Depending upon whom you ask, Christianity either withers under constant assault from a secular humanist conspiracy or flourishes as a virulent social tumor threatening intellectual and moral progress. This Friday, two leading intellectuals will take up the question of whether Christianity is “Good or Bad for Mankind.” Prolific writer, scholar, and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza will trade arguments with professor of philosophy Dr. Andrew Bernstein. The debate will take place on February 8th at the University of Texas – Austin’s Hogg Auditorium beginning at 7pm CST, sponsored by The Objective Standard and the UT Objectivism Society. It will also be broadcast live over an internet stream. [Updated: see part 1 of Walter's analysis of the debate here.]
This intellectual confrontation “is guaranteed to set a new standard on the subject” according to The Objective Standard. That promise will be fulfilled. The arguments offered will differ from previous high-profile debates regarding Christian morality. While atheists whom D’Souza has engaged before have come from a position of skepticism or secular moral relativism, Bernstein’s body of work previews a fresh approach.
Bernstein will channel Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, which not only rejects the Christian worldview, but emphatically indicts Christianity as a profound moral evil. While that may sound familiar and evoke recollections of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or the like, Bernstein’s argument will differ in that it will not merely cite alleged evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity but drill down to the root of what makes a thing good and assert that Christianity is the opposite.
Readers who have followed my recent work at PJ Media may have noticed two things. First, that I frequently evoke the work of Ayn Rand in support of my moral and political views. Second, that I am a professing Christian eager to contend for the faith. These two aspects of my person no doubt meet with frustration, confusion, or condemnation from both Christian and Objectivist readers who perceive their respective worldviews as irreconcilable. I dare to contend that, while there are certainly profound differences in these worldviews, they are not as wholly irreconcilable as either contingent thinks.
Let’s preview some of the arguments sure to be made in Austin. Next week, we’ll respond to these points along with any others which arise and consider just how incompatible Christianity and Objectivism truly are. Here are 5 accusations sure to be leveled against Christianity by Andrew Bernstein in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza.
5) Neither God Nor Scripture Reveals Knowledge
The root from which a philosophy springs is its epistemology, the answer to how we know anything at all. The Christian worldview requires an epistemology which allows for revelation from a supernatural source. Scripture is said to be inspired by God, meaning it embodies more than the rantings of a desert nomad. Christians believe that God speaks to us through scripture, imparting a portion of his unbound knowledge for the benefit of mankind.
Objectivism, as the name suggests, regards the notion of revelation as a rejection of reality. The only way to know something according to Ayn Rand is to perceive it with your senses or deduce it from facts of reality established through observation and reason. This root idea regarding the source of knowledge informs all of Rand’s conclusions in the other branches of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and politics.
Christians entertaining Bernstein’s challenge to D’Souza should understand that faith and reason are defined as opposites in Objectivism. To accept an idea on faith is to concede that it defies reason, that it cannot be supported by the facts of reality, and that it carries no true moral authority.
Epistemology proves an irreconcilable difference between Christianity and Objectivism. Nevertheless, D’Souza will not need to argue epistemology in order to push back against the assertion that Christianity is a profound moral evil. We’ll explore why next week.
4) The Supernatural Does Not Exist
It follows that, if reality consists only of that which can be perceived with the senses, God or any other supernatural being is not real. Rand’s epistemology informs a metaphysics which regards the universe as simply that which exists, not a creation, but a “metaphysically given.” In the vernacular, it is what it is. Rand’s intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, elaborates in The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series:
The universe is the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything. Obviously then there can be no such thing as the “cause” of the universe. . . .
Is the universe then unlimited in size? No. Everything which exists is finite, including the universe. What then, you ask, is outside the universe, if it is finite? This question is invalid. The phrase “outside the universe” has no referent. The universe is everything. “Outside the universe” stands for “that which is where everything isn’t.” There is no such place. There isn’t even nothing “out there”: there is no “out there.”
This view of the universe places God in an untenable position. If He exists, then he is part of the universe and therefore not God by definition. So, logically, we are meant to conclude He does not exist. As with the question of epistemology, D’Souza may be tempted to get bogged down in arguing this point. However, his time will be better spent focused elsewhere.
3) Original Sin Falsely Indicts Man
We approach an area worth debate when we reflect upon the nature of man. Christianity indicts man as fallen from an original perfection in the image of God. We call this state and its subsequent behaviors sin.
The concept of sin is unceremoniously rejected by a metaphysics which denies the existence of any god we need to live up to. Rand regarded man as a noble being whose productive activity in pursuit of happiness is objectively virtuous. In fact, a Christian may find no title more abrasive among those authored by Rand than The Virtue of Selfishness which she introduces thus:
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
Rand’s appropriation of selfishness lays the groundwork from which we can not only reconcile certain aspects of Christianity and Objectivism, but actually understand Christ better. Let that be a tease for next week’s review of the debate.
2) Christianity Proves Immoral
Rand’s ideal man, characterized in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugs, lives by a selfish creed:
I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
This oath summarizes the practical application of Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Man is a moral end unto himself, and not a means to the ends of others. Rational action proves to be the chief requirement of human life, so men must be free to act upon their own judgment and not be bound by the brute force of others. Furthermore, objective morality calls for men to act in their rational self-interest and not sacrifice their values.
This concept is ripe with potential confusion. The word “sacrifice” has a positive connotation in our culture and is often used to denote any deferment, denial, or donation which either benefits another person or contributes to a long-term investment. For instance, if a college student stays in on a Friday night in order to study for a big test on Monday, it may be said they are “sacrificing” their night out. More profoundly, if a parent gives their life in the process of saving their child’s or a solider throws himself on a grenade to save his squad, we call it a “sacrifice.” Rand bristled at such misnomers:
Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.
Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) importance to him. In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice.
True sacrifice involves the trade of a greater value for a lesser one or nothing at all. When our politicians ask us to sacrifice, this is generally what they mean, not charity which serves a purpose the giver judges worthy, but giving for the sake of giving.
Thus Objectivism views Christianity as immoral since it appears to uplift sacrifice. God commanding Abraham to kill his son Isaac is frequently cited as an example of Judeo-Christian immorality, particularly egregious because no rational basis for the action is perceived. The episode serves as a test of faith, which Objectivism decries as a rejection of reason.
1) Church History Chronicles Death and Tyranny
Objectivists see the Christian affinity for sacrifice as enabling two thousand years of tyranny, slavery, and murder. From the Spanish Inquisition through the Crusades past the chattel slavery of the early American south right through the modern drive toward a global socialism, objectivists like Bernstein see the blood-soaked hands of the Church. As offensive as this may be to Christians, especially conservatives who regard themselves as champions of liberty, a certain degree of introspection remains appropriate.
Accepting that there exists some distance between the Church as a varied history of ecclesiastical institutions and biblical Christianity as a way of life, we must certainly recognize that atrocity has been justified in the name of Christ or by an appeal to alleged Christian principles. An examination of whether objective evils have been truly Christian or merely associated with Christ will have to wait for our review of the debate. Suffice it to say that objectivists and other critics of Christianity are understandably put off by Bible verses taken outside of context, and can hardly be blamed when the same error has been made by professing Christians over the centuries resulting in the atrocities cited.
Going into the debate this week, let us be content to establish that the Christian concept of sacrifice has been leveraged to promote a culture of altruism, which stands opposite the egoism which Rand argued to be man’s proper moral orientation. Again, we must combat connotation and understand that altruism is not merely caring for others and egoism is not merely caring for self. In Rand’s view, altruism is irrationally living for others at the expense of self, and egoism is living intentionally in service of rational long-term self-interest. State imposed redistribution of wealth or charity motivated by unearned guilt is altruistic. Caring for loved ones or charity in service of one’s values is not.
The preceding serves as a primer for this week’s debate between Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza entitled “Christianity: Good or Bad for Mankind.” Next week, we will review the points raised throughout the debate and begin an ongoing introspective, both critiquing Christendom and defending Christianity. We will do so by viewing Rand’s moral discoveries through the lens of the Bible. What will emerge is a Christian virtue of selfishness, what Pastor John Piper controversially calls Christian hedonism.
Continue reading: A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
Previously from Walter Hudson at PJ Lifestyle: