Saturday, August 23, 2008

If there is no God (Part IV)

This is the conclusion of my criticisms of Dennis Prager's article on what would happen in the absence of God. In Part I, I criticized Prager's attempts to conclude that morality and meaning would suffer if there were no God. In Part II, I denied that a world without God somehow means that man has no free will. In Part III, I attacked the claim that the absence of God necessarily leads to some kind of cultural deterioration.

What's left? Well, I promised to still deal with Prager's claim that "Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable" as well as that "without God there are no inalienable human rights."

Let's start with the issue of rights.

Yes, it is my understanding that the Founding Fathers, when defending individual rights, relied on the Natural Law ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and others. The Natural Law tradition substantially based these ideas on the existence of a God, who created and maintains the natural order and, as the creator of man, endowed him with inalienable rights.

Despite the enormously important and praiseworthy achievement of the Founders in finally explicitly recognizing individual rights as part of a government and its Constitution, there are in fact quite a few problems in with the specific understanding of rights possessed by the Founders, not the least of which would be that basing the idea of rights on the existence of a fantastic being, would, as soon as more intellectuals started realizing the difficulties with the existence of such a being, put the whole Natural Law-based rights case in jeopardy.

But fortunately, and once again, Prager is wrong. The case for man's rights does not depend on the existence of God. Ayn Rand has shown that rights can be defended entirely on the basis of man's nature combined with a certain morality.
The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
The reason for the confusion in the minds of many Conservatives is again their inability to understand that individual rights are an objective moral principle. Its objectivity implies that it connects aspects both of man's consciousness (his values -- he is worthy of living) as well as of existence (his nature -- man survives by reason). It is not simply that rights are a kind of inherent hidden property of man that we would see if we were the right glasses. Nor do moral principles fall from the sky. They must be discovered, validated and practiced and in this case protected if they are to serve their function which is to further man's life. If men want to live in a society in which their rights are protected, they must recognize each others rights and create and sustain a government that is vigilant about protecting these rights. Frankly, God simply doesn't enter this picture at all.

In fact, the history of the 20th century notwithstanding, it is quite clear that belief in God as such does not lead to rights at all as the history of Europe from the 5th to the 16th century makes clear. God was very much in men's minds during those eleven centuries but individual rights were nowhere to be found. If one cares to study the periods involved, then it's clear that it was increasing emphasis of reason and the efficacy of the individual mind that ultimately lead some Christians to support the concept of individual rights, arguably in contradiction to much of their recent theology.

This is not, of course to deny the horrors of the 20th century, but here again it simply means that belief in God is not the only, nor necessarily the worst of the causes of man's inhumanity to man. But if we hope to do better, we ought to reject both religions and secular ideologies that differ only in the degree and type of mysticism, irrationality, collectivism and altruism. This is because rights depend on rationality, egoism, and individualism, ideas not usually associated with belief in God.

Finally, turning now to the issue of "humanist hubris," Prager writes:
12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.
I admit I have trouble understanding exactly what Prager is getting at here. Of course, the statement is almost trivially true. Among the religious, man may be highest among the animals but he is the equivalent of a speck of dust compared to the infinite, omnipotent and omniscient God. If such a God does not exist then man becomes the "supreme being."

Again, what does Prager mean here? He is surely aware, since that's one of his claims in the very same essay, that some secular people (certainly not me!) hold that humans and animals are of equal value. So then does Prager contradict his own claim here? On the one hand absence of God leads to humans and animals being of the same value, on the other hand, if there is no God man becomes the supreme being. Well which is it? Or could it be that the absence of God has no specific consequences, that atheism is simply the absence of belief in God and it's one's positive ideas that are the cause of one's values?

But I'll leave all this aside because I'm more interested in a deeper point raised by Prager's claim. I actually agree with Prager that, absent a God, man becomes the supreme being. This is not a problem for me but it seems to be a problem for Prager. Why?

The answer can be seen in the very same essay in Prager's various claims of what happens to men who operate without believing in a God. Apparently, Prager thinks that such men are basically irrational, immoral, uninspired, crude, profane, determined by their genes and environment, and devoid of meaning or purpose. Thus when such beings come to regard themselves as supreme, it would, in Prager's view, be a disaster. Such beings need to know that there's something above them to force them to behave as civilized beings rather than savage beasts.

Men are not born believing in God. Children are not aware of such an idea until it is taught them by their elders. Thus I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Prager regards atheistic individuals as for the most part no better than children (and particularly badly behaved children at that) who need to be taught to obey a higher authority.

Prager has over the years claimed that one of the most important differences between himself and his intellectual opponents is the fact that while he believes that "we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil," they believe that "people are basically good." On the face of it, Prager's attitude seems balanced but on closer examination, and based on the way Prager regards atheistic man described above, it seems far more likely that Prager regards man as basically bad, though he grants that with enough application of faith and force something good may come out.

How to respond? At this point I have to quote Ayn Rand on man:
Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.
By virtue of his rational faculty, man is the supreme being on earth. But by the fact that the faculty is volitional, i.e., his to control via his choices, he is capable of both great achievement and great destruction. However, it is not his destructive capabilities that distinguish man but his creative abilities because when he is creative he is actualizing and fulfilling his fundamental nature as a rational being, whereas when he is destructive, he merely returns to the level of animals, even if he is capable of more destruction than they are. Thus man at his best is good. Man at his best is worthy of admiration and even of worship. I conclude with another quote from Ayn Rand:
Do not confuse “man worship” with the many attempts, not to emancipate morality from religion and bring it into the realm of reason, but to substitute a secular meaning for the worst, the most profoundly irrational elements of religion. For instance, there are all the variants of modern collectivism (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.), which preserve the religious-altruist ethics in full and merely substitute “society” for God as the beneficiary of man’s self-immolation....
...
The man-worshipers, in my sense of the term, are those who see man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it. . . . [Man-worshipers are] those dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.

2 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "This is because rights depend on rationality, egoism, and individualism, ideas not usually associated with belief in God."

I suggest that, in the hierarchy of knowledge, the issue of rights has roots even deeper than in politics (individualism), ethics (egoism), and epistemology (rationality). The metaphysical (ontological) foundation of the idea of rights is the recognition that we live in one, natural world in which every entity (including man) has an identity. Believers in God replace this starting point in nature with a starting point in the supernatural.

It is supernaturalism, in one form or another, that ultimately gives rise to statism.

Gideon said...

Right. I don't disagree with that and did not mean my list of principles to be exhaustive. I was contrasting rationality, egoism and individualism with mysticism, irrationality, altruism, and collectivism, items which were in common in the totalitarian secular ideologies of the 20th century as well as religions. For the most part the secular ideologies rejected supernaturalism.