Dr. Paul Kengor: Dinesh, your last book was What’s So Great About Christianity, which did quite well, and which we profiled in a series of Q&As last year. It led to, among other things, an ongoing fascinating series of public debates you’ve had with Christopher Hitchens. It appears that your latest book, Life After Death: The Evidence, came from those experiences. Tell us what prompted this book-which, for the record, I recommend as a Christmas gift for both believers and (especially) non-believers.
Dinesh D’Souza: Intellectually, yes, I was provoked by the atheists. I have a strong desire to see them whipped at their own game. But this is also a personal issue for me. My wife had a strange out-of-body experience during a car accident many years ago. My father died in the year 2000. And last year my best friend got cancer. I remember him telling me how dramatically the prospect of death changed his priorities. He made the comment that the normalcy of our everyday life is a sham, that we live in the pretense that we are not going to die tomorrow and then one day we wake up and realize that we are. So this is a huge issue. I don’t think that there is a thoughtful person who hasn’t wondered: is death the end, or is there something more?
Kengor: The endorsements for this book are nothing short of amazing: Chris Hitchens and Rick Warren, Michael Medved and Deepak Chopra, Dallas Willard and Stephen Barr. To call this group eclectic is an understatement. How do you get these guys to agree on ANYTHING, let alone a book on life after death? Is there a unifying factor?
D’Souza: Well, you can see that I am not against diversity. I wanted to emphasize the value of the book for Christians-it provides thrilling confirmation of the Christian view of life after death-but I also wanted to reach out to seekers, and even convey to the atheists that they have to take this seriously. Hitchens and I have developed both a friendship and a mutual respect. So he was willing to do this for me, but not until I promised him that “here is a good way to annoy some of your friends.”
Kengor: I can see how that would work with Hitchens. Speaking of Hitchens, and his friends, who are the “Vendors of Unbelief,” as you call them? Do they have some kind of odd product they’re peddling? Are they making money off atheism? A cynic might claim this is a scam of some sort. Is there any skepticism by liberal secularists that the atheists are cashing in on atheism ?
D’Souza: Certainly atheism has proven to be enormously profitable for guys like Richard Dawkins, whose book “The God Delusion” has sold more copies than all his other books combined. Sam Harris was a nobody until he wrote “The End of Faith.” I wouldn’t say that these atheists are peddling a scam in the sense that they are in it for the money. Rather, their scam is to pretend that they are the party of reason and science and anyone who disagrees with them is just plain stupid.
Kengor: Could this give new meaning to the phrase “selling souls?”
D’Souza: The new atheists are indignant and belligerent in a way that previous generations of atheists weren’t. Partly they have been fueled by 9/11 and by the sense that beliefs in God and the afterlife are not merely wrong, they are actually evil and dangerous. I don’t think that intellectually today’s atheists can compare to the great atheists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, figures like Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud. But the new atheists have a talent for disseminating their views in popular culture. They are getting to our young people. So it’s the souls of the next generation that are in jeopardy if these guys succeed.
Kengor: What are the practical benefits to belief? To the contrary, how about unbelief? On the latter, you write, “unbelief is neither intellectually plausible nor practically beneficial.” Explain that.
D’Souza: If there is no life after death, then we are like passengers on the Titanic. We can rearrange the deck chairs and turn up the music a little bit, but ultimately we are doomed. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, the only honest response to this situation is despair. By contrast, if there is life after death, then there are enormous practical benefits, not just in the life to come, but also in this life. If there is an afterlife, then we are in a better position to face death. We have to face death in any case, but now we can face it in the expectation that it is not a final defeat, that it is merely the gateway to another form of existence. If there is life after death, in the form that the great religions posit, then there is cosmic justice: good will be rewarded and evil punished. This means that we have reason to hope for ultimate justice, and we also have a basis for teaching morality to our children. Life after death also means that we can have significance and purpose to our lives, because they are part of this larger cosmic drama. The evidence shows that people who believe in life after death are happier and also more generous with their fellow man than those who do not.
Kengor: Is it dumb to not believe? Here’s what I mean by that: Is unbelief a wager that, in a sense, is an eternal loser in the end? You can only lose, right?
D’Souza: The Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali, who is the original source for Pascal’s famous wager, told of an associate of the prophet Muhammad who was engaged in a debate with an unbeliever over the question of whether heaven exists. The unbeliever finally said, “You’ve made some good points, but I’m not convinced.” Finally, Muhammad’s associate said to him, “Ultimately it’s a practical question. If you are right, then none of us is the worse for it. But if we are right, then we shall escape and you will suffer.” William James, the Harvard psychologist, put it in a more modern way. He said that both belief and unbelief carry a certain kind of risk. Belief carries the risk of metaphysical error: you die and it turns out that you were wrong after all. Unbelief carries a different kind of risk: the risk of eternal separation from God. Now, James, I think, would agree that the second type of risk is much more serious.
Kengor: Related to that, tell us the anecdote about the man from Tonga who had an interesting question for Christopher Hitchens during one of your debates with Hitchens. And what was Hitchens’ response?
D’Souza: We had a lively debate and during the question-and-answer session the man from Tonga informed Hitchens that before the Christian missionaries came, his island country was a mess. There were tribal divisions, fratricidal conflict, even cannibalism. Now, he said, Tonga is mostly Christian and it is an entirely different place. Then the man said to Hitchens, “You have given us some interesting theories, but what do you have to offer us?” For a moment Hitchens and the whole audience were silent. Everyone was taken by the sheer simplicity of the question. Hitchens eventually recovered and gave an answer about how religion has produced evils in the world and so on, but the power of the man’s question was that he was reducing the argument to which system ultimately delivered the goods. His bottom line remains sound: religion delivers the goods and atheism can’t.
Kengor: How do the atheists attempt to refute life after death?
D’Souza: They say it’s basically a form of wish fulfillment. That was Freud’s famous analysis. Freud argued that life is tough: it has sickness, it has frustration, it has death. We want to avoid facing life’s hardship and mortality, and so we invent another life that is better than this one. So in the atheist view, belief in the afterlife is a kind of adult Disneyland. It is not error so much as it is illusion. So let’s test this critique: Most religions have some idea of heaven, and certainly heaven seems to meet the definition of wish fulfillment. There is no suffering there and there is no death. But religion also has the concept of hell, and here is where the problem comes in. Hell is not the kind of thing that we would make up in order to alleviate the hardships of this life. Why? Because hell is worse than sickness and hell is even worse than death. So hell doesn’t fit very nicely into Freud’s wish-fulfillment scheme.
Kengor: How do you refute the atheist argument that the soul and the mind are nothing more than the operations of the neurons in the brain, so that when the brain dies the rest of us goes with it?
D’Souza: I have two chapters in Life After Death: The Evidence on neuroscience that discuss the failure of the modern scientific attempt to reduce the mental to the physical. Scientists today know a lot about the workings of the neurons in the brain. Yet if we brought the world’s best neuroscientists into a room, and equipped them with the best equipment for brain scans, they have no way to figure out what I am thinking or feeling. They cannot even tell if I am conscious. If they want to know what I am thinking or if I am conscious, the only way they can learn these things is to ask me. Even the most detailed physical knowledge has produced no understanding of the immaterial world of thought, ideas, feelings, consciousness and moral choice. The basic error the atheists make is to say that if the brain must be the cause of the mind because if the brain is damaged, the mind suffers. No one denies that the brain and mind are correlated, but a correlation does not imply a cause. Think of your mind as a kind of software and your brain as a kind of computer hardware. The software requires the hardware to function. Smash the computer and the programs can’t run on it. But it doesn’t mean the hardware causes the software. The two are actually distinct, and even when the computer breaks down the software can operate on a different computer or in other instantiations. So it’s quite possible that the brain is not the cause of our mental lives but merely a kind of receiver and transmitter for them. If this is so, and the evidence shows it is, then even when brains die our consciousness and soul can live on.
Kengor: If there is life after death, how do we know that the Christian view of the afterlife is the correct one?
D’Souza: One way is to test a uniquely Christian claim: Remember that while all the religions of the world say there is life after death, only one religion says that it has actually happened. Jews and Muslims, for example, believe that there is a resurrection at the end of the world. But Christianity asserts that its founder, Jesus Christ, died and came back to life. No other religion claims that its founder-say Moses or Muhammad-physically returned from the dead. In one of the later chapters of my book, I examine the resurrection as a historical event. I take the facts that the vast majority of historians would accept-the fact that Christ lived and preached, that he made enemies, that his enemies killed him, that he was buried in a tomb, that his disciples claim to have found the tomb empty, that they said Jesus appeared before them several times after his crucifixion, and that this event filled them with conviction and propelled a movement of conversion that was sustained even in the face of Roman persecution and resistance. So these are the facts, and how do we account for them? If the resurrection stands up to historical scrutiny, if it is an historical event by the standards of historical verification, then the Christian view of the afterlife rises above the pack. It is the one to take seriously.
Kengor: Dinesh, you seem to be moving more into religious books lately, which is a clear shift from how you started your career-writing political books. Will this continue? What are you looking at as the next book project?
D’Souza: My Christian faith has deepened over the past several years, and with the new atheism, I saw a wonderful opportunity to bring my personal faith and my intellectual work closer together. Yes, I have been a secular writer for almost two decades, and I am going to keep one foot in secular culture. I am not abandoning the world of politics. But I am focusing part of my current work on some of these ultimate questions: the existence of God, the role of Christianity in the world, life after death, the meaning of suffering, and so on. Probably, I’m going to embark on two book projects next, one a secular political book and the other a topic continuous with my religious explorations.
Kengor: Thank you for another excellent contribution, and at a most timely moment: as we celebrate the birth of Christ. It was this, of course, that made afterlife possible for us all.
D’Souza: Thank you.