17 February 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 6

(Note: This is Part 6 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 #6:

With the death of Judeo-Christian values in the West, many Westerners believe in little. That is why secular Western Europe has been unwilling and therefore unable to confront evil, whether it was Communism during the Cold War or Islamic totalitarians in its midst today. 

The accusation in this is largely true.  What Mr. Prager refers to as “secular Western Europe” is the collection of “free” democratic welfare states that have for a century been dominated by socialism, and which since World War II have increasingly added apologetic self-hatred and multiculturalism to its body of ideas.  Broadly speaking, the intellectuals behind this “secular Western Europe” are the subjectivists and moral relativists that both Prager and I are opposed to (and which I have written about in some detail in other posts).  I completely agree with Mr. Prager’s observation that European culture has rendered its nations unwilling and unable to stand up to evil.  

During the cold war, Western intellectuals could not effectively criticize the Soviet Union because they accepted - and even admired - its basic premises.  Even when they explicitly denounced communism, they conceded the virtue of its altruistic underpinnings and rejected it only because it was “good in theory but bad in practice.”  On top of that, the left-leaning Western elite have spent the last few decades flagellating themselves in the most pretentiously vain self-abasement, finding every excuse to denigrate the West (especially America), and all the while enjoying the fruits of the freedom they despised.  Today, these self-proclaimed “liberals,” who would not recognize actual liberty even if it cried out from under their shoes, find themselves in a peculiar position.  They must advance their “enlightened, humanitarian” agenda by defending thugs who beat and murder their way into public office (as long as they were democratically elected), by supporting dictators who spray poisonous gas upon their own citizens (as long as they are anti-Bush), by cheering environmentalist saboteurs (as long as they destroy the products of industrialists), and by turning a blind eye to morality police that stone young girls to death for the crime of having been raped (as long as the killers denounce Israel).  

In the face of self-righteous evil, the meek Western intellectual is utterly powerless... and our enemies know it.  “A liberal,” Robert Frost famously said, “is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

However, despite my general agreement with Prager in his estimation of the feebleness of “secular Western Europe,” I reject his implication that secularity itself is the source of the West’s impotence.  In fact, insofar as secularity is an indication that the West has embraced reason, it is (or it would be) a positive sign.  

Unfortunately, the embrace of reason and the rejection of religion are two entirely different things.  The former is a positive, systematic, constructive, and ultimately life-sustaining activity, while the latter is simply a negative, a void.  It is true that atheism follows from reason (as does the rejection of all other types of arbitrary assertions), but atheism is not itself a philosophy.  No positive values come from simply rejecting religion.  A man who adheres strictly to reason is always an atheist, but an atheist is not necessarily a man of reason.  (Far from it, as we can see in the “secular Western Europe” that Prager rightly condemns.)  Secularity in Europe seems little more than a symptom of the subjectivist rejection of all principles, all systems.  It tells only of the penchant to disintegrate and analyze, and to scoff at absolutes as outmoded prejudices.  [Note 2.]

The key to Prager’s plausibility on this point is the ambiguity of the word believe when he writes, “many Westerners believe in little.”  Principled, reality-oriented people who do not hold religious faith will still feel that they believe in something, though they may sense that it is of a significantly different nature than that which a religious person believes.  In its strictest connotation, belief means faith - and this is surely Prager’s deepest meaning.  After all, the entire point of his article is to show that a belief in God is needed to avert the evils he enumerates.  But I think he is taking advantage of the less strict, non-religious meaning of belief (i.e. a firmly held opinion or conviction) to make his point persuasive.

No, it is not faith that Western intellectuals lack but convictions.  The West must not only identify facts, but have the courage to declare them to be true.

By veering toward a faith in God, as Mr. Prager recommends and as many Americans have done in recent years, the West may very well become less apathetic and powerless toward evil, but it wouldn’t make us right.  On the contrary, it would make us dead wrong - wrong for the very same reasons that our enemies are wrong.  It would be a disaster if Americans turn to religion as the antidote to subjectivism and multiculturalism.  The proper alternative to our cowering before crusading, irrational, medieval fanatics is surely not to become crusading, irrational, medieval fanatics ourselves.

The reason that America and the West is right and good - and ought to be defended with righteous conviction - is that this nation was founded upon Enlightenment values: an embrace of reason, logic, and science; a passion for discovering the natural order of things; a lust for living in this world; the toleration of conflicting opinions and beliefs; and above all, a respect for the individual, his property, the free use of his mind, and his unfettered liberty to act as he sees fit, provided he respects everyone else’s right to do the same.  

The United States of America remains history’s best exponent of these values.  It is impossible to square religion with America’s governing institutions.  [Note 3.]  To attempt do so would be to destroy freedom, to rip it from its moorings in this world in the hopes that a supernatural anchor is more secure.  To replace reason with God, discard earth for heaven, reject logic for dogma, sacrifice the individual for the flock, surrender liberties for commandments - is to do more damage to the West than the “secular Western European” could ever do.

(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.  In this, I refer only to modern intellectuals.  I do not think this explanation applies to communists - at least not the early communists.  For all my denunciation of them, I do not accuse communists of being disintegrators in the realm of ideas; they were system builders.  Their rejection of religion was probably based more upon a desire to seem “scientific” and to distinguish themselves from reactionary, “bourgeois” tradition, than to rejecting principles outright.

3.  This is not to be confused with individuals’ right to practice whatever religion they wish, which I defend absolutely.


Anonymous said...

I'm really trying to be kind and patient in my comments, but it's quite difficult when faced by articles claiming that Christians want to be "crusading, irrational, medieval fanatics". Christians do not want to be medieval in any way - period (unless we are claiming that religious belief is medieval, which I deny). They are certainly not irrational (the best you can do is claim that their premise of the existence of God is mistaken, but that's not the same as irrational). Crusading? That depends what you mean. If it's meant as some kind of dig about the Crusades, you need to work on your history, especially what happened between Muslims and Christians in the 300 years prior to the Crusades. You also need to recognize that they happened over 600 years ago, so they may not be topical to an assessment of modern Christianity. If on the other hand, it's meant that Christians have zeal for the peaceful spreading of their religion, then I have no problem with the term. However, it clearly seems to be meant derogatorily.

What is the puprose of this series of articles? Merely to write for other objectivists so they'll join in on a chorus of "Irrational Christians"? Or are you trying to advance reasoned arguments why Christians are mistaken in their worldview, ones that might actually convince Christians that they are mistaken to hold their beliefs? This article just seems, at the end, to be so much Chrisitan bashing. I was hoping for thoughtful discourse on why Christians are mistaken in their worldview. I am giving up reading this series now, because this is clear intellectual snobbery (essentially, "Christians must be idiots because they believe in God who we can't see and also can't disprove"). Most distasteful.

One final note: "It is impossible to square religion with America’s governing institutions." I'm not sure what the reasoning is that leads to this idea, but the 1st Amendment to the Constitution makes it clear that the founders thought religious discourse in the governance of America was GOOD idea, not a bad one. Or were they "medieval" too?

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comments, Anonymous. There is a lot of material in your note, but I’ll try to cover each of your points briefly.


Regarding the “medieval” reference, let me repeat the sentence I wrote: “The proper alternative to our cowering before crusading, irrational, medieval fanatics is surely not to become crusading, irrational, medieval fanatics ourselves.”

Obviously, the first set of fanatics I was referring to are the Islamic fascists who, despite using the guns and institutions created by the west against the west, are still operating essentially as if it were the 11th century. My point is that if we in the west continue a trend of abandoning reason and turning to God as a means of defeating them, we will have become just like them in all fundamental respects. I used the parallelism of the same three adjectives in my sentence to emphasize this equivalence. Sure, I don’t expect modern Christians to want to literally roll back the clock to medieval times - they like their televisions and cell phones (as is proper) too much for that, and the Black Death is daunting even for people who think earthly suffering yields heavenly rewards in the afterlife. However, to reject reason and embrace God with the thoroughness demonstrated by many Evangelicals today is to attempt to wipe out the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, along with its accompanying this-worldly perspective, achievements, and liberty. Governments informed by God are nightmares. If the prospect of western armies shouting “Onward, Christian soldiers!” as they engage Muslim mujahideen doesn’t evoke the Middle Ages, I don’t know what does.

Now, regarding my characterization of a belief in God as being irrational, there is no getting around this. It is simply not correct to dismiss it as a mistake, as you wrote. Mistakes are made when one does not have all the relevant facts in focus at a particular moment; mistakes are discovered and fixed by obtaining more facts, rejecting falsehoods, or by more clearly considering the information one already knows. A belief in God has nothing to do with facts or focus. It requires faith, and to accept something to be true by means of faith is irrational. That is, it is an explicit rejection of one’s rational faculty. What else shall we call a deliberate rejection of rationality but irrational?

I obviously do not hold that every person who believes in God is wholly irrational, but he is irrational to the degree that he believes in God. If the average religious American is seriously ill, for instance, he will probably demonstrate rational behavior (e.g. visiting a doctor, taking medicine) and irrational behavior (e.g. saying prayers). The irrational behavior in this example is basically harmless, but it remains irrational.

(By the way, just because theism is irrational, it does not follow that atheism is rational. Many or most communists are atheists, yet are far more irrational than most of the religious people I know.)

(To be continued in the next comment...)

Stephen Bourque said...

(Continued from previous comment.)

And regarding my use of the word “crusading,” I meant it in the generic sense - not specifically referring to the Crusades, though making some use of this connotation, I suppose. Interestingly, of these three adjectives - crusading, irrational, and medieval - crusading is the only one that I do not regard automatically as a pejorative term. After all, I am a crusader myself: a crusader for reason, objectivity, individual rights, laissez faire capitalism.

Unfortunately, your own formulation of what you would regard as benevolent crusading - “Christians [having] zeal for the peaceful spreading of their religion” - is precisely the crusading that I meant. If this happens in the United States, it would be a disaster, not only because the world is already kneeling down before a government-supported, self-proclaimed “religion of peace” and we do not need another, but primarily because it would signal the demise of the one nation in all of history that was created specifically to protect individuals from such a catastrophe.


Since you asked, the point of this series of articles is as I stated in the introduction: to reach the minds of religious people who are honestly trying to reach conclusions that are consonant with reality. I admit that none of this is likely to appeal to “true believers” who have constructed defenses specifically designed to help them evade this sort of reasoning. It is the religious-by-default that I hoped might be reached, the serious people who may have been brought up in religious households or may have turned to religion because they were revolted by the left-leaning media and culture.

You introduced two ideas in your second paragraphs that simply do not apply to anything in my post, nor for that matter, to anything I’ve ever written.

The first is that my essay amounts to “Christian bashing.” I cannot fathom how I could have been misunderstood so thoroughly. In no way have I singled out Christians in particular. Everything I have presented applies unambiguously to religion qua religion. The enemy of reason is not Christianity per se; it is faith. Sure, Dennis Prager is a Christian, but I picked his article because he seems to be very smart and relatively honest, and because a critique of his ideas is relevant to my purpose here: reaching moderately religious minds. I have not and do not criticize Christians for being Christians; I criticize Christians, along with adherents of all other religions, for rejecting reason in favor of faith.

Worse than this, you wrote that my essays amount to “intellectual snobbery” and my position reduces to, “Christians must be idiots because they believe in God who we can’t see and also can’t disprove.”

I am not an intellectual at all, never mind an intellectual snob. I do not pretend to be an intellectual; I am an engineer by trade. My credentials do not include an advanced degree in philosophy. My only qualification to defend reason is that I live a human life with my mind engaged and my eyes wide open, and that I have sufficient courage and honesty to state that A is A. Fortunately, that is all the qualification that I or any other human being needs to grasp reality.

(To be continued in the next comment...)

Stephen Bourque said...

(Continued from the previous comment.)

The accusation that I think Christians “must be idiots” is outrageous. I simply do not think in those terms about anybody. In fact, if anything, I generally assume that people I discuss things with are smarter than I am. Besides, intelligence is not always strongly correlation with getting things right. Some of the worst monsters in history had vast intellects, and some of the most dreadful, profoundly wrong ideas were born in the ivory towers of universities and in government “brain trusts.” I value honesty - honesty with one’s self, and an unblinking commitment to grasping reality as it is (not as one wishes it to be) - far more than I value intelligence.

Perhaps what galls some readers is that I write directly and I aim for precision. If I write about a fact, I do not preface it with “in my opinion.” If I identify faith as irrational because it is incompatible with reason, I use the word irrational; I do not couch it as a simple “mistake” to spare somebody’s feelings. Everybody knows it is better to tear off a BandAid all at once than to make a hundred weak and painful pulls. It serves no purpose to speak or write in any manner other than directly. Civilized discourse is perishing in this world because of political correctness, the deterioration of the meaning of words, and the general fear of calling something what it is.

(And by the way, you incorrectly characterized my position as that I “can’t see and also can’t disprove” God. My position is that I can’t see and need not disprove God.)


Finally, you objected to my statement it is impossible to square religion with America’s governing institutions, and you wrote that the First Amendment makes it clear that the Founders thought “religious discourse in the governance of America” was a “GOOD idea.”

Let me handle this last point first. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, the freedom for an individual to think and believe anything he wishes. It explicitly forbids the government from attempting to impose thought control upon its citizens. “Religious discourse” and “governance” are two entirely incompatible things; to combine them as you have is a grotesque distortion of the Founders’ explicit intent, and it reverses the Amendment’s meaning. The entire point of the First Amendment is to remove governance from religious discourse, not to establish religious discourse into governance.

I am an absolute and indefatigable defender of freedom of speech, including the right to say or write things that I think are crazy and irrational.

(To be continued in the next comment...)

Stephen Bourque said...

(Continued from the previous comment.)

Now, let me return to the more general point of the Founders and religion. My position is that any view that captures the essence of America’s Founders in the proper historical context will demonstrate that they were radically and revolutionarily irreligious. They devoted their lives and fortunes to questioning “with boldness even the existence of a god,” and to supplanting institutionalized superstition with reason.

Certainly, one can cherry pick individual quotes from Washington, Adams, and Jefferson that seem to support either side of the argument - allegedly for and against religion - but an overall view resolves any ambiguity. For the Founders, nothing in heaven or earth stood between an individual and his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. If the Founding Fathers invoked a “Creator” or “Nature’s God,” it was only to stress the absolutism of their principles, and to defend against any sophistry (like subjectivism) that would attempt to deny the inalienability of rights.

Given the context of the time, it is hard to ask the Founders to have done more than they did. They identified and threw off the yoke of faith about as completely as anyone could have done then. They were radicals in this. Knowing what I know today, I wish they had more thoroughly and consistently guarded against a return to faith (a return that would have seemed inconceivable in the Age of Reason), but it is pointless and unreasonable to blame Thomas Jefferson for not being Ayn Rand.

This issue of the historiography of the Founders with respect to religion is analogous to the issue of slavery. Just like the religious historians who seek to build a case for the religiosity of of the Framers, modern anti-west historians try to build a case for America being a nation of white male slave-holders. In this view, the United States stands as the supreme villain of history instead of its pinnacle. Concrete facts support this: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had slaves, right? They founded this nation, correct? So, the United States must have been founded upon slavery. Of course, this view completely misses the essence of America’s founding as the only nation ever created with the purpose of emancipating human beings. In the same way, a few quotes from George Washington referring to “Providence” does not collapse the wall of separation between church and state that the Founders so painstakingly constructed.