There is a great deal of ignorant nonsense in circulation about Christianity’s historical role. It is said that Christianity has been peculiarly intolerant, that it has been hostile to scientific inquiry, that it has been blind to social evils like slavery, that it has been oppressive to women, that it has stood in the way of political and economic progress, that it is superstitious. The bill of indictment grows ever longer. What is most galling to those who know some history is that most of these accusations are not merely inaccurate, but the very reverse of the truth. And what is so refreshing about Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “What’s So Great About Christianity”, is that it meets all of these accusations head-on and decisively refutes them. In our day Christianity is subject to an uncompromising, root-and-branch attack. D’Souza gives an equally uncompromising defense. Uncompromising in the good sense that he does not compromise with falsehood. He does, however, take the arguments of his opponents seriously — seriously enough to give them good answers.
The book discusses the influence of Christianity in social and political life, science and rational thought, and morality. In the chapters on social and political life D’Souza shows how Christianity lies at the root of three enormously important ideas that have shaped Western society and, latterly, the world.
The first of these is the idea of “separating or disentangling the spheres of religion and government”, which he traces back to Christ’s words “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.
The second is that “ordinary people are fallible, and yet these fallible people matter”. From this core Christian belief have flowed, he argues, “the nuclear family, the idea of limited government, the Western concept of the rule of law, and our culture’s high emphasis on the relief of suffering”.
The third idea is fundamental equality of human beings and their dignity as creatures made in the image of God. As he shows, “[t]his Christian idea was the propelling force behind the campaign to end slavery, the movement for democracy and popular self-government, and also the successful attempt to articulate an international doctrine of human rights.”
One of the great virtues of this book is its breadth of spirit. Sadly, at certain times in the past, members of various Christian groups have hurled accusations at each other, often magnifying each other’s faults for the sake of short-term apologetic or polemical advantage. Many of the exaggerated claims once made by Christians against each other are now picked up and used to discredit Christianity by those who have contempt for all religion. D’Souza’s book should help Christians to see things from a higher historical perspective, from which it is evident how all Christians, ancient, medieval, and modern, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, have contributed in innumerable ways to the great historical achievements of the Christian religion.
The middle part of the book consists of seven chapters on the relation between Christianity and science. In no area, perhaps, has there been more distortion of the historical record than here. If one asks most people (and I have asked many audiences) what name they associate with the Church’s relation to science, the name that jumps to their lips is Galileo. D’Souza devotes a whole chapter to the Galileo affair, showing how the polemics of the past have worked to give people a luridly exaggerated notion of what happened in that case. But what is far worse is the way the whole rest of Christianity’s relationship with science over 800 years has been almost completely blanked out by the obsessive focus on one highly atypical (though admittedly important) episode.
D’Souza shows how the Christian faith nurtured the roots of modern science in the medieval period, with the founding of the universities and the groundbreaking work of such scientists as Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, and Francis Bacon. He shows how many of the great founders of modern science, such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Faraday, and Maxwell were men of deep Christian faith, and how even in the twentieth century we find gigantic contributions to the development of science being made by men of faith like Fr. Lemaître, the Belgian priest who was one of the two founders of the Big Bang theory of cosmology. But D’Souza’s argument runs deeper. He shows that the rise of modern science was not simply the result of the genius or wisdom of particular men, but rather flowed from deepest levels of the Christian world-view, with its embrace of reason, its faith in the intelligibility of the world that had been created by Reason (the Logos) itself, and its interest in the particularities of that world in all its materiality.
This part of the book is of special interest to me, as a research physicist and as one who writes extensively on matters of science and religion. D’Souza’s treatment of this subject is balanced and sophisticated. I especially appreciate his treatment of evolution, where he finds the sane middle ground that is occupied by the great majority of those Christians who are scientists.
The last part of the book addresses morality. While many atheists are highly moral and even heroically so, atheism as a doctrine strikes at the root of morality. It does so not only by making of man no more than a congeries of atoms and therefore a creature without the possibility of genuine moral or intellectual freedom, but also by eliminating the idea of an objective standard of morality that stands above the human mind, and by eliminating the idea that we shall all someday have to answer for our lives to an all-just judge. D’Souza shows how dreadful the consequences of this can be, by examining the historical record of avowedly atheist political regimes.
I have not been able to do justice to this book in so short a review. Perhaps I can sum up by saying that if I were to suggest one book as an antidote to the anti-Christian tirades of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al, it would be this one.