Friday, October 17, 2008

Historical Revisionism from Dinesh D'Souza, Part 2

D'Sousa also fails U.S. history. He'd like to say what most of the Christian Right has been trying to peddle on the American public -- that the United States Constitution which outlines our government, our rights, and American Values -- would not be possible had it not been for all the good Christian influences. Unfortunately, in order to promote this myth, D'Souza has to ignore well-established historical facts, which he counts on most of his readers being ignroant of.

"If modern science has Christian roots, so do our most basic political institutions and values. Consider Thomas Jefferson's famous assertion in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." He claimed this was "self-evident," but one only has to look to history and to other cultures to see that it is not evident at all. Everywhere we see dramatic evidence of human inequality. Jefferson's point, however, was that human beings are moral equals. Every life has a worth no greater and no less than any other."

Sounds reasonable, if you have a memory lapse, or never really retained much from your High School history lessons. First of all, we need to realize that people like John Locke(Deist), Voltaire (Deist), Dennis Diderot(Deist), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau(agnostic), are not mentioned. These men were named by Jefferson and Madison, who wrote the principle works outlining and explaining the Constitution, as their influences. Some of the men who inspired the Founding Fathers were not Christian. Indeed, some of the founding fathers, such as Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson, were not Christian, but Deists. Thomas Jefferson famously Published his own version of the Bible, where he selectively removed parts that he didn't agree with, most notably, supernatural elements.

Perhaps most notably absent in D'Sousa's understanding of American history is the role that religion played in colonial British thinking. The Founding Fathers were not simply rebelling against taxes and an unfair King. They were rebelling against the established religious paradigm of the day, The Divine Right Of Kings, which declared that the authority of Kings over their subjects comes from the will of God, and was a standard promoted not just by the Catholic Church, but by Protestant nations as well. In essence, the founding fathers were committing blasphemy in the eyes of many.

More importantly, The Declaration of Independance does not proclaim that our rights come from God. In fact, no mention is made of Christianity. The references to "Nature's God," "Creator," and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration do not endorse Christianity. Thomas Jefferson, its author, was a Deist, opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural. The Declaration of Independance makes it clear what the Founding Fathers believed, when they wrote "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,". In other words, the Founding Fathers clearly believed that Government power was based solely on consent from the people, not from any Gods or divine power. D'Sousa's point would only be valid, had the Declaration stated "Governments...deriving their just powers from God."

"The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea. We are equal because we have been created equal in the eyes of God. This is an idea with momentous consequences. In ancient Greece and Rome, human life had very little value. The Spartans, for example, left weak children to die on the hillside. Greek and Roman culture was built on slavery."

Though true, this statement ignores the fact that Christianity continued the slavery practices of the ancient Romans. Though they stopped the practice in the Middle Ages, they revived it again during the Renaissance, and these same Western Christian nations continued to use slaves right on up to the 18th century. In America, The Baptist church schizmed into the Northern and Southern Baptist churches, with the Southern Baptists maintaining that the Bible sanctioned slavery (which it certainly does).

"Christianity banned infanticide and the killing of the weak and "dispensable," and even today Christian values are responsible for the moral horror we feel when we hear of such practices. Christianity initially tolerated slavery — a universal institution at the time — but gradually mobilized the moral and political resources to end it. From the beginning, Christianity discouraged the enslavement of fellow Christians. Slavery, the foundation of Greek and Roman civilization, withered and largely disappeared throughout medieval Christendom in the Middle Ages."

I don't think that Christianity is responsible for the horror we feel when children are killed. I believe that any person from any culture with any religious belief would find a child's killing equally as horrifying. D'Souza is playing on the idea that "Western Family Values" are exclusively Christian. Unfortunately, the same family values can be found in nearly every culture on earth, Christian and non-Christian alike. The Bible certainly does encourage slavery. In the book of Acts, for example, The Apostle Paul convinces a slave to return to his master, rather than escape to freedom, and then writes a letter to the master asking him, as a Christian, to be lenient with him:

"For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal., iii, 26-28; cf. Col., iii, 10- 11)

But even more relevent, are the old testament's laws about slavery. More on the actual history of Christianity and slavery can be found here.

"The first movements to abolish slavery completely occurred only in the West, and were led by Christians. In the modern era, first the Quakers and then the evangelical Christians demanded that since we are all equal in God's eyes, no man has the right to rule another man without his consent. This religious doctrine not only supplies the moral justification for anti-slavery but also for democracy. Yes, the idea of self-government is also rooted in the Christian assumption of human equality. One reason the atheist philosopher Nietzsche hated democracy is because he understood its religious foundation."

The first movements to abolish slavery may have been Western Christians, but as I've already pointed out above, the proponents of slavery were also Christian.

The idea that all men are created equal does not come from anything in the Bible. It comes from a Deist named John Locke, as I pointed out earlier.

His statement about Neitzsche is absolutely false. Neitzsche made his views on democracy quite clear in his book Human, All Too Human in Volume Two: The Wanderer and His Shadow, when he wrote:

"End and means of democracy.— Democracy wants to create and guarantee as much independence as possible: independence of opinion, of mode of life and of employment. To that end it needs to deprive of the right to vote both those who possess no property and the genuinely rich: for these are the two impermissible classes of men at whose abolition it must work continually, since they continually call its task into question. It must likewise prevent everything that seems to have for its objective the organization of parties. For the three great enemies of independence in the above-named threefold sense are the indigent, the rich and the parties.

I am speaking of democracy as of something yet to come. That which now calls itself democracy differs from older forms of government solely in that it drives with new horses: the streets are still the same old streets, and the wheels are likewise the same old wheels.—Have things really got less perilous because the wellbeing of the nations now rides in this vehicle?" -- (Friederich Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human in Volume Two: The Wanderer and His Shadow, Page 293)

Clearly, Neitzsche was in favor of real democracy, Not opposed to it, as D'Souza claims. Neitzsche criticized what he considered to be a phoney democracy that did not really guarantee individual independence for all, because of interference from the rich, advocates of the poor, and political parties, all using manipulation to give themselves an advantage over other citizens, which ends up making the system unequal. He said nothing about hating democracy because it was a product of religion. To this extent, D'Souza likely knows that the average Christian conservative knows nothing about Neitzsche, and would never bother to actually read his books, so few of his audience would bother to see if this factoid he presented was even moderately accurate.

"Rights and Christianity --
Consider finally modern notions of human rights — the right to freedom of conscience, or to property, or to marry and form a family, or to be treated equally before the law — as enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The universalism of this declaration is based on the particular teachings of Christianity. The premise is that all human lives have equal dignity and worth, but this is not the teaching of all the world's cultures and religions. Even so, it's appropriate that a doctrine Christian in origin should be universal in application. Christianity from the start promulgated its message as one for the whole world."

So much is wrong with this that it would be difficult to respond to it briefly. Though Thomas Aquinas favored the concept of "Natural Law" that was clearly taken from Aristotle, The Catholic Church, and indeed many Protestant denominations have historically not really favored it at all. The Catholic Church's Canon Law clearly states that all men are not born equal, and that certain people, such as the Pope and various agents of the Church, clearly have special powers over the common man. The very concept of an illigitimate birth (being born out of wedlock) is a Christian one, and for centuries, most Christian Churches looked down on people who were born out of wedlock, and even convinced governments to deny them inheritance rights. Even the Church of England, during colonial times, promoted the idea that Nobility were of higher birth, and thus, had more rights than common men.

Let's not forget the official Church view of Women. The Old Testament clearly says that Women are the property of their fathers or husbands. Christianity, Historically, has always set women apart from men, and given them less rights. Protestant England, especially the Puritans and their successors, Restricted Women's rights. The Women's Rights movement owes itself to Enlightenment people, such as Mary Wollstonecraft , John Stuart Mill, and Voltaire who were all influential in advocating women's equality. Unfortunately, even in the United States, women didn't even have the right to vote until 1921. Women's rights have never been championed by Churches -- not the Catholic Church, not any of the major protestant churches, in America. Sadly, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which simply prohibits discrimination against sex, has never been passed, and it's still legal for employers to pay women lower wages than men for the same jobs.

One thing that is true that D'Souza can claim -- Christianity has profoundly influenced the creation of most of the human rights treaties and laws of the world, but not in the way that D'Souza would have us believe. Instead of championing Human Rights, Christian Churches have promoted laws and rules which human rights advocates objected to, and crafted their documents against. That's the reality of Christianity's influence on the concept of human rights.

"There are some atheists and even some Christians who admit that theism and Christianity have shaped the core institutions and values of America and the West. But now that we have these values, they say, why do we still need God and Christianity? Oddly enough, the answer is supplied by Nietzsche."

This is simply a straw man argument. I have never read atheists making such a claim. Since D'Souza doesn't provide us with any examples of atheist authors who have said such a thing, we can't take his word for granted.

"Oddly enough, the answer is supplied by Nietzsche. Nietzsche argued that since the Christian God is the foundation of Western values, the death of God must necessarily mean the erosion and ultimate collapse of those values. Remove the base and the whole building will slowly crumble. For a while, Nietzsche conceded, people would out of custom or habit continue to respect human life and treat people with equal dignity, but eventually there would be ferocious assaults on these values, and practices once unthinkable such as the killing of people deemed inferior or undesirable would once again occur. This is precisely what we have seen in our time, and Nietzsche predicted that it will only get worse."

D'Souza is mangling and misrepresenting what Neitzsche wrote, first, by paraphrasing what Neitzsche allegedly wrote, and secondly , by not identifying the actual quotes on which his interpretation was based.

What Neitzsche said, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was that the Christian values that the west used to inform people what meaning there is in their lives, eventually will come to be questioned, then be discarded, and people will eventually come up with new values upon which to derive life's meaning. Then, the day will come, when people realize that they don't need to get their life's meaning from someone else, and they will determine their own meaning and destiny for themselves. The symbolism of the "√úbermensch", or "superman" is of a man who creates his own destiny, and who creates his own meaning in life.

"If we cherish the distinctive ideals of Western civilization, and believe as I do that they have enormously benefited our civilization and our world, then whatever our religious convictions, we will not rashly try to hack at the religious roots from which they spring. On the contrary, we will not hesitate to acknowledge, not only privately but also publicly, the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter most to us."

Unfortunately, as I've shown, Christianity's role in forming Western Democracy and our concept of human rights, as well as our modern values, has actually been the object against which human rights, equal rights, and democracy were a response to -- not their inspiration. If you value Democracy, equality, and the preservation of human rights, and women's equality, don't thank Christianity for it, thank the people who dared to speak out against the Christian values that made the creation of these things neccesary. Thanking Christianity for democracy, human rights, and equality of all people, would be like thanking King George the third for making it neccesary to rebel against him and create the United States.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Historical Revisionism from Dinesh D'Souza

Well, it looks like my favorite "highly praised" Ultraconservative lunatic intellectual, Dinesh D'Souza, recently added another diatribe to be filed under "Conservative Christian historical revisionism". He's decrying what the scientific world and America owe to their Christian Foundations. As I pointed out in my last article on Mr. D'Souza, he's not exactly known for his honesty or objectivity. After years of writing hateful diatribes against Women, African Americans, and just plain offensive articles in the Dartmouth Review, Conservative whack-jobs count him as one of their best intellectual attack dogs.

So let me correct the gross historical errors of his latest article.

"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."

Okay, this perception that he's leading with here, is the perception that many Evangelicals and conservative extremists have been harping on for ages -- the notion that secularists and atheists are trying to erase "Christian heritage" out of history books and in public discourse. It's echoed over at Conservapedia, which is literally the laughing stock of bias and revisionism on the Internet. Basically, the more extremist Christians and conservatives believe that any efforts by non-conservatives and non-Christians to express themselves and explain their groups contributions to society, amounts to an attempt to destroy Christianity and trivialize it's contribution to making the world better, and America "The greatest nation". In fact, even when the extremist Christian and conservative claims of history are disproven with objective factual evidence, they use their conspiracy theory about "evil atheist revisionists", rather than actually deal with the facts. So now that we know where D'Souza is going, let's follow.

"We seem to be witnessing an aggressive attempt by leading atheists to portray religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as the bane of civilization. Finding the idea of God incompatible with science and reason, these atheists also fault Christianity with fostering a breed of fanaticism comparable to Islamic radicalism. The proposed solution: a completely secular society, liberated from Christian symbols and beliefs."

Okay, No doubt D'Souza is referring to recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who were identifying, exploring and critiquing the popular mythology about how religion, and Christianity in particular, only contributes goodness to society. Two books in two years is hardly what I'd call aggressive, especially when you compare it to the sheer volume of hate-filled conservative and religious books, television programs, radio broadcasts, magazines and newspapers that respond to a single atheist book with hysteria and conspiracy claims. How often have we even seen Atheists on television and in the media being given a free ride to promote their views? When you read the books of Dawkins and Hitchens, they are criticizing so politely, too -- unlike American Patriot and author Thomas Paine, whose book The Age Of Reason, was one of the most scathing intellectual attacks on Christianity, and that was written in 1794, and considered by many at the time to be seditious. When you read Paine's book, and compare the style of his criticism to Dawkins and Hitchens, it doesn't seem proper to call them "agressive". However, in that both Dawkins and Hitchens both criticize Religion, and Christianity for hampering Science and fostering fanaticism, these criticisms are merely historical facts, facts which people like D'Souza would like to minimalize or ignore altogether.

Is it inaccurate or unreasonable to say that Christianity, traditionally, has slowed the progress of science, or fostered anti-scientific attitides? I think it is very reasonable and spot-on accurate. Take the following examples:

  • For decades, the Catholic Church banned any mention or writing of Nicolaus Copernicus's theory of Heliocentrism.
  • Galileo, one of the world's greatest scientists, wrote a book discussing Coppernicus's Heliocentism theory, and was put on trial for suspicion of Heresy. Did D'Souza forget this incident?
  • The Church also banned the dissection of cadavers, which seriously held back our knowledge of human anatomy. It was actually decreed that human internal organs were identical to that of a cow.
  • Of course, we wouldn't have had the dark ages, or lost thousands of years of scientific knowledge had it not been for the early efforts of the Christian Roman Empire. Though Aquinas and Buridan are often credited with reviving science in the thirteenth century, there was over 1000 years of relative ignorance and scientific stagnation thanks to some of the Laws and policies of Justinian, Leo III, and others. Latin was favored over Greek, thus making a lot of science inaccessible, but also by dismantling some of the vestiges of the Ancient Roman systems, such as public education, generations of people were unable to read.
  • In modern times, we have opposition to stem cell research, which is is showing great potential for medicine. The Religious groups opposed to it have forced the government to ban it.
  • There is also mostly religious opposition to Human Cloning, because of fears that doing so would be playing God, that too many embryos are destroyed int he process, and other reasons.
  • Let's not forget the ever-present movement of Christians promoting Creation Science, which has been exposed time and time again as an anti-science movement that uses deception and irrational logic to promote itself. Essentially, in America, anyway, the movement is literally trying to inject it's anti-science into Public schools.

These examples and others all show a clear pattern of Christianity not just being against scientific progress, but mobilizing against it. Therefore, Dawkins and Hitchens are merely reporting the facts as they are.

"This critique, which comes from best-selling atheist books, academic tracts and a sophisticated network of atheist organizations and media, can be disputed on its own terms. What it misses, however, is the larger story of how Christianity has shaped the core institutions and values of the USA and the West. Christianity is responsible even for secular institutions such as democracy and science. It has fostered in our civilization values such as respect for human dignity, human rights and human equality that even secular people cherish."

A "Sohphisticated network of atheist organizations"? D'Souza is trying to drum up the notion that there is some kind of gigantic atheist conspiracy, and that this alleged conspiracy is somehow organized and perhaps monolithic. The other myth here is that Christians are people with simple beliefs, and that they are all merely individuals who do not march to the beat of just one drum. Of course, he doesn't provide any proof of this sophisticated network of atheists, so It's difficult to tell exactly what he considers to be so sophisticated that it comprises any threat. As for Christians not having, or having less sophisticated networks, let's just smash that myth with some rality.

There are a number of atheist organizations in the USA, for sure, but are they organized and networked with each other?

How do they even compare to the organized, well-established, sohphisticated networks of Christian groups? Just take the The Fellowship, for example. The Fellowship is a sophisticated network of Evangelical conservative Christians who have ties to the White House, to many leaders in America's military, and to many of our politicians. What about the Catholic Church? Surely this worldwide Christian organization doesn't lack any sophistication. In fact, pretty much all of the major denominations have sophisticated networks to make sure their members are all following the correctly prescribed theology. Then we have The Assemblies of God Church, the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, with over 283,413 churches and outstations in over 200 countries (including 12,311 churches in the U.S.) and approximately 60 million adherents, worldwide. They have a sophisticated network keeping their churches organized, and within it, are a host of Television stations, radio stations, and private schools. Can any atheist organizations even compare to this one Christian organization? Can the Assemblies of God or the Catholic Church even function without a sophisticated network? I would be very interested to see any information if someone can offer it, about how sophisticated and well-connected atheist organizations are, because as I've shown, Mr. D'Souza is completely side-stepping his own side's sophisticated networks to peddle paranoia.

"Consider science. Although there have been many civilizations in history, modern science developed in only one: Western civilization. And why? Because science is based on an assumption that is, at root, faith-based and theological. That is the assumption that the universe is rational and follows laws that are discoverable through human reason."

Once again, here is Mr. D'Souza ignoring reality and re-writing history based on what he'd like to be true. It's a popular myth that Western civilization (and to some extent the English speaking part of it), and Christianity, is responsible for all of history's great scientific advancements. Only to a small extent is this myth really true. Science did not just happen in the west, and it wasn't just Christians who made it what it is today. Science has always been more or less global in nature, with scientists from various countries contributing, sharing discoveries with one another, and combining knowledge.

For example, The Ancient Greeks, who were not Christian at all laid most of the groundwork for western science millenia before Christianity existed. Western Astronomy, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine, and Physics all originated and were given their names by the Greeks, and in fact, many of the later scientists of the Christian era actually either re-discovered things that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, or used their discoveries as the basis for their own theories.

Also, Chinese, Indian and Islamic countries, while being non-Christian and non-western, made many of their own contributions to our scientific knowledge. The Numbering system that western civilization has used since the middle ages, for example, is a product of the Islamic world, as well as a great deal of the mathematics that we use. Medieval Iraqi scientist, Ibn al-Haytham, pretty much invented the field of Optics as we know it.

The ancient Chinese, in addition to inventing Gunpowder, also invented The Compass, Movable Type, Cast Iron, and The Suspension Bridge.

India pioneered a lot of medicine in ancient times, including the first practical Cataract Surgery in the 6th Century BCE, Dentistry, and The Decimal System.

Though D'Souza is correct that the modern scientific method, and the formal institutions of western science owe a lot to developments in Europe during the Renaissance and later, it was not exclusively Christian, and not exclusively in the west that modern science has it's roots.

"Christians were the first ones who envisioned the universe as following laws that reflected the rationality of God the creator. These laws were believed to be accessible to man because man is created in the image of God and shares a spark of the divine reason. No wonder, then, that the first universities and observatories were sponsored by the church and run by priests."

Once again, D'Souza is displaying a gross ignorance of history and the history of science. As I pointed out, The Ancient Greeks developed much of what western science became early on, before Christianity. Plato and Aristotle actually had much more influence over Jewish and Christian thinking on science and logic. The Greek conquest of the middle east, and hundreds of years of occupation in the ancient world, left indellible marks upon Jewish and later Christian thinkers, as Greek education, language, science, technology, architecture, and literature became available to Hebrews. The Roman Empire, which inherited the middle east from the Greeks, continued to import Greek and Roman learning to all parts of the Empire. It was actually Aristotle, who wasn't merely a philosopher, but a scientist as well, whose philosophy of science is what the western world used from his day until the 19th century. It was Christians like Aquinas who actually credited Aristotle for a lot of what he adopted in his philosophy and studies. The Ancient Romans were also heavily influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists, as well. In fact, Aristotle's methods were in use all over the empire, and as a result, all of Europe was familiarized with Greek thinking. Right through the decline of the ancient Romans, and into the emergence of the Christian Roman Empire, Greek Thinking on science and logic was pretty much common all over the western world, and it stayed with it right through to the revival with Aquinas. It was also spread and adopted by the Islamic world, too. In fact, it was the Islamic world which retained and kept Greek science and Philosophy alive while Europe festered during the dark ages.

To Claim that Western Science is the product of Christianity, or of the Church, is essentially like an art collector taking credit for the items in his collection, even though other people created them, and he simply bought them.

"No wonder also 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. Gassendi, Mersenne and Lamaitre were priests. Several of them viewed their research as demonstrating God's creative genius as manifested in his creation."

No mention of great scientists like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Aristotle (The one scientist whose philosophy and application of science was the standard of the western world for over 1000 years), Charles Darwin (the scientist who revolutionized modern biology), Thomas Edison (he invented many of the technologies that made the modern world what it is -- electric lighting, movies, phonographs, the first practical electricity grid in a city, and over 1000 patents), Jagdish Chandra Bose (Indian scientist credited with forming the foundation of the study and practical use of radio waves), James Watson & Francis Crick (co-discoverers of DNA), Richard Leakey, Sir Hermann Bondi, Thomas Huxley, Robert Jastrow, or other scientists who do not fit into Mr. D'Souza's claim that "the greatest" scientists are all Christian. Most of the scientists I mention are just as great as Mr. D'Souza's list, and many have shaped the modern world or developed technology and knowledge that the modern world depends on.

D'Souza's selective history is very typical of the extreme right wing and of Christian Fundamentalists. Like others on the right, he has his opinionated ideal of the world and it's history, and he simply spits it out, not expecting anyone to challenge him on his facts. All you have to do is look at the factoids that he presents, and just do simple, rudamentary research, and you can easily debunk him.