Like many of you, I've noticed a certain lacuna in commentary on the Virginia Tech shootings. To be sure, Debbie Schlussel has provided her usual incisive commentary*, those bravos at NRO have carefully graded the heroism of each and every one of the victims, and Rush Limbaugh offers us this tasteful speculation: "maybe the liberals and their culture of death is the problem, folks." But I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that what we really need to know is: What does Dinesh D'Souza have to say about this?
Well, wonder no more.
"Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found."
Oh: so that's why I have been unable to locate myself for several days! I keep telling people I'm trying to find myself, and they think I'm having some sort of 60s flashback moment, but I really mean it! Now, at last, I understand.
"Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing. Even secular people like the poet Nikki Giovanni use language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning."
Here's Nikki Giovanni's speech in its entirety:
"We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite awhile. WE are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to know when to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant in the killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech. The Hokie Nation embraces our own with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech."
Personally, I can't figure out what part of it D'Souza supposes to be "language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning." Maybe "Hokie Nation"?
Back to D'Souza:
"The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference."
Personally, I'm not sure what "all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning" are. A rock is devoid of meaning. So is seafoam. What properties do they have in common? And why should we take Richard Dawkins' word for this anyways? I respect him when he's on his own topic, but when he starts going on about atheism, he isn't.
And: is the main characteristic of the universe really pitiless indifference? Personally, I would have thought that only a conscious entity could have an attitude like indifference. If D'Souza means only that the universe, not having any emotions of its own, cannot be said to care about us, it's hard to see why he or anyone would think that this is the main characteristic of the universe -- it would seem to be on a par with such characteristics as: being unsmiling (because it has no face), being illiterate (of course the universe can't read), or not wearing shoes (since it has no feet.) Properties like its size would seem to be more important than its not having a specific emotion because it has no emotions at all.
Of course, Christians don't think the universe has emotions either, so I'm not sure what D'Souza is getting at here.
"Dawkins further argues that we human beings are simply agglomerations of molecules, assembled into functional units over millennia of natural selection, and as for the soul--well, that's an illusion!
To no one's surprise, Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil."
That sentence has to be a serious contender for the Non Sequitur of the Century award. Let's try some other examples:
* Dinesh D'Souza has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where Osama bin Laden's responsibility for 9/11 leaves off and liberals' responsibility begins, it is even more difficult for conservative hacks to deal with the problem of reconciling determinism and free will.
* Pat Robertson has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God will send the next hurricane, it is even more difficult for Christians to deal with Zeno's paradox.
* John Derbyshire has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know the difference between fantasy heroism and the real thing, it is even more difficult for NRO writers to deal with the problem of other minds.
What's especially silly about this sentence is that the problem of evil is a problem specifically for Christians. It is, basically, the problem of how a good and loving God could have created a world with evil in it. Atheists do not have this problem at all. So I guess they don't "deal with it", in the sense in which they don't have to "deal with" the problem of how Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist. Somehow, though, I suspect that's not what D'Souza had in mind.
"The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist."
Trust me on this: D'Souza has no earthly clue what he's talking about. Just none. Suppose that by "a purely materialist universe", D'Souza means: a universe of the sort that science tries to explain. (If he means something different -- if, for instance, he means some very strong version of "purely material", then there's no reason to think that atheists have to believe that.) In such a world, all kinds of things other than material objects can exist. Numbers, for instance. Abstract objects. Legal systems, and all the relationships they make possible (e.g., ownership and marriage.) Solutions to chess problems. The world is just awash in nonmaterial things that are wholly consistent with science.
Of course, moral values might or might not be among them. But answering that question would require a lot more than saying: hey, they aren't "material".
"For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho's shooting of all those people can be understood in this way--molecules acting upon molecules.
Well, it can be understood that way. But that's not to say it's the only way it can be understood. Similarly, a painting by Rembrandt can be described as a collection of molecules. But that in no way rules out the possibility of understanding it as a work of art.
If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science."
If modern science implied that when we look at these shootings, all we could do was say: let's plot the trajectories of the various lumps of lead that we call "bullets", or perhaps the firings of each individual neuron in the mass of wetware once known as "Cho Seung-Hui", then we would need something more. We would need some way of understanding how to think about Cho as a human being, how to reach out and offer comfort to those who are grieving, how to react in the face of violent mental illness, and how to understand the fact that things like this can happen.
How fortunate, then, that modern science doesn't in the least preclude us from doing any of these things.
* Note on "Ishmael Ax": Schlussel notes that Ishmael was "considered the father of all Arabs and a very important figure in Islam." It's not clear to me that one should assume that the things Cho wrote make sense to anyone but him, and so I'm not sure there has to be a reason he wrote this. However, if there is, I think there's a much more plausible interpretation. In the horrible videos that Cho sent to NBC, he seems to identify himself with people who have been spit on and cast aside and tortured by the rich, who have never suffered a day of pain in their lives, and who torment people like him and force garbage down his throat just because they can. With this as background, I think that the obvious interpretation of Ishmael is: the child who was cast out of his home and cut off from his family so that Isaac would not have to share his inheritance. (Gen. 21 10ff.)