So conservative superstar Dinesh D'Souza recently went on Hannity and insisted that opposition to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is a selective attack on Christianity," which might surprise those of you who thought it was simply about denying gay people the right to have Gay Pizza Weddings. As he further bemoaned, "You'll rarely find homosexuals trying to force a Muslim baker to bake a cake for a wedding." And he's right, but he's wrong about why.
Naturally, Hannity and D'Souza conveniently ignore the fact that nearly 80 percent of Americans identify as Christian, whereas Muslims make up 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, and the reason you'll rarely find anyone trying to force a Muslim baker to bake something is that you're far less likely to find a Muslim baker, period. But acknowledging that would mean using context to make sense of the "outside" world without damning it, which is wildly off-brand for these two, and D'Souza especially: Rather, it's his willingness to combine a vitriol-spewing persecution complex with a poor grasp of statistical reality that has made the racist, fraudulent, philandering, disgraced loon a star in hyper-conservative circles.
It's true that D'Souza's antics seem to piss off most rationally minded people: He even angers Christians and fellow right-wingers. Theoretically like-minded commentator David Frum even called D'Souza's writing "an insult to every conservative in America." But he remains insanely popular: People buy his movies and books, invite him to speak at conferences, and keep finding new TV shows for him to pollute, no matter how many times he screws up. And it's not just the Hannity crowd that listens: Sometimes, even well-meaning prominent people find solace in his distortions. And it's this kind of tunnel-visioned overreaching that's seeped into many Christian congregations, where preachers turn the laity into a sex-obsessed de facto Republican bloc.
This chain of delusion pushed my own personal skepticism over the line, forever damaging my faith in the church where I still struggle to find out what's actually true. While you may know D'Souza for his hate-mongering movies, disgraceful campaign conviction, or race-baiting tweets, to me his "greatest" societal contribution remains his 2008 book, What's So Great About Christianity?, which promotes the same mindset that makes debates over this new Indiana law so toxic. That's D'Souza's true legacy: He's helping ruin Christianity for everyone. Even Christians.
I was a college junior struggling with my Catholic faith when I first heard D'Souza's name in a confessional. I was tussling with the usual intellectual faith topics: whether Christ was really God, why I'd been under the impression that "the Church never changes" even though several important doctrines have drastically changed, why an allegedly forgiving and welcoming institution could be so hostile to those outside its walls, why the Church resorts to "a culture of death" rhetoric without ever concerning itself with statistics or social science, etc.
I laid out these concerns during confession with a priest I trusted: He was wildly popular on our campus, and remains one of the most sincere, selfless, honest, kind-hearted, and humble people I've ever met. He listened patiently to my concerns, and very genuinely told me to check out What's So Great About Christianity? The book would help me find answers, he said.
I didn't know anything about D'Souza, but I checked the book out of the library, hoping I'd find comfort. As a blurb on the back cover from prominent Christian philosopher Dallas Willard put it, "Pastors, teachers, believers, and the sincerely perplexed with find this book indispensable. It sets an example of how to engage vitally important questions without mudslinging and prejudice." Which sounded like exactly what I was looking for. Sadly, that blurb turned out to be the most misinformed piece of advertising I have ever encountered.
It quickly became clear D'Souza believes all "atheists" are immoral assholes.
This is not a time for Christians to turn the other cheek. Rather, it is a time to drive the money-changers out of the temple. The atheists no longer want to be tolerated.
Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history. Atheism is motivated not by reason but by a kind of cowardly moral escapism.
If America were a purely secular society, there would be no moral debate about child killing.
One chapter was called "Opiate of the Morally Corrupt: Why Unbelief Is So Appealing."
Published two years after Richard Dawkins's popular book The God Delusion, D'Souza's retort might appear to be merely a way of standing up for his faith. But the knee-jerk response came off like an inferiority complex and merely reflected Dawkins's venom, elevating the volume of a shouting contest. D'Souza and Dawkins by no means represent the majority of Christians or atheists, but they became part of the public consciousness anyway, through their seemingly never-ending media appearances and references. Like it or not, people listen to these guys.
Meanwhile, D'Souza didn't limit the mudslinging to atheists.
Then appeared the great religions of the East, Hinduism and Buddhism, followed by the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Of these, only one—Christianity—was from the beginning based on reason.
In the Muslim world, violence in the name of religion is still a serious problem. But for Christians the tragedy of violence in the name of religion is thankfully in the ancient past.
Only Christianity has reason behind it! And the Wisconsin Sikh Temple massacre, Centennial Olympic Park bombing, Anders Behring Breivik's rampage, and the murdering of abortion doctors? "Ancient past"!
Moreover, it's the only religion with any morals, and without it society would collapse immediately.
The end of Christianity also means the systematic erosion of values like equal dignity and equal rights that both religious and secular people cherish.
In sum, the death of Christianity must also means the gradual extinction of values such as human dignity, the right against torture, and the rights of equal treatment asserted by women, minorities, and the poor.
Then, toward the end of the book, D'Souza has the audacity to say
So far this book as examined Christianity largely from a secular viewpoint.
A big problem with D'Souza, and with a lot of Christians trying to understand unbelief, is that they assume everyone is exactly like them, with the exact same life experiences. Throughout my life as a Christian, I've been told that people become atheists or agnostics for the sole purpose of "living a sinful lifestyle." That anyone who doesn't believe in the tenets of Christianity is "choosing to reject God." That you will be miserable if you don't stay close to the Church. That something will be always feel like it's missing from your life.
While these accusations are often of a condemning nature, the people voicing them usually aren't mean-spirited about it. They believe the only reason for unbelief is for selfishly sinning because that's all they can conceive from their own experiences of being devout. Since they are 100 percent convinced all of this is true, the only reason they would not believe is to become hedonistic. They just can't accept that other people simply aren't convinced—that you can try really hard to believe, and even pray for it every night, but still not believe.
Instead, because believers believe so hard, they see someone else not following suit as an objective and actionable rejection of God, worthy of eternal hellfire, and/or current misery and emptiness. Like many preachers I've listened to, D'Souza makes a ton of assumptions about his audience.
You, like many Christians, live in a split-screen world. You are, I suspect, a Darwinian in your science and an anti-Darwinian in your morals. You revere science and reason but wonder if they give you a full grasp of the world. You are a rationalist at work and a romantic in your personal life. You have been engaged in the pursuit of happiness for a fairly long time; ever wonder why you haven't found it? How long do you intend to continue this joyless search for joy? Older societies had much less and felt abundant; why do you, in the midst of plenty, continue to feel scarcity pressing down upon you?
He just assumes anyone who isn't a hardcore believer is joyless. Which is one of the most common themes I've heard in sermons: " Everyone outside these walls lack true joy." And like many preachers, D'Souza has a weird fetish with the past, assuming people were happier way back when, implying people had a better time when there was more murder, people dying in war, violence and rape, and untreatable infectious disease.
The Christ we encounter in the New Testament is so extraordinary that it's hard to imagine the Gospel writers inventing such a person.
He literally cannot imagine someone inventing such a strong character! Even fervent believers have to acknowledge that extraordinary fictional characters are invented all the time, from the ancient Greek gods to Bruce Wayne!
But back to D'Souza's assumptions on joy, which are reflected by many Church leaders. Evangelizers don't understand that a big reason why non-devout people raised Christian may experience more sadness than the devout is because of the incredible guilt inflicted on them by the religion itself when they aren't able to believe what they perceive they are "supposed to believe." I'm probably less happy than most seminarians myself. But a large part of that is because after enough conditioning, I eventually started hating myself for not being able to force myself into a belief. But people raised atheist don't deal with this, and to me they appear no more or less content with their lives than the rest of the population, after you consider other factors like, "Are they financially solvent?" or, "Are they Browns fans?" But many zealots haven't ever been close to an atheist before, and wall off their social groups with cadres of like-minded folk.
Telling people they will suffer infinitely no matter what they do because they can't convince themselves to accept your ideology creates its own form of suffering. And enough of the assuming "joyless" talk from the pulpit only creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where cause and effect are reversed. A person struggling with faith might think something like this during sermons: Yeah, I guess I am not as happy as a lot of the people who are able to buy into this 100 percent. Hmm, I guess the reason is because I'm a sinner who doesn't believe what they believe. But the reason behind the drought of happiness might be because the evidence hasn't convinced you like it has the rest of your social group, and you feel guilty for somehow letting people down. And the "joyless" sermons only make you feel worse about your nature, your way of thinking, your sense of self. So the more you hear this kind of message, the more depressed you get for being the way you are.
D'Souza uses another common proselytizing technique when he attributes whatever social phenomena he can to waning religious participation:
Wealthy people in America today tend to have one child or none, but wealthy families in the past tended to have three or more children. The real difference is not merely in the level of income—it is that in the past children were valued as gifts from God, and traditional cultures still view them that way. … The declining birth rates in the West as a whole are, in considerable part, due to secularization. The religious motive for childbearing has been greatly attenuated, and children are now viewed by many people as instruments of self-gratification. The old biblical principle was "Be fruitful and multiply." The new one is "Have as many children as will enhance your lifestyle."
Statements like this appeal to emotional rhetoric at the peril of social science. Religion is an influencer of birth rates, sure, but people have never just been fruitful and multiplied. That's historical fabrication—a bullshit appeal to "the good old days." People tend to multiply when it is fruitful for them to do so. And always have.
Birth rates aren't so simple and don't necessarily reflect religiosity. There are many other major factors:
women's education and workforce participation, contraception and abortion access, the macro economy, life expectancy and infant mortality rates, and urbanization. Ma and Pa had 12 kids on the farm not out of their love for Christ, but for free fucking labor! Whereas families are small now because it takes a lot of damn money to raise a kid in the city. "Traditional" cultures are less likely to be industrialized—that's why they view
free labor children as gifts.
These blanket condemnations about society aren't hard to poke holes in. So once D'Souza starts pulling Helen Lovejoy-style "Think of the children!" lamentations regarding fertility rates, overgeneralizes the social effects of an area's perceived lack of spirituality, and continues to needless slam non-Christians while glossing over atrocities in Christian history and contemporary life, the whole book comes off like a dangerous revisionist work aimed at pitting Christians against everyone else. Although Christianity is the most common religion in the world, D'Souza continues to appeal to its "counterculture" belonging. In many countries, Christianity is the mainstream culture. But the key to political fights like the one happening right in Indiana is convincing everyone that Christians are a persecuted minority.
The persistent ignoring of social reality in an attempt to appeal to outsiderdom made me question other things I'd been told in Church that I suspected were false. For brevity's sake, and because this is the underlying issue in Indiana, let's stick entirely with the Christian view of gay people. As a Catholic, I've heard countless anecdotal (and, per the links, easily debunked) second- and third-hand stories of gay people being "changed," that being gay is a choice, that gay men molest children at a rate of seven times more than straight men, that 0.01 percent of American priests sexually abused children, which for some reason was always backhanded to allegedly be lower than the rate of Protestant pastors. And that homosexuality is largely to blame for the priest sex scandals.
What I realized, though, is that many of these theories come from pulpit preachers who've probably never interacted with an out gay person more than a few times. And eventually, these defenses don't just ignore research, but gain a conspiratorial tone that conveniently ignores the very Church itself. No one in a catechism class ever tells you that a 1963 commission set up by the Pope voted that Catholic couples should be allowed to use birth control. You hear how the Church celebrates life and freedom, but you aren't told about papal bulls approving of slavery. Or that the Church condemned religious liberty and freedom of the press and didn't officially back religious freedom until 1965. You hear how the awful liberal media is looking to defame priests, but little acknowledgement on how high the child-sex-abuse scandals reached, how disgraceful the cover-ups were, the financial burdens it placed on the institution, and that the Church's very own U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an investigation that found that about 4 percent of American priests serving in the past 50 years had molested children. (The John Jay Report is an incredible exercise in transparency for an institution whose inner workings seem mysterious to the public. But it's hushed up rather than celebrated.)
D'Souza's book greatly disappointed me. I was sincerely looking to be convinced; I wouldn't have read it otherwise. I'm not a liberal atheist who loves Obama. I'm moderately conservative, still identify as Catholic, and have yet to vote for a Democratic president. And I agree with him that atheists like Richard Dawkins are assholes who often use intellectual cover to bully people into accepting their own bullshit, as much of what they claim isn't proven yet and remains uncertain (sound familiar?), and their intention to brand themselves as "brights" is pathetic, euphemistic bullshit.
But Dawkins represents a very specific type of atheist. Even among the best agnostic/atheist philosophers, like Bertrand Russell and David Hume, you don't get that kind of condescending tone and overreaching. And among the general non-believing population, you're more likely to come across indifference toward Christianity than vehement hatred. The only thing D'Souza really accomplishes with this book is that he's able to match Dawkins's tactics. But reflecting one of the biggest dicks in modern thought doesn't seem very Christian.
Which made it kind of odd that this priest recommended What's So Great About Christianity? to me in the first place, since he really made efforts to empathize and meet people where they're at. He usually strayed from condemnation, and always carried a peaceful presence. But as I thought about it more, it began to make sense. For some reason, many Catholics have become so conservative that they favor the Republican Party over the Church itself. It's only in an environment like that where Dinesh D'Souza gets praised.
When bishops approve something Obama does, it makes the news for a day but never gets any real sermon coverage. But disagreements on the HHS Mandate create homily fodder for years as preachers construe the dire future of life with Obamacare. That's how you get self-identified Catholics bitching about the current Pope, the elderly scepter-wielding historical face of the Catholic Church, for being too liberal. As Fox News put it, "My fellow Catholics should be suspicious when bastions of anti-Catholicism in the left-wing media are in love with him."
Endlessly taking energy from the earth could have major consequences in a finite world, but a spiritual leader just contemplating acknowledging this is apparently "anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress" because it could lead to demand for restrictions on business, which Republicans ain't down for. Conservative Catholics lost their shit over Pope Francis's environmental "reforms" before the encyclical in question was even released, accusing the Pope of "sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements" as they whined about any position he takes (that's no different than other modern popes' stances on economics and environmentalism) that doesn't toe the GOP line.
To stand strong against abortion and gay marriage, it's not uncommon to hear sermons sprinkled with mild apocalyptic overtones that strongly imply it's your duty to vote Republican. It's these two sexual issues that everyone is conditioned to fret about as needless wars leave thousands dead, income inequality grows, basic health-care costs consume the poor, our environment degrades, and the foreign laborers our economy depends on get shit for rights. Before Roe v. Wade, Catholics tended to vote Democrat, but the GOP seized its opportunity, and now churchgoers are so ingrained in Republicanism some have convinced themselves Sarah Palin is a viable Oval Office candidate, and a president intervening to get health care for the poor is evil. Subliminal safeguards have shut down, and the mania of right-wing propagandists goes undetected. They even occasional get confessional endorsements.
So that's the guy helping driving the conversation in Indiana, and those are some of the well-meaning people helping him drive it. My priest friend didn't intended for any of this, and unfortunately might not even see anything inflammatory with D'Souza's writing, given the pro-Republican politicized environment of many congregations. What's So Great About Christianity? wasn't the first or the only thing that made me question my Catholicity. But it made me question why I keep seeking, if this is what I find.
Photo: AP Images