From Politics to Apologetics (Part 1)
This interview is also posted at BreakPoint.org and is used here with permission. Part 2 will appear next week.
By Stan Guthrie|Published Date: November 12, 2009
Dinesh D’Souza has been no stranger to controversy, whether editing the Dartmouth Review as a student or taking on the American left.
D’Souza has worked for the Reagan Administration, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. A native of India and now a U.S. citizen living in California, he has written several notable volumes, including Illiberal Education. D’Souza sparked outrage with his 2007 book, The Enemy at Home, in which he argued that the American cultural left bears responsibility for provoking militant Muslims into the September 11 terrorist attacks. Facing a firestorm of criticism from the left and the right, D’Souza refused to back down.
Since then he has begun writing works on Christian apologetics and debating atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer. In 2007 he authored What’s So Great about Christianity for Regnery. And recently, Regnery released D’Souza’s latest, Life After Death: The Evidence, in which he attempts to make the case for an afterlife without resorting to religion, “because I am making a secular argument in a secular culture.”
I served as an editor and consultant for D’Souza on Life After Death and interviewed D’Souza about his life as a Christian apologist.
You’ve worked for a president, Ronald Reagan. You’ve debated some of the world’s greatest minds. Now you’ve made the move into Christian apologetics. First you write What’s So Great about Christianity and now Life After Death. What has brought you from there to here?
My faith has deepened over the past several years, since we moved to California in 2000. But my work remained secular. When I saw the new atheism, and saw how it was being lionized in the media, I suddenly recognized I had an opportunity to bring my Christian faith and my intellectual work closer together. So I am delighted to be focusing now on Christian apologetics, although I still have one foot in secular culture. I don’t see this as a problem because I’d like to take the apologetic argument mainstream, to have it aired out not merely in the Christian media but also on CNN, USA Today, and so on.
What brought you to Christ?
I was raised Catholic in Bombay, India. The Portuguese missionaries came to India starting in the 16th century. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have located one of my ancestors and brought him to Christianity, possibly by whopping him over the head. It was the age of the Portuguese Inquisition. Hey, I’m glad it happened, although I’m not sure my hapless ancestor would agree. Even so I sometimes say I was raised with “crayon Christianity.”
This is a simplified Christianity, and too many of us learn this from our parents and never outgrow it. We never develop a mature Christianity that can withstand the assaults of secular culture. I married an evangelical Christian in 1992, and after our daughter was born in 1995, we started attending a nondenominational church in the Washington D.C. area. But my faith remained lukewarm, wounded, you might say, by the influences of secular culture. Only when we moved to California did we start attending a Calvary Chapel church, and I found people who took their Christianity very seriously and whose faith shaped their whole life. This also began to happen with me. Basically I went from being a crayon Christian and a lukewarm Christian to being a mature and passionate Christian.
Was your decision to go into Christian apologetics influenced by all the controversy you faced as a conservative pundit, particularly the response you provoked with The Enemy at Home? Did you get tired of all the opposition? And is there anything you would do differently?
No. The controversy over The Enemy at Home was nothing new; in fact, it paled before the controversy around Illiberal Education and The End of Racism. Besides, The Enemy at Home sold well, and its thesis has held up well. Today the whole right wing “clash of civilizations” thesis doesn’t look so good. Basically my offense for some conservatives was that I departed from this model.
Anyway, I started What’s so Great About Christianity intending to write an historical book, but I got drawn into the larger issues of the origin of the universe, the uniqueness of Christianity, and so on. Soon I realized that this full-scale apologetics is pretty far afield from the free market principles of the Hoover Institution and the conservative cause. So I decided to shift my focus. I still have one foot in the secular political world, but my primary emphasis these days is Christian apologetics.
How is being an apologist contending for the faith different from being a commentator contending for, say, supply-side economics?
Well, the supply-side advocate is arguing for a means to an end. It’s an important issue, but it’s subordinate to the truly fundamental and ultimate questions of life. I enjoyed my involvement in political debate, and still do, but now I feel that I am taking on the truly big questions. It gives my life an enhanced sense of purpose. Ultimately, who really cares whether the top marginal tax rate is 36 percent or 33 percent? Well, that 3 percent difference is not irrelevant to our nation’s prosperity. But still, it’s a lot less important and a lot less interesting than, say, the question of whether we have life after death.
The actual techniques of advocacy are quite similar in politics and apologetics. In a sense, I have steered a whole set of skills in writing and debate that I developed in the secular world into the area of defending Christian principles. Oddly enough, a secular background is a very good preparation for apologetics. The typical church-bred apologists think in biblical terms, and then they have to translate into secular terms. By contrast, I think in secular terms. This helps me when I debate on the college campus or in other secular venues.
Have you modeled your apologetics writing and debating on anyone in particular, and, if so, who?
C.S. Lewis. He was the most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century. Lewis was trained in medieval literature. He brought those secular scholarly credentials to bear on his Christian writings, and that gave him a credibility and authority that was unique in his time. Also Lewis had magnificent range. He could write for adults and he could write for children. He wrote fiction and nonfiction. He was an effective speaker and radio commentator as well as a good writer.
On the other hand, Lewis didn’t do debates. The times were different, and of course the issues he confronted were sometimes different. The big question after World War II was why a just God might allow something so terrible as a Holocaust. Today, however, we are confronted with different questions: Does evolution discredit Christianity? Does 9/11 and the behavior of the Islamic radicals show the evil social impact of religion? Has new research in brain science invalidated the possibility of life after death? We need a new apologetics for the 21st century, but Lewis remains our inspiration and guide.
You seem to me to be much like Chesterton in that you’re willing to name names and be very direct in skewering an opponent’s position. Plus, you’re very quotable. What do you think?
Skewering is something that I enjoy, and maybe this is why people say I do it well. I have no hesitation in naming names; in fact, I think that one of my most powerful weapons against the atheists is to quote them. Some of the things they say, especially when they navigate outside their fields of expertise, are quite hilarious.
As Christians we shouldn’t shrink from satirizing our opponents; ridicule is a powerful weapon, and there are good biblical precedents for using it. I like to make scholarly arguments, but I also want to reach large numbers of people. So I have to find a way to make things clear, and also to make things timely and even entertaining. It’s easier to remember a single telling phrase than to remember a 12-part argument. One of my chapters in Life After Death is on the impact of transcendental beliefs on the core institutions and values of our culture. I say that paradoxically it is the world beyond the world that has made the greatest difference in our world. That sums it up in a way that people remember.
I’ve noticed that you’re willing to take positions that many apologists don’t. For example, you concede, if not embrace, evolution as fact and use it as one of the arrows in your pedagogical quiver. While the new atheists are a constant foil for you, you don’t hesitate to challenge young-earth creationists. Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose your audience?
I am not a biologist, but I realize that the vast majority of biologists in the world accept evolution. Since this is true of biologists in China and India, for example, I find it hard to believe that they are succumbing to political correctness or are part of some kind of atheist plot. Clearly there is a good deal of evidence for evolution.
Even so, I cannot go along with Richard Dawkins when he says that evolution is as obvious as mixing hydrogen and oxygen and getting water. That’s because we can do this in the laboratory, but we cannot show evolution take place in the laboratory. I think that Christians rightly object to evolution when it is used as a battering ram to attack the Bible. The best way to fight this is to show the atheistic assumptions that are often smuggled into evolution, and not to oppose the science itself.
Some of the implications of evolution are very friendly to Christianity, and I don’t hesitate to point this out. For example, evolution is based on the low, selfish view of nature that is very close to the Christian view, and very different from the liberal view of human nature as good and wonderful. In Life After Death I also show that evolution shows a very interesting transition from simple matter to complex mind. This by itself is a clue, because nature is saying that there is a built-in progression from material things to immaterial things. Now material things like bodies perish, but immaterial things like thoughts don’t. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that we, who are part of nature, might make a transition, as nature does, from the perishable to the imperishable? For me it’s fun to take the things that atheists cherish, like evolution, and turn the argument to Christian ends.
What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical subculture in the U.S.?
Its great strength is its integration of faith into all aspects of life. This is very different from the once-a-week, Easter Sunday Christianity that I saw in India. Evangelicals take seriously the idea that if Christianity is true, it should affect all aspects of your life and it should make you a different kind of person. I love this kind of passionate commitment.
On the other hand, the evangelical weakness is a tendency to shun the mind, to run away from intellectual arguments, to affirm truth simply on the basis that “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Not a bad bumper sticker, but not an adequate philosophy for life. Today we all have one foot—and sometimes both feet—in secular culture and we cannot articulate our Christian beliefs in a language that only Christians understand. Even our children have questions and want answers that take seriously the modern knowledge that comes from history, from science, and so on.
I see apologetics not as a substitute for evangelical emphasis on Scripture but rather as something complementary. Both are ways to equip yourself to have a deeper understanding, and to be equipped to communicate that understanding to others. It is the combination that makes you a truly dangerous Christian—dangerous, that is, to the secularists and atheists in our society.
The second half of this interview will appear next week on BreakPoint.
Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.