Harvard Debate: Dan Barker Versus Dinesh D’Souza (June/July 2008)

Freethought Today

Vol. 25 No. 5 – Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. –  June/July 2008

Barker Versus D’Souza

By Dan Barker

It was a strange feeling to be standing in the pulpit of a church again–but I was not preaching. I was in Harvard’s Memorial Chapel debating Christian intellectual Dinesh D’Souza on “Christianity Versus Atheism.” We spent the evening answering questions from students in the Divinity School, some of whom are atheists, surprisingly, and few of whom were enamored with D’Souza.

(You can view the debate here.)

The April 22, 2008 debate at Memorial Chapel, Harvard, between Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker and Catholic author Dinesh D’Souza. Pictured front row, from left: FFRF Lifetime Member Ellery Schempp (the famous litigant who helped rid public schools of bible-reading); Dan Barker; Harvard Humanist Society President Dan Robinson, and Dinesh D’Souza.
Second row: August Brunsman, director of the Secular Student Alliance (which cosponsored the event and with which the Foundation is partnered to put on campus events and debates); HHS Vice President Andrew Maher; Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, John Figdor. Back row: HHS Vice-President Zoe Kawaller; Treasurer Lewis Ward and Secretary Kelly Bodwin.

D’Souza quickly revealed his philosophical limits when he claimed that the laws of nature imply a lawmaker. I was able to point out that this is an equivocation. There is a difference between prescriptive laws and descriptive laws. Prescriptive laws are indeed made by lawmakers, but the laws of nature describe how nature does act, not how it should act.

Although D’Souza is a polished and entertaining speaker with a broad grasp of history, his knowledge of the bible is shallow. In order to make Christianity responsible for everything from secularism to romantic love (no kidding), he points out that many advances in Western society were made when the ruling religion was Christianity.

Equality, democracy, secularism, and the separation of church and state all stem from Jesus, he crows.

But this does not follow. The Romans did not have the number zero, and neither did the Christians. As far as we know, the Babylonians and Mayans had it first. If we follow D’Souza’s reasoning, every time I reconcile my bank account, I am acknowledging the gods Marduk and Quetzalcoatl. The advances in chemistry that allow nitrogen to be fixed in artificial fertilizer were made by Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning German scientist who also developed the gas used in Hitler’s concentration camps. Should American farmers give thanks to fascism when their fields produce greater yields? Since the Founding Fathers borrowed representative democracy from the Iroquois, should we put “one nation under the Great Rabbit Spirit” into the Pledge of Allegiance?

In my response to D’Souza, I countered that modern progress was made in spite of Christianity. If Jesus can take any credit, it is the same credit we give to illness for the creation of the medical profession.

Trying to prove that the separation of church and state originated with Jesus, D’Souza quoted one verse in the bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). That’s it. One verse. But this is not referring to the separation of church and state. “Render unto Caesar” acknowledges two competing dictators, not a democratic society. D’Souza might also have quoted Paul: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Paul explains that “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” This is a cowering submission to theocratic authoritarianism. In the United States of America, we say to the King, Caesar, and God: “Render unto ‘We the people’ the things that belong to ‘We the people.’” There is no democracy in the bible. The United States Constitution is profoundly antibiblical.

In his book, What’s So Great About Christianity, tortuously pretending that Jesus created the idea of equality found in the Declaration of Human Rights in the charter of the United Nations, D’Souza quotes one verse in the bible:

“[T]he universalism of this declaration is based on the particular teachings of Christianity. . . . As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ ”

Even if this were apt (it is not, see below), how would this one verse erase all the rest? D’Souza agrees that the bible is proslavery. If Galatians 3:28 were interpreted as he imagines, it would hardly counter the grotesquely unegalitarian message of the rest of the bible. However, if he had done a smidgen of reading, he would have quickly seen that the passage he quotes actually disproves his claim.

Reading the entire brief epistle to the Galatians—which is a good first step in determining context—we see that Paul was dealing with one simple issue: circumcision. He wrote that letter in order to clear up an argument that was raging in the new Christian church in that part of Asia Minor. Since Paul’s ministry brought Gentiles into Christianity, the question arose as to whether new converts were required to be circumcised like the Jews. Paul said no, circumcision was not necessary. (That must have come as a relief to many.) “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (2:14). That was what Paul meant when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek.” He was not talking about society or government; he was talking about bodily mutilation.

Let’s zoom out to see the immediate context:

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Notice that this concerns only Christians, those who have been baptized. It does not apply universally.

But it is worse than that. It is limited to “Abraham’s seed.” It is not just Jews who are the “children of the promise” made to Abraham, but it is now also Christians, whether Jew or Greek. The next chapter completes the thought, which goes in an opposite direction from D’Souza’s universal equality. Paul tells us exactly who is not a true heir of Abraham:

“For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” (Extramarital lust vs. marital sex.) “Which things are an allegory: for these [women] are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar . . . now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.”

Isaac was Abraham’s legitimate son of his wife Sarah, and Ishmael was the offspring of their slave Hagar. When Gentiles (Greeks) become Christians, they join the Jews as true heirs of Abraham, descendants of Isaac, not Ishmael. This is the origin of the “Judeo-Christian” religion.

D’Souza should pay attention to what follows: “Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” The descendants of Ishmael are not the true heirs of Abraham.

And who are the descendants of Ishmael? They are the Muslims. Although Islam did not exist in Paul’s day—he was referring to Arabs—Muslims claim that their connection to Abraham is through Ishmael. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all “Abrahamic religions,” but since Islam stems from the illegitimate son, it cannot be a “true heir,” according to the founder of Christianity.

So D’Souza is wrong. The bible does not teach universal equality. “Cast out the bondwoman and her son,” Paul commands. Galatians 3:28 is limited to baptized Christians, excluding all nonChristians and actively ejecting Islam. If the world owes the principle of equality to actual Christian teachings—to the very passage D’Souza cites—then all Muslims must be “cast out” of the United States.

It seems silly to us today, but to the Jews, circumcision was no laughing matter. Huge sections of the Hebrew scriptures are devoted to that covenant of the “chosen people.” But when Christianity came along, maybe it did become a laughing matter—Paul actually made a crude joke about it. The Greek word for “circumcision” is peritome, which means “to cut around.” The Greek word katatome means “to cut off.” In Galatians 5:11–12, Paul plays on the pun: “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision (peritome), why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. I would they were even cut off (katatome) which trouble you.” The more candid New Revised Standard translates it: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Why doesn’t D’Souza remind us of those loving, egalitarian words of the founder of Christianity?

It is not very hard to read the bible in context. If D’Souza would simply open the book and read what it says, he would see how flimsy is the evidence that the fruits of modern progress stem from the intolerant and brutal teachings of Christianity.

Freedom From Religion Foundation