One of today’s most prominent paladins for Christianity is writer Dinesh D’Souza, who receives glowing accolades from conservative critics and sells millions of books by resurrecting discredited claims about religion, as if they had suddenly achieved new respectability. In his recent best-seller, “What’s So Great About Christianity?”, D’Souza explains at length that the answer to the question in the book’s title is “just about everything.”
In a recent opinion piece in USA Today, D’Souza laid out his theory that modern science owes its success and indeed its very existence to western culture and specifically to the Christian faith. His essay, “A Christian Foundation”, appeared in the October 22, 2006 edition of USA Today. It can be found on-line at http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/10/a-christian-fou.html.
Summing up his position D’Souza writes: “Popular efforts to tuck Christianity neatly aside as a footnote to this country’s history and to deliver a secular society will fail. Why? Because the faith is inextricably tied to our values, our institutions, and even modern science.” While none of these assertions is particularly persuasive, the last one is patently absurd. Let’s examine the arguments that D’Souza presents in support of his claim.
(1) Modern science developed exclusively in Western society.
In fact, modern science was predated by Chinese, Indian, and Arabian science going back nearly two thousand years and it derived much of its content and methodology from them. Chinese bureaucrats were writing on fine quality paper in the first century AD, while European scribes would use animals skins until the end of the millennium. The Chinese invented the magnetic compass, gunpowder, and the abacus (still used today with great success in many eastern countries.) They introduced block printing and moveable type four centuries before the Gutenberg Bible. Chinese mathematicians developed place coding using the base ten number system, which may have helped Indian mathematicians to invent the concept of zero. A Chinese scholar named Zu Chongzhi derived the value of pi to seven decimal places in 450 AD. As these and other seminal discoveries made their way into Europe, conveyed by explorers, merchants, and other travelers, they exerted a powerful influence on the evolution of Western scientific thought.
(2) Science is based on the theological assumption that the universe is rational and accessible to human reason
D’Souza’s right about the assumption, but dead wrong that it’s theological. Religion (in particular Christianity) assumes that:
(a) Some parts of the Universe (the “Mysteries”) are forever beyond understanding, except through a relationship v God.
(b) Events (miracles) occur which are outside the scope of rational understanding and which violate natural “laws.”
(c) Some types of knowledge can only be derived by revelation from a supernatural authority.
If these beliefs have anything to do with science, then I’m Darwin’s uncle!
(3) Western man derived the concept of an ordered Universe from Christianity.
This is flat wrong. The idea of universal order in western thought originated with the Greek (non-Christian!) neo-Platonists founded by the philosopher Plotinus in the third century AD.
(4) The Christian concept of a rational God is reflected in the fact that the first universities were maintained by the Church and staffed with priests.
As he so often does, D’Souza couples a valid observation with a false conclusion. The first universities were run by the church all right, because it was one of the few institutions that could afford to maintain centers of learning and their associated libraries. However the primary purpose of church-supported colleges and their learned faculties was to preserve and promote religious doctrine, not to advance empirical knowledge or to encourage science!
(5) It’s no surprise that “the greatest scientists of the West — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Gassendi, Pascal, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Faraday, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel, and Lemaitre — were Christians.”
D’Souza should know that this kind of name-dropping is a poor way to conduct an argument. For one thing, all of the scientists he names lived during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when social (and sometimes legal) pressures encouraged people to keep their religious doubts to themselves. Even with this caveat it’s not hard to find prestigious scientists who risked expressing their lack of faith: Einstein, LaPlace, Dirac, Curie, Pauling, Chandrasekhar, Flammarion, Haldane, Huxley, Darwin, Freud, Feynman, Hawking, Gould, Leakey, Bondi, Hale, Sagan …
It should be noted that my list contains many prominent names from the twentieth century! In fact, contemporary scientists are increasingly identifying themselves as non-believers. In a 1998 study * historian Edward Larson of the University of Georgia conducted surveys of working scientists and compared his findings to those of similar surveys done in 1914 and 1933. The results showed a striking trend toward disbelief among scientists. In 1914 only 27.7% overall expressed belief in God. By 1933 this had decreased to 15% and by 1997 to a mere 7%. Belief was lowest among biologists, physicists and astronomers (5.5 to 7.5%) and highest among mathematicians (15%).
D’Souza obviously doesn’t need to worry that his arguments are baseless. Book sales are brisk and he’s routinely lionized on talk shows, but for those of us who care, it’s worth knowing that he’s full of hot air.
* Leading scientists still reject God
Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998)