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