Count the Skulls for Jesus

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

This morning, I discussed how the so-called "new atheists" failed as intellectuals by dismissing wholesale everything normally associated with religion. In doing so, the new atheists make it easier to swallow such arguments as Theodore Dalrymple's that we must abdicate reason in order to hold lofty ideals or experience sublime emotions.

This evening, we see these same intellectual lightweights play right into the hands of none other than Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. This time, they do so directly by means of facile generalizations and indirectly by their assertions that atheism constitutes not merely the intellectual position that it is on the question of whether there is a God, but a worldview.

After minimizing or dismissing the role of religion in fomenting war throughout history by declaring that, among other things, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, at its core, a religious one," (!) D'Souza happily accepts Sam Harris and Richard Dawkin's help in blaming the holocaust on atheism:

Harris can go on forever in this vein. Seeking to exonerate secularism and atheism from the horrors perpetrated in their name, he argues that Stalinism and Maoism were in reality "little more than a political religion." As for Nazism, "while the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, it was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity." Indeed, "The holocaust marked the culmination of ... two thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews."

One finds the same inanities in Mr. Dawkins's work. Don't be fooled by this rhetorical legerdemain. Dawkins and Harris cannot explain why, if Nazism was directly descended from medieval Christianity, medieval Christianity did not produce a Hitler. How can a self-proclaimed atheist ideology, advanced by Hitler as a repudiation of Christianity, be a "culmination" of 2,000 years of Christianity? Dawkins and Harris are employing a transparent sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name. [bold added]
To be fair, I have read Sam Harris's The End of Faith and do recall him offering evidence that Christians did "fulminate" against the Jews and that, for example, during the Third Reich, the Roman Catholic Church allowed the Nazis access to its records for the purposes of determining whether individuals had Jewish ancestry.

However, it is one thing to note that both Christians and Nazis persecuted Jews, and to liken Nazism to a religion: It is quite another thing to explain what about Nazism and religion make them similar to each other and similarly dangerous to man and how religion might have set the stage for Nazism.

Leonard Peikoff did a far better job of this than I can, long ago in his seminal The Ominous Parallels. But just to consider one such similarity: Both religion and National Socialism promote an altruistic morality of self-sacrifice, differing only in who collects. After holding sway over Europe for centuries, Christianity had trained its people to regard self-sacrifice as normal and good. To move from subordinating oneself to an unseen being to an unseen collective is not exactly a great leap. If I recall correctly, Peikoff also has quite a bit to say about another crucial similarity between religion and Nazism: rejection of reason.

Again, atheism is just an answer to a question, regardless of how it was reached. With the Nazis, we see that one need not even be rational to be an atheist. So much for atheism being the distilled essence of reason, which so many religionists like D'Souza despise.

But recall also that D'Souza speaks of a "sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name". Recall again that all atheism is, is a position about one question: "Does God exist?"

Despite the wishes of the new atheists, atheism offers no position on any other question, offers no basis for a meaningful "group identity", and offers no guidance whatsoever for how to live life or organize society. D'Souza knows this, and he also knows that religion does do these things. Atheism leaves open the question of whether you should live your own life for its own sake or hand it over to other people, the state, or some imaginary being. But religion offers very specific guidance, and it is: Sacrifice yourself. Atheism has nothing to say about whether we should acquire knowledge through evidence and logic -- or take the words of some grizzled Middle Eastern tribesman on faith. But religion is based on faith.

D'Souza, so soon after accusing atheists of a "sleight of hand" hopes to cash in by invoking Dostoyevsky's old saw that "If God is not, everything is permitted," and with only the new atheists around, he could credibly get away with it. For the new atheists, their sound and fury notwithstanding, offer exactly what their one tiny similarity has to offer in the way of ethical and political guidance: nothing.

But as with Theordore Dalrymple, D'Souza ignores one atheist intellectual at his peril: Ayn Rand. As I pointed out this morning, Ayn Rand, although she was an atheist, had a great deal to say about many other philosophical issues, and particularly many widely regarded as the exclusive domain of religion. She understands what is good about religion -- and grounds it in reason. She knows what is bad about religion -- and offers a much -needed rational alternative. Ayn Rand can explain precisely why Dostoyevsky has it exactly backwards -- and why we need a secular, absolute morality as well as how to discover it.

D'Souza hopes that his readers will recognize that atheism offers man no guidance -- and rush to religion by default, and he is counting on the blatant intellectual bankruptcy of the new atheists. But Ayn Rand is one atheist who does offer a viable philosophical alternative to religion: her this-worldly, rational, egoistic, and capitalistic philosophy: Objectivism.

-- CAV

PS: On the title: I started off thinking more along the lines of discussing how religion paved the way for Nazism, as well as how miserable people are in eras, such as the Middle Ages, when religion holds sway. One quite plausible explanation for why there was no Christian Hitler is that feudal Christianity made it impossible for enough people to survive all at one time (or for civilization to be far enough above subsistence level) for such a thing as the Third Reich to even be possible.

Looked at in this way, D'Souza's argument is something like the Fallacy of the Broken Window: We can count skulls of people in the modern era who would have never lived to adulthood (or been born) in a more primitive, religious era. This doesn't make piles of skulls good, of course, but it shows that D'Souza is not looking at the whole picture of how religion affects human existence. Hence the title.

Updates

Today
: Added a PS.
11-7-07: Corrected some typos.

24 comments:

Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

Well said. I don't know if you've seen the D'Souza/Hitchens "debate" or not, but it proves your point in that Hitchens, at times appears lost and longing for an answer that eludes him. I think the difference is that D'Souza truly believes what he is saying, while Hitchens may not be 100% committed.

At any rate the Kings College debate can be viewed at this location: http://www.tkc.edu/debate/

D'Souza schtick is predictable. He used the same arguements in his debate with Hitchens and with some ex-priest on the Laura Ingraham radio show a few weeks back. You are correct in that he either doesn't see the whole picture when it comes to the effects of religion over the centuries, or deliberately evades letting on that he does.

He tries to use science and the "perfect" structure of the universe to prove that it's presence is no accident and speaks about how simply changing an orbiting electron could eliminate or alter existence, but doesn't seem to grasp that what would be changed is reality which would become a different reality no less discoverable to people with the same minds and abilities we possess now.

He'd have made a great politician. It all depends on what you think "is" means. :-)

"Doc"

Ergo said...

Brilliance.

Gus Van Horn said...

Doc,

I've seen people mention the link you speak of, but haven't gotten to it yet. Your comments make me want to see it now for my own edification.

Gus

Gus Van Horn said...

Ergo,

Thank you, sir!

Gus

Jim May said...

D'Souza is wrong to suggest that Christianity never produced a Stalin or Hitler. It did, in fact, produce many of them. The *only* significant difference between those ancient theocratic tyrants and their 20th-century versions was opportunity: the former did not have the benefit of a preceding era of capitalist freedom to supply them with the technology and victim pool that Hitler and Stalin had.

D'Souza is fully aware of the full historical scope -- errors of that size are not made innocently. He is simply trying to bury the inconvenient facts of history.

D'Souza hopes that his readers will recognize that atheism offers man no guidance -- and rush to religion by default, and he is counting on the blatant intellectual bankruptcy of the new atheists. But Ayn Rand is one atheist who does offer a viable philosophical alternative to religion: her this-worldly, rational, egoistic, and capitalistic philosophy: Objectivism.

That cannot be said enough! This is what makes Objectivism so dangerous to religion and conservatism: it IS a worldview. That is what the smartest of them know; those who exhibit the peculiar, hyperbolic vitriol of such as Whittaker Chambers see the potential for our ideas to eclipse religion and conservatism once and for all. It isn't hyperbole to them.

Most of them ignore us, in hopes that we'll go away. Oh, how things will change in a flash should they ever conclude that our ideas are influential enough to be dangerous.

And that might be pretty soon.

Gus Van Horn said...

No time even to Google this at the moment, but I do wonder whether D'Souza has any familiarity with Objectivism....

Kyle Haight said...

I think one of the key errors made in debating religionists like D'Souza is casting the issue in terms of theism vs. secularism. It would be better to speak in terms of reason vs. irrationalism. That focuses attention on the thing that religion and the mass secular totalitarian movements have in common, so that when men like D'Souza try to play the Nazi card one can just point out that the Nazis were thorough irrationalists, and irrationalism is evil, and oh by the way reason is incompatible with religion.

The tricky part about this approach would be having the data needed to demonstrate the root irrationalism behind Marxism's scientific facade.

Galileo Blogs said...

Jim May says:

"The *only* significant difference between those ancient theocratic tyrants and their 20th-century versions was opportunity: the former did not have the benefit of a preceding era of capitalist freedom to supply them with the technology and victim pool that Hitler and Stalin had."

I agree. Hitler and Stalin had trains, barbed wire fences, machine guns, and the other unspeakable tools that could let them slaughter people on a mass scale. They also had records of their inhabitants that rulers did not have in the Middle Ages. Those records let them efficiently round up people.

Imagine what Catholic Spain of the 1400s or the various countries in the Hundred Years' war might have done to Jews and others, if they had the same modern tools at their disposal.

Galileo Blogs said...

Last but certainly not least, I forgot to mention the ancient (and modern-day) Muslims. Imagine what the ancient Muslims would have done with Hitler's tools. Imagine what today's Muslims will do with the nuclear bomb...

Gus Van Horn said...

Kyle,

Your suggestion for how the debate ought to be framed is right on target, although I don't see it as quite the problem you do to make a case convincing to an honest person that communism is irrational.

GB,

You put very well ("opportunity") what I was groping around at when I brought up the thinking behind the title I used by accident.

Gus

Kyle Haight said...

I don't think it's a huge problem to make the case that Communism is irrational, but I think it does take more effort than it does to show that Naziism is irrational. It's easy to find stacks of quotes from leading Nazis attacking reason and elevating blood or emotion as the proper guide to action. Communism (at least in its Marxist variety) made a serious and systematic effort to portray itself as scientific. It wanted to be viewed as the heir to the Enlightenment. Of course, it wasn't, but that facade needs to be ripped aside in a way that doesn't apply to Naziism.

A useful data point for convincing people that the evils of communism aren't linked to secularism is the Anabaptist takeover of the city of Munster back in the early 1600's. While I hate to recommend his work, I did find Murry Rothbard's article "Karl Marx: Communist as Religious Eschatologist" to contain useful information on the historical links between communism and religious gnosticism.

Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

Kyle, you are spot on. Thank you for your reply, it will be beneficial to me down the road in structuring my own expressions.

johnnycwest said...

How do we get Yaron Brook or Leonard Peikoff or some other Objectivist to debate D'Souza? Or better yet - have a 3 way debate with Hitchens and D'Souza. The comments to this and to other posts here Gus remind us that atheism is as empty a creed as libertarianism. The absence of an error, with no rational philosophical base, is not really progress. My joy at seeing atheism discussed more openly is coming to an end - perhaps a step in the right direction, but a small one.

Gus Van Horn said...

Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day....

I do appreciate you pointing me to the reference. I may find it useful some time down the road.

Joseph Kellard said...

Jim May writes:

“Most of them [conservatives] ignore us [Objectivists], in hopes that we'll go away. Oh, how things will change in a flash should they ever conclude that our ideas are influential enough to be dangerous. And that might be pretty soon.”

I think this is already happening. It is the reason why National Review continues to reprint Whittaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged, and why the neo-conservative Commentary magazine has published a few awful essays about Ayn Rand in recent years.

Rand used to be mostly or entirely ignored. But now, with the sale of her books greater than ever, and the reach and depth of her influence getting increasing publicity, the conservatives can evade her no more. Gear up for their continued attacks, because they’ve only just begun.

johnnycwest said...

Jim and Joseph - you are absolutely correct - here is Ayn Rand, a writer who has been dismissed by many - a book fifty years old, and she and Objectivism have not gone away. And nostalgia has nothing to do with it - vital ideas cannot be defeated if some people are willing and able to keep them alive. The internet and sites such as this, will keep these ideas alive. Ideas require constant nurturing and Gus, your website is invaluable with your content and the thinking behind it. Thank you.

johnnycwest said...

Take that Dinesh D'Souza...

http://russellsteapot.com/comics
/2007/quetzalc0wn3d.html

As Bugs Bunny once said: "I can resist anything but temptation."

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh!

(Link)

Clay said...

Would love to see someone like Dr. Binswanger debate someone like D'Souza.

It wouldn't go well for D'Souza.

Heard a good debate with Richard Dawkins and a guy named James Lennox the other night.

I would say that the debate was a draw, though I was arguing with Lennox in my head and winning(heh), and so I might be giving Dawkins too much credit.

I must say that the Lennox fellow was a slippery bastard.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Clay, is the James Lennox you heard speak the same James G. Lennox who is co-editor and co-author of Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology ? The other editor and author is Objectivist and Aristotle scholar Allan Gotthelf.

Burgess Laughlin
www.aristotleadventure.blogspot.com

Burgess Laughlin said...

Gus Van Horn correctly observes:

But recall also that D'Souza speaks of a "sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name". Recall again that all atheism is, is a position about one question: "Does God exist?" (Bold added)

Mr. Van Horn and others have observed astutely that atheism (literally "not theism") is not a worldview. However, secularism, the other half of D'Souza's couplet, should not be ignored.

I would suggest that secularism too is not a worldview. (I discuss my understanding of "worldview" here, in the first weblog post: www.aristotleadventure.blogspot.com )

Rather, secularism is merely an answer to one characterizing question: Where do you locate your highest concerns? In the activities of this world, or in the activities of another, and sacred, world? Secularism is merely one characteristic of a worldview, not a worldview.

It is the fundamentals of a worldview, as a whole, that account for human behavior -- a life of productivity, for example, versus a life of destruction. Those fundamentals are: an ontology which causes an epistemology which causes an ethics which causes a politics. The interconnection of those levels of the hierarchy of a worldview explain the behavior of the worldview's followers -- an Industrial Revolution or a Holocaust.

Burgess Laughlin

Gus Van Horn said...

Burgess,

Thank you for bringing up secularism. That is a point worthy of further consideration on my part (although not now -- I have to leave for work soon).

Also, I had no idea until now that you had a blog! I'll point to it some time soon in a roundup post.

Gus

Clay said...

heya Burgess..

I'm not sure. I thought of that, but haven't had time to look into it.

This Lennox is a "philosopher of science" representing the christian/theist position.

I believe that both he and Dawkins were said to be profs at Oxford.

Clay said...

ah. I have made an error. The name was apparently John Lennox and not James. Apologies to anyone who was confused or maligned.

I found a link on youtube for the debate as well..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYYJaYT2YHg