(Dis)Proving the Necessity of God

Matthew pointed me to this article by Dennis Prager on the need for belief in God (and by God he means a conflation of the Biblical Hebraic god with the Deistic god of the US Framers).

Now as a religious person myself I find this line of argument he takes up so counterproductive to the defense of faith. It’s full of so many partial truths overblown, no truths, it’s a mess.

This will be long as he makes numerous point each of which requires rebuttal, but the overall way of stating my general disagreement with Prager’s view is: 1) it unnecessarily drives a wedge between Judeo-Christians and secular individuals in America as well as Judeo-Christians and believers of other religions who are upstanding American citizens 2)it rightly condemns moral relativism but incorrectly asserts without God (and his God in particular) moral relativism is the inevitable end result.

Prager begins:

We are constantly reminded about the destructive consequences of religion — intolerance, hatred, division, inquisitions, persecutions of “heretics,” holy wars. Though far from the whole story, they are, nevertheless, true. There have been many awful consequences of religion.

What one almost never hears described are the deleterious consequences of secularism — the terrible developments that have accompanied the breakdown of traditional religion and belief in God. For every thousand students who learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, maybe two learn to associate Gulag, Auschwitz, The Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide with secular regimes and ideologies.

Of course Stalinist and Maoist Marxism and certainly the Nazi Regimes were actually religious movements. They employed modern technology and anti-Christian (or anti-traditional Confucianianism as in China) but the Nazi elites were deeply believers in the occult.

Human beings will always create religions (particularly of the magic and mythic varieties) so it seems Prager would do better to argue that the problem he sees is the creation of these false religions. He is constantly criticizing (correctly) fringe elements of environmentalism as a religion. [I disagree with him how widespread fringe would be within environmentalism but it certainly properly labels some correctly]. Otherwise his argument that there was religious violence and then secular violence it undone, given the religious roots of all the groups mentioned.

I mean even Prager gets it himself, in the same post (my emphasis):

Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism.

So it looks like he’s trying to have it both ways here. A better route would be a good versus bad religion distinction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so onto Prager’s thesis:

So, while it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God’s existence, what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God.

The first half of that sentence is correct, the latter half has got some problems.

1. Without God there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label “good” and “evil.”…It simply means 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.”

It’s legitimate that Prager puts this argument forward as #1 because all of the rest of his assertions supporting his thesis basically follow from this one. If of course then, this assertion were undermined, well then….

Notice how philosophically there is only objective and subjective poles of existence. This is the key point. This is the myth of modernism–that Prager is a certain variety of religious modernist is essentially irrelevant to the point at hand–the myth of the given. The Mirror of Nature.

In other words, it leaves out completely the realm of the intersubjective. Prager would do well to read Habermas or Apel. They show (I think convincingly) that you can gain a context-transcending moral discourse through the rules of communication. Norms are created through human interaction. They are neither enforced by a top-down God figure nor slides of deconstruction, power plays, or (self-obliterating) relativism.

If something like a transcendental pragmatics is not possible then I don’t think Prager’s deity solves the problem of an objective moral order. God in Prager’s view is a stand-in (or upholder) of an objective reality. Again fairly Deist and static. It’s important then that one point out the question of which God/god(s) because with gods there is final set objective moral order. Different gods promote different moral orders. And the circularity of Prager’s argument already becomes evident.

2. Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced.

Now the initial response to #2 could simply be that in fact we are all random creatures of natural selection. As to the intrinsic purpose we could simple be vectors for selfish genes (which is actually more purpose than a pebble).

As with #1, there is an alternative philosophical discourse that (thankfully) gets us out of this stupid dualistic bind Prager sets up. Process thought shows that evolution involves notions of emergence, integration, and diversification all of which has deep purpose (allowing a moral arrow to guide our actions and a criterion by which to judge them positively or negatively) not requiring a Designer from Outside nor able to be materially reduced (a la Neo-Darwinianism). This is why Prager’s Reason #9 is also wrong (without God humans and animals are equal)–see Teilhard’s Law of Complexity and Consciousness as to why this is nonsense.

Again like in #1 (with Habermas & Apel) the inclusiveness of the Process view allows for a God or no God, religion or no-religion view, compatible with the same basic philosophical outlook. Building connections across the boundaries allowing for non-enmity creating zero-sum arbitrary black/white views like Prager invokes.

5. If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.

Again the issue is If there is no moral order–i.e. if total moral relativism takes over–then the innocent do indeed suffer. But that doesn’t automatically have to to do with God.

8. If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot, whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.

Simply wrong. See Buddhism as a counterexample. No god/God but free will. i.e. Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering is Attainable (Free Will if I’ve ever heard it).

10. Without God, there is little to inspire people to create inspiring art.

11. Without God nothing is holy.

12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable.

Substitute consciousness for God and then you’ve got something. To get fancy for a moment on #11 this is in fact correct but not in the way Prager thinks. God here could be read as the relative world: the world which is properly defined by sacred (holy) versus profane. In the Absolute (in Awakening that is) “no-thing” is holy. No-thing is profane either. Holy/profane only works on the level of relativity. Or if you want to speak metaphorically nothing is holy because everything is holy.

Then his finale which sounds more like a stump speech than an argument:

“Which God?” the secularist will ask. 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. That is the God being referred to here, without whom we will be vanquished by those who believe in less noble gods, both secular and divine.

Charitably, Prager may just have run out of room. Obviously this assertion would require a separate op-ed unto itself.

There are Continent-size Holes in this graf. A biggie from my end is questioning whether Adonai, the God of Israel is not the Deistic god of Jefferson cutting out the miracles (literally) from the Gospels.
Just saying it is so, doesn’t make it be so.

But you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to wonder whether it is a wee bit too convenient that Prager’s God swoops in at the end and supports his (Prager’s) view of politics and religion. And that said God–following Prager’s assertions–is necessary for there to be a moral order at all. Hence his view is the correct moral understanding of reality and to question is to question God plus the entire foundation of objectivity?

It’s fitting I suppose that it begins in kind of dogmatic pronouncement and ends in one as well.

Update I: I’ll add that I’m not stupid that referencing fairly obscure notions like transcendental-pragmatics, process philosophy, The Two Truths Doctrine means that in the brutality of life, something more like what Prager is saying on a wide scale may have more resonance. Again though he’s still want to have it both ways–either secularism is a religion and therefore religion comes in for a further attack or secularism is not religious in which case he can’t cite Nazis and gulags to that effect.

I’m only trying to make a more limited point. That philosophically his either/or formulation is wrong at every point. Or more precisely it is correct only from his (limited) worldview and other worldviews exist in which these seemingly intractable dilemmas are actually dissolved. That such a worldview/vision is not widely held doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

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