Sunday, March 25, 2018

Dennis Prager’s Jewish "Wisdom"

Dennis Prager is an American syndicated radio host and is known for his zealous defense of conservatism and Judaism. He often admits that he doesn’t think God’s existence can be proven, although he adds that he doesn’t think atheism can be proven either, and yet he likes to say that he comes to his religious beliefs through toxic effects of secularism, such as the moral bankruptcy of liberalism and postmodern philosophy. He also likes to say that while atheists can be knowledgeable and intellectual, they tend to lack wisdom, because wisdom derives from God. His radio-quality baritone and Jewish affiliation lends him a wise man’s aura, but reading through some of his articles and listening to some of his debates and Prager University videos makes for a letdown. His is meant to be the Machiavellian “wisdom” of a secularized Jew who is too busy making money in business, idolizing Americanism, and sucking up to American “Christian” conservatives to demonstrate any concern for philosophical depth or rigor.  

Prager’s Two Questions for Atheists

Let’s examine some of Prager’s arguments. He often poses two questions to atheists, which he thinks are the most important to ask: “Do you hope you are right or wrong [about whether God exists]?” and “Do you ever doubt your atheism?” While he debates the philosophical issues with atheists, he says, what really interests him “are the answers to these two questions.” This is ‘Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God”—do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person.’

If the atheist says she doesn’t hope there’s a God, she’s revealed that she has a “cold soul,” and so Prager writes, “I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality—right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe—murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.”

And if she doesn’t ever doubt her atheism, Prager says, the atheist shows she’s more dogmatic than theists who frequently doubt some of their religious beliefs. Thus Prager writes, “When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain—none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?”

Prager is right, more or less, about the dire implications of philosophical naturalism, but he hasn’t thought through the implications of theism if he thinks that positing God remedies our existential situation—as Kierkegaard and the other religious existentialists would have pointed out to him. To begin with, Prager’s notion that “all existence is random,” given atheism, is a strawman, since atheists are typically naturalists and naturalists posit natural order, patterns, and even invariances or nomic relations. There’s randomness in nature, but there are also regularities subject to rational explanations. If reality were ultimately mental rather than some living-dead flow of matter and physicality, that is, were God the metaphysically primary cause of everything else, there would be no reason why existence shouldn’t be fundamentally random, since God could always change his mind or act on a whim. Mindless matter has no freedom or emotional impulse to unfold against its nature or to reverse course out of spite or jealousy. Only credulity and superstitious deference to orthodox interpretations of scriptures, based on taking human autocrats as models of the supernatural boss in the sky, would lead theists to presume that if God exists, the universe is secure and we have nothing to worry about as long as we follow certain Iron Age commandments. What would stop God from creating infinite universes and disposing of them at will or as inspired by an alien aesthetics, as depicted in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker? What could prevent God from doing absolutely anything he wants for no reason we could possibly understand, as is the lesson of the Book of Job? Only were we naively anthropocentric would we think that God’s logic should align with our mammalian reasoning, that we’re “made in God’s image.” Only a sanctimonious blowhard would boast that her interpretation of poetic scripture and thus of God’s alleged intentions is the only valid one. 

So Prager has it backwards: if you want to feel half-way secure in the world, without having to resort to a leap of faith, you’d prefer the world to be fundamentally mindless, since that would remove the element of arbitrary choice from how the universe works. Quantum mechanics and the ultimate source of natural order may be mysterious on naturalistic grounds (as they are on theistic ones too, since positing a miracle or an eternal, supernatural person doesn’t explain anything), but at least macroscopic matter and physicality would have no metaphysical basis for inexplicably reversing themselves. Sure, the theist will assert that God keeps his word, that he’s perfect and that he loves us and so would never mislead us or act without good reason. But even Prager concedes (as in his debate with Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza, starting at around the 14:14 minute mark) that the prevalence of unnecessary suffering in the world should mystify the theist. And as he says in his debate with Michael Shermer (at the 13:45 minute mark; Shermer is next to useless), he makes only two leaps of faith: that God exists and that God is good. Of course, Prager’s notion of “goodness” is anthropocentric, so what he means by calling God good is that God won’t do anything in the end to offend our conceptions of justice and fair play, such as holding out the promise of our eternal life, in religious revelation, and going back on his word or changing his mind. In any case, Prager admits that this adorable restriction of God’s nature and character to the self-interested limits of our sense of propriety is just a leap of faith. So as far as reason is concerned, the theist shouldn’t be so comfortable, after all, given her belief that she lives in a universe controlled by a lone, all-powerful guy with absolute discretion to do whatever he wants. Certainly, our experience of human dictators shouldn’t inspire confidence that God would be trustworthy—or remotely benevolent or sane, for that matter.  

I’ll turn to the question of morality in the next section, but this point about the gratuitous characterization of God in terms that are ideal from a human-centered viewpoint applies to Prager’s other assumptions about the implications of atheism, quoted above. There needn’t be an afterlife if there’s no God (although there are plenty of sci-fi scenarios that allow for such an afterlife, as in the case of all-powerful transhumans in the distant future being able to resurrect or simulate past life forms; see, for example, Fyodorov’s cosmism and Clarke’s and Baxter’s novel, The Light of Other Days), but there’s likewise no need for God to grant us eternal life; rather, theists merely have the need to grasp at that straw, but that wouldn’t obligate God to care about us or to be a humanitarian. Indeed, were we made in God’s image, we could expect God to double-cross us, since we frequently do so to each other. If instead God’s perfect, he must be alien and inhuman, and so we have no idea what he’d do for us. Divine revelation doesn’t help, since interpreting the scriptures is subjective and leads to the same problem of relativism which Prager thinks besets liberal secularism. 

As for Prager’s second question, his error is similar to that of the political centrist who thinks that the social truth is found midway between conservatism and liberalism, that each side therefore has an identical obligation to compromise, since the two sides are equally extreme. Likewise, Prager assumes what amounts to agnosticism, which says that God’s existence is neither provable nor disprovable, that theism and atheism are therefore equally arbitrary, and that the theist and the atheist both ought to recognize the unknowability of whether there’s a God and so should wonder once in a while whether they’re on the right track. Indeed, to extend Kierkegaard’s point about fear and trembling, Prager might suggest the atheist ought to be angst-ridden in pondering God’s possibility, given that reason doesn’t settle the matter either way.

Here everything hinges on what the theist means by “God.” The more you define that word according to want you want God to be, the more incoherent your religious conceptions are bound to be, and so the more atheism wins by rational standards, if only by default, because the theistic side doesn’t then bother showing up. Lack of belief in something self-contradictory, vacuous, or childishly construed is automatically the rational, responsible position on the question whether that X which is simultaneously not-X or which is otherwise plainly absurd and outdated exists. In that case, we should expect the theist to be constantly wrestling with doubts about her anachronistic religious beliefs, but the atheist has no comparable basis for doubting the merit of the opposite beliefs.

If God is stripped of his personhood and thought of as some pseudonatural Force, then indeed agnosticism might be more reasonable—except for the fact that the atheist would have recourse to Laplace’s response, that there’s no need for the God hypothesis. In other words, if you think of God as only a (mostly empty) First Cause, the psychological question of our degree of certainty about whether such a cause exists is irrelevant, since the discourse will have shifted to science-centered territory. All that matters, then, would be whether theism is useful, not philosophically or religiously True. Finally, if you define “God” along more mystical, obscure lines, so that God becomes a mere cosmicist reminder of our finitude and fragility, a metaphysical placeholder representing the sublime and the numinous, namely that which forever transcends our comprehension, the atheist would have no reason to doubt the existence of this “God,” since these sobering properties are eminently found in the world as it’s conceived by the philosophical naturalist.

The shakiness of Prager’s argument is apparent from his examples which are supposed to show that agnosticism ought to compel the theist and the atheist equally to compromise with self-doubts. The problem of evil and unnecessary suffering should give the theist pause, he writes, and as for the miracles that are supposed to shock the atheist into wondering whether maybe the universe was after all created by an invisible, everlasting guy, he cites “a baby born or a spectacular sunset,” the hearing of “a Mozart symphony” or “the infinite complexity of the human brain.” He could just as easily and fruitlessly have added that our planet seems to be at the center of the universe. You see, Prager’s agnosticism leads him to prize intuition as our only recourse when logic and empirical evidence prove inconclusive. So if a baby’s birth seems miraculous and wonderful, even though that phenomenon has been thoroughly explained without the God hypothesis, the atheist is supposed to be fanatical unless she entertains second thoughts. As we’ll see later, though, Prager’s appeal to intuition is biased since he trusts only socially conservative ones and dismisses the liberal’s as nonsensical. On the contrary, the upshot of the Scientific Revolution is that when it comes to telling us about the real world, all our treasured intuitions are dubious.

The Status of Religious and Secular Moralities

Of course, Prager does think theism is useful; indeed, he proclaims that theism is the only basis of morality. In his video, called “If there’s no God, Murder isn’t Wrong,” he claims to demonstrate the “fact” that “Without a God who is the source of morality, morality is just a matter of opinion.” By contrast, he says, for the theist, morality is “objective” and “absolute,” which are two qualities he doesn’t distinguish but conflates to misrepresent the issue as being about whether morality is real or just arbitrary and made up like mere opinions. “Without God,” he says, “there are no moral facts” and so the wrongness of murder can’t be scientifically proven.

Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma showed over two thousand years ago that the objectivity of morality is a red herring. You need only consult your dictionary to see that whether morality is objective is irrelevant. According to and with my emphases, “objective” means (1) “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased,” (2) “intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book,” (3) “being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject (opposed to subjective),” or (4) “of or relating to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.”

What these definitions have in common is that objectivity is about how things are in themselves irrespective of what anyone thinks or feels about them. The theist says morality comes not from us but from God. Nevertheless, God is supposed to be a person, so theistic morality is necessarily as subjective, albeit not necessarily as flawed, as the secular morality that we arrive at due to our best judgments. Just because you swap God for a human person, doesn’t mean you establish that morality is independent of thought of feeling; all you show is that morality is independent of our thoughts and feelings.

The closest these definitions come to showing what Prager would want them to show is where (1) says that objectivity has to do with the facts as opposed to various fallible sources of judgment. By definition, God would be infallible. Nevertheless, as Plato showed, saying that God deems certain actions moral or immoral doesn’t mean that his judgment is necessarily fact-based. As Plato asked, is murder wrong because God decrees it so or does he decree it because murder is independently wrong? Only in the latter case would murder be wrong as an objective fact, as a matter of how things are in themselves regardless of what anyone says, and yet in that case God wouldn’t be the source of morality. If morality were objective, God’s task would be merely to confirm as much with his flawless cognitive faculties, not to provide the ground of morality. And if morality is as it is independent of anyone’s judgment, the theist loses the upper hand, since at best, God would be epistemically useful to our deliberations about morality, not metaphysically so. We flawed creatures might defer to God’s moral judgment, assuming his knowledge is perfect, but morality would still be possible without that reflection in divine reasoning and thus without God’s existence. We might just never come to know about what’s moral were it not for divine revelation (of which there clearly is none in our history).

So the objectivity of morality would hardly be the theist’s friend. If morality is fact-based, it could just as easily be so on atheistic grounds. Moreover, if actions are right or wrong as a matter of objective fact, established as such independent of any mind, the moralist promptly runs into the wall of the naturalistic fallacy in trying to infer the prescription from what must be the mere description of that objective fact.

By contrast, for those interested in the least bit of rigour, “absolute” means among other things, (1) “free from imperfection; complete; perfect,” (2) “free from restriction or limitation; not limited in any way,” (3) “unrestrained or unlimited by a constitution, counterbalancing group, etc., in the exercise of governmental power, especially when arbitrary or despotic,” (4) “viewed independently; not comparative or relative; ultimate; intrinsic,” (5) “positive; certain.” These definitions seem closer to what a theist would want to say about morality, especially a conservative one like Prager. What Prager wants to say, then, is that only if God exists and at least tells us about what’s moral would that morality be absolute (not objective) by being perfect, complete, ultimate, and certain. We can be confident only about religious morality, as opposed to the secular kind which degenerates into postmodern squabbles that can never be resolved, because the liberal takes each person’s opinion to be as authoritative as anyone else’s.

The key here, then, seems to be the hidden, political sense of (3). Having been chastened about speaking of morality’s “objectivity,” the theist should switch to the need for morality’s absoluteness in contrast to the supposed travesty of secular relativism. This is to say that the issue is about the decidability of moral questions. God functions then not as the ground of morality’s being, as in the above fiasco of supposing that morality is “objective,” but as the dictator who has the last word because of a mere difference in power between God and his subjects. Likewise, Kim Jong-un’s decree is absolute in North Korea. Again, God’s perfect reasoning and knowledge would be irrelevant, since those faculties could establish, at best, morality’s basis in mind-independent fact which God merely confirms and which would thus deprive the theist of the moral high ground she craves. What’s needed, rather, is God’s domination of the world he created and could destroy without warning, as shown in the last section. What matters to the theist with respect to morality is that theistic morality is politically absolute.

The reason, then, this religious morality would be “perfect” is that none of us would dare say otherwise, just as no ordinary North Korean would even dream of opposing their dictator. Similarly, God’s morality would be absolute in the sense of extending everywhere, “free from limitation,” because God’s rule would be unlimited, given his unique omnipotence. God’s morality would be “ultimate” because there would be no higher authority than God, and we could be “certain” about this morality for the same reason North Koreans are certain that they have the best leader in the world, this certainty being a matter merely of the social utility of being brainwashed for fear of offending the tyrant.

What, though, of Prager’s substantive claim that morality without God is a matter only of opinion? Again, the possibility that morality is objective and thus fact-based (and potentially natural) shows that atheistic morality needn’t be decided just by opinion, which is to say that Prager’s discussion of morality is incoherent. But putting that aside, let’s suppose that secular morality is subjective and thus decided not by any reasoning but just by opinion. This is to say that secular morality would be a matter of taste, that it would be irrational and ultimately faith-based. Does Prager mean to insinuate, then, that the theist has the least advantage in this context, when Prager himself concedes that he accepts the notion of God’s goodness only by a leap of faith? The theist trusts in some ancient scriptures or religious experience to dictate her values, whereas the secularist trusts in the writings of some philosophers or framers of a political constitution or Hollywood or corporate propaganda to dictate her values. They’re thus on equal footing as far as the wise, authentic, Kierkegaardian theist is concerned. Alas, Prager isn’t one of those.

Prager’s Religion is American Conservatism

Why, then, aside from his confusion about objectivity, does Prager presume he has the obvious upper hand in this regard? The answer is that his American form of modern Judaism reduces to social conservatism, since that and most other kinds of Judaism are practically atheological and functionally atheistic or at least agnostic. That is, these Jews are interested mainly in wisdom in something like the Aristotelian respect (learning to flourish on earth), not in speculating about God and the afterlife. This is why Prager happily appeals to agnosticism, because what matters to him isn’t whether religious beliefs are rationally justifiable, but whether religion is needed to live the good life. He takes from Judaism mainly the emphasis on morality, which as I show elsewhere derives from the ancient Jewish bastardization of Zoroastrian monotheism, and for a Jew in his milieu, having grown up in a Modern Orthodox family in America in the 1950s, this morality can only be conservative. In short, Prager’s religion is effectively just the ideology of Americanism. By “Americanism,” I mean the worst stereotype of what outsiders think of Americans, which conservative trolls like Prager the radio shock jockey ironically insist on substantiating. Prager’s tales from the Torah provide so much sanctimony and colour commentary for the conservative American values that have little especially to do with Judaism (except for the fact that some Jews used to run Hollywood and still have an outsized influence on that dream factory). What matters to Prager, then, is mainly the American culture war between liberals and conservatives. And he presumes he has the upper hand not so much against atheists in general, but against liberals. Thus, he can tolerate the faith-basis of morality, but what appalls him is the particular leap of faith into morality taken by liberals.

Notice, for example, how he says in his discussion with Shermer (starting at around the 8:36 minute mark), that he comes to theistic belief through what he calls the failure of secular culture, and more specifically through the failure of the secularism he was taught in college. And what was the secular “foolishness” and “nonsense” he was taught, which brought to his mind the Jewish principle that there’s no wisdom (as opposed to knowledge) without God? He offers some examples in his debate with Hitchens (see especially the 10:50 minute mark): the “drivel” that “men and women are basically the same” which “religious people know is nonsense,” “the hysteria of global warming,” and the notion “that the United States and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent.” Whatever you may think of these three teachings, they have much more to do with the American culture war than with theism, let alone Judaism. Prager’s religion is practically the idol of American conservatism; there’s just little more to his secularized, agnostic Jewish beliefs than that. Just look at what he mainly writes and talks about. His videos on his Prager University website are explicitly directed against liberalism and almost all espouse social conservative talking points. His columns, too, are mostly about social or political issues that arise in the American culture war.

But the clincher is his defense of American Evangelicals for supporting “President” Trump, published February 6, 2018. (This is only one of numerous other celebrations of Trump’s presidency by Prager. See, for example, this 2017 article.) Whereas many castigate these “Christians” for their obvious hypocrisy, moral bankruptcy, and intellectual hollowness, Prager stands by them, contending that “these attacks are not biblical, moral or wise.” (There’s that favourite word of his, “wise.”) This is because, he writes, “Religious Christians and Jews who support Trump understand that the character of a public leader is quite often less important than his policies. This is so obvious that only the naive think otherwise. Character is no predictor of political leadership on behalf of moral causes.” In short, he writes, “Evangelicals realize that the moral good of defeating the left is of surpassing importance.” In particular, the choice in 2016 was between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and he says, “For the record, I believe his character is superior to hers.”

As far as I can tell, this stance of his gives the game away. Prager’s reasoning, of course, is specious, since he reduces the question of sanity to one of character, and is misled to make what can only be the rankest partisan statement that Hillary Clinton’s character is worse than Trump’s—even though Trump evidently suffers literally from malignant narcissism. Note that Prager published this article long after the 2016 campaign, after the mountains of sordid details of Trump’s inhumanity have come to light. To defend Trump’s “Christian” supporters after all of this can only be a political act in support of Republican power or in deference to his side in the petty American culture war. But my point is that these sociopolitical issues are religious for Prager, because his version of Judaism is practically a secular ideology which amounts to Americanism.

Another clue is Prager’s frequent appeal to “wisdom.” He says, for example, that attacking Trump’s defenders is unwise, because it’s “naïve” to assume that a leader’s character matters more than the policies at stake. This is to say that we should expect hypocrisy from political leaders, because politicians frequently lie, exploiting people’s weaknesses to obtain political power. Thus, a politician’s character might be part of her illusion or persona, whereas what matters to the savvy voter is what the leader would likely do with her power, regardless of what she pretends to be like to get votes. George W. Bush pretended to be a guy you wanted to have a beer with, whereas in reality he was an Ivy Leaguer from a rich and powerful family. Barack Obama pretended to be a transformative figure who would change Washington, but governed as a cautious centrist. And like Bush, Donald Trump pretended to an aw-shucks everyman even though he’s a rarified billionaire who has bottomless contempt for everyone except “winners” in the business and the military.

This is all fine, but what Prager misses is that a religious person might choose to have higher standards than those of a wannabe Machiavellian, to identify her religious principles with something other than such secular political calculation or “wisdom.” In addition, of course, he misses the fact that betting on the character of a senile madman and defending Trump on pragmatic grounds is foolish rather than wise, since such a character in high office will be monumentally incompetent, capricious, and disloyal, as has come to pass. Any gains the Republicans make now in terms of crony-capitalistic tax cuts and the appointment of authoritarian, Bible-toting judges can be erased many times over after the national backlash against the embarrassment of having had a full-blown Manchurian candidate for president. That backlash can sweep away not just Republican power but the moral authority of Evangelical Christians, both of which the wise man Prager cherishes.

What to make of Prager’s substantive claim, though, that atheism is dubious because the atheist tends to be liberal and liberalism is so nonsensical that evidently if you don’t believe in God you’ll believe anything? This is a gloss on Dostoevsky’s and the Marquis de Sade’s worry that if there’s no God, anything is permitted. For example, Prager, who is a classical music enthusiast regards modern artworks as “moronic cartoons that fill our galleries” (see 1:02:12 into the debate with Hitchens). The obvious response to this sentiment is the one that Richard Dawkins frequently gives, which is that the truth can be unpleasant. If God is dead, many people might be sad or mad, consciously or otherwise, and distressed people might be expected to produce unsettling art. If this art offends Prager’s taste, the artist’s adequate response might be merely that blaming the messenger is obnoxious. Modern art expresses the science-centered understanding that the universe is godless and that life is fundamentally absurd. That art will horrify only because it transmits the horror found in an honest confrontation with the real world. Prager whines about liberal culture because his archaic religious metanarrative is no longer taken seriously in elite American circles. He wants to say we should be decent to each other because God commands it, without realizing that he’s effectively telling us to be childlike to accept such an uninformed justification—and children are the least decent of all.

To be sure, liberalism and secular humanism are deeply problematic, as I’ve attempted to show in numerous writings (see here, here, here, here, and here for a start). Indeed, I’ve argued that the boundlessness of late-modern art has the silver lining of indicating that anything can be interpreted as art, in which case we end up with a form of pantheism. But old-fashioned conservatism is hardly the answer to the follies of liberal humanism. Indeed, the secret of religious conservatism was unveiled by Hobbes’ political philosophy in which only the myth of God might be useful in perfecting the conservative’s (that is, the classic liberal’s) animal mechanisms of social control. Prager’s social conservatism is simply monstrous, as is evident from his groveling before the literal monster of “President” Trump. Is such sycophancy wise? No, Judaism recommends trusting in an authority that can never be toppled, whereas Trump’s downfall seems inevitable. Subsequently, the sycophants will have to answer for their being on the wrong side of history. A truly wise, Machiavellian American, in the sense of someone who cares more about expediency than philosophical truth or any other higher calling would fudge on the question of Trump’s fitness for office. Prager, though, inherits the theist’s pretentiousness while divorcing that attitude from theological content, so that he ends up pontificating on mere culture war wedge issues without being concerned with whether any part of his cruel, plutocratic Republican creed is compatible with an authentic theistic religion. Prager’s Jewish enough not to get caught up in theistic fundamentalism, that is, in literalizing biblical teachings, but he’s plenty American enough to be a bigoted, social-Darwinian yahoo.   

America’s Secular Origin

Prager thinks that liberalism is morally bankrupt, that secularism is unwise, and that the founders of America knew this, which is why to the social structures laid out by the Constitution they added the principle that morality is founded on religion. No matter how balanced or efficient the political system, if the people are decadent because they’ve lost faith in God and thus have no reason to be moral but deem themselves at liberty to do whatever they want, the society will collapse. Thus, says Prager in his debate with Shermer, George Washington said in his Farewell Address that morality requires religion, and Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that our Creator endowed us with unalienable rights; Prager adds that if the Creator hadn’t done so, we wouldn’t have such rights (47:45).

This demonstrates that Prager has no clue what was really going on with the founding of America. More specifically, he seems unaware of the lesson from Leo Strauss, about the tendency for great writers to include both exoteric and esoteric messages in their texts. You can see this distinction at work in the relevant part of Washington’s Farewell Address: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure--reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (p.20). Did you catch the distinction between philosophy ("refined education on minds of peculiar structure") and “reason and experience,” the latter being closer to commonsense or intuition? Washington implies that the esoteric, hidden truth of the irrationality of religious beliefs is established by philosophy, that is, by the rigorous application of reason, but then there’s the pragmatic issue of what to do about the unenlightened masses, which is to speak of the need for “National morality.” The masses aren’t at all philosophical, so their morality must be based on religion. Thus, the government should give the outward appearance of basing its laws ultimately on some religion so as not to confuse or to terrify the masses with unsettling philosophical abstractions.

Notice also that Washington connects morality to religion, not to God. A civic religion will do just as nicely, including the one practiced by most Americans, including their politicians. Thus, in practice, Americans worship money, guns, their military, and their Constitution, not Jesus Christ or Yahwehof all things! Washington seems to acknowledge the distinction between theistic and civil religions when he says earlier in the same paragraph, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness.” He doesn’t imply that patriotism, that is, secular religion or ideology, won’t work at all, but only that patriotism won’t easily substitute for traditional religions. Still, were patriotism, or Americanism, to become a full-blown godless religion or form of idol-worship—which it has for American Evangelicals and materialistic hyper-consumers—there would seem little reason to think patriotism wouldn't do the trick.

As for the Declaration of Independence, a full account of the Enlightenment-basis of the clause, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is supplied by Chapter 7 of Matthew Stewart’s book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart shows how the idea of unalienable rights went from Hobbes to Spinoza to Locke to Jefferson. So Prager errs badly when he concedes, in talking with Shermer, that the founders “weren’t orthodox Christians,” while he maintains that they were “God-centered men” and that “their god was the God of the Bible.” On the contrary, being intellectual elites of their period, theirs was the God of the philosophers, the God which Spinoza identified with Nature. The rights in question weren’t anything like moral commandments but were inherent powers or tendencies and were granted, as Hobbes put it, by the laws of nature. (As Stewart points out on p.354, in Jefferson’s first draft, he called the rights “inherent.”) This is why these rights can’t be taken away, because they’re part of our nature as living creatures. To attempt to take them away is only to change the topic. We have the natural right to our life, for example, because nature endows us with the power to maintain and defend our life. As Hobbes put it, the punishment for attempting to violate that right to life is enforced not by a personal God but by natural cause and effect: if I attempt to harm you, you will defend yourself and attempt to harm me in turn. Nature likewise frees us in so far as the powers of reason and language make us autonomous creatures, able to control ourselves and plan for the future. And Nature drives us to attempt to be happy, by providing us with desires which motivate us to act in our self-interest.

But Prager will protest that Jefferson says those rights are given by our “Creator,” and since he capitalizes that word, he must be referring to the personal deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is as empty as saying that since philosophers or theologians capitalize the name of the ultimate power in their philosophy, be it the “Absolute,” the “First Cause,” or whatever else, they too must be referring to the personal God of some monotheistic religion—as though there were no problem deriving Christianity, say, from Aquinas’s Aristotelian proofs of the existence of an unnatural First Cause! What Prager misses is that Jefferson identifies that “Creator” in the preceding sentence: the time had come, Jefferson wrote, for the American colonists “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.” The Creator in question, then, wasn’t the God of Abraham or of Moses, Noah, or Jesus. It was the God of Nature in the same sense in which Thor is thought of as the god of Thunder, or Aphrodite as the goddess of Love or Lucifer as the god of lies. And who speaks for the God of nature? Not priests but scientists and philosophers who mean to establish what Hobbes called the “empire of reason.”

This much alone should be conceded to the likes of Prager, that capitalizing “Creator” makes for a fortunate, Straussian ambiguity. The vulgar masses will take Jefferson to be referring to Yahweh or to the Father of Jesus Christ, whereas the philosophically informed will understand the true meaning that should be hidden, which is that to speak so oddly of “Nature’s God” is to speak implicitly of “the God of Nature,” and that that latter phrase is ambiguous since “of” can be possessive (as in “the government of America”) or it can imply an identity (as in “the country of America”). Thus, to speak of the God of Nature could be taken to mean that God belongs to Nature just as the wallet of John belongs to John—which, of course, would seem strange, since the Jew or Christian would much prefer to reverse the terms, to say that Nature belongs to God, in which case Jefferson should have written “God’s Nature.” Alas for Prager and for the rest of the unphilosophical masses, Jefferson didn’t say that, which raises the specter of the other, pantheistic meaning, which is that for Jefferson “God” and “Nature” are two names for the same thing. That’s evidently why he capitalized not only “Creator” but “Nature” as well as “Laws of Nature.”

This is why America’s philosophical founders don’t appeal to anything like the Ten Commandments to establish human rights. It’s only the Laws of Nature that are at issue for them, because the rights in question were considered natural, not divine. Indeed, divine rights were part of the monarchy from which the colonists were declaring their independence. This is also why personal liberty was so important to the founding documents, and why the American government was designed to maximize that freedom. If morality were “objective” and fact-based as Prager says, we wouldn’t be free but would be God’s slaves, just as we’re slaves to gravity or to chemical reactions because these things are likewise objective. If our moral rights come from God and the king governs on God’s behalf, we would have no right to question the king, let alone to fight for our political independence. Thus, Jefferson writes that “Governments”—which he also capitalizes—and not some supernatural gods “secure our rights,” and that the Governments in turn derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed”—not from any Holy Scripture or religious experience or authority, but from the freely given approval of the governed. So the very structure of a democratic republic is utterly secular, which is why so many Muslims are hostile to this aspect of Western culture.

Humanism and Totalitarianism, Morality and Blessedness

To see more deeply into what’s at stake here, consider John Ralston Saul’s way of distinguishing between morality and blessedness, in Voltaire’s Bastards. “An individual,” he writes,
is someone who takes upon himself an understanding of what is moral and who monitors his own conduct. A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and to enforce it. He is a child of God—a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility. The individual is more like a child who has grown up and left home. Either that or, having killed God, man was obliged to fill the resulting void. In either case he assumed the powers of moral judgment previously limited to divinities. (468-9)
So Prager and the exoteric monotheist, that is, the one who is ignorant according to philosophical standards, are advocating blessedness rather than morality, all their bluster about “moral absolutes” notwithstanding. And the American project, of course, belonging not at all to the medieval period but to the subsequent Age of Reason, is about creating governmental structures that secure genuine moral rights, where these are understood in terms of their existential context as entailing a terrifying form of personal freedom. The autonomous and thus isolated individual whose consent alone gives legitimacy to the government takes the place of God as the judge of morality, if not as its sole source. Natural rights or powers are supposed to be the origins of morality, but as to how these powers are codified and enforced, that’s up to the individual, which is why the American government is set up to allow the individual to do whatever she wants as long as she doesn’t become a nuisance. By contrast, in Prager’s world we ought to seek the blessed state of servitude in Heaven, in which freedom of choice is lost and we surrender forever to God’s majesty. That’s the Dark Age mentality, not the enlightened American one over which Prager has no claim.

As Saul points out, that distinction between morality and blessedness comes from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Mann’s character, Naphta (a Jew-turned Jesuit and Hegelian Marxist), criticizes the secular humanism of Settembrini, calling it “bourgeoisiedom” and “Philistinism,” which he says are opposed to religion. Another character (the protagonist Hans Castorp) suggests that the antithesis “between life and religion went back to that between time and eternity. Only in time was there progress; in eternity there was none, nor any politics or eloquence either. There, so to speak, one laid one’s head back in God, and closed one’s eyes. And that was the difference between religion and morality” (463). Again, Prager’s talk of objective morality lands him on the side of laying “one’s head back in God,” which is very far from the American founders’ insistence on maximizing individual freedom to develop their natural rights as Americans see fit, not as commanded by any deity. Naphta grants, “There was much to admire in the monumental respectability, the majestic Philistinism of the middleclass consciousness. But one must never forget that as it stood, straddle-legged, firmly planted on earth, hands behind the back, chest well out, it was the embodiment of irreligion.” Likewise, America itself stands as inherently irreligious, as far as Prager should be concerned.

Mann develops the metaphysical or mythical basis of humanism further: God and the Devil, he writes, were considered ‘two distinct persons or principles, with “life” as a bone of contention between them—which, by the by, was just the way the Middle Ages had envisaged them. But in reality, God and the Devil were at one in being opposed to life, to bourgeoisiedom, reason and virtue, since they together represented the religious principle.’ And the point about individualism, morality, and blessedness is that the proponent of this naturalistic, monistic humanism, which takes morality to be personal, subjective, and thus opposed to traditional religion should still distinguish between morality and blessedness. Here’s the passage Saul draws from:
A society in which life was stupidly conceived as an end in itself, with no questions asked about its ulterior meaning and purpose, was governed by a tribal and social ethic, indeed, a vertebrate morality, if you liked, but certainly not by individualism. For individualism belonged, singly and solely, in the realm of the religious and mystical, in the so-called “morally chaotic All” [that is, in godless, amoral nature conceived of as independent of both God and the Devil, Good and Evil]. And this [humanistic, individualistic] morality of Herr Settembrini’s, what was it, what did it want? It was life-bound, and thus entirely utilitarian; it was pathetically unheroic. Its end and aim was to make men grow old and happy, rich and comfortable—and that was all there was to it. And this Philistine philosophy, this gospel of work and reason, served Herr Settembrini as an ethical system. As far as he, Naphta, was concerned, he would continue to deny that it was anything but the sheerest and shabbiest bourgeoisiedom. (464)
So Prager’s condemnation of liberalism and postmodernism in late-modern America attests to the secular origins of that country. Precisely because the founders were philosophical humanists and saw natural tendencies or “rights” as the basis of individual freedom and of legitimate political rule, they inadvertently designed a society that led inexorably to the “moral decline” that Prager decries. As Saul puts it, in failing to distinguish between morality and blessedness, that is, between the heroic attempt at retaining intellectual integrity in the face of God’s death, on the one hand, and a retreat to blissful ignorance and servitude, on the other, the founders didn’t foresee that America would yield a secular form of blessedness, such as the mindless political correctness we see today on the left. It wasn’t as Prager says in his debate with Shermer, that the founders understood the masses to be corrupt so that they needed theistic religion as a crutch. Of course, those Americans who need that crutch are free to employ it, but what’s distinctly American is the citizen’s right to be free from religion, because that freedom is granted not by the God of traditional religions, but by Natural Right, by the God of Nature (the God which is Nature).

Just as Nietzsche spoke of the Last Man who is today’s infamous beta male, Thomas Mann saw that the Enlightenment ideal of individual liberty—“this gospel of work and reason”—is natural and thus utilitarian and ultimately philistine or bourgeois. From Prager’s traditional religious standpoint of old-fashioned “blessedness,” secular America no longer stands for anything. But this is only to describe the essence of America as the latter has always embodied the subversive principles of philosophical reason. Secular culture doesn’t decline so much as its horrific truth unfolds as its citizens are free to bounce between distractions, untethered to religious lies. Of course Americans don’t stand for anything; that’s what it means to be free!—free even from the ground you had taken for granted and which would dictate exactly how you should live in the manner of a religious creed. Like North Korea or the Soviet Union, such a divinely planned society would be “objectively moral” and thus “stupidly conceived as an end in itself,” leaving no room for questions from the adults in the room. Instead, the American founders assumed only the ground of natural rights, which empower Americans (and everyone else) to defend their life and to seek their happiness almost wherever they can find it.  

In short, Prager can lay claim only to the caricature of Americanism, not to the humanism that founded Western society which Europe lost and recaptured, and which was applied most radically in the founding of the United States. True American patriotism for the esoteric few who understand what’s really going on would consist not even in waving the flag, praying to the US military, or drinking Starbucks coffee daily as dictated by some American civic religion, but in learning to stomach the inanities of phony wise men like Dennis Prager. 


  1. Whoa, this is really a tour de force.

    I've never thought about it, but early on, you make a point I haven't thought much about: The Universe doesn't operate in a way that is consistent with the way the God of the Old Testament operates. Once processes are set up, they more or less continue, at least until a threshhold is reached where those processes pass into another stage.

    This is completely different than the Old Testament God (therefore the Jewish God, really), who makes decisions based on emotion and will sometimes change his mind based on emotions if he sees a mistake. The Deluge story contains two of these decisions (actually 3, which I'll get to): First Yahweh decides humanity was a mistake and wipes us out, more or less, then he decides he won't do it again.

    Immediately before the Deluge, he also decides to change the number of years a person can live from 1000 to 120.

    The God of the Old Testament would, theoretically, be capable of seeing something he set up, like maybe tectonic plates, and say, "I hadn't considered that earthquakes could result because of this arrangement and kill people who have done nothing wrong" (in areas with more than 5 good people, which he claims in genesis he won't wipe out), "and I am now moved to tinker with tectonic plates to fix this."

    There's a station here in town that plays Prager and company on it, and their arguments do generally follow the "atheists are miserable" line of thinking, usually with heavy political overtones. I don't generally find their line of thinking convincing, although I generally call myself an agnostic. That's because I don't know anything at all, but I have no reason to believe that if there is an intelligence behind everything, it bears ANY relationship to the myths humanity has dreamed up.

    1. Thanks. Prager doesn't seem to take a strict line on biblical interpretation. The Bible's all open to being metaphorical, since he's mainly concerned with the conservative's pragmatic take on religion: we need to be religious for society to function.

      But the general contrast between theism and naturalism stands. Whatever God may have done, as recorded in whichever scripture or in none, if the ultimate explanation of everything is theistic, events would indeed be less regular than they are (unless we take the deistic view that God exists but has virtually nothing to do with how the universe operates). Otherwise, it means nothing to personalize the First Cause. So Prager does have it backwards.