When I first published my book God Is Not Great, I asked my publishers to issue a challenge to the faithful and to try substituting a debate tour for the usual book tour. One of the first to pick up this gauntlet was Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College. He invited me to engage in a series of e-mail exchanges with him, the results to be printed by the online edition of the magazine Christianity Today. This I gladly did, and the result is now obtainable in slim-volume form under the title Is Christianity Good for the World? with an excellent introduction by Jonah Goldberg (Canon Press). May I modestly recommend it?
Pastor Wilson and I have been on the road with this book, and I’d like to “share” some of our joint experience. For me, I think, the largest illumination had to do with what precisely is meant when one calls someone a Christian “fundamentalist.” Here, for example, is what Douglas—as I’ll call him from now on—says by way of introduction:
God knew that we were going to need to pick up dimes, and so He gave us fingernails. He knew that twilights displayed in blue, apricot and battle gray would be entirely astonishing and beyond us, and so He gave us eyes that can see in color. He could have made all food quite nourishing, but which tasted like wadded-up newspaper soaked in machine oil. Instead He gave us the tastes of watermelon, pecans, oatmeal stout, buttered corn, apples, fresh bread, grilled sirloin, and twenty-five-year-old scotch. And He of course knew that we were going to need to thank Him, and so He gave us hearts and minds.
You can tell one or two things about Douglas right away from this passage. The first is that he is a jovial fellow who doesn’t have any miserable self-denial in him. (In aspect, he is constructed on Friar Tuck-ish lines.) Second, his enthusiasm sometimes runs away with him. (Nature may have bestowed on us the watermelon, the pecan, the corn, the sirloin, and the apple, but mankind had to struggle long and hard to come up with the butter, the grill, the beer, the bread, and the scotch.) If I were him, I would have left out the apple, since it was the eating of the same that condemned us all to the knowledge required for all the above innovations and many others and which also damned us as sinners who were in rebellion against God.
You might say, yes, but Christians don’t really truly believe all that stuff about the apple, the talking snake, and the Adamic original sin. Well, I am here to tell you that Douglas does. He also believes that it’s our bounden duty to thank our creator and to keep on thanking him: “If there is a God, then every breath, every moment, every sight and sound, is a sheer unadulterated gift. And, as our mothers taught us, when someone gives you presents like that, the only appropriate response is to thank them.” Actually, life and breath and sight and sound could just as easily be considered gifts if there were no God, and in that event we wouldn’t have to ask where the cancer cells and the cockroaches came from. Douglas tells me that he believes in the Devil, which doubles the number of supernatural powers in which he believes, but I could never get him to say whether it’s to the latter entity that we owe all the “ungifts,” if I may coin a phrase.
As to what our mothers taught us, Douglas rather disarmingly admitted during our joint appearance on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that the main reason he is a Calvinist was that “my mother righteously spanked me.” (My other sparring partner, Dinesh D’Souza, tells of asking his father why they were Catholic while most other Indians were Hindu or Muslim. He was told that it was because the Portuguese Inquisition had gotten to their part of India first. But both he and Douglas recover very easily from these lucid moments when they admit that religion is man-made.)
Myself, I was certainly taught by my mother to write a proper thank-you letter to anybody who was good enough to remember me on my birthday or at Christmas. But then the job was done. I did not have to keep on thanking my benefactor abjectly and endlessly for all eternity. Nor was I expected to believe that the ritual of limitless, prostrate thank you, thank you, thank you was a good description of what paradise would be like. Might the thanking and the praising not begin to feel a bit repetitive after, say, the first hundred million years?
In all our debates, I kept saying that this vision of an eternal parent was essentially totalitarian, as were certain of this parent’s commandments. On one occasion I gave as my example the commandment to exterminate all the Amalekites down to the last infant. Douglas then rather astounded me by saying that he believed this commandment to be valid.
The subtitle of my book is “How Religion Poisons Everything.” I am often asked, come on, do you really mean everything? I have a number of replies to this, and now I have an extra one. Sitting around with Douglas on tour, I found him a man of great kindness and humor with a fondness for P.G. Wodehouse (an acid test for me) and a fund of jokes that mock religious piety. Yet there he was, calmly saying that if God wanted genocide, then the divine will should be obeyed. So a humane and decent man can be obliged by religion to say an inhumane and obscene thing. I rest my case.