Countering Sarcasm with Flights of Fancy: Hitchens, D’Souza, and My Invisible Purple Tiger

Dinesh D’Souza was so perplexed by a question put to him by Christopher Hitchens in a debate about the existence of God that he didn’t know how to respond, so, he admits, he ducked it. 

Dinesh D’Souza on the Colbert Report

The substance of Hitchens’ question was that, given that Homo sapiens has been on the planet for at least some 100,000 years (and D’Souza implicitly stipulated that the archaeological record should be the basis for the study of prehistory), why did the god of Christians, Jews, and Muslims for 95,000 years do nothing about the miserable conditions of human beings? Why, Hitchens wondered, did only a few thousand years ago this god decided to get involved, revealing himself to a nomadic people in the Middle East? Why then? Why there? D’Souza characterizes Hitchens’ point thusly: “God seems to have been napping for 98 percent of human history, finally getting his act together only for the most recent 2 percent? What kind of a bizarre God acts like this?” 

Before I get to D’Souza’s answer, I have to remark on Hitchens’ point because there is a falsity in it and the purpose of his point needs to be made clear. 

First, the claim that the conditions of human beings were miserable before this god showed up is not supported by the facts. On the contrary, early man lived rather well. Procuring enough to eat was not difficult in most places. One could do this in a few hours a week. The rest of the time was spent engaging in meaningful rituals and story telling. Humankind could hardly have survived as a species if existence was a bad as Hitchens describes. The same is true for other species. They die out where they cannot thrive. Lions spend much of their day lounging about. The world—if unmolested by modern society—is their oyster. This was true with early man. Social class emerged and made life harsh. Did this god bring poverty to us?

Second, Hitchens is being playful here. His argument is a sarcastic one. The premise that there is a god who does or does not intervene is nonsensical. Hitchens’ question is the same as the question: “Why does God hate amputees?” That question is followed by a long discussion about how the Christian god does this and that for people who are sick and distressed but he does nothing for amputees. No amount of prayer will ever restore an amputee’s leg. Since Christians believe in prayer and miracles, it follows that their god has some purpose in not healing amputees, and what could such purpose be that did not depend on their god holding something against them? Is this a loving god?

Now, D’Souza actually took Hitchens’ sarcastic remark as a challenge, went away to research it, and returned with a two-fold response, one that aims to “show that Hitchens has his math precisely inverted” and “reveal how Hitchens’ argument backfires completely on atheism.”  

D’Souza consults Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research for the first argument. Kreps argues that the number of years is not really important, but rather it is the number of people that is at issue. D’Souza and Kreps cite the Population Reference Bureau which estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion. Of this number, about 2 percent were born in “the 100,000 years before Christ came to earth.”

Kreps concludes from this that “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be? But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

D’Souza further attacks Hitchens’ point by making a convoluted argument about intelligence, civilization, and supernatural intervention. First, D’Souza notes that the “basic frame and brain size [of the species hasn’t] changed throughout [its] terrestrial existence.” This statement is true, by the way. The species hasn’t changed throughout its (terrestrial!) existence. Brain size cannot account for any societal evolution in the species. Next, D’Souza states that “Homo sapiens has been on the planet for 100,000 years, but apparently for 95,000 of those years he accomplished virtually nothing. No real art, no writing, no inventions, no culture, no civilization.” This statement is only partly true. There was art, inventions, and culture for tens of thousands of years before the coming of the Hebrew god. There was no writing for most of this time. As for civilization, it depends on how you define the term. If by civilization you mean large-scale state-level societies with a written language, then, true, that didn’t come about until fairly recently (as time reckoned in this type argument goes). In any case, D’Souza rhetorically ponders, “How is this possible? Were our ancestors, otherwise physically and mentally undistinguishable from us, such blithering idiots that they couldn’t figure out anything other than the arts of primitive warfare?”

He continues: “Then, a few thousand years ago, everything changes. Suddenly savage man gives way to historical man. Suddenly the naked ape gets his act together. We see civilizations sprouting in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and elsewhere. Suddenly there are wheels and agriculture and art and culture. Soon we have dramatic plays and philosophy and an explosion of inventions and novel forms of government and social organization. So how did Homo sapiens, heretofore such a slacker, suddenly get so smart? Scholars have made strenuous efforts to account for this but no one has offered a persuasive account. If we compare man’s trajectory on earth to an airplane, we see a long, long stretch of the airplane faltering on the ground, and then suddenly, a few thousand years ago, takeoff!”

The train of D’Souza’s argument has jumped the track and is art this point deep in the dark and tangled woods. We do have a persuasive account for how this happened and D’Souza is either willfully ignorant of it or has a gift for writing pose without any knowledge of the scholarly record. This enjoys a consensus among those scholars who study these things. The truth as we know it is simply this: Technology advances more rapidly in larger populations because there are more permutations, greater likelihood of success and transmission of information which, in turn, guarantees that it will be combine with other bodies of technological knowledge to create cultural-societal leaps. If one studies the archaeological and anthropological record one will see a slow accumulation of technological advancements, spread through cultural radiation and combination, then qualitative leaps forward in knowledge. 

So while it is true that intelligence is not the cause of this pattern (but rather is caused by evolving societal organization), D’Souza’s explanation is completely inadequate: “Well, there is one obvious way to account for this historical miracle. It seems as if some transcendent being or force reached down and breathed some kind of a spirit or soul into man, because after accomplishing virtually nothing for 98 percent of our existence, we have in the past 2 percent of human history produced everything from the pyramids to Proust, from Socrates to computer software.”

This is absurd. Look at the last thirty years. Look at the technological leaps forward. Note at the telescoping character of technological advancement, each leap based on previous leaps—dramatic qualitative change from incremental quantitative change, every bit of it created by human beings. Is God helping us out with each passing generation? He certainly didn’t keep us out of WWII, a conflict killing some 50 million people. The devil’s doing? Superstitious nonsense. 

Of course, his pitiful attempt to address Hitchens’ sarcasm to one side, D’Souza has provided no logical proof of this alleged god. Neither has he provided a lick of empirical evidence. There is still zero reason to believe in god.

When I raised this issue on the conservative website Town Hall where D’Souza published his essay, I was met with the predictable: “But you can’t prove God doesn’t exist.” People actually believe they say something intelligent when they make this point. If teachers could teach one thing that would vastly improve the ability of individuals to think for themselves it would be to help them understand why this demand is, well, idiotic. Why idiotic? Because nobody can prove the nonexistence of any supernatural entity. 

To wit, I have a giant invisible purple tiger in my backyard. He has wings. He takes my astral body all around the world while everybody else is sleeping. I have been to London, Paris, Moscow, Stockholm, and Sao Paulo—all on the back of my giant invisible purple winged tiger. My tiger must exist because you cannot prove he doesn’t. I must have flown atop his back to all these destinations because you cannot prove I haven’t. He is real because you can’t prove he’s not.

See how stupid that sounds? Unless I were a child, I would sound crazy for believing this. So why are those who claim that an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything we do and will punish us for not believing in him not considered crazy? Why are people who claim to have been abducted by aliens crazy—since they cannot prove it—but people who believe their loved ones are taken up into the clouds after they die admired for their faith in a place called “Heaven”? Are alien abductions true because we can’t prove they’re not? Why are the ancient Egyptians wrong about the character of god (and the number of them), but the Hebrews are right about “His” character? There is no answer for those who demand that such claims must be disproved. Every and all things supernatural that any individual dreams up are real because none of these things can be proven not to exist. If such logic is to be followed, then the person must believe everything that cannot be disproved.

It is for this simple reason that the demand that one prove the nonexistence of supernatural entities is entirely fallacious. This is why the ones who make claims must prove the truth of those claims beyond reasonable doubt. Claims makers—and only claims makers—shoulder the burden of proof.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.