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.