Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Dinesh D'Souza, the New Atheism, and Constantinian Christianity
Last week at the Innovative Evangelism Conference I got a chance to hear Dinesh D’Souza speak to a standing room only crowd. Many in the crowd were fellow evangelists, but there were a few seekers and skeptics present as well.
Dinesh D’Souza is a renowned Christian apologist known for taking on the proponents of the New Atheism (people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). He’s also one of America’s most influential conservative thinkers.
Dinesh’s arguments from science and philosophy were well thought out. He addressed post-modern arguments against Christian exclusivism with sensitivity, breezed through the theodicy problem (the problem of why a good God allows evil to happen), and built a case for Christian morality without resorting to bashing heads with Bible verses. He even managed—rightly in my view—to avoid the trap of defending irreducible complexity as an argument for intelligent design. All things considered, I thought that Dinesh did a good job presenting arguments for the reasonableness of Christian faith. So why did I leave disappointed?
The weakest part of the presentation for me was when Dinesh defended Christianity against the charge that people in the name of Christ have committed some pretty horrific crimes against humanity, crimes like the Inquisition and the Crusades. Rather than renouncing the evil perpetrated in the name of Christ, Dinesh chose the standard apologetic response of stacking up the body count of crimes perpetrated in the name of Christ against crimes perpetrated in the name of atheism. The body count for the Inquisition? Four thousand. The body count for atheism? Millions. Christianity wins.
Not to say that there isn’t some merit to D’Souza’s argument mind you. It’s true that when you consider Lenin, Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot; the body count for atheism in the 20th century alone far surpasses the body count for crimes committed in the name of Christ. D’Souza also rightly pointed out that atheism—more specifically the Marxist brand—was crucial to the philosophies of these barbaric dictators as opposed to the supposedly religious conflicts that are often really about land and resource distributions (like the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict).
Leaving aside the potential counter-argument that Christianity has it’s share of religiously motivated wars as well (think—the 30 years war, the Great Schism) it’s at this point that a thinking skeptic could say, “Yes, it’s true that without religion there would still be wars over land, ethnicity and political philosophies, but the thing particularly dangerous about religion is that religion provides a transcendent source that allows people to dehumanize others with the approval of their conscience”—and the skeptic would be right.
This is why Jesus—not historic Christianity—should be the object of our apologetics. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus categorically rejected violence, nationalism, and the fusion of faith with earthly power, as did His followers for roughly the first 300 years of Church history. At around 325 A.D. the church and state developed a very cozy relationship under Constantine, producing what author David Bercot from Scroll Publishing likes to call the “Constantinian Hybrid.” It seems to me that in his counter-arguments to the New Atheists moral objections to religious faith, what Dinesh defended wasn’t so much Christianity, but Constantinian Christianity—the kind of Christianity that’s very comfortable fusing faith with earthly power.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not suggesting that Dinesh D’Souza approved of the Crusades and the Inquisition in his presentation. It’s just that something seems awry to me when a leading Christian intellectual has to tell his fellow believers that we should all be patting ourselves on the back because our predecessors haven’t tortured and killed as many people as the predecessors of other faiths and belief systems. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not sure why a non-Christian should be impressed with that. It seems to me that once we accept Constantinian Christianity as normative, we’ve seriously lowered the bar. As a Christian evangelist, D’Souza’s presentation forced me to ask myself perhaps the toughest of all questions. To what degree does the Christianity that I’m preaching look like Jesus?