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D’ Souza vs. Shermer: Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?

You should never do anything wicked and then lay in on your brother, when it is just as convenient to lay it on another boy. — Mark Twain.

On the campus of Caltech in Pasadena during the afternoon of December 9, 2007, conservative Christian author Dinesh D’ Souza debated libertarian skeptic writer and social scientist Michael Shermer. Is religion a force for good or evil was the title, but the subtopic was, can a person be good without God?

The quick answer to both queries, of course was yes, no and maybe. The more difficult solutions appeared to depend on more telling matters such as one’s view of the God of Christianity. Religious debates are becoming common across the nation. Recently, D’ Souza debated Daniel Dennett (“Is God a Human Invention”) on the Tufts University campus in Boston, Massachusetts, and Shermer v. Douglas Jacoby (“Does God Exist?”) during the 2007 International Apologetics Conference.

Dinesh D’ Souza is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Investor’s Business Daily called him one of the “top young policy makers in the country.” Among a list of other achievements he served as senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House and managing editor of Policy Review. He has authored several books. The most recent, What’s So Great About Christianity?

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University. He also has authored a number of books including recently, The Mind of the Market, Why Darwin Matters, Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, Why People Believe in Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share, Care and Follow the Golden Rule. D’ Souza and Shermer debated this same topic at the University of Oregon. (see

The event was advertised as one of the “liveliest hosted by the Skeptic Society, mixing science, religion, politics and culture.” The usual twenty-minute rule for opening remarks was applied to each debater followed by five-minute rebuttal. Afterwards the two debaters sat across from each other between a moderator and asked questions of each other for another twenty minutes. Two microphones were placed near the front and audience asked questions for another thirty minutes. When strongly moved clapping interrupted both debaters. The audience was respectful and absorbed in the points and counterpoints. Dinesh D’ Souza representing the “good” side of religion and he went first after it was announced that Shermer’s scientific pleadings with god for sunshine, fair weather and no rain had not been violated. The crowd broke out clapping with injured innocence since the majority in the audience favored religion as a benefit to society.

D’ Souza began by explaining he was a fellow skeptic and that no scriptures or biblical revelations would be used in his arguments. He protested that “religion or Christianity is often presented on college and university campuses as low and bad with dark things to hide.” He was not antiscience but said, “science was only capable of answering certain questions, and that morality is both natural and universal and discoverable without religion, yet its source is ultimately divine.” Much of his presentation focused on the global triumph of Christianity. If you are familiar with Rodney Stark’s book “For the Glory of God” you might think Stark and D’ Souza were blood relatives.

D’ Souza attacked atheism. He said atheism is starting to be alarmed by the growing abusive power of religion around the world, and atheists today have grown more outspoken and “ones like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett more militant.” His reference to Dawkins was particularly biting. “Dawkins says the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” D’ Souza continued to press his point. “But the odds of us being here in the universe are so fantastic that some kind of serious explanation is required. Where does the confidence of these atheists come from that permits them to make such wild proclamations?” Souza respected modern science and recognized that it was the best way to accumulate knowledge and provide proven benefits to society through scientific enlightenment. But science has gone too far in declaring that God is dead in a universe where the massive improbability for our existence is too great to be overcome by science. Victor Stenger (a physicist) asks, “So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing,” he says. D’ Souza admitted that was too much for him, along with the theory of the big bang. Science is like a “universal acid” that eats through just about every religious tradition. Then he proceeded to shift suddenly and appeal to the God of Christianity. This bold move narrowed discussions that followed to Christianity of the West (D’ Souza and Shermer mentioned the Muslim or Jewish religion only in passing).

D’ Souza’s main arguments were the following. Christian ethics imposes strict commandments and forecasts hell (described in terms of isolation from God’s goodness) for those who do not abide by them. Western civilization was built from Christianity and was responsible for creating values and institutions that secular people cherish. “Two pillars built this modern civilization we treasure today. One came from the Greeks and pre-Christian Rome. The other one came from Jerusalem.” This includes Judaism and Christianity and he argued that Jerusalem was more important than Judaism. Slowly over time Christianity took the backward civilizations, gave them learning and order, stability and dignity. “Our laws, politics, arts and calendar and moral and cultural priorities came through the last two thousand years of Christianity. Themes of suffering, slavery, inequality, and other evils were confronted by Christians and the solutions became the core of human values. From the results of Christianity three assumptions can be made,” D’ Souza indicated. (1) The universe is rational, (2) the universe is lawful, expressed in mathematical rules; and (3) we are rational because out there in the universe we mirror our Creator.

“If you are an atheist,” he said “you still have to take it on faith.” Atheists have no way of knowing if God ordained our moral codes. He claimed that all the killings by Muslims and Christians during the Crusades and wars between Protestants and Catholics and the Inquisition were far over stated. Horrific images of the Inquisition are largely a myth. He pointed out that in the Spanish Inquisition during 350 years maybe 2000 people lost their lives (five or six a year), and according to Levack, an authority on the Salem Witch Trials, maybe eighteen were killed by Christian precepts, so D’ Souza said, “let’s keep the numbers in proportion.”

D’ Souza left out some key historical facts that would have weaken his arguments considerably, of course, but that is the nature of debating. In both the Spanish prosecutions and Salem Witch Trials Stark’s data showed the least frequency and intensity of killings compared to witch trials in Europe and persecution in Switzerland and elsewhere. He asked, “how about the Thirty Years War? It was mainly fueled by political contests of power between the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant states in Germany.” He turned these abuses around and claimed secular and atheist fanatics have committed greater crimes than the Christians. “Atheists are still trying to run away from five decades of killing over 100 millions relying on survival of the fittest or struggles for political power (speaking of Russia, Germany, China and Cambodia). Bin Laden in his “wildest imitation could not do as much damage.” D’ Souza closed his opening statements by dramatically saying … “Thank God for Christianity.”

Shermer opened his position on the negative gains of religion by asking for a show of hands in the audience. “How many here today believe in a God?” Looking around on the main floor and up into the balcony he estimated a “sizable majority.” He suspected that nearby Fuller Theological Seminary encouraged evangelicals to attend the debate and show solidarity. Shermer characterized himself as an agnostic (not the atheist that D’ Souza kept talking about) and defined the difference between an agnostic and an atheistic. He used humor to make his point. “An agnostic is an atheistic without balls.” Throughout his presentation he continued to use soft humor to pulverization D’ Souza’s points. Actually they both needled each other. (eg. Shermer—“Dinesh you made some good points but they were a little stretched. D’ Souza—“Michael you’re starting to get your facts straight.”)

The new atheism would drop away Shermer predicted if “God would do something simple like make a large deposit in a Swiss Bank” to demonstrate His power. Shermer told the audience that he attended Pepperdine and knocked on doors passing out gospel literature, “Amway with Bibles.” After college he became enlightened and now considers himself a nonbeliever since Christianity does not answer the bigger questions; it only guesses at them as found in Genesis. As Winston Churchill said about Americans, “They will always do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else first.” The same goes for religion and that was his experience. In the meantime, Shermer said, “science plods along slowly answering questions about life and the universe and trying to place ourselves in the mix.” Shermer reminded D’ Souza that “Science is not a belief system but a tool for finding answers to important questions.” In looking for the supernatural he observed, “People pray for cancer cures but not for replacement limbs when they come back from the war, or if they do, no one has verified if limbs have ever been replaced by the supernatural. Why is that? Is God a God of cancer, and then only now and then, and not of broken limbs? Salamanders grow new limbs so it should be easy.” According to a Cambridge University study Shermer said there are an estimated 33,000 different forms of Christianity in the world all claiming to have the truth and not just Protestants disagreeing with Catholics but Protestants fighting other Protestants. “Wars are fought over the most minor religious points. Religions keep coming up with troublesome doctrines and teachings.”

Shermer told of his recent experience of renting the movie, “Amazing Grace,” and discovered how Wilberforce fought against the religionist for decades to pass antislavery laws in England. “Morality is strictly a human creation, subject to all sorts of cultural influences and social constructions, just as other human creations are like music and art. Virtually many actions for morality are driven by tribal needs and other factors in society. Christians will come around to doing the moral thing not because of God but because minorities seeking equality from Christians who abuse their power and then later take credit for having taken the moral high ground.”

Then Shermer mounted a few of the moral failures in Christianity to make his point that not all “religious tribes” foster or practice the right kind of morality that D’ Souza spoke about. How do you justify sex with thirteen-year old girls by fundamental Mormons fives times older living in polygamy in Arizona, or the Pentecostal Jesus camps training young people to be warriors for Christ wearing war paints, or evangelicals that bomb abortion clinics or Catholic priest’s sexual abuse of young choir boys and women seeking counseling? If you want to do a body count you have to consider the 14 million killed in World War I over deep-seated religious views between Catholics and Protestants. World War II also had a religious construction between Japan and America. You have to recognize that dictators seek power by substituting one idea for another that creates moral precepts, all within a religious context. Go back in history to find the problems. The Old Testament teaches that men and women found in adultery must be stoned to death, or disobedient children must be killed, boys are worth more than girls and the ancient Hebrews treated women like modern Taliban’s today in Afghanistan. “If this Old Testament morality was true today where would our Senators, televangelists and preachers be? Read Leviticus 18:22!” Slavery was also justified for centuries by both Old and New Testament interpretations. Bible passages were used to support whatever the culture wanted. Christian preachers torment gays openly and in subtle ways. They preach to the gays, “like Rick Warren; come to our church because you are sick and in need of a comforter, and saving souls because we love them. Does all this mean that the God that creates the stars is now more interested in the gonads and whether or not gay people should marry? There is absolutely no sociological data that Christians are more honest or moral than non-believers, agnostics or atheists. In fact, it is just the opposite. America which prides itself in being the most religious but has the highest divorce rate, teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, homicide, suicide and other dysfunctions than eighteen other developed democratic nations. Obvious religion is not a prophylactic against those kinds of things; it is not a moral guideline to control those issues.”

Another example that Shermer used was a recent study from the American Academy of Family Medicine of 1820 practicing physicians to determine if religion had any effect on whether a physician choose to practice in an under-served community. He said “last August it was found that actually the less religious or none at all were more inclined to serve the underserved. The study found that physicians who were more spiritual were more likely to serve the under-served, but they went into medicine in the first place for that purpose.”

Shermer argued from the benefits derived from understanding evolution. “Evolution is making progress in explaining family values and behaviors that form the substrates of morality. Science is filling in the edges. Humans share this with other animals such as apes, monkeys, dolphins and whales. These basic social behaviors include attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peace-making to name a few. These are the beginning ethical and moral structures that make up the core of morality in humans.” Then he asked D’ Souza, “do we get these moral precepts by hearing voices or by being reflective on moral thoughts?” Where do we get these, it’s not from the Bible otherwise we’d have no agreement in society and culture. Look at September 11, it’s an eye for an eye and religious fanatics are willing to take their own lives to destroy innocence others. “The point is that we keep searching as scientists for better morality and equality whereas religion stops and quotes from the Bible.”

Shermer closed his opening arguments by referring to Rabbi Hillel, the influential scholar in Jewish history, who lived before Christ. He said, “this is the basis for morality. That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” Most of our morality “comes from commonsense and the moral sense in our brains and conscience.” He quoted from Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, “Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

In the discussions across from each other Shermer missed or let past what might have been a significant debating position. D’ Souza explained to the audience that he like Shermer is committed to evolution and the geological record. Along with Francis Collins, D’ Souza believes that evolution remains the “best and most persuasive account of our origins, including that humans have descended from creatures.” (see D’ Souza. What’s so Great About Christianity. p. 148.) Thus, recent scientific concepts that are developing around the trajectory of understanding core behaviors and genetics in relationship to the origin of religious foundations, ethics and morality are being explored by science.

The questions from the audience were interesting, ranging from asking Shermer if he believed in an afterlife, to asking D’ Souza why is religion entering the presidential campaign in a country keyed to separation of church and state. One question to D’ Souza asked why he thought natural law before Christianity did not need the supernatural and what does God have against replacing limbs. Another one asked, If God created the earth how do you account for the mass extinction when 90 percent of land dwelling vertebrates were destroyed during the Permian geological period and what does God bringing to the table to improve morality. One man commented to D’ Souza that he thought the Doctrine of Eternal Judgment was cruel. “Why should I lower my morality to accept such cruelty?” The two hours was interesting and thought provoking.

In our own party on our return to Loma Linda we discussed the performance of each position taken by the debaters. We agreed that both experts did a cracking good job battering against the wind but probably very few people changed their opinions after such a marvelous experience with words and ideas. We also agreed the topic could not have been of a wilder, heartier interest than the one chosen. So in conclusion you could say Christians and conservatives probably felt the balm of Gilead in disguise with D’ Souza’s pain-killers, and liberals and skeptics continued with their deepest anxieties like the Christians intact with Shermer ringing in their ears. The debate was like a good scrub down with cold water and we probably consumed enough oxygen and glucose in the brain during those two hours of sitting to equal a run up Mount Wilson near Pasadena over a twisting mountain road.

Watch the debate here.

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