Different Maps, Same Destination

Ed Brayton challenged readers to fisk If There Is No God, a column by Dennis Prager. It’s a worthy, if easy, goal. I won’t attempt a response to all 14 points, though. Dispensing with a few should be sufficient to demonstrate that a smidge more doubt should be permitted in Prager’s thesis, which is this:

For all the problems associated with belief in God, the death of God leads to far more of them.

We may all note that he has not listed the problems associated with belief in God. How many problems are associated? I’m supposed to accept on faith that it is 0 <= n < 14, where n is the number of problems associated with belief in God. I know we're talking about faith, but it is reasonable to explain what those problems are. At least identify the value of n.

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.

I guess that means we’re discussing 6 < n < 14. Is it worth noting that religion has a commanding jump in the creation of problems?

A momentary break: I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. My only goal is to show that a principled approach may arrive at the same destination. A better destination, since each is free to choose for himself, but that’s a quibble not necessary to advance my rebuttal.


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.

One of those four is not quite like the others. That Prager includes this specific grouping reveals his attempt to be either blatant propaganda or wild ignorance. But I’ll just ignore it.

Instead, is the goal of American secularism a desire to convert every believer into an atheist? Or is it an approach to group rules that allows the individual to decide for himself, as long as he does not infringe on the legitimate rights of others? Giving offense is hardly the worst outcome possible, not that there is any right not to be offended. Nothing in the American experiment points to secularism being defined any broader than this. Prager’s 14 points will be ridiculous even in the most generous consideration.

1. Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label “good” and “evil.” This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. 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.”

Secularism seeks to establish principled rules for human interaction. Deriving the notion of a right to be free from harm does not require God, only that all humans are equal. That is objective. The goal is not to arrive at chaos, only at a structure that is as impervious to arbitrary whim as possible.

4. Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One’s heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world.

If we do not receive an “instruction manual” from our parents, we are provided with the undeniable reality of consequences. Where our upbringing lacks, others have a way of teaching. Unless Prager is suggesting that humans are incapable of learning, he’s just swirling extra drivel into a simple concept to darken the clarity.

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.

The concept of God centers around the idea that He is unconditional love. Until man sins. Then He is a vengeful God. There are eternal consequences. But wait. These are mutually exclusive ideas, so rather than obsess over the correct doctrine, the secularist ignores the question as it pertains to anything other than this life. Each person may decide the importance of this to the rules he chooses for himself, but he may not use this as the guide for rules over others.

There are consequences for the behaviors of both Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler. We’re not perfect, but we seek to structure those as close to fair as possible using congruent principles. Institutionally we do not reward a Mother Teresa. She creates subjective good. Others will respond as they see fit. Institutionally we seek to prevent an Adolf Hitler. He engaged force against others and caused objective harm. That is the standard.

Life isn’t fair. Explain it how you want, but rationalizing it may not be possible. We do the best we can. Reconcile that how you want, but don’t expect me to respond the same way.

7. 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. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed that men’s and women’s natures are basically the same, that perceived differences between the sexes are all socially induced. Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.

Genital modification on healthy infant males. Is this immense harm? And what of the perceived religious differences between the sexes, enshrined in law? Don’t preach to me about rational versus irrational.

Not that I am pointing a particular religion here. Religious indifference to the rights of another human being because your God instructs you to harm your child is not rational. Consider:

… But in recent years, they have increasingly catered to Christian families who eschew a hospital procedure in favor of a $300 to $800 house call, a trend Sherman has dubbed “holistic circumcision.”

“They want their babies circumcised in the comfort of their homes surrounded by family and friends, and they want it performed by someone highly experienced, who brings spirituality and meaning to the practice,” he said. “And it’s over in 30 seconds, compared to what hospitals do, which can be from 20 to 45 minutes, with the baby strapped down.” [ed. note: see footnote below]

Who derives meaning from this, the parents or the boy who loses a healthy, functioning part of his genitals? So, again, don’t preach to me about rational versus irrational.

Or we can look
back at what Prager had to say about circumcision on his radio show, from January 19, 2007:

It is only in a very affluent, bored society that people walk around wondering “boy, what I have I lost by not having fore….?”. I… It, it… It’s beyond, it’s beyond narcissistic, it’s actually somewhat pathologic.

There is more, including references to San Francisco in exactly the way you’d think a bigot would use San Francisco as an example. Note, too, the ad hominem attacks from the allegedly rational side. So, again, don’t preach to me about rational versus irrational.

Moving on.

14. “Without God,” Dostoevsky famously wrote, “all is permitted.” There has been plenty of evil committed by believers in God, but the widespread cruelties and the sheer number of innocents murdered by secular regimes – specifically Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes – dwarfs the evil done in the name of religion.

Religion: less evil than secularism! Still evil! But less so! Maybe pay the marketing department a little more? And hire from better universities.

Seriously, though, how much of that disparity in scope is timing? With 20th century technology, the Crusades would’ve been the same level of “tame”? I can think of many actions that are wrong, despite the existence of other related actions that are more severe. Despite relying on principles of equality and political philosophy and not directly on religious teaching, I still arrive at the truth that those actions are wrong.

I understand a set of rights, open to expansion through reason. Dennis Prager understands a different set. Including the idea of profane versus holy speech suggests that his is merely a subset of mine. That’s acceptable, but only when chosen through free will. Even if that free will exists only because of God, as Prager argues. Restricting my choices does not compute with my robot brain. One man’s God has no legitimate veto over my rights.

¹ More from the article:

As Christopher Watson held his screaming baby’s legs still on the tabletop pillow, Kushner snipped the foreskin. The process took less than a minute.

The infant’s wails soon surrendered to a wine-dipped cotton swab, then his mother’s breast, while Kushner relayed a list of instructions about how to care for the child over the next three days.

Forgive me for thinking that causing unnecessary pain and reducing his genitals are more important than how long those take.

One thought on “Different Maps, Same Destination”

  1. Number 4 particularly enrages me.
    To “learn to how to fly an airplane” means to learn that actions have consequences, and that IF one prefers a certain consequence (not crashing) over another consequence (crashing), then one must choose one’s actions accordingly.
    THAT is the only correct definition of morality: “not crashing” — and therefore not taking actions that would cause one to crash.
    “God” is simply not part of the equation, UNLESS one thinks that “learning to fly an airplane” and “praying to fly an airplane” are metaphysical equivalents.
    (And not even the 9/11 terrorists went that far — even THEY went to flight school. Go figure.)

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