The Magazine

God's Advocate

Dinesh D'Souza goes the distance with the atheists.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By PETER WEHNER
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Thus the theory of "kin selection," a form of genetic selection, provides an explanation for why we behave more altruistically toward relatives than strangers. It has to do with ensuring our genes get passed to the next generation. And the theory of "reciprocal altruism," developed by the biologist Robert Trivers, argues that it will benefit an animal to behave altruistically towards another if there is an expectation of the favor being returned in the future. The cost of an altruistic act is off-set by the likely benefit of a future favor. Morality, then, is based on self-interest.

Yet, as D'Souza points out, the entire framework of Darwinist analysis does not come close to providing a comprehensive account for morality. We frequently see examples of people acting morally and against self-interest; in fact, we hold a special place of honor for those who die while trying to save people whom they have never met. The late Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionary biologist, admitted that "altruism toward strangers is a behavior not supported by natural selection."

Beyond that, we should ask: On what grounds does a person who does not believe in God make the case for inherent human dignity and worth? How does one create a system of justice and make a compelling case against, say, slavery if you begin with three propositions: the universe was created by chance, it will end in nothing, and there is no external source of authority to which to resort?

If you are a materialist, how do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others? How do you get from the "is" to the "ought"? And how do you respond to a Nietzschean who tells you "your belief is fine for you, but it is not binding to me. God is dead--and I choose to follow the Will to Power"? An atheist may disagree with this Nietzschean sentiment, but he has no persuasive philosophical or moral ground on which to make his stand.

Even supposing that human beings have a moral sense based on evolution, why choose to follow it? After all, we have lots of instincts--some noble and some base. Why choose the more noble ones, like cooperation and sympathy, fidelity and fair play? Why not use your power against those you have authority over? Why not rig the game in order to advance your own self-interest?

This does not mean atheists cannot live ethical lives or advocate moral principles. Many do. It's just that they cannot anchor it in anything durable (an appeal to "human solidarity" won't do the trick). Another reason for this is parasitic. Certain religious precepts are now part of our social DNA. And so we take it for granted that, as the Founders said, all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. We believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that "nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows." The moral atheist certainly exists, but it is because he lives in a society that takes a transcendent morality for granted. If the atheistic enterprise were to prevail, these beliefs would be unmoored--and the moral world it would create would be barren and bleak.

In the end, of course, atheists are not attacking simply a religious institution or set of theological beliefs; they are attacking a person, and not just any person. The target of their wrath is the most compelling figure in human history, a man full of grace and truth. What drives this animus toward Christ is hard to fathom; perhaps it is the notion of the perfect dying for the imperfect. In any event, their unceasing invective is less shocking than it is tiresome and even childish.

The Apostle Peter wrote to his fellow Christians, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian born in India and educated in America, has provided the reason for his hope. That he has done so in such a comprehensive and impressive fashion is a testimony to the quality of his mind and the depth of his faith.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.