(Note: This is Part 14, the final installment, 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 #14:
"Without God," Dostoevsky famously wrote, "all is permitted." There has been plenty of evil committed by believers in God, but the widespread cruelties and the sheer number of innocents murdered by secular regimes -- specifically Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes -- dwarfs the evil done in the name of religion. [Note 1.]
Mr. Prager has this exactly backwards. It is with unfounded or arbitrary premises, including that of God, that all is permitted. With God, anything goes.
But what exactly is Dennis Prager’s meaning here? What is it about God that is supposed to inhibit men from doing evil? Prager invokes Fyodor Dostoyevsky to indicate his meaning. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Miusov explains the idea that torments Ivan Karamazov:
‘I ask your permission to drop this subject altogether,’ Miusov repeated. ‘I will tell you instead, gentlemen, another interesting and rather characteristic anecdote about Ivan himself. Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbors. That there was no law of nature that men should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth before this, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That’s not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law. He said that egoism, even to crime, must become, not only lawful but recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome. From this, gentlemen, you can judge about the rest of our eccentric and paradoxical friend Ivan’s theories.’[Note 2.]
Thus, to Ivan Karamazov (and by extension, Dostoyevsky himself), it is only the fear of eternal punishment that inhibits men from doing evil deeds. In this view, man is an inherently malevolent creature that must be restrained. One thing, and one thing only, prevents an individual from murdering his parents, raping his neighbor’s wife, and selling his children into slavery: a fear of God’s wrath. Believers in God may kill the occasional witch or infidel, indicates Prager, but men without a God to restrain them will quite naturally murder millions of Jews and kulaks.
There is a further implication of this idea. Absent faith in God, reason is not only powerless to uphold the good but actually demands evil. Egoism and selfishness, Dostoyevsky tells us, drives men to literally and figuratively eat each other. Crime is rational. Honor is achieved with deceit and trickery. Reason consists of cudgeling one’s neighbor when his guard is down. Logic demands slavery, wholesale murder, extermination.
Prager is apparently of this opinion himself. By calling Nazi, fascist, and communist regimes “secular,” he is attributing the mind-numbing horrors of socialism to the secularity of these institutions - to their (alleged) rejection of religious faith. It is an oft-repeated mistake of religious conservatives to focus on the nominal atheism of communism, a mistake at least as old as the Cold War. Some conservatives may be innocent in the error, but it is nonetheless devastating. To attempt to advance an evil by lauding its true nature is to expose the evil to thinking minds, which minds will eventually be prepared to defeat the evil. But to seem to denounce an evil by misidentifying or concealing its true nature – in this case, by means of emphasizing an incidental, non-fundamental attribute – is to paralyze minds, which serves to advance the evil.
However well-intentioned he may be, Dennis Prager is obscuring the essence of socialism and its variants, which he must do if he is to distinguish his religious viewpoint from that of his enemies. He cannot permit himself to recognize the shared roots of the religion he favors and the totalitarian regimes he criticizes: irrationality and sacrifice.
The philosophical error expressed by Dostoyevsky and Prager is as deadly as it is possible to be. In one stroke, man is severed from his means of survival - reason and self-interest - and enticed to hold faith as his guide. Faith in what? Damnation.
Let us consider the full meaning of the surrender of reason contained in the religious argument: the implication that rationality is on the side of killers, theives, and cannibals. That anyone would attribute the horrors of collectivism in any of its forms (fascism, communism, socialism, racism, tribalism, etc.) to reason is an absurdity that I simply cannot fathom; it is a psychological confession so ghastly, I cannot believe a civilized person could hold it consciously once he grasps its meaning. To see actual reason, logic, and science in the Schutzstaffel, the gulag, and the killing fields is to be a monster. Of course, if one uncritically swallows the terms of leftist intellectuals, the evils of collectivism embody what they, the intellectuals, call “reason” and “logic.” But to accept these claims at face value - to permit the corruption of concepts upon which mankind depends - is to concede all ground to the killers. We must not let intellectuals redefine reason to mean irrationality, logic to mean rationalization, and science to refer to systematic, brutish mysticism. To do so is to engage one’s enemy by first disarming onself and accepting the enemy’s terms of battle - a prospect perilous in the theatre of war and hopeless in the realm of ideas. One may as well defeat one’s murderer by preemptively committing suicide.
Having unwittingly or deliberately abandoned men’s minds to thugs, Dostoyevsky and Prager proceed to make their case for God’s existence. Or do they? These are two very intelligent religious men: Prager is one of the most articulate conservatives today and Dostoyevsky was a man of vast and rare intellect, one of the finest novelists of all time. What exactly is their argument?
In the article that gave rise to this series of essays, Dennis Prager has presented fourteen points predicated upon “If there is no God . . .” In this, his last and most compelling point, he turned to Dostoyevsky, who surely has agonized over the absence of God as much as anybody has. Indeed, if there is a religious question I can consider sensible, it is this one: Doesn’t man need to know right from wrong? How does one answer, “Without God, all is lawful”? I can understand how decent people in the modern world, who have been told time and again that science cannot give them morals, would prefer to cling to fables than to drop into what they believe is a yawning chasm of chaos and crime. If letting go of God means dispensing with morality, then I sympathize with people who hold tightly to superstitions.
It is Dostoyevsky himself who could have given Dennis Prager a fifteenth and overarching point. In The Brothers Karamazov, the solemn and precocious boy Kolya utters the words that explain why sensible people in the modern world could possibly believe in God:
“If there were no God He would have to be invented.”
This is the only refuge of those who do not believe one can find morality in the real world. And indeed, Mr. Prager says this himself in his article. He says of his fourteen points, “none of this proves, or even argues for, God’s existence. It makes the case for the necessity, not the existence, of God.”
As I pointed out in Part 3, though, the mere fact that one wants or needs something to be true does not make it true. Necessity does not bring things into existence.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dennis Prager are correct to see that men need a guide to their actions, but they make the mistake of treating morality and religion interchangably. The principle that Prager and Dostoyevsky should have put forward is this:
Without morality, all is permitted.
Despite two millennia of insistence to the contrary, religion and morality are not the same thing. In fact, because religions are based upon faith, I regard them as inherently immoral. (This is not to say all religions are equally immoral. The degree to which a religion rejects reason and embraces faith is the degree to which it threatens a man’s life - which is to say, the degree to which it is evil.)
Fortunately, the rational man need not despair. Thanks to Ayn Rand, morality has been rescued from religion. She is alone among philosophers in having completely connected ethics to the facts of reality. As she explains in “The Objectivist Ethics,” she started out not by asking which code of values men required, but by asking a more fundamental question: why does man need a code of values in the first place?
Ethics is not a mystic fantasy - nor a social convention - nor a dispensable, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival - not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.[Note 3.]
It is beyond the scope of this post to cover Objectivist ethics in detail, but happily, the text of Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” is made available online by the Ayn Rand Institute.
The survival and happiness of men requires their grasp of the world. Through centuries of plodding advances and bloody setbacks, the minds of men built up a knowledge of nature and created the works and institutions from which we now enjoy the fruits: science, technology, industry, governments of law, individual freedom. Today, liberty is perishing at an appalling rate at the hands of politicians who themselves follow dominant intellectual trends. It is easy to see the political left as the culprit, with its overtly statist agenda, its rejection of absolutes, and its general contempt for values. What may be harder to see, especially for religious conservatives, is that for all the superficial differences between the left and right, religious faith holds no answers.
Hopefully, this series has reached a mind or two, and perhaps encouraged someone to check his premises.
1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.
2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, Signet Classics, New York, 1957.
3. “The Objectivist Ethics,” from The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964.
I fixed a minor error: I had referred to Mr. Prager as a Christian when he is in fact Jewish.