Book Review: 'What's So Great About Christianity' by Dinesh D'Souza
"What's So Great About Christianity" by Dinesh D'Souza is a look at the reasons why Christianity is responsible for the success of the Judeo-Christian West and the positives Christianity has wrought around the world.
What are the strengths of Dinesh D'Souza's book? And what are the weaknesses of D'Souza's Christian apologetic work?
The Best Points of "What's So Great About Christianity?"
The importance of the family in Christianity also improved women's status in society. The Greeks saw the family entirely as a means of continuing the bloodline, while simultaneously assuming women were incapable of friendship with men, much less equality. The Romans saw family life as important but that it was neither a complete nor noble one. Where Christianity promoted the family, it promoted the wife's role in the household. Christianity's renunciation of polygamy and demands of monogamy, too, boosted the role of women.
Love existed in Greek society and literature, but it is homosexual, not heterosexual. A man might chase women for the sake of his lust or madness, but he never truly loved her in the romantic fashion, where it could be a chaste but passionate love if they were separated.
When you have only one wife and have to keep her happy, her status in the household and society improves. When women are near equal to the husband in the household, she is far above the traditional societies that treated her as chattel.
Christianity ascribed to women an equal religious status and worth as people, whereas Islam states that women are worth half of a man in matters from inheritance to blood money to court testimony. Jesus at the onset of Christianity raised the status of women within the patriarchy, and the later generations made them equal quoting him. For example, the early Christian church punished adultery equally for men as for women, versus the historical norm that women had better be faithful but men did as they please. And the early church treated men and equally in divorce, whereas even Judaism was biased toward men in that area.
It is only in Christian nations that women's higher inherent worth based upon Christianity did we see the women's rights movement, including queens ruling in their own right from Russia to England. There are no similar female rulers in the Muslim world until a few leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Indira Ghandi arose, and both of these were members of a ruling family.
Christianity also said all people had souls that were their own purview, free to accept or reject the faith. This led to religious tolerance among many Christian sects and non-Christian groups, though pogroms against Jews and forced conversion of indigenous across the world did occur. It was out of religious tolerance that freedom of conscience arose in the West. Note, though, that the notion that the government should not be in the business of theology did not banish Christianity from the public square. We know this because the Founding Fathers had chaplains for Congress, held public days of prayer and paid for, with tax dollars, copies of the Bible for distribution to schools. The movie "Monument" discusses this and similar historical details at great length.
In contrast, Islam invented the concept of religious warfare, the divine obligation to spread the faith by the sword, and second class status for fellow monotheists under Islamic rules and only slavery, death or conversion upon pain of either for polytheists like Hindus. (Buddhists, ironically, faced even more persecution by being labeled atheists under Islam, because they had an impersonal deity, while Hindus had clear but multiple gods.) After Mohammed's Medina period and he found permission per Allah to raid and rape and murder all who did not convert, Islam spread like wildfire across the Middle East.
No other faith mandates war specifically to spread its belief system. And if Islam gave up its right to kill those who don't believe, a belief used by Sunni and Shia to kill each other and both to kill Sufi and Almadhiya Muslims, the world would be nearly free of war barring regional power struggles and wars for independence. But the spread of Christianity through Asia and Africa doesn't bring such war, either historically or in the modern day. Compare warlord Mohammed to Jesus, who sought to stop stonings and died rather than flee or fight.
Christianity was unique for separating religion from state, by stating that one had duties to Heaven separate from duties due to the emperor. This was unique among religions of the era, where good citizens sacrificed to their tribes' deities. It is what allowed the concept of the separation of church and state to even exist, a dichotomy that does not exist in Islam.
Limited government depends upon Christianity's notion that there is civic space that was off limits to government. Without this clear separation, you get Muslim governments issuing civil punishments for women breaking religious mandates to wear the veil and people jailed for converting away from Islam. In India, you see Hindu nationalist parties seeking to ban Valentine's Day and other holidays as a violation of the local population's faith. Only when the founding faith of a society says there are things government does not have in its authority can you have a limited government, because the foundation of society says there are things government does not do, by will of God.
Christianity allowed for the development of the nation state, but separating gods from tribes. Even Judaism was a tribal religion, specific to the Hebrews. For this reason, the Romans tolerated Judaism as the faith of that tribe. Christianity, in contrast, said it was a universal religion – and it eroded identification with tribes while allowing broader societal identifications to become possible. Islam copied this with the Ummah, the fellowship of all Muslim believers.
Only with Christianity was the domain of the religion limited. This was due to Christ's statement, "My kingdom is not of this world." This meant that people had far more freedom to act as they chose in the earthly domain, because not every detail of dress, diet and conduct was micro-managed by the faith. See Leviticus for the Jewish version of this, and all of Shariah law micromanaging things from how women dress to what greetings one can use to how to go to the bathroom.
With Christianity, nationalism and pluralism become possible because each ethnic group, nation and social group can have its own laws and its own culture. Compare this to Islamic law that steamrolls all indigenous cultures with mandates of how one can do anything. Only with Christianity can each group retain its own identity under the larger umbrella without complete Balkanization.
Plato can be seen as presenting the liberal view of right and wrong. People do wrong because they don't know better, and it presumes if you just educate them, they won't do wrong. While Aristotle considered the elite equally capable of running their own lives and a state that should stay out of their way, he, too, assumed most people were idiots. And his job for those low men (and women) was slavery. He argued this was appropriate so that the superior men would have the time to think and rule.
Paul, in contrast, says we often do the wrong thing knowing it is wrong because of human fallibility. Christianity understands that people are fallible, but everyone is fallible. This undermines the classical and often modern view that the educated are superior to everyone else, allowing democracy with the common man's input possible. And Christianity's exaltation of the common man gave rise to the equal rights under the law for everyone, instead of assuming the royalty and nobility were truly better than everyone else. Only with Christianity did feudalism and caste structures fade away, while the presumed rights of the average person and their equality emerge as social norms.
The exultation of the common man is also what led to Christianity's eventual end to slavery. Christianity didn't invent slavery; it existed in Roman, Indian, Chinese and even Hebrew societies before Christianity. And Christianity coexisted with slavery for centuries. But it was the later more liberal view that all people were equal under Christ that Christian societies ended slavery in the 1700s and 1800s before demanding the same around the world in the later years.
It is Christianity's demands for compassion that charitable institutions arose. Dinesh D'Souza gives the example of the Chinese proverb that stranger's tears are only water. And most other nations still don't care about foreign famines, wars or conflicts. It is only the culturally Christian West built schools and hospitals for people who shared neither its faith nor its ethnicity, rallies to send food aid around the world to other nations or even militarily intervened in other people's genocides. You don't see China stopping others' wars unless it is to their benefit directly or indirectly. Muslim Arab nations didn't even do much to aid Syrian refugees aside from those countries directly next door to the conflict, demanding instead the Christian West take them in.
Where Does Dinesh D'Souza's Book Short?
Dinesh D'Souza makes many comparisons to the classical Roman and Jewish traditions from which Christianity arose, but he doesn't compare very much to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, much less their modern incarnations. Denis Prager's book "Still the Best Hope" is a good resource for understanding these competing world views and their impact on modern society.
D'Souza's book is right regarding how Christianity encouraged the development of relatively unhindered capitalism. By saying that leaders should be servants of those they lead, the politician is supposed to serve his constituents, not lead his subjects. And the merchant is to serve his customers, not get as much as possible out of buyers. By encouraging service as an ideal, it channeled greed into socially beneficial trade and exchange bounded by Christian morality that said don't steal, don't covet, don't charge excessive interest.
He neglects the broader factors that led to the West dominating technologically and economically that only truly took off after a thousand years of Christianity in Europe. When the church and feudalism's rules on business that gave the elite special trade privileges faded, the Christian world's economic trajectory swung upward, as did Christianity's neutral view of technological progress. In contrast, Islam said anything other than simple recording of natural phenomena was blasphemous inquiry into the mind of Allah. At the same time, Asian thought said you couldn't study components to understand the whole because the whole was too interconnected to break down and study at all.
So it was only the Christian world that laid forth the concept that you could understand the rules by which a rational deity ran the world, allowing the technological innovations of the Renaissance and Industrial Age, as well as the economic freedom to develop them and spread them throughout the world via trade. Therefore, while Christianity laid the foundation for the industrial and capitalist age, it was insufficient in and of itself until the church's role was further removed from business and view of a rational, understandable God was dominant. These broader root causes aren't addressed in the book.
The book expounds on rational design for more than a chapter, which almost negates the excellent chapters on how Christianity enabled scientific innovation via the "Scientific Method" and view of a rational God one could investigate.
D'Souza's book dedicates a chapter to reconciling evolution and Creationism. This section retreads many others' works, while being weak on its on.
Dinesh D'Souza touches on how the decline of Christianity in the West creates innumerable problems. When there is less emphasis on sexual fidelity and marriage, you see more out of wedlock births, more divorce and less stable families. And he's right that without a Christian majority, you lose the assumption that all people are equal due to their equally valuable souls, with the rise of euthanasia and infanticide (abortion). He addresses secular values as opening the door to destroying human rights because all are not equal. You lose the equal treatment of women, minorities and the poor under pragmatic morality. Unfortunately, he doesn't go into more detail on this topic, though it would be worth a full chapter.
Dinesh D'Souza discusses in his book "What's So Great About Christianity?" the difference between the methodical scientific analysis that excludes religion (like saying I don't get it, it's a miracle) and science as an answer to everything (called scientism). Science cannot truly assign a universal value to all people, explain what wine is better for various dishes or give people a reason to live. Religion answers these questions, while pragmatic atheism quickly slides into "whatever is most convenient is most moral, get in my way, and I have the right to get rid of you".
The demands of many modern thought leaders that anyone engaged in science are an atheist while simultaneously saying science solves everything results in: demonization of the religious as stupid, the use of biased scientific studies to justify political and social views, and elimination of absolute moral values from much of society. His book discusses the fight between scientism of atheism and religion, but not as much the negative side effects such as "my study says X, abandon morality for my study" or "I created a model that says I'm right, science and computers say I'm right, you lose your God given rights because greater forces are on my side". There are several excellent TED talks on the perils of scientism that are much better than D'Souza's chapters on this topic.