Dinesh D’Souza, president of the evangelical King’s College in New York City, aims to give his graduates “the tools to be dangerous Christians.” He’s educating a generation of Christian scholars “who know how to stand up for, and intelligently defend, their beliefs [among nonbelievers] in secular culture.”
On Nov. 15, D’Souza will practice what he preaches. The former policy analyst for President Reagan will argue against the motion, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion,” during the live Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate in New York. D’Souza, a devout Christian, has participated in about 25 of these “so-called God debates.” Last week, I talked to him about one of the strangest God questions he’s ever been asked, how he became religious, and why Las Vegas isn’t representative of a world without religion. Excerpts from our conversation are printed below.
Slate: Have you always been as religious as you are now?
Dinesh D’Souza: I was born in Bombay, India, and I was raised in a Christian family. But it was a very lukewarm Christianity, not particularly devout. I came to America at the age of 17 as an exchange student, and a year later, I was a student at Dartmouth. I would say that the rather weak foundation of my Christianity was effectively battered at Dartmouth. I’ve had mostly a secular career. But I became intellectually interested in Christianity again in my mid-30s. When we moved to California again 10 years ago, I began to go to a nondenominational church that reinvigorated my Christianity. So it has been a little bit of a process, but I would say I’ve discovered an adult Christianity, different from the Christianity I learned as a kid.
Slate: How did you become intellectually interested in Christianity?
DD: I was a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, and my neighbor was Michael Novak, a theologian and philosopher who has written about issues like the morality of capitalism and the Christian roots of free markets. It’s possible to be fascinated intellectually with the Christian heritage without being devout. At the AEI, I also became [interested] in the thought of the philosopher Leo Strauss, and in his ideas about how Western civilization is rooted in Athens and Jerusalem. Of course I was interested in Athens, but I also felt that I should learn a lot more about Jerusalem.
Slate: You’ve done many religious debates before. What are the most common arguments the other side makes against faith?
DD: The most common argument against religion is the idea that it is responsible for much of the division, conflict, terrorism, violence, war, persecution, and bloodshed of history. Probably the second most common argument is that it is irrational, oppressive, and imposes all kinds of arbitrary rules and laws—particularly against premarital sex and homosexuality.
Slate: Will this debate be any different from the other 25 debates?
DD: Most of the debates I’ve participated in have been on Christian college campuses or on secular campuses, so largely before a student audience. This is a different setting. It’s largely an adult audience.
Slate: Has a college student ever asked you a question that you just couldn’t answer?
DD: Yeah, that’s happened many times. Normally the undergraduate atheist is an extremely self-satisfied and arrogant guy. There’s not a lot of new material, but sometimes a question will throw you off in that you have to think about what’s behind the question. One time, a guy shouts at me from the audience, “Why does God hate amputees?” And I was like, “Excuse me?” And he says, “In the Bible, Jesus heals the blind man, but there’s no account of a miracle where an amputee is healed.” That was a little bit out of the blue. I subsequently discovered a whole website called “why God hates amputees” or something like that. It got me go to back and think through what the guy was really getting at. To heal an amputee and make his limb re-grow is a kind of obvious miracle, [whereas] anybody can claim an internal miracle, like, “I was diagnosed with cancer and now I don’t have it.” His point was, show us a miracle that is objectively verifiable. At the time, I didn’t get all that out of the question. I was a little bit baffled.
Slate: So what did you tell the kid?
DD: I don’t remember. But I have a whole chapter [on] this subject in my forthcoming book, Godforsaken.
Slate: The idea that “the world would be better off without religion” seems like a modern one. What are the factors that led us to question its merits?
DD: The immediate driving forces of so-called new atheism are 9/11, the rise of Islamic terrorism, and the fact that we’re living in a kind of information revolution—a further stage of the scientific and technological revolution. [These factors have] produced this idea that religion is not only mistaken but also dangerous, hence the 9/11 side. [They have also] produced the idea that science can explain everything, can give a full account of the world.
Slate: Why are we having the debate now?
DD: The atheists are getting restless. They thought they were winning. If you went to college between 1968 and 1985, the basic idea was that the world was automatically becoming more secular. Why? Because as people become more affluent, modern, and scientific they automatically turn away from God. The vanguard example of this is Europe. But it turns out that the European experience is a peculiarity. America has not gone the way of Europe, and nowhere in the rest of the world is anything like this happening at all. Religiosity in the rest of the world has nothing to do with modernization. Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam is the second. It’s spreading in Asia, Africa, and South America. So the world is in a kind of religious revival, and the atheists are totally flummoxed. They thought they were winning, and now they see that they aren’t. Now they are becoming more aggressive in those precincts where they are powerful.
Slate: What would a world without religion be like? Las Vegas?
DD: A world without religion would not represent Las Vegas at all, and here’s why. The whole appeal of Las Vegas is as a sort of naughty, sinful contract with the rest of staid America. So Las Vegas has this appeal because there is a Peoria, Illinois. That allows people to run ads that say things like, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” i.e., we are the really naughty bad boys of America. Remember now that this whole point of being the naughty bad boy is dependent on everybody else being a good boy. In other words, you can’t play the truant or the troublemaker if everyone else is not playing straight. So Las Vegas can pretend to be an escape from the rest of America, only because the rest of America is not Las Vegas. Let’s imagine that all of America was like Las Vegas. There would be nothing distinctive about Vegas. I don’t think it represents secular society. It represents a sort of an attempt at creating an adult Disneyland, a fantasy enclave within a largely nonsecular surrounding country.
Slate: So if not Vegas, where can we find a truly secular, nonreligious society? You spoke before about the increasing secularization of Europe.
DD: Europe is not secular. Europe is drenched in Christian history. Christian morality is embedded in the bones of Europe. For example, if there was a big famine tomorrow in Rwanda, most of the countries in the world would just keep doing what they’re doing. The universal point of view is that we owe things to our siblings and our neighbors. But we owe nothing to the stranger. But if there was a famine in Rwanda tomorrow, all of the Western countries would be in a big hubbub. Then suddenly you’d have the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, church groups, and even atheists writing checks. This is all the effect of 2,000 years of Christian morality.
For a truly secular society, we should look to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Within Russia alone, there’s a 70-year history that began with Lenin and Stalin but continued through Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Chernenko. Outside of the Soviet Union there was Ceaușescu, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. The result [of these societies] has inevitably been repression, totalitarianism, persecution of the churches, and just a miserable society. And they are still with us—some of the most miserable outposts in the world are North Korea and Cuba.