This morning, I posted the following survey on Twitter:
Years ago, I bought Dinesh D'Souza's apologetics book "What's So Great About Christianity?" Then I realized he is a truly vulgar political partisan. Can his apologetic be considered independently of his character (or lack thereof)?
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) June 1, 2018
Vulgar Political Partisan?
First, allow me to defend my statement that D’Souza is a vulgar political partisan. To do that, one need only consider his Twitter feed. As a case in point, consider this tweet in which he dismisses the historical legacy of Rosa Parks:
OVERRATED DEMOCRATS DEPT: So Rosa Parks wouldn't sit in the back of the bus–that's all she did, so what's the big fuss?
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) January 14, 2017
Perhaps even worse is D’Souza’s mocking tweet against students who survived the Parkland shooting only to be disappointed in the inaction of their state legislators on gun control:
Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs https://t.co/Vg3mXYvb4c
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) February 20, 2018
Those are but two of several execrable examples drawn from this article. In addition, one could consider D’Souza’s “documentary” films that attack the Democratic party. I’ll take it that this evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that this divorced and remarried convicted felon so beloved of conservative evangelicals is indeed a vulgar partisan.
A Couple Twitter Responses
And that brings me back to D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great About Christianity? Can the book stand as an apologetic if the man himself is so thoroughly vulgar, partisan, and unchristlike?
When I posed the question on Twitter, I received several comments. One individual rightly noted the concern with purchasing the book and thereby providing royalties to a person with whom one profoundly disagrees. Yes, this is a concern, though not so much in my case since I bought the book for a buck at Goodwill.
Another person pointed out that the quality of an argument is not affected by the individual presenting the argument. In other words, an argument is either valid (i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises) or not. The argument is either sound (i.e. it is valid and the premises are true) or not. But validity and soundness are qualities of the argument independent of the one who proffers that argument. Heck, Satan himself could present the argument but if it is sound one could conclude it is thereby a good argument.
This is certainly true … if our only mode of evaluation of an apologetic is the validity and soundness of the arguments contained within that apologetic. However, I would submit that there is significantly more at stake in evaluating an apologetic than simply assessing the validity/soundness of the arguments within the apologetic. With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following additional considerations.
A Moral Boycott
To begin with, I’d like to refer back to an argument I made earlier in my article “If Woody Allen is a pedophile, should we boycott his movies?” In that article, I refer to Gilbert Ryle’s famous dismissal of Heidegger based on the great existentialist’s support for Nazism. As Ryle put it, Heidegger was “a shit from the heels up, and a shit from the heels up can’t do good philosophy.”
At first blush, Ryle’s statement is obviously false because validity and soundness are obviously independent of the quality of the individual proffering the argument.
But that assumes that “good philosophy” is simply about validity/soundness. This is very doubtful. In the case of existentialist philosophy, for example, there is a therapeutic dimension in which engagement with the text is intended to be transformative of the individual in a way that transcends the mere provision of valid or sound conventional arguments.
As for Ryle, as I reflect on his words, I am inclined to interpret him as proposing a sort of moral boycott on the intellectual work of morally defective individuals like Heidegger: they are such bad persons that their philosophy should be avoided, not least as a punitive judgment on their thoroughly poor character. To the extent where one links the philosophy of the writer to the moral transformation of the reader, this boycott is arguably even more important.
How might this work in the case of apologetics? Put simply, there are countless quality books to read in the area of apologetics by generally amiable people so as I read and promote the work of fellow apologists, it will make sense to prioritize the work of these amiable people over that of vulgar partisans.
From that perspective, it is now very unlikely that I shall ever bother to read D’Souza’s book, whatever its quality may be. There are many works by far better people that I shall instead choose to prioritize in my own reading.
Next, I am doubtful that one can compartmentalize the character defects reflected in D’Souza’s vulgarity and partisanship. On the contrary, it is to be expected that these defects could shape his apologetic in many ways both overt and subtle. In short, it is reasonable to believe that any individual so defective in character that they would diminish an iconic civil rights activist and mock children who survived a school shooting would produce apologetic work reflective of that defect in character. This reasonable concern provides warrant for a general skepticism about the value of D’Souza’s apologetic.
Argument and Persuasion
Finally, I’d like to return to the notion above that the worth of an apologetic book is measured simply by gauging the quality (i.e. the validity and soundness) of the arguments contained therein.
This is a very reductionistic understanding of apologetics. On the contrary, apologetics is about persuasion as much as argument. And persuasion is shaped by many non-rational (but not irrational) qualities including the individual’s affability and kindness. This means first that a good apologetic needs much more than a quality argument. It also needs a quality spokesperson for that argument and that quality is found in the character traits that make the audience want to agree with the apologist. As a result, if an otherwise good argument is presented by an apologist who is thoroughly lacking in key character traits, that argument could actually repel people and make them even more opposed to the apologist’s argument than they were before. This would constitute an example of what is commonly called blowback.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article. D’Souza is a repellant personality and it is reasonable to believe that those not already ideologically committed to his narrow, partisan view of reality, could be repelled by his arguments for Christianity simply in virtue of their association with the man.
For these reasons, I believe that at the very least there are serious concerns about whether D’Souza’s apologetic can be useful for the significant majority of people who find his partisan views and crass character to be utterly repellent.