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?