29 December 2008

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 3

(Note: This is Part 3 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here.  In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #3:

Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die -- some horrifically, many prematurely -- and there is only oblivion afterward. (Note 1.)

An interesting aspect of sorting through Mr. Prager’s fourteen points is that one can determine what he thinks God is by working backwards through his logic.  For instance, on its face, the pessimistic assertion of Point #3 is extremely vague.  What has God got to do with it?  How does God mitigate the “tragic fare?”  If the word “God” were replaced with a substantial concept, such as “liberty” or “justice” - or even something with which I would totally disagree, such as “universal health care” - then the point would at least have specific content.  But with the word “God,” the statement only invites refutation from the most obvious counterexamples.  There have always been and will always be individuals who live tragic lives and those who live rewarding lives, independent of the existence of a God or of a personal belief in God.

However, the clue to his actual intent is given by the mention of “oblivion” after death.  This focuses on a particular aspect of the Judeo-Christian God.  What Prager apparently means by “if there is no God” - and the only sense that renders significance to his assertion - is “if there is no God to deliver eternal reward or punishment after death.”  With this added clarification, the statement is at least comprehensible and appeals to logic.  (Mr. Prager’s statement #5 makes essentially the same point, and helps shed light on his meaning here.)  The basic idea is that without the existence of some sort of “life” after death, presumably with the application of God’s justice, then life itself (which Prager apparently regards as being dominated by trials and suffering) is pointless and tragic. 

Before showing how Prager is profoundly wrong on this point, permit me to digress with a comment on his view of God since it informs all of his statements.  Positing the existence of an afterworld is quite a leap from merely asserting the existence of a “creator” in order to explain the existence of matter.  For Prager, God does not reduce to a mere logical position, like an Aristotelian “Unmoved Mover,” but is an active, paternalistic figure in the universe, demanding daily obedience, issuing rights, and meting out rewards and punishments.  

Unlike many conservative commentators, Mr. Prager is refreshingly honest and unambiguous about the existence of this omnipotent, universal micromanager.  “[W]hile it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God’s existence,” he admits, “what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God.”  This is basically correct: arbitrary assertions are indeed out of the realm of proof, and the actions of men are not merely provable but directly observable.  

With this admission, how then can Dennis Prager assert the existence of God as the mitigating factor in the fourteen points of his essay?  He explains: “None of [the fourteen points] proves, or even necessarily argues for, God’s existence.  It makes the case for the necessity, not the existence, of God.”[Note 1, Emphasis mine.]  In other words, we should not believe in God because He exists per se, but because we need him to exist.

This makes clear not only Prager’s essay, but goes far toward explaining the persistence of religion in the modern world.  What could be more common than wishful thinking?  What could be more common than thinking that the mere need or desire for something can somehow bring it into existence?  Yes, what could be more common... and more false?

I give credit to Mr. Prager both for identifying the root of his reasoning and for being candid enough to express it openly.  However, as much as he might wish to deny it, his explanation plants him firmly in the primacy-of-consciousness camp.  By primacy of consciousness, I refer to the (mistaken) belief that each individual creates and imposes his own reality upon the universe, by virtue of the fact that he is conscious.  (This view is opposed to the primacy of existence, which correctly holds that things are what they are, independent of any observer.) (Note 2.)  Only from the primacy-of-consciousness perspective could one believe that the mere “necessity” of a God could bring him into existence.  

Incidentally, I put “necessity” in quotes in the previous sentence to emphasize the use of this word in Prager’s statement.  He most certainly is not referring to factual necessity, in the sense of “the square of a right triangle’s hypotenuse is necessarily equal to the sum of the squares of its sides” or “two objects with mass will necessarily attract each other with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance of separation.”   On the contrary, by “necessity,” Prager is clearly referring to need in the sense of a desire or desperate longing.  

Thus, his point #3 boils down to this: Life is sometimes tragic, and as a human being, I suffer and will die.  I don’t like this.  If there were a God, replete with a heaven and hell and a rule book to let me know how to earn a place in heaven, I would live happily forever and my enemies would suffer eternally.  Despite the facts, I really, really wish the universe worked this way, so my need for this to be true makes it true.

No person (excluding infants and young children who have not yet learned better) should regard this as proper thinking.  

A final word on Prager’s account of God.  The fact that the primacy of consciousness is at the heart of his arguments is one more illustration of the point I made in Part 1 of this series: the religionists hold essentially the same premises as those of the subjectivists that they claim to abhor.  The very same perspective that permits the subjectivist to reject absolutes permits the religionist to invent absolutes.

Now, let us return to Mr. Prager’s point #3: Life is ultimately tragic if there is no God to cancel the “oblivion” of death and make up for the misery of life. 

Even if we accept the possibility of immortality in the form of everlasting reward or retribution after death (which I’ve already pointed out is childishly primitive and unwarranted), Prager’s logic is still exactly backwards.  It is precisely the mortality of every human being that furnishes the value to his life; the “oblivion” of death renders life in this world precious and makes our choices matter.  It is the struggle for living life and seeking happiness in this world that prevents misery and tragedy from being an automatic condition; indeed, a belief in eternal life is what makes suffering an acceptable state and even elevates it to a virtue.  

And finally, it is precisely the absence of a mystical heaven and hell that makes it so important for human institutions to safeguard individual rights and use force to retaliate against evil.  If justice is to be done, it is to be done in this world.  This is one of the many considerations that highlight the galling absurdity of holding (as Prager and many other religionists do) that America’s founders were trying to create a nation built upon Judeo-Christian values. 

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2.  Ayn Rand explained, “The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists—and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness—the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).  Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” from Philosophy: Who Needs It, Signet, NY, 1982, p. 24.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for your analysis. You write clearly, for easy reading. Ironically, clear writing is hard work, especially when dealing with such subjects as gods.

> "In other words, we should not believe in God because He exists per se, but because we need him to exist."

Coincidentally, I have been reading Ronald Nash, World Views in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas, a short text partly presenting Nash's own Christian views on the "rationality" of believing in Christianity rather than any other worldview.

On p. 127, he favorably quotes early 20th Century scholar Herman Rashdall:

"Only if we believe in the existence of a Mind [God's] for which the true moral ideal is already . . . real . . . can we rationally think of the moral ideal as no less real than the world itself. Only so can we believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong, which is as independent of this or that man's actual ideas . . . as the facts of material nature."

And here is the payoff: We need God, so we must assume his existence:

"The belief in God . . . is the logical presupposition of an . . . absolute Morality."

This is a classic example of what Dr. Peikoff has called "misintegration." A mind creates a moral standard. True. Since man, the religionists say (falsely), can't develop his own in an absolute way, there must be a capital-M Mind that has created a capital-M Morality.

Happy philosophical detecting in the New Year!

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Burgess. Actually, I'm glad you in particular wrote in, because while I was working on the previous post (part 2 of the series), I really struggled to grasp the distinction between the meaning of life and the purpose of life. I think there is an important distinction, and I did my best to express it, but it doesn't feel particularly solid. I thought that you might have some insight, not only because you have spent a great deal of effort thinking about purpose, but because you are one of the most thorough and meticulous concept discerners I've ever seen. So, if you happen to have any thoughts on the matter, I'd like to know what they are.

Anyway, Happy New Year to you!

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this series on debunking Prager. I've often thought that there might be a decent market for a book presenting an Objectivist polemic against the god-concept. Especially today that books on atheism seem to be popular.

BTW, let me draw your attention to an Objectivst who writes voluminously on this subject and has done so for about 4 years. His is name is Dawsom Bethrick and his blog link is:


Dawson presents what he calls "Objectivist Atheology." He takes on all the theist arguments but he focuses most on the Presuppositionalist School of apologetics which BTW is the exact set of arguments that Burgess just mentioned in his comment. His blog is a little known diamond in the rough that is basically unknown by Objectivists which is a shame. Dawson always links his arguments back to the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness. He repeatedly shows how theism can never avoid subjectivism. He also takes on other subjects such as the Historicity of Jesus and pretty much shows how a critical examination of early Christian literature shows that there was no historical Jesus. He's the closest thing I have encountered to an Objectivist "professional atheist" and Biblical scholar. His site is loaded with very long blog posts chock full of material. You could lose yourself in it.



Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the tip, Madmax. You're right - there's a huge amount of material on Dawson Bethrick's site, so it will take me a while to wade through it!