Tuesday, August 19, 2008

If there is no God (Part I)

If there's one thing it's hard to resist blogging about, it's Dennis Prager's incessant arguments against atheism. For some reason, I tend to take these essays personally. Perhaps it's because at various points in my life I have struggled with the issue of religion so that I take these arguments very seriously.

Prager's latest effort against secularism is entitled "If there is no God" and he lists 14 separate consequences that he believes follow from atheism. He grants at the outset that "it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence," which fact, as Ari Armstrong quite correctly points out, makes any claim to the existence of God arbitrary and thus worthy of immediate dismissal. In the same post, Ari also adds that "[n]evertheless, because claims about God involve absurd metaphysical presumptions, it is possible to disprove God's existence."

But let's leave all that aside for the moment, Prager is effectively conceding that belief in God is an irrational leap of faith but claims that "what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God." What, as far as Prager is concerns, happens when people stop believing in God?

Well, I think Prager's points can be divided up as follows. I count four separate items that are really all about the claim that the absence of God makes the theory and practice of morality impossible and thus leads to outright immorality and evil. Three items relate to what Prager peceives as the "lack of objective meaning to life." As far a Prager is concerned this results in life being a "tragic fare" for all of us and the, to Prager apparently disturbing fact, that everyone after death everyone ends up the same way. This is followed by several items that may be termed cultural deterioration, including such things as no inspiring art, an increase in profanity, something Prager calls "humanist hubris", and the fact that humans and animals have equal value. Finally, there are the claims that without God, man is determined, has no rights, and is more prone to irrationality.

Here I must remind the reader that I'm not arguing as a representive atheist, not if that means that I'm somehow an average of all atheist ideologies. I can only argue for what I regard as true which is Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand (though of course I am merely presenting my understanding of the ideas -- any errors are my own). Objectivism is of course atheist, but that is a consequence of its regard for reason, not a primary. Prager is also not a general theist, whatever that would mean. In fact Prager, specifies what kind of God he is referring too:
The God of Israel, the God of America's founders, "the Holy God who is made holy by justice" (Isaiah), the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who demands love of neighbor, the God who endows all human beings with certain inalienable rights, the God who is cited on the Liberty Bell because he is the author of liberty.
Unfortunately I dare say that is not nearly as clear as the philosophy of Objectivism. However, since Prager is an advocate of what he terms Judeo-Christian values, I assume by the references that he means the God of Judaism and Christianity.

Let's start with the obvious ones first -- the claims about atheism and morality. Prager makes the following four claims:
  1. Without God..there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil."
  2. Secular philosophy provides no real guidance for an ethical life.
  3. Atheism leads to unwillingness to confront evil
  4. Atheistic regimes commit more atrocities than religious regimes

The fourth claim really needs to be dismissed out of hand. It is simply improper to make an argument based on a relatively lesser number atrocities. To the extent that we disapprove of such things, I think we can all agree to condemn regimes that engage in such acts, whether on a large or small scale. It is simply no use to a victim of the Inquisition that he is a member of a much smaller group of victims than the communists put in the Gulag or the Nazis in the concentration camps.

That leaves the first three claims. Prager clarifies that

...unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

In Prager's argument objectivity in morality comes from "a moral authority that transcends humans." Let's ignore the inherent weaknesses in using an "authority" as a claim to objectivity. Prager clearly conflates what Ayn Rand called "intrinsicism" with objectivity. He regards any view emanating from a human being, no matter what it's based on, as "subjective."

But this is mistaken (to put it charitably) -- man can regard his views as objective if he follows an objective method in reaching his conclusions, a method that relies on facts and reason. Objectivity is not a feature inherent in reality. While the phrase "objective reality" can be used, it is primarily with regard to man's knowledge and ideas to which the idea of objectivity applies. Prager might agree that scientific knowledge and ideas can be objective but he claims that values cannot be. But this is also false: Ayn Rand has shown that values follow the same pattern as other knowledge and that it is possible to arrive at objective values by the application of reason to the facts of man's nature.

Values are that which we pursue or aim to keep. Living things other than human beings automatically pursue those values that are beneficial to their lives, within the limits possible to them. Since a human being, like all living things, is confronted with the alternative of life or death, if he wants to live, he must follow the principles of self-preservation by choice. These principles are the objective requirements of man's life and thus constitute the objective values and virtues that man should follow. There is, of course, much more to it than that, and whole books have been written on the subject. These books also address in some detail what Prager perceives as the missing guidance for ethical behavior. Objectivism agrees with Prager that human beings need guidance and it endeavors to provide it in the form of values such as reason, purpose and self-esteem, as well as virtues, such as rationality, independence, integrity, productiveness, honesty, justice, and pride, as well as a major vice -- the initiation of physical force. If these values were pursued and virtues practiced consistently by leaders of the Western world, I'm quite certain that evil would be confronted. In fact, I would think evil would not get nearly as far as it has.

Next, let's tackle the issue of meaning. This is actually a very fascinating and challenging topic that others have written some important things about. Prager claims that without God our "existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced." Here I may surprise some and agree completely. It's true: Without God there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning. An intrinsic purpose or meaning would be one intrinsic to the very nature of reality as specified by reality's purported creator and entirely independent of any human values. For religious people, this meaning is very important, very dear to their hearts. And in Judaism and Christianity specifically, the meaning revolves around the overall plan that God has for man and the world he lives in, as well as the existence of an afterlife.

Be that as it may, I cannot help feeling unmoved as my happiness in life does not depend on any such meaning. For me and many others like me, the meaning I receive from my most important values such as work and loved ones is sufficient. I have other broader goals as well, such as helping to spread my values to the wider culture. So frankly, my overall answer to Prager's claim is that my life has meaning and value to me and that is sufficient. I refuse to indulge in fantasies to compensate for any perceived inadequacies in my life. If I am unhappy about some aspect I aim to change it and thus add actual value and meaning to my existence.

Prager regards life without God as "a tragic fare," in which "we live, we suffer, we die." Leaving aside the specific formulation for the moment, why does this constitute a problem to someone who does not wish for the impossible? "Tragic" is an evaluative term. But as far as Objectivism is concerned, in this context, it is a stolen concept ("using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots"). To evaluate requires that one first accept the standard of value: Man's life. It is improper to apply moral terms to basic facts of existence, including man's existence. It is a fundamental fact of living entities, including man, that they live and eventually die. It is not to be evaluated, it is the basis of all evaluation. The fact of man's limited lifespan leads to the need for moral principles. If human beings could live forever, no particular mode of living and thus no ethics or morality would be required.

Prager is also, of course, wrong to summarize human life as "we live, we suffer, we die". He deliberately left out the possibility of human happiness. There is certainly no necessity of suffering as such and modern medical technology has certainly reduced the amount of suffering that man does experience during his life time. More importantly, life has the potential to be a source of great happiness and flourishing, if one's sets rational goals and achieves them. Reality is not inherently set against man. If man accepts the absolutism of reality and follows the principles of morality he can, barring accidents, achieve his values in this world and many have done so. This is what Ayn Rand called the Benevolent Universe Premise.

I don't know that there's much point in addressing Prager's apparent concern about the similar fate of nuns and mass murderer's after death. Why this should concern a rational person is really beyond me. After death only the living remain. It is the responsibility of the living to remember and judge the dead appropriately and justly.

I will continue with Prager's remaining claims in the next part.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part II.


Myrhaf said...

I hold Prager as the most dangerous religious conservative on the radio because he is the most intelligent and most philosophical. His depth makes Rush Limbaugh look like a stick figure.

Burgess Laughlin said...

One source of confusion (and equivocation, intended or not) in discussions with religious intellectuals is the term/concept "objectivity."

Traditionally in the history of philosophy, in metaphysics (ontology), the "object" is what is outside the mind. The "subject" is the person (the "human person," Catholics say). So metaphysically, the tree I see in the courtyard is objective and my knowledge of it is subjective, in this traditional usage.

Objectivism agrees with the metaphysical meaning, but only as one tenet of Objectivist metaphysics. See The Ayn Rand Lexicon for "Objectivity" and "Objective Values." These entries cover all three uses of "objective"--in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Traditionally, an "objective ethics" would be one that works from a standard that comes from outside the mind. An example is a revealed scripture, for religious people. Objectivism, as you noted, radically disagrees with this position. "Objectivity" in Objectivist epistemology and therefore ethics means: "Drawn logically by the mind from facts of reality."

For the traditional notions of "objective" and "subjective," readers might examine most any conventional philosophical dictionary, such as the handy one-volume Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, W. L. Reese. If I recall correctly (from eight years ago), the ten-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a brief entry for "objectivism," giving the traditional metaphysical meaning.

Gideon said...

Re Myrhaf: I agree with that -- he is the perfect gateway to religion precisely because he comes across as so reasonable and fair. And his intellectual depth in particular serves as a trap for those more intellectually inclined -- i.e., the more thoughtful and intelligent.

Gideon said...

Re Burgess: Confusion indeed! This is still one of the more challenging things to get across as many people are sadly unaware of the alternative that Objectivism presents or deliberately choose to ignore it.

But hopefully, with more exposure for Objectivist ideas in academia such as in the recent issue of Social Philosophy and Policy more people will become aware of the Objectivist understanding of objectivity as an epistemological and thus relational concept.

madmax said...

Prager is just rehashing a collection of pro-theistic arguments made by many Christian apologists. He is *not* very sophisticated at all. He is a lightweight compared to the more noted apologists such as those of the Presuppositionalist school (and it should be noted that all religious apologists are themselves lightweights philosophically speaking).

Prager is using Presuppositionalist arguments put forward by Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, Richard Pratt, and their followers. The main argument is T.A.G. otherwise known as the "Transcendental Argument for the existence of God." This basically treats god as a metaphysical axiom and claims that logic, truth, morality, etc would be impossible without god as a starting point. Its pure Primacy of Consciousness metaphysics.

Presuppostionalist arguments are differentiated from Evidentialist arguments which try to argue that God is logically inferred from the facts of reality. Intelligent Design is an Evidentialist argument. But the Presuppostionalists don't like Evidentialist arguments because they grant too much power to reason and reality. God must be the starting point for there to be reason in the first place according to them.

Most Christian apologists mix the two types of apology strategies in their arguments but the Presuppositionalist arguments are *very* popular. I have seen them used by Prager, Hewitt, Coulter, Auster, etc.. Many non-Objectivist atheists can easily point to the logical fallacies with the concept "God." The inherent contradictions with "Omnipotence", "Omniscience", and "Omnibenevolence" for example are well documented. But only Objectivism can effectively destroy the god-concept's claim to Metaphysical primacy because only Objectivism champions the Primacy of Existence which is the ultimate destroyer of "God."

Here is a link to an Obectivist who has writen an impressive array of arguments against the god-concept in general and the Presuppostionalist school in particular. They are all made from the Objectivist perspective which is rare because most Objectivists don't spend much time on polemics against theism:

Incinerating Presuppositionalism

If atheist/theist polemics is of interest to you, then spending time going through that site's vast collection (over 4 years worth of posts) of essays will be worthwhile to you.

Gideon said...

Re Madmax: Just to clarify, I can't speak for myrhaf but by pointing to Prager's depth I certainly did not mean to imply that I consider him a sophisticated or original thinker.

My point is that within the context of popular, well known intellectuals, in particular right-wing radio talk-show hosts he functions quite effectively: He's a good speaker and his relative intellectuality and politeness compared to people such as Rush as well as his focus on the more important and fundamental issues rather than trivia leads many people to regard him as more credible than he otherwise would be. That's why he's so dangerous.

However, I am very much interested in the underlying ideas involved and will take a look at the anti-Presuppositionalist blog you mentioned. Thanks very much for the link.

madmax said...

"Just to clarify, I can't speak for myrhaf but by pointing to Prager's depth I certainly did not mean to imply that I consider him a sophisticated or original thinker."

I'm sorry if I implied that you did. And I agree with you and Myrhaf that Prager is the deepest Conservative host out there and possibly the most dangerous. I should have been clearer in my point which is that the arguments that Prager uses are not that sophisticated as far as apologetic arguments go. The apologists can get quite metaphysical even though its all mystical.

The Presuppositionalist apologetics have had a pretty big impact on American culture in my opinion especially on religious culture. Many religionists now routinely argue that they have "faith in reason", that all atheists "must borrow from Christianity for ethics in order to survive", and that "a transcendent God is necessary to have order in the universe" which leads of course to the ever-present condemnation of all those "materialist, randomness-worshiping atheists" (which unfortunately do exist). These arguments have gained traction in the broader culture and are popularized by Conservative pundits like Prager and D'souza.

Gideon said...

No problem. As I mentioned, I'm actually quite interested in the underlying ideas and will investigate them further. Perhaps a future blog post will follow.

William H. Stoddard said...

It strikes me that the claim that atheist governments commit more atrocities clashes with Christian doctrines. It's part of standard Christian theology that all human beings are condemned to suffer in Hell after the deaths of the physical bodies; that this suffering is more intense than any merely physical suffering could be; and that it is not ended by eventual death, but infinitely prolonged. Of course, Christians claim that one can be let off from this suffering by accepting Christ's offer of mercy; but it's standard Christian doctrine that not everyone will be saved—the belief in universal salvation is the heresy of apocatastasis or universalism. Surely this is a far greater atrocity than anything mere human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot could achieve; even if we suppose the number of sufferers will be less (and many Christians do not), a trillion years of suffering has to count against the brief physical suffering of many people. I think the sum of atrocities on God's side is, according to Christian beliefs, far greater. The only difference is that Christians approve of these particular atrocities.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I find the argument that ethics and morality must necessarily be built on theism a very bad argument even though I am not an atheist. I do not accept that theism is a necessary foundation for morality.

I believe that the problem is that people who have not thought out the reasons for moral principles carefully, tend to equate religious behavior with moral behavior. Although many religions do legislate certain behaviors based on morality (e.g. you must not murder), they also legislate certain ritual behaviors that are amoral at best (you must not eat pork). I think it is dangerous when religious people do not differentiate between these different kinds of laws and precepts.

People who do not make such clear categorical separations are the same people who cannot differentiate between an event that is bad for them (e.g. a hurricane) and a genuinely evil deed (e.g. the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11). To them, these a equal, and thus their responses can become immoral.

Religous people who equate obedience to ritual rules with moral actions are the most likely to commit evil action in the name of religious observance.

Renee Katz said...

Some of you might be interested in this site; the author counters various theological arguments, including presuppositionalist arguments, from an Objectivist standpoint.