Monday, October 29, 2007

What's so great about Dinesh D'Souza? Part II

I finally finished reading Part III of Dinesh D'Souza's "What's So Great About Christianity?" tonight, and I am definately underwhelmed by the level of argument. D'Souza describes the purpose of this part as (p.83):

examin[ing] the relationship between Christianity and science. Specifically, [D'Souza] will consider whether there is an inherent antagonism between the two; atheist writers often portray an ongoing war between them.
As far as I can tell, D'Souza makes his case in this section in three ways:

  1. In part, D'Souza uses the logical construction known as "proof by tweaking the opponent's nose". This is an argument of the general form "Atheists believe in or admire X, but in reality, we Christians invented X. Ha Ha."

  2. D'Souza also argues against a self-constructed straw man: the atheist who believes that all Christians everywhere are totally irrational nut-balls.

  3. Finally, D'Souza makes the case that the Church hardly persecuted Galileo at all, and such persecutation that the Church engaged in was a slap on the wrist, really, and Galileo totally had it coming anyway.
It's a rather pathetic book that forces its critic to explicitly conceed that, yes, there have been Christians who have held some rational beliefs as well.

In reality, the war between Science and Christianity doesn't comes down to just the fact that Christianity makes certain claims about the physical world that are false that are nonetheless expected to be belived in as true by the good Christian. The war between Science and Christianity really arises from the fact that the Christian belief in an all-powerful God capable of performing miracles undermines the notion of human rationality. Christians are not all totally irrational nut-balls because they just don't take the idea of an all-powerful God seriously.

As an example, consider the following proposition: humans do not breath air. Instead, they breathe a mixture of squid ink and liquified petroleum derivatives. The miraculous intervention of God provides us with the utterly convincing illusion of breathing air and might foil attempts at physically examining the viscuous ink/petroleum mixture (so don't give up trying, even if you fail).

As you can see, there are no laws of nature if God can suspend them anytime He pleases. There can be no science if God can skew the results willy-nilly anytime He wants. Despite his emphasis on the rationality of Christian belief, in Part III, D'Souza is completely oblivious to this point when he admits to believing in miracles (p. 94):
True, Christians believe in miracles, which can be seen as departures from the orderliness of nature. But miracles are notable because they are exceptional. Miracles inspire wonder because they are believed to be the product of a natural order that is, in rare cases, suspended. Medieval Muslim theologian Abu Hamed al-Ghazali claimed that God intervenes in every moment to make the events in the universe happen as they do. There is not question of laws; everything is the product of ceaseless divine intrustion.
So what makes the Christian scientist possible? How does a Christian know that he or she isn't living in one of those rare times of a suspension of the rules? What caused the vast prevalence of science in Christian, Western civilization? It's the conviction that, in order to obtain some generally useful data about the world, one has to assume that God isn't going to be miraculously altering it for a while. The difference between a Christian and al-Ghazali is that the Christian believes that his or her conception of reality is so profoundly important that God wouldn't dare to miraculously mess with it. The Christian scientist who studies, say, fluid mechanics and who believes in miracles basically has to underline his work with the additional proviso "Yes, I believe that God can miraculously part oceans and suspend the flow of rivers despite the established laws of science. My work is made possible by the fact that God basically doesn't give a s**t about water pressure any more."

In short, science is done despite Christian belief, not because of it. The reason why so many Christians were and are science friendly is because they can suspend their Christian beliefs for the sake of making scientific progress. Everyone knows that you just can't take God's all-powerful miraculous ability seriously if you expect to be able to accomplish something useful in your life. This is known as normal, rational behavior.

Finally, as to whether the Church persecuted Galileo or went easy on him, you can judge for yourself what the definition of "persecution" is. Consider what would happen if, say, President Hillary told a prominent conservative author something similar to what the Church told Galileo. Suppose this conservative received a letter from the White House that read "We are very interested in your conservative views. If conservatism turns out to be a correct political philosophy, Democrats everywhere will happily adopt it for themselves. On the other hand, we aren't entirely certain that conservatism is true or not. We have to be absolutely sure the conservatism is correct before we start encouraging people to adopt it. Just to be on the safe side, we think you shouldn't write anything or say anything to promote conservatism for the time being. Oh, by the way, don't say or write anything criticising liberallism or this whole thing could get a lot worse." Would this conservative meekly go along with the letter, or would this conservative claim "persecution" during his or her every waking moment?

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