously taught.”

RD: It’s a fascinating question. I'm just totally gob smacked because I've only just realized this is what elementary school children are being taught. I happen to be looking up the British national curriculum last week for a speech I am giving in Washington this coming week and I was astounded to find a whole big unit on Noah’s Arc.

The children are encouraged to discuss this aspect of Noah’s Arc and that aspect of Noah’s Arc. In a way it’s quiet educationally laudable. The children are encouraged to ask questions like “Would Noah have been frightened of the flood?” and “What do you think about the fact that God was willing to wipe out the whole of the world just because the people were sinful, except for Noah and his family?”

GL: Isn’t that a bit like counting the number of angels on a head a pin?

RD: Yes. It's teaching the children, in a sense, to think and to ask questions. But they are thinking and asking questions about things that are not factually true, which nobody seriously believes is factually true, and they never tell the children isn't true.

GL: What is the reaction to what you say about this from British citizens when they attend you lectures?

RD: Well what I am saying to you now about Noah’s Arc is brand new to me. What I usually talk about is the labeling of children, which has long been a bee in my bonnet. The description of a child as a Catholic child, or a Protestant child or a Jewish child or a Muslim child. I have long thought this is a form of mental child abuse because it ties a label around a child's neck that said what that child's opinions are on the universe, on life, on morality on humanity. The child of four or five is clearly much too young to have opinions on those things. And I used the analogy that you would never dream of talking about a Conservative child or a Liberal child or a Monetarist child or a Marxist child.

GL: Well, you just be laughed at.

RD: Of course you would. But you can talk about a Christian child.

GL: You mentioned this idea of “me-tooism” earlier. What’s your sense on how that is being regarded in the UK? Is something that is being accepted or not?

RD: Well, as you know, most people have a sense of fair play but they don’t think it through. They can see that it is unfair that there are Christian schools but hardly any Muslim schools but what they don’t see there are two ways of dealing with that. You can say “Ok, we’re going to make Muslim schools,” or you can say “Right, ok, we are going to scrap the Christian schools.” I think we should scrap the schools.

GL :One of the arguments here, when criticizing the idea of faith schools, is that once you fund the rainbow of religious schools you would end up segregating students from each other.

RD: That is a separate point and a very important one. It’s divisive. It’s discriminatory Even if the children are not systematically taught all Catholics are wicked or whatever the case may be, they get the idea there is a kind of them and us. That is an extremely evil thing to do to a child.

GL: What is the place in terms of public education for religion?

RD: I think you should teach comparative religion. Religion is a very important fact about human life, about anthropology about sociology, psychology and children need to know what it means to talk about Christianity, Islam, Roman Catholicism and so on. You can’t understand history without it. You cannot understand literature with out it. But what you must not do is teach a child you are a Catholic child you are a Muslim child.

GL: How should people who are concerned about this best raise this issue?

RD: Apart from voting and taking part in normally political activities like writing your member of parliament, what I talk about a lot is consciousness raising after the feminists. The feminists raised our consciousness about things like sex biased pro nouns. Its not that we have any law against talking about one man one vote, but when you do say that you feel awkward, you know you’ve said something people will object too. So consciousness has been raised. And I think we have to consciousness about the very phrase Catholic child or Muslim child and I think it can be done. I’m not quiet sure writing letters or interrupting someone who talks about a Christian child. “What do you mean a Christian child? Would you talk about a Keynesian child? What about a Republican child? Of course you wouldn’t.” I think if enough of us say that at dinner parties, letters to the editor and parent-teacher meetings we might raise consciousness in the same way the feminists raised our consciousness decades previous.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 1, continued

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?


When a old university friend of mine first encountered this famous, or infamous if you take your religion seriously, riddle from the Greek philosopher Epicurus on my Facebook page, she was, to put it midly, rather put out.

"This has to be one of the most narrow-minded quotes I've ever read," she said, and went on to explain that the god she believes in gave humans free choice and have the choice of doing what god wants or not. So if we use our free will for evil means, she argued, well there is not point in blaming god is there?

Of course, as passionately as she believes, my friend missed Epicurus's point entirely. He wasn't blaming god for evil. He was pointing out the inescapable paradox of the notion a god that the omniscient, omnipresent creator and ruler of everything in the universe who is also perfectly good. More simply put its the question evil, and Epicurus's little riddle hasn't been, in so far as I know, adequately answered by theists since he first suggested it. Far from blaming a god for evil, Epicurus was pointing out the absurdity of the notion of god (or gods). The very existence of evil makes an "all loving god" a logical contradiction.

This does strike right at the heart of Christianity morality as found in the Bible. "God is love" is a constant refrain among believers who regard the almighty as a benevolent source of all things that are good. Anything that isn't good simply isn't god's doing. Yet the texts themselves reveal a creature for whom the word "good" doesn't really apply even in the most liberal application of the term. True, in the New Testament god, through the figure of Jesus, only threatens humanity with eternal torture for the crime of not believing. But in the Old Testament, god is a bloody figure. He spends a great of his time murdering on a unspeakable scope. He commits global genocide at least once, order the wiping out of entire cities (save for the virgin women which his chosen people get the keep as slaves.) It is these acts of barbarism that would have made even the vicious Zeus flinch, that led Richard Dawkins to write in the God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Now, remember, Christians believe the god who asked Job to murder his son, who personally executed the first born sons of Eygpt, who drowned all life on earth, is the very same "god of love" of the New Testament. Frankly, once you read the Old Testament, and see its blood soaked theology, the claims of the New aren't important. I don't need to know anymore about the character of this god beyond the flippant disregard for human life in stories like Noah's Arc or Exodus.

Still, to play devil's advocate, if you'll forgive the phrase, lets concede for the moment that the Christian god isn't a blood thirsty manic with a desperate need to be worshiped. Lets assume he wouldn't murder anyone. Even then, Epicurus' riddle remains true. Because if god is all powerful and all loving, then he aught to prevent evil. But, if he exists, he doesn't. He allows it to flurish whenever and where it can.

This is a particular problem. For any decent person with even the slightest concern for their fellow bi-pedal mammals knows that a failure to prevent evil or suffering when it is in your means to do so, is an act of evil. If you walked past a person on the street bleeding to death which is the ethical choice? To stop and help or just to walk past? To walk past, to make that omission of action, is in of it itself an act of evil. This is also the god of Christian theology - the loving god with the power to stop evil, but refuses to do so. That is the kind of god that Epicurus called, correctly, malevolent.

Of course, there are comment arguments from theists, most of which revolved the free will argument my friend above offered. But how does free will result in a person being killed by a random lighting strike? Or an earthquake? Or a forest fire? We are at the mercy of natural forces that can, in an eye blink, wipe us out. If one believes the Christian notion of an all powerful ruler of the universe, then god can easily prevent the deaths of innocent people from such things. Yet he does not. This is no different than steeping over a bleeding person on the sidewalk. The lack of action is an act of evil.

Which brings us back to D'Souza's claim that morality cannot exist without god. Yet if you take the texts at their word, god frequently engages in behavior that is anything but moral. The old canard that says "God's morality is not man's", or as I like to put it, "thou shalt not kill unless god commands it," is simply an excuse and is, sententially or not, a justification for every horrible act one person can inflict upon another. The foundation of this morality, the morality that D'Souza would have us believe is the only thing keeping people from riping each other apart, is scrawled in human blood.

Yet in Epicurus we find not just a skeptic about the existence of supernatural dictators. He also offered up a morality and ethic grounded in human happiness - all without the directions of a cosmic king, thank you very much. Epicurus taught that the pursuit of happiness was the highest ethic ideal. Often misunderstood by the theist set as advocating rampant pleasure seeking, Epicurus was suggesting the absence of pain and suffering - a state of being he called ataraxia : a state free from worry and fear. (In fact, he explicitly warned against overindulgence precisely because it would cause suffering) So understand that we we seek pleasure for ourselves, and for others. This is a Greek permutation of what we now call "the golden rule." You do not inflict suffering on others because you do not wish it for yourself.

Epicurus, the great critic of very notion of god or gods (if they did exist, he thought, then they are utterly unconcerned with human affairs) also admitted slaves and women into his school of philosophy - rarity in that time and place - and advocated for a human egalitarianism.

The point behind all this is that D'Souza is correct when he says some Christians behave morality because they believe. But to say that morality is impossible without a god, and in particular without the god he believes in, is ridiculous.

In men such as Plato and even more so with others like Epicurus, we see a clear ethical and moral code that teaches doing good for its own sake, for helping those who need it, and avoiding inflicting harm on others. All done without a reference to cosmic god who is always watching, judging and ready to punish. Rather it is human beings struggling with the contradictions of our nature, and find a way to live what the Greeks would have called "the good life."

Long time men lay oppressed with slavish fear.
Religious tyranny did domineer.
At length the mighty one of Greece.
Began to assert the liberty of man.

Lucretius, an ode to Epicurus

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 1

The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that with the success of the atheist and anti-theist books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others, that believers would feel an obligation to strike back.

The faithful, particularly in our society in the west, often like to portray themselves as a prosecuted lot. This is particularly true of religious conservatives who imagine any statement that disagrees with their theology is a declaration of war. So we get the annual canard of the "war on Christmas" promoted by the likes of Bill O'Rielly on Fox News, or the recent call for a boycott of the upcoming film The Golden Compass by the Catholic League in New York on the grounds that atheism ought not be taught to children. These spastic attacks on non-belief betray, I think, a fundamental insecurity. They need, badly, everyone to conform to their belief systems. If an alternative view exists that opens the door to the possibility that they are wrong, and that seems to scare the hell out of them.

So a cottage industry has grown up in the shadow of the success of what is sometimes called "New Atheism." I've lost track of out many books have been published as responses to Dawkin's "The God Delusion" and Harris' "Letter to Christian Nation." Most of these books are fairly vapid and fail to answer the questions raised by Dawkins, Harris and others. Maybe that is why so many of them use the atheist author's names in their titles ( "The Dawkins Delusion" and "Letter from a Christian Citizen" for example) and even ape the layout of the book covers. Most of the time, these books simply fall back on tried old theist arguments from design and, more often than not, a variation of "the bible is true because the bible says it is."

More intellectually interesting responses do exist, fortunately. The ones I find the most interesting is presented by American Christian conservative Dinesh D'Souza, whose recent book "What's So Great About Christianity?" is the first attempt I am aware of to try and meet New Atheism on its own ground.

Unlike equally impressive theist thinkers like Alstair McGrath, D'Souza tries to use the same tools modern atheism uses - namely reason, logic, and scientific thinking. McGrath, for this all his brilliance, tends to fall back arguments that say "What I want say is there is SOMETHING about Christianity that we MUST pay attention too." Well, no we don't and that isn't much of an argument.

D'Souza on the other hand often lays out his arguments, at least initially, without directly quoting scripture. He doesn't present a nebulous "something" we should pay attention to. He is presenting a definite something, a kind of concrete Christianity that he argues from. This may be why he is, to my knowledge, the only apologist to hold his own against the formidable Hitchens in debate:

Of course, it's much harder to pin down a McGrath type argument because there isn't much there to grab. D'Souza presents claims that can be more directly scrutinized. And it should be, because D'Souza is presenting arguments that need to be careful considered.

During this debate with Hitchens, held at Christian college, D'Souza lays out his case as to why Christianity is "great". And while he presents his case with vigor, his mining of history is selective and at times, demonstrably false. And so while his claims as being the strongest defender of the faith in the wake of the atheism that Hitchens has played a role in reviving and promoting is not completely without merit, D'Souza certainly does not "debunk" atheism or prove the case the Christianity is true.

I'm going to address a few of the claims D'Souza makes during the Hitchens debate to illustrate what I mean. Here I will address his claim that without god we cannot be moral, and without Christian morals in particular Western Society would never have developed.

In part two I'm going to meet his claim that the Christian world view, and it alone, made science possible.

And in part three, I will address his contention that democracy is essentially a Christian invention - that is without Christianity there would no democracy at all.

....God, morality and an ring of invisibility....

"Without god everything is permissible," often appears in D'Souza's blogs and he repeats it in interviews and debates, including his debate with Hitchens. He sources it, as most people do, to the famous Russian author
Fyodor Dostoevsky, and specifically his book The Brothers Karamazov. Unfortunately for D'Souza, and others who constantly say "As Dostoevsky said...", the old Russian didn't actually write that.

Characters in the novel do express that exact sentiment while questioning whether or not god exists. But using that specific line as a direct quotation is incorrect. Moreover, Dostoevsky puts the words into the mouths of his characters and it isn't clear that Dostoevsky, a hard core rationalist, believed such a thing. Indeed the novel itself makes no authoritative claim about the existence or non-existence of god.
Dostoevsky, who to a degree mocks believe in god in the story, leaves the question unresolved.

So for an apologetic like D'Souza to attempt to use the novel as some kind of simplistic and authoritative declaration that morality is impossible without god,
and imply that was Dostoevsky's personal view, is strange indeed.

Nevertheless, the phrase, misquoted though it is, does sum up D'Souza's position nicely. Morality comes from god. And if god didn't exist - and by god he means the god he happens to worship - then there is nothing to keep human beings in line. Human nature, from this point of view, is fundamentally weak and people will behave immorally without the guiding hand of a supernatural being who can punish and reward.

This is not a particularly new argument. It's one of the oldest declarations by fiat made by theism generally and Christianity in particular. But D'Souza take the argument a step further and claims, as he does during the Hitchen's debate, that without Christianity the West wouldn't be able to behave morally. That is, Christianity brought morality to us. He makes this claim forcefully in several ways, particularly when discussing the foundations of modern democracy, human rights and so on. I'll discuss more of this specifically in part three (where we'll talk a little bit out historical context) but here the critical point is that D'Souza is saying that the West would not have morality but for the faith.

To put it all another way, without god, the argument goes, we humans decide our morality ourselves. Hence the phrase "anything is permissible." Without god if I say raping a child is good, then it's good. There is nothing to contain every nasty impulse a human being has. One imagines, through this lens, that the pre-Christian world was a barbaric place where no one cared about morality at all.

Well, can we test his claim out? If his claim is true, there should be nothing akin to doing good for it's own sake, or philosophy that discussed a godless origin to universal morality before the Christian era. Well, how could there be? The idea here is that Christianity brought a moral code that had never existed before.

So I present Exhibit A: Glaucon.

No I didn't just sneeze. Glaucon was the older brother of Greek philosopher Plato and it is through a discussion between the pair in Plato's famous Republic that we find a Christainless, and godless explanation for morality.

The books is primarily concerned with one question: "What is justice?" and Plato, through the character of Socrates, takes the long way around to presenting an answer.

In the course of a conversation Glaucon gives us a description that I rather suspect D'Souza would agree with if god is taken out of the question. Glaucon tells a story about the a magic ring, the Ring of Gyges that can turn it's wearer invisible. Thus armed, the possessor of the ring can do whatever they want. No one will be able to punish them. Glaucon is making the case that people are ONLY just when their fear punishment. (Rather like the Christians who say that people are only good because they know god is watching.) With the ring all things are premissible, and human beings being weak as they are, will behave unjustly whenever the chance to do arises.

So to take this analogy to our present discussion, using the Ring of Gyges is like living in D'Souza's world without a god. Everything is premissible.

Socrates though, takes a rather dim view of this. He argued that what is just is an innate quality of human nature. To act unjustly is, ultimately, to act against oneself. When reason rules over our impulses, he said, we keep ourselves in check. As a result, one does good things because they are good. You act justly for its own sake. So the truly just man doesn't need the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. The just man would not use the Ring of Gyges for ill gain, Socrates said, BECAUSE it is unjust.

I recommend you read the Republic in its entirety because what Plato was saying is critically important. If morality only exists because someone enforces it, then it isn't really moral at all.

So here is a pre-Christian line of thought that suggests a very ethical and moral philosophy, doing good for its own sake, that does not require a god at all. Indeed the imposition of a divine morality would, by this view, cease to make it moral. The very existence of Plato's Republic dashes the notion that morality, by definition, is Christian.

Of course, we all know that morality is not absolute. It evolves. Nearly all societies in the past thought slavery, torture and various other abuses were prefectly fine at some level or another. This includes Christianity, by the by. But as society matures and grows things change. What Richard Dawkins calls "the moral zeitgiest" changes.

D'Souza is correct when he points, for instance, that the Quakers used their belief that all men are equal creations of god as a justification to attack the institution of slavery. But what he leaves out is that the Quakers were a sectarian anomaly. Most believers of the day had no problem at all with slavery because the Bible itself contains no injunction against it. Graven images have a specific commandment banning them, but no such rule for slavery. Not surprising given the book was assembled during a period when slavery was as common place as breathing. It takes Enlightenment era Quakers to reinterpret the Bible, ignoring bits like St. Paul telling slaves to obey their Christian masters, to come a moral conclusion that slavery is wrong. Can we really discount the era these Quakers lived in, an era where the ideas secular humanism and the rule law are reborn in their modern sense? To view them in a kind of religious vacuum is, I submit, foolish.

What's my point after all of this? While I agree with him on most things, I will not go as far as Hitchens to say religion "poisons everything." There are enough examples of religiously motivated people doing good to say "everything" goes a bit too far. But that said, when one considers the great moral acts of people like the Quakers necessitated a drastic reinterpretation of the texts, D'Souza's notion that morality comes from Christianity is rather suspect. Rather believers will pick and choose their morality just like everyone else.

I think Plato was right. While it is very difficult to know the exact origins of our sense of morality (although we know much about it from an evolutionary point of view) there is something of an innate sense of morality in all of us. But it is a vague thing, easily changed by cultural influences. So it is not that Christianity created morality, but that it was used by some in a highly selective manner as justification for their morality. So wherever our moral sense comes from, it doesn't come from religion - particularly a religion which claims to be the sole source of an immutable morality.

The question of right and wrong, of how to treat ourselves and others, has been around in Western culture long before anyone heard about a carpenter's kid preaching in the Holy Land. It is something we still struggle with today, and is far bigger than any declaration of faith.