So, last night I attended the debate between Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, and Dinesh D’Souza who is an author and professional defender of Christianity. Dave Silverman I have known for many years, and I was glad to get a chance to talk with him before the debate about how he was feeling about it. It is always a question concerning what kind of reception an atheist debater will encounter, even in a liberal city such as Philadelphia.
Dinesh D’Souza was in the room as well, but I refrained from talking to him despite having lots of things I could have asked him. I had not previously met Dinesh, and my “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” shirt might have put him off, a bit. It was not the right time or place, and there would be a time for questions after the debate (I did get a chance to ask one, too).
The debate took place at the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania in University City (West Philly), so it was in my neck of the woods. The hall was not packed, but it was full enough. It was clear, from the level of clapping and cheering at certain times, that Dinesh brought a larger contingent, but I did see a fair showing of the Philly atheist community including Margaret Downey, Carl Silverman, and Staks Rosch. I wonder if the rain might have kept some people away as well, even though it had not rained much around the event.
Also joining me was my friend Honest Discussioner who had come into town for the day. We had spent much of the afternoon at the OccupyPhilly events around city hall, as we are both interested in the Occupy movement and wish to better understand its developing message as well as where it will go as a movement. He took some video and there will be both vlogs and blogs upcoming concerning that issue. For now, I will skip any commentary concerning that and dive right into the debate.
We all have the same facts
Dave Silverman started things off with a 12-minute argument about why Christianity is not good for America. “We all have the same facts” he said, and the facts, he thinks, point to Christianity not being good for America.
Dave laid out three metrics to address this question; society, science, and sex. His basic argument was that with issues like marriage rights, women’s rights, science education, and sex education, the effect of Christian belief on social policies is detrimental to our culture.
Pointing to the many other western democracies and their relative secularization and societal health (of which the US is an outlier), it seems clear that the less religious a nation is, it is likely to be healthier. These statistics have existed for some time and have been a core part of the argument for whether religion actually makes societies better. And while it is not proof, the data seems to indicate that you can have a healthy society without a prevalence of religion. Dave goes the next step and argues that it is evidence that religion, specifically Christianity in this case, has a detrimental effect of society. I think the case for this is strong, even if it is not absolute. But is anything absolute when it comes to science?
Athens and Jerusalem
Dinesh D’Souza’s opening argument was not surprising, coming from a person who has heard him debate before. His argument boils down to the claim that the philosophical foundation of American political structures, culture, and values are dependent upon the philosophical and political influence of the ancient Greeks (Athens) as well as the cultural and theological influence of Christianity (Jerusalem). Whether it is Ivy League schools, inalienable rights, or the civil rights movement, Dinesh sees the roots for all of these things within the Christian tradition. I will not dispute the role of Athens, and certainly Christianity has had a great role in American history, but Dinesh’s claim here is stretched too far.
Perhaps his most outlandish claim was that the institution of slavery, in America at least, was questioned exclusively by Christianity. He seems unaware of the influence of socialist activists and other abolitionist movements from early on which were not affiliated with Christianity. It is true that many churches did take part in these movements, and in the 1960’s their role was critical, but to claim that this was exclusively a Christian struggle is simply not true.
As is common for Christians who take a more “nuanced” perspective on theology, D’Souza claimed that it was only a small percentage of the Christian community that is opposed to science (specifically evolution). Within the liberal Christian circles in which Dinesh and other religious academics swim, I have no doubt that this is true. But in the United states belief in evolution is not dominant (except among those with higher education, like Dinesh and his colleagues). Among most people, Evolution falls behind creationism.
Again, this is correlation and not proof. But as Dave Silverman points out, the fact that religious conservatives push so hard against evolution, stem cell research, etc is indicative of there being a disjoint between science and Christian theology. It is the evangelicals, after all, that take the scripture more literally than educated academics. And as I (and again) as well as many others have argued, there is a profound methodological and epistemological difference between theology and skepticism (the scientific method and reason). Despite the fact that moderate and educated Christians tend to accept evolution, they still don’t seem to grasp the implications of the scientific method upon revelation and dogma.
In fact, this very fact came to light in conversations with some audience members after the debate; scientific empirical methodology is quite alien to both theologians and many philosophically minded people (especially the postmodernists). In a discussion about the possibility of a soul or life after death with what appeared to be UPenn students, reference to established scientific research by neuroscientists only brought questions of the assumptions about naturalism, and not understanding that these experiments and their results actually happened. There was, quite clearly, a disconnect between the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. It is a common misunderstanding that I believe Dinesh may also be guilty of.
Christianity’s influence today
D’Souza claimed that the foundations of the wonderful society in which we live is due to Christianity. Silverman, in response to this, asks “what about today?” In other words, even if Christianity was good for the foundations of our society (a point Dave does not concede), is it still good today given the detrimental efforts of people who act based upon their adherence to Christian theology. It’s a fair question. Dinesh’s answer is that the values we have, even as secular people, is standing on the mountain built by Christianity. Our moral intuition is given to us by god (and not just any god, but Jesus). His assertion is that without this scaffolding, which cannot be replaced with theories based in evolution or any other purely naturalistic worldview, we could not have the values we have. Further, our blessed science was even given to us by people committed to Christianity, such as Kepler, Newton, etc.
We are a secular world standing on the shoulders of Christian giants, Dinesh D’Souza seems to be saying.
Dave concedes, as he should, that Christians (which he distinguishes from Christianity, which Dinesh seems to miss every time he talks about this) have indeed done many great things in the world. They help others, achieve great things, and are often wonderful people. Dave sees this, and I agree, as giving the credit to the theology rather than the humanity of these people who do the good things. This is stealing credit from humanity and giving it to Christianity, the sources of which are often opposed (scripturally) to many of the achievements of post-Enlightenment society. This, in my opinion, is what makes Christianity so bad not only for America, but as Dave Silverman closed his comments, merely bad.
It is the usurping of what is good about us and claiming that we cannot possibly achieve these things without Jesus. It is the claim that we are fallen, fundamentally broken (or as John Calvin put it, total depravity), and in need of a fix. It is the creation of a problem that is then turned around, like a good salesman, into a sales pitch. Not only does Christian mythology create the problem of our fall from grace, it presumes to provide the cure of redemption. It is god’s cure for a problem he was responsible for. It is absurd, anti-humanistic, and ultimately anti-life (thank you Nietzsche).
Dave responded to Dinesh a few times during the debate by saying that Dinesh presented no actual arguments for why Christianity is good. I think what he means by this is that Dinesh’s claims about Christianity being the foundation for American culture, politics, and society are spurious, there is a difference between Christianity and the people who claim the title (especially since most Christians are not consistent or coherent in their theology), and that the negative effects of Christianity, even if there are positives, far outweigh the good. I think Dave Silverman is right here (anyone surprised?).
The only point that Dinesh has room to argue is that Christianity does deserve its place at the table in America. However, while it deserves this right, this place cannot be a privileged one. People have a right to vote for candidates who reflect their views, to believe as they wish as private citizens, and religious ideas will exist in the larger public conversation about policy, legislation, etc. However, the position of Christianity to influence those who do not believe is imbalanced and often oppressive. And even if there are secular arguments, as Dinesh proposes there are, against things like abortion, gay marriage, etc it is clear that the overwhelming majority of political pressure in these areas are derived from Christian theology and not secular arguments.
(And, I believe, even those secular arguments are founded upon largely Christian foundations, even if those secular commentators don’t realize it)
Upon Poor Foundations?
The bottom line for me is that even if Christianity was the primary foundation of our western culture, and without it we would not have the concepts we think of as secular now, that does not necessarily make those foundations nor their effects good. I could point out the fundamental problems of our western world, as focused on by the OccupyEverywhere movement and other social commentary, and show that Dinesh’s argument seems problematic even if valid. That is, even if he is right in his claims about Christianity’s role in our American society and culture, it seems that the influence was either incomplete (in other words, the imperfections are evidence of our fallen nature), or that God’s plan for American was not to be a good Christian example. Oh wait, or there is no God intervening in history.
The fact is that our culture is in need of growth in terms of economics, emotional maturity, and education. Christianity is not the source of skeptical inquiry, the scientific method (which grew around Christianity like a tree grows despite the obstacle of a fence), or of our Constitution. So, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, which Dinesh D’Souza made reference to (and which has no legal standing in America today), this nation is not philosophically, theologically, or historically indebted to a “Creator” even if there is one.
The idea of freedom of and from religion, the separation of church and state, and the general establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution is a powerful protection from Christianity to those who wish to steer clear of it’s discriminatory and archaic ideals. Yes, Christians have grown and changed with the times, in reaction to the enlightenment and other historical breaking from the bondage of religious power, but Christianity still has a scriptural source which is tied to a barbaric ideology.
No matter how intellectual, nuanced, and sophisticated theology becomes, Christianity cannot outrun its essence or its bronze-age past. Whether in terms of the horrors it has caused, the poor worldview it presents, nor the ignorance it perpetuates, Christianity is no friend to any person and so is therefore no friend to America.
Dinesh D’Souza may claim that things such as forgiveness, universal brotherhood, or the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of god are what is central about Christianity, but that forgets so much more of what the scriptures tell us. There is also a redemption for crimes we are not responsible for (the Fall), support for slavery, and multitudes of atrocities beyond anything we would consider acceptable today. If this scriptural tradition is the work of the creator and value-giver of America, we are indeed doomed. Yes, one can visit the cafeteria of the Bible and choose what one likes (as Dinesh claims not to do), but to take it all in context is to see a tradition that is not good for America or anywhere else.
Is this a win for Dave Silverman? Is this a win for secularism and/or atheism? I don’t think debates are about that. Surely, most of the people there left with the same opinion they had. But ideas get planted, discussion continues, and we move forward. Little by little atheist messages are heard, absorbed, and we slowly become part of the conversation.
Christianity is in a privileged cultural position, and its tentacles reach deep into our American psyche for sure. But around these tentacles lie aspects of our humanity which are evolutionarily and historically prior to Christian thought. On top of all that are secular ideas derived from philosophy, science, and in some cases rejection of religion. Nietzsche is a good example of this latter.
The fact that religion usurps these ideas and cloaks them in theological language is why it seems to so many that it is Christianity which is the foundation for all of these ideas. This is an illusion. This is what religion does; it often will attach itself to ideas and claim them as their own. And the longer we don’t point this usurpation out, the more the original idea and theology intertwine until we cannot tell them apart. After enough time of this process the sophisticated, nuanced, and evolving liberal Christians don’t even realize they have done so, and they genuinely believe that the Christianity they carry is a coherent descendant of the teaching of the Old Testament, Paul, and the Gospels.
We need people like Dave Silverman to keep indicating this delusion. Keep it up, Dave.