07 November 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 11

(Note: This is Part 11 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 #11:

Without God nothing is holy. This is definitional. Holiness emanates from a belief in the holy. This explains, for example, the far more widespread acceptance of public cursing in secular society than in religious society. To the religious, there is holy speech and profane speech. In much of secular society the very notion of profane speech is mocked. [Note 1.]

If Mr. Prager is speaking of the strictly religious definition of the word holy - namely, revered due to association with God - then as he says, it is a matter of definition. Without God nothing is holy. Also true: Without man nothing is manly, without fruit nothing is fruity, without red nothing is scarlet, etc. The point is trivial.

However, his elaboration and example - sacred speech versus profanity - indicates he is speaking of the more general concept of reverence, which is not necessarily religious. I’ll return to this point in a moment, but first I have a couple of points to make about profanity itself, since he introduced the topic.

The reason that public cursing has much more widespread acceptance in secular societies than in religious ones is that only secular societies are free. That is, societies that accept public profanity are societies that permit profanity, along with all other forms of speech.

There is an irony here: The very respect for individual freedom that is required to defend freedom of speech is the quality that unmuzzles the vilest disrespect for everything, including religion, freedom, or any other thing that one may hold as a value. But so be it. One may disdain gutter talk, loathe four-letter words, and regard profanity as offensive or even blasphemous - but in a free country, the recourse is to change the channel, leave the theatre, put the magazine back on the shelf, or tell the foul-mouthed offender to leave your house. Barring direct threats, which are a form of force, one has the right to say whatever one wishes - provided it is on his own property and on his own dime.

Furthermore, cursing and swear words do not exhaust the field of offensive language. Hearing an occasional four-letter word from a fan in the bleachers at Fenway Park is far less offensive to me than hearing a mufti spew invective against the Jews and deny the Holocaust, or hearing a Christian minister blame the September 11th atrocity on the United States government and shout, “God damn America!”

Many of us may dislike public cursing (and for good reasons), but for those that dislike the acceptance of public cursing, as Mr. Prager put it, it may be instructive to look at the alternatives. In Islamist countries, I have no doubt that the prevalence of public cursing is far less than in the West, and in communist countries, other forms of speech (possibly including cursing), would be suppressed. Does this indicate that Islamist or communist societies that cow their citizens into holding their tongues are superior to Western civilizations that permit freedom of expression? Certainly not. Paradoxically, though widespread cursing itself may be a symptom of cultural deterioration, the fact of its presence indicates political superiority.[Note 2.]

The profanity that Prager attributes to secular societies tends to be of a disintegrating nature. Habitual curses vary in degree and are usually not malicious. Nevertheless, they can never elevate; they can only tread upon values, tear down, shock, trivialize, humiliate, mock. This brings me back to his main point (i.e. his general point of reverence, not his tautological point of holiness). What Prager should be damning (though perhaps he would choose another word) is not secularity but subjectivism and its irrationality.

If God is the proper source of reverence, then the objects of reverence are to be obtained from authorities. What is holy is what the shaman or priest or imam or rabbi says is holy. (Less traditional religions may replace scriptural authorities with one’s own whims and feelings - establishing one's own "personal Jesus," as it were - but it amounts to the same thing since scripture itself is the collection of the whims and feelings of ancestors.)

If, on the other hand, one is guided by reason, then the objects of reverence are determined by the facts of reality. One will respect and revere things that are good - which is to say, things that are beneficial for one’s life.

I can tell you first hand that I hold as solemn a reverence for my values - for reason, individual rights, capitalism; the Founding Fathers; heroes of sport, science, and industry; my favorite authors, composers, artists - as the holiest of the faithful does for his saints. The source of that reverence is my own judgment; no authority is or could be higher. I cannot conceive of admiring a hero that was chosen for me by somebody else; a reverence based in faith or obedience is counterfeit. True reverence requires an unshakable commitment to living a human life; it is profoundly selfish.

If one looks up the word honor in the American Heritage Dictionary [Note 3.], the definition of the word is followed by a list of synonyms and their connotations. To illustrate the meaning of reverence, the dictionary turns not to some ancient icon of faith, but to mankind’s arch-defender of reason:

Reverence is a feeling of deep respect and devotion: “Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man” (Ayn Rand).

(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. The fate of America hangs in this struggle. Will this cultural deterioration continue to erode the values that make America and the West superior? Or will we manage to preserve reason and liberty - and indeed, not only preserve but establish them explicitly as never before?

3. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, p. 843.

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