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.


Pocket Nerd said...

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.

Yes, but Dinesh D'Souza is completely confident that his target audience won't. Like most of the religious right, he holds his followers in utter contempt: He knows he can lie to them without fear of even the most rudimentary fact-checking. Creationists and conservative politicians do the exact same thing. (And the "liberal" media gives these jokers a free pass.)

Of course, fundies already have the ability to believe wholeheartedly in mutually contradictory statements. These are people who believe that they are sinful, worthless, and offensive to God, AND that God loves them and prizes them above all else; that God is infinitely merciful and loving, AND he tortures people eternally; that the United States is a Christian nation, AND that Christians are bitterly persecuted in the United States... (I could go on, but you get the idea.)

But the real purpose here isn't to persuade anybody; the only people likely to believe Dinesh D'Souza and his ilk are those already under his spell. This true goal of this kind of rabble-rousing is usually squeezing more money out of the faithful, or mobilizing them to influence elections (or both). Given the time of year, I'd wager Dinesh is hoping to pass the collection plate for his favorite political action committees, then nudge his flock to vote the Geezer-and-Gidget ticket this November.

David W. Irish said...

Look up a film called Marjoe (1972). Someone correcting some spelling mistakes on my blog let me know about it. Marjoe was this Evangelist in the 1960s who was really famous and popular, then became an atheist, and exposed the evangelical community for what it was -- a bunch of manipulative, deceitful bastards conning gullible people out of money for profit. He was more interested in film acting after his change of faith, so he didn't do a lot to expose them over the years, but the bios I've been reading pretty much echo your sentiments (and mine).

Like D'Souza, Marjoe had utter contempt for his followers, and thought nothing of making shit up to get them to pay more money.