And I care what Dinesh D'Souza says because ... ?

I typically don't pay attention to Dinesh D'Souza. As far as I can tell he is little more than a pundit, someone who manages to write books so full of various orders of fallacies that my head would probably explode if I tried to read any of his titles cover-to-cover (in fact, such a tragedy nearly befell me when I read the chapter on evolution in What's So Great About Christianity?). John Pieret has commented on some asinine assertions D'Souza has made in a recent interview, though, and I thought I would take this opportunity to jump in.

D'Souza's statements offer plenty to argue about, but I'll restrict myself to just a few points here. Let's start with some history. D'Souza says;

My historical chapters [of What's So Great About Christianity?] show that Christianity had a lot to do with the origins of science. Most of the leading scientists of the last 500 years have been Christian.

As John Pieret points out in his own reply, D'Souza mistakes correlation with causation, essentially saying that because some major figures in scientific thought were Christians there is no conflict between science & Christianity. I wonder what figures like Giordano Bruno, Charles Darwin, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would say to that. (I'm not suggesting that all would skewer Christianity, but rather that each was persecuted to varying degrees and in different ways by religious authorities for their scientific work and thus would have interesting perspectives on the matter.) Conversely, I wonder how D'Souza would brand Christian naturalists of centuries past. In order to make his argument he overlooks any criticisms of the widely varying belief systems of scientists who were also Christians, overlooking their internal conflicts as well as those they might have had with the public.

The life of Darwin provides a fair illustration of my point. His father demanded that Charles have a respectable profession, and after Darwin could not cut it as a surgeon his father thought that the next best opportunity would be priesthood in the Anglican Church. Charles was set to become an Anglican priest, quietly collecting beetles in his country parsonage, a relatively easy life that would provide him with what he needed. During the 19th century such a post wouldn't require very much in terms of effort, and such countryside priests would probably be criticized by fundamentalist evangelicals today as being too weak in faith (i.e. the Darwin of the hypothetical alternate history would not "really" be a Christian). Indeed, there is a fundamentalist tradition of considering "true" Christians to be in the minority while "false" Christians or heathens are in the majority, and modern Christians do not always consider other believers to be spiritual equals.

That said, Christian theology during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries did contribute to the beginnings of our present understanding of science, particularly because it was considered admirable (even desirable) to detect God's presence in the Creation. If God had truly created the world then evidence of such scriptural truths must be amply evidenced in nature, but the development of laws of physics changed the game. Rather than God having to constantly intervene directly in nature there were simple, intelligible laws that governed the physical workings of the universe. As a consequence naturalists developed a little bit of physics envy, and by the 1840's naturalists were considering that there were also "secondary laws" that governed the origin of species. Geology & paleontology could no longer be considered to give unquestionable evidence of the short, cataclysmic Genesis-style creation, either, and more liberal interpretations of the Bible became prevalent to reconcile the "Book of Nature" with the "Book of Scripture."

Indeed, 19th century naturalists followed God's charge to Job; they spoke to the earth and it taught them. Unfortunately for some religious authorities, however, what they learned did not agree with what was being espoused from the pulpit. Let's again turn to Darwin for an example. Even among those more inclined to accept liberal theological teaching Darwin's mechanism was deemed to be too violent and messy for a beneficent God to use. Natural theology might have given a young Darwin (and others like him) good excuse to roam the countryside collecting beetles and cataloging nature, but when a working "secondary law" was proposed its acceptance was often limited due to theological concerns. D'Souza, however, overlooks (or is ignorant of) such details in order to make a case that will only be accepted by those who are already likely to be in agreement with him. Even if Christianity in Western Europe helped to give rise to the foundations of later scientific understanding, by the late 19th century cherished religious beliefs and facts from nature stood opposed. Some attempted to reconcile the Bible and nature and others voiced their preference for one over the other, and regardless of the conclusions individuals drew Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection heavily influenced both science and religion.

Indeed, D'Souza's claims are reminiscent of "Gish Gallop," and I have know idea why people think of him as an able historian of religion (much less the conflicts and cooperation between religion and science). Moving on, the interviewer and D'Souza make some atrocious mistakes when it comes to evolution itself;

BC: For readers unfamiliar with its pages, why do so many people continue to perceive Christianity and evolution as being mutually exclusive? What's wrong with the notion that God created us and we evolved from there?

Dinesh D'Souza: There is nothing wrong with that notion. I have no problem with it. I do think that the intelligent design advocates have raised some interesting questions though. They have found some vulnerable points in the atheist critique. Evolution does not undermine the argument of design, however. You look at nature and in it you can see the handiwork of the Creator. The existence of God is supported by astronomy, physics and modern science in general. In modern biology, it is evident, in a most comprehensive way, through the complexity of the cell. The simple cell has enough information in it to compare it to a supercomputer. The cell already has built in to itself the capacity to replicate. Evolution is true so far as it goes but the problem is that it does not go that far.

I make a distinction in my book between evolution and Darwinism. I see evolution as being a scientific proposition but Darwinism I see as being an ideological proposition. We have all these scientific laws but no one calls themselves Keplerians or Newtonians so why do so many insist on calling themselves Darwinists? Their doing so puts an atheistic spin on evolution, and this spin is what the Christian community finds itself reacting too.

Let's start with the question raised by the interviewer; "What's wrong with the notion that God created us and we evolved from there?" Although the vast array of life (extinct and extant) provides beautiful and ample evidence of evolution many people who reject the concept do so because they find it personally uncomfortable. It's still all about us. Although the interviewer wants to have it both ways, accepting evolution and special creation, such a system is untenable. If evolution is real, both as fact and theory, then it applies to all life. We get no special exception, and every part of our bodies testifies to our incredibly ancient ancestry. If we were specially created then innumerable questions arise about the event, including when it happened, where it happened, and why are there so many creatures (from chimpanzees to Neanderthals) that are so like us in so many ways. Did God create them just to trick us? Was Australopithecus just "practice" for our own creation?

What is wrong with the "notion that God created us and we evolved from there" is that it makes no sense and runs counter to the immense weight of evidence for our own evolution. Because our species is both vain and wise enough to want to know more about ourselves our evolutionary ancestry is presently among the best documented. There's still plenty of debate about details, but from our genes to the structure of our skeleton it is clear that we evolved and that our closest living relatives are chimpanzees. (As an aside, I wonder how the discussion would change if Neanderthals, or even the robust australopithecines, were still alive today. Perhaps fundamentalists would claim that our species was created superior and the others inferior, as some Christians have argued about other races as a justification for oppression and slavery.)

Moving on, D'Souza seems to give more credit to the ID crowd than he did in his book (at least as far as I can recall). The major mistake that he makes is saying that our understanding of evolution does not undermine the "argument from design," however. If D'Souza knew his history (which it is obvious he does not) he would be aware that Darwin was intimately familiar with Paley's Natural Theology. As I have argued before, many of Darwin's examples of evolutionary change (like the eye) were derived from standing similar arguments made by Paley. Further, in Paley's famous watchmaker argument the theologian juxtaposes a watch (a product that has obviously been designed and crafted) with a stone (just a boring rock), but the dichotomy fails to recognize that the stone bears signs that speak to it's own natural origin. Both the stone and the watch had histories, one artificial and the other entirely natural.In reference to the latter, Paley did not consider that there could be a natural law to account for what he saw as design in nature, but Darwin did. Rather than a Creator fine-tuning each organism, natural events provided the selection pressures that directed evolution and causing the illusion of design. Adaptation was not the result of God placing an organism in a particular place but natural causes molding organisms over countless generations, ever-changing and diversifying. Indeed, Darwin did not do away with the argument from design by destroying it; he turned it upside down.

As for the "Darwinism" issue, the only scientist that I can think of that regularly uses the term is Richard Dawkins, and it is likely that D'Souza is generalizing to all scientists based upon what Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion. (Perhaps this assertion is too presumptuous, but from what I can tell D'Souza is not widely read in evolution and I doubt he went to any pains to educate himself on the matter.) In truth, the term "Darwinist" is used almost exclusively by opponents of evolution, particularly advocates of intelligent design and young earth creationism. The utility of the term within science itself has essentially lost it's utility, especially since natural selection was placed at the core of evolutionary theory during the emergence of the Modern Synthesis (and so it has remained since). When evolution by natural selection was in competition with other Neo-Lamarckian and orthogenic evolutionary mechanisms the term "Darwinism" might have been useful in setting natural selection apart from the other theories but today there is no need for such a distinction. Further, the term can be confusing, suggesting that On the Origin of Species is a gospel that promotes an ideology and that evolutionary theory has not changed since 1859. Such propositions are false, and there is good reason to drop the terminology of "Darwinism" from scientific circles altogether (which, it appears, most scientists have done).

How D'Souza has managed to sell so many books, making a living out of being an ill-informed pundit, I will never know. When it comes to science it is clear that he knows virtually nothing of the history of scientific thought nor is he familiar with modern theory. He accepts and rejects what he likes and doesn't like based upon his own whims rather than the actual evidence. I suspect that he simply walked into Barnes & Noble, picked up the latest from Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett, and then considered reading those four books adequate research for his generalizations. Yet it is people like D'Souza who are setting the argument about evolution in the public square, people who have opinions but very little actual knowledge of the issues being debated. Vapid discourses such as those published by D'Souza are all-too-commonplace, and their prevalence provides me with even more motivation to try to complete my own book.

More like this

I get a lot of questions about my forthcoming book, Written in Stone, but the most popular by far is "What are you going to say about creationism?" Presently there is a glut of books that confront creationism in one way or another. There are books that counter creationist claims with scientific…
199 years ago today, Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England at the home of his family (known as the Mount). By pure coincidence, Charles would have published one of the most important books ever written 50 years later in 1859, and next year will mark not only the…
Peter Hess, Faith Project Director for the National Center for Science Education, argues that it is. He makes his case in this paper in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy I learned of the article from this post over at Josh Rosenau's blog. Josh writes, “I think that…
The The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin was published 150 years go as I write this. At the time, several different alternative theories of the origin and history of life were being discussed in the West. Some of these theories were theological. Theological ideas included a literal…

Interesting thought - transpose the context of that question back a few centuries, and you'd have Most of the leading scientists of the last 500 years have been Muslim. Leaving it in its current context and you can substitute "Christian" for "white".

D'Souza is probably the most infuriatingly dense Christian apologist out there today.

I had the great misfortune of attending a farce of a debate where D'Souza attempted to defend Christianity against an atheist opponent. Which he did by employing a stream of non sequiturs, misrepresentations, false generalisations, and flat out lies. (Said atheist opponent, Dan Barker, acquitted himself well, but he was far too reserved in calling out D'Souza's blatant BS.)

His success, though, isn't hard to explain. There are a lot of people who frankly don't care about the process used to get an answer, as long as the answer is one they like.

I haven't read any of his books ( i refuse to contribute to his living) but i have seen a couple of debates between him and Hitchens and the thing that was the most obvious to me was that he is not at all interested in educating himself about science, only pushing his theology on others.

Great post Brian. Personally, I've been growing increasingly disinterested in anything pundits like D'Souza or O'Leary have to say about science (and evolution in particular). Any person who has ever studied a first year biology textbook knows vastly more about evolution than any of these losers. IMO, these people have a problem understanding how complexity arises's as though they are trying to peer over a brick wall of understanding but are not quite tall enough. All they need is a couple of good science books to stand on.

What IanR said reminds me of this problem I have. See, I'm not a violent man by nature, but I do get these urges to beat Dinesh D'Souza over the head with hardcover books on Greek, Chinese and Islamic science. You know, all those people who made the discoveries without which oh-so-Christian Europe would have been nowhere?

It's all kinda beside the point, anyway. Whether science has a quarrel with religion — or, put more precisely, whether particular scientific discoveries clash with specific religious beliefs — today depends upon what scientists know now, not what their predecessors knew then.

The existence of God is supported by astronomy, physics and modern science in general. In modern biology, it is evident, in a most comprehensive way, through the complexity of the cell. The simple cell has enough information in it to compare it to a supercomputer. The cell already has built in to itself the capacity to replicate.


You know, if living cells were really simple inside, then I might be able to see the need for a supernatural explanation. If cells were just featureless blobs of goo, how could they move, react, reproduce and so forth? But cells are not featureless; they have internal structure, bits and pieces at work inside, and we can understand the relationships among those pieces and where they came from using evolutionary principles.

It's funny: when a slimeball like D'Souza claims, "The existence of God is supported by astronomy," he's generally making some fine-tuning argument for the existence of Zeus — sorry, Yahweh. Leaving aside the downright stupidity of using grandiose, cosmo-philosophical arguments to support not just a general pan-spiritualism or watchmaker deism but a specific twig of the theist tree, look at what D'Souza does next. In practically the same breath, he asserts that divine handiwork was involved in biology, because evolution can't make complicated things. He's brazenly ignorant about actual biology, but there's something even better here. On the one hand, he claims that natural laws were chosen for life's benefit, and therefore Yahweh exists; on the other, he claims that natural processes cannot bring forth life, and therefore Yahweh exists. Which is it, D'Souza: a fecund universe or a sterile one? Looking at it from the other direction, the proposition "Yahweh exists" apparently implies both a fecund universe and a sterile one with equal validity.

"How D'Souza has managed to sell so many books, making a living out of being an ill-informed pundit, I will never know."

"There are a lot of people who frankly don't care about the process used to get an answer, as long as the answer is one they like."

And, there are even more people out there who wouldn't know a cogent argument if it hit them over the head. And who don't know as much about evolution as even a high-school biology textbook would teach them. In essence: They don't know any better.

Another amusing method of argument of D'Souza's is that he claims that all good things in Western society and philosophy are due to "Christianity" but does so by stripping Christianity of all of its history. Not only does he ignore Christian resistance to science, he writes off the "New Atheists'" attacks on "traditional Christianity" as if it is a strawman that doesn't represent some "real" Christianity and he claims elsewhere…

that the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence came from the Founders' belief in the "Creator," while ignoring that it was being advocated as an alternative to the "divine right of kings" that was so long supported by Christian churches.

To D'Souza, Christianity is just some sort of vapor hanging in the air that is unrelated to the actual thoughts and deeds of human beings but, nonetheless, gets all the credit for the good things they do and none of the blame for the bad.

"books so full of various orders of fallacies that my head would probably explode if I tried to read any of his titles cover-to-cover"

It is indeed a shame that your head is so fragile that any particular order of words, any particular incantation, would cause it to spatter the walls of your carefully constructed room.

By vanderleun (not verified) on 18 Aug 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Apparently I should write posts like this more often...

I had meant to mention science carried out by people in China and in Islamic nations, but I honestly don't know enough about the subject to argue effectively. Does anyone have any recommendations on some good resources to learn more?

vanderleun; Do you have anything of substance to say, or just snark? I'm sorry that you have misconstrued my hyperbole as being literally true.

Kind of O/T but thanks for recommending "Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist" or at least putting it on your currently reading list. I picked it up and am enjoying it immensely.

My first introduction to the scientific accomplishments of the medieval Arab states was James Burke's TV series Connections. (It's YouTube-able, or so I hear. . .) If it's text you're after, a good starting point might be the references listed by John Baez.

I have never read anything by D'Souza, and have no plans to do so. I am curious as to why you picked Giordano Bruno and Teilhard de Chardin as examples?

You state: "I'm not suggesting that all would skewer Christianity, but rather that each was persecuted to varying degrees and in different ways by religious authorities for their scientific work and thus would have interesting perspectives on the matter"

No comment on Darwin (though 'persecuted' sounds a bit heavy).

Giordano Bruno - ex-priest. Very little of his work warrants the term science - he was a philosopher who did a bit of what could be called science. He took issue with the catholic church (and by inference all of christianity) on philosophical grounds, and it was these that got him into serious trouble. He has been referred to as the 'first martyr for science' - but the degree to which his cosmology (heliocentric theory) played a part in his conviction is highly controversial, and frankly in my view the evidence overwhelmingly shows he was persecuted and executed for his other views. On the scale of things to the 16th cent Catholic church his 'heretical' beliefs about the trinity, Jesus, Mary etc were a way bigger deal.
While Giordano Bruno remained religious he became anti-catholic (and also anti-christian) but for philosophical reasons, not because of science.

Teilhard de Chardin was a jesuit priest as well as a paleontologist and philosopher. His views about evolution were very teleological (his ideas about Omega point etc)- but they were based as much on his religious beliefs as on science. While the catholic church did oppose some of his views, to describe it as persecution seems rather melodramatic. Indeed I am sure that notwithstanding his disagreements with the catholic hierarchy he would not have seen science and christianity as being in conflict.

I just wondered why you picked those as examples when I don't think they actually support your point very well.

"there are even more people out there who wouldn't know a cogent argument if it hit them over the head"

True. Church people don't know how to listen to an argument and evaluate it. They know only how to either "accept and belive", or "close their ears". That is: they are unequipped to hear debate, they only understand preaching and being preached to.

This is why debates with creationists are *almost* a complete waste of time. You might as well be talking swahili: the religious folks just cannot process or absorb information in that form - one that requires them to think.

Our educational modalities are partly to blame, of course. And so is homeschooling. Probaly TV as well.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 18 Aug 2008 #permalink

Finesse D'Clueless is simply giving his audience what they demand - a fluffy air-filled couch upon which they can rest their dumb butts.

Want a real kick in the head, go to Fixed Point Foundation's debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. It's a two hour debate. The format gave Dawkins the first and last word and used six themes in God Delusion as topics of debate. Lennox is a Mathametician and Philosophy of Science prof at Oxford where Dawkins also teaches. Great debate. Here's the You Tube link:

By Kevin Condon (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink