30 November 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 12

(Note: This is Part 12 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 #12:

Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being. [Note 1.]

Of course man is the supreme being!

Man is supreme because among all living things, he has the capacity to think. This faculty does not make him infallible, omniscient, or omnipotent. It does make Homo sapiens superior to all other creatures in the animal kingdom. This is true in both absolute and relative terms: absolute, because our conceptual faculty is an incomparably valuable asset for survival; relative, because I am a human, and thus regard it as improper to subordinate myself to other forms of life (not to mention to transparent superstitions).

By definition, hubris is excessive self-confidence or pride, meaning self-confidence or pride beyond what one may legitimately claim. This idea is consonant with the Greek ideal of moderation (sophrosyne), pride being a virtue flanked by the vices of vanity (excessive pride) on the one side and humility (deficient pride) on the other. For the Greeks, pride was good; but an hubristic hero of Homer who snubbed a god would find himself in hot water - or turbulent water, as the case may be. Though I do not agree with Aristotle’s formulation that holds the middle ground between vices as virtues, there is a sort of common-sense appeal to this arrangement: It is obviously foolish to hold an estimation of oneself higher than what one has earned, just as it is detrimental to underestimate one’s own abilities.

However, this pre-Christian Greek notion is not the one behind Mr. Prager’s statement. The Christian ethics hold humility itself as a virtue. Pride, which to an ancient Greek or an Objectivist would be a just recognition of one’s own achievements, to the Christian is one of the seven deadly sins. It is pride, not hubris, that is the target of Prager point #12.

Wikipedia image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things[Note 2.]

Both subjectivists and religionists might produce innumerable counterexamples that would seem to refute man’s status as a superior being. History is rife with endless bloody wars, barbarity, murder, and rape. Man, they may claim, is the lowest of all creatures, not the highest. He is vain, petty, foolish, and superstitious - a luster of power, a slave to his cravings. The religionist would claim that God is the only redeemer of such a base being; the subjectivist admits of no redemption.

I disagree with both perspectives. To claim that man as a species is supreme does not require that every man be rational and virtuous. It requires only that men be capable of reason and virtue.

What Prager is demonizing as “humanist hubris” is the egoism and self-confidence that drives a man to seek knowledge in the service of his own life. Prager rails against the pride of a man who looks to nature instead of to scripture, who judges right and wrong based on facts instead of commandments, and who deserves to feel good about his own efficacy. It is not quite true that such a man is his own God, as Prager suggests; this would imply a subjective arbitrariness to his judgments. Rather, such a man needs no God: hence the desperation of the religious in the modern world.

A man who thinks for himself is anathema to religious faith, particularly to the monotheistic religions that demand his exclusive faith and obedience. In ancient Greece, man took his first steps as a species undeniably worthy of the adjective supreme. He looked to nature, not heaven, to understand nature; to man, to understand man. He began to classify and systematize. He invented and applied logic. But this was interrupted by the Age of Christianity, and its offshoot, the Age of Islam. The Greek ideal was outdated; a man standing proud and upright like one of the gods he created had to be damned as “hubristic.” In the shadow of Christ, man was puny and ugly, “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.”[Note 3.]

This was the age of Mr. Prager’s Christian ideals: a dark age of self-imposed thralldom. For a thousand years, Prager’s hubristic pride was virtually absent from the earth (with the exception, perhaps, of the real hubris of those claiming to know of heaven and the hereafter). It was only when mankind threw off this bondage of his spirit, discovering once again his own efficacy, that he stood upright again. As I wrote of the Enlightenment in an earlier essay:

Individuals discovered that they had the ability to read for themselves not only the Bible, but other things as well. When Luther and Calvin shook the minds of men in order that each may contemplate his own sinfulness, they inadvertently freed those minds for other, more worldly thoughts. This could not be taken back. The Tree of Knowledge had been shaken, and it was apples everywhere; Sir Isaac Newton happened to be watching one of them as it fell, much to the benefit of mankind.[Note 4.]

This is the crux of the matter. According to Dennis Prager, the men who neither bow nor obey, but discover nature for themselves - the independent minds who dare taste apples plucked from the Tree of Knowledge - must be denounced as "hubristic."

Mr. Prager himself noted the remarkable achievements of Michaelangelo in an earlier point. That Michaelangelo (and Galileo, Bach, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, and Rand) existed is a testament that man is the supreme being. And so too are the innumerable lesser figures that produce, acheive, and flourish in relative anonymity, committed to living rationally and happily.

(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. Image from Wikipedia entry for “Seven deadly sins,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Deadly_Sins.

3. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 2002, p. 138.

4. Stephen Bourque, “Faith in the West,” Aug 2008.


madmax said...

I see Conservatives use this phraseology frequently:

*"Secularists/atheists/"liberals" believe nothing is higher than man..."

*Secularists/atheists/"liberals" believe society should revolve around man and not God... (Whittaker Chambers used this one to condemn Ayn Rand and Solzhenitsyn used it to condemn Communism)

It seems that what the Conservatives are arguing is that without a divine source, no absolute knowledge or absolute morality is possible; that subjectivism is mandated by a rejection of theism. Its the old religious dogma vs. whim-worship false alternative. Conservatives simply will not conceive of a universe without a creator or a morality that is grounded in nature and verifiable by reason. To them, no God = chaos, randomness and the destruction of everything.

This is just terrible epistemology. But I think that if someone holds these ideas seriously, once they get past the age of 30 they are effectively incapable of changing them. Religious metaphysics just occupies too strong a position as the basis of their worldview. For a man like Prager, if you took away his religion he would probably kill himself as he would see the universe as unintelligible. Very sad yet very destructive as Objectivism has to fight the skeptic/relativist/materialist Left while all the while distinguishing ourselves from Conservatives like Prager. And Leftists will deliberately equate Prager's view and ours.

Stephen Bourque said...

Yes, I think you're exactly right about the false alternative, and my hope is that this series (and my posts in general) convey the message that there is a third option: reality-based absolutism.

Your encapsulation of the conservative position, "no God = chaos," is a perfect lead in to the 14th and final part of this series, which I will hopefully complete soon. (I'm trying to finish by 8 Dec 2009, which will be exactly one year since I started the series!) In this, Prager invokes Ivan Karamazov's torment, "Without God, all is permitted."

Finally, it might be true that the vast majority of people over thirty years of age are unlikely to change their fundamental premises. But they still have free will, so it is possible to reach a handful of minds.

madmax said...


I look forward to the 14th part eagerly. Also, I agree with your last paragraph. I just meant that for some religious people, their confessional investment is so high that to challenge it would threaten their entire psyches.

Also, I found a blog post by a religious conservative that makes Prager look absolutely mild, rational and benevolent. Here is his description of what happens when you believe that "there is nothing higher than man." He links this directly to "Liberalism" and why the belief in God is necessary. This is really the essence of the religious Right in undiluted form: