Dennis Prager has challenged Richard Dawkins once again, perhaps because Dawkins will be speaking at CalTech in a couple of weeks and it would be a real feather in Prager’s cap if Dawkins appeared on the Dennis Prager Show.
According to Mr. Prager, God provides the only objective morality. Any other moral system is merely opinion, a way of saying “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” If God exists and regards murder as wrong, then murder is wrong. If not, then murder is not wrong. But why would that be the case? If God regards murder as wrong, isn’t that still just Her opinion? Why would that opinion be any more “objective” than the collective opinion of the whole of humanity? If God’s opinion was that murder is not wrong, would that render it objectively good? We’ll return to this question momentarily.
Even if Mr. Prager’s premise is granted, the practical question still remains: how do we, mere mortals, determine what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil? How are we to divine the mind of God? I believe Mr. Prager would claim that God’s opinions are revealed in the Jewish Torah or the Christian Bible, but what are we to make of Leviticus 20:13? This verse is in the Torah (the most authoritative source of Jewish law, according to Mr. Prager), and it appears in a chapter which begins “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying…” which means this is straight from the source of Mr. Prager’s objective morality. It isn’t “inspired by God” (and thus easily dismissed as the opinion of a mere mortal), it’s spoken by God. If anything in the Bible should be considered authoritative, it’s this verse, which says “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death, their blood shall be upon them.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that: practicing homosexuality is an abomination in Mr. Prager’s objective morality, while killing homosexuals isn’t just a good idea, it’s a directive from God himself.
Coincidentally, on the same day that Mr. Prager’s “Response to Richard Dawkins” was published, a caller to his radio show asked about another verse, in which God had commanded the destruction of an entire village at the hands of his chosen people — men, women, children, animals, everyone and everything. Mr. Prager conceded that he was “troubled” by this passage, but hand-waved away the question of whether or not it was a moral thing to require people to do. He said it applied only to that group of people, at that point in time, and added that if his religion dictated such genocide for all time, he would leave his religion.
My question to him would be, “Why?”.
If God’s transcendent notions of good and evil determine what is objectively good and what is objectively evil, then wouldn’t it be objectively good if God commanded all men to murder, rape, steal, lie, betray, and swindle? The question is at least as old as Socrates, who posed the question which has become known as Euthyphro’s dilemma:
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
By rejecting the clear-cut command to kill practicing homosexuals, and stating that he would leave his religion if it (still) demanded wholesale slaughter of entire villages, Mr. Prager appears to undercut his own argument. If he would not lay waste to everyone in a village if God asked him to, he must have criteria for determining what is good and what is evil which are independent of what God commands.
This is the point Richard Dawkins was making, which Mr. Prager didn’t ever address. The Bible demands or condones all sorts of things which we now regard as undesirable, unethical, or immoral: slavery is condoned, polygamy is encouraged, murder is often mandated. Are they thus objectively good? I think Mr. Prager would agree with me that they are not.
The fact is, Mr. Prager gets his morality from the same place I do — a combination of the capacity for empathy borne of evolution, and the cultural heritage of centuries of societies seeing what works and what doesn’t.
Yes, there is subjectivity inherent in what we regard as good and evil. Mr. Prager assigns more weight to Biblical pronouncements than I do as a secular humanist. I don’t reject the prohibition against murder just because it appears in the Bible, but I don’t think homosexual activity creates an exception to that rule just because it appears just a few pages away.
Mr. Prager argues that Germanic tribes thought it was good and proper for the strong to take from the weak, including the taking of their lives. One might rightly ask how this tribal belief differed from that espoused in the Biblical passage just referenced, but the larger question is, how would you persuade them otherwise? They rejected the Church’s teaching that murder was wrong, so it wasn’t apparently persuasive to wave God in their faces. Reason might not have been any more persuasive, but as a practical matter that seems irrelevant. When the strong are committed to exploiting the weak, and can’t be persuaded by either reason or religion to do otherwise, the weak either choose to pool their power and oppose those who would enslave, exploit, or eliminate them, or they resign themselves to being enslaved, exploited, or eliminated. Might doesn’t make right, but it is often the only means of enforcing it.
Throughout human history, gods have been invoked as sock-puppet spokesmen for ideas which mere men espoused. Mr. Prager’s frustration with Islamic ideas of heavenly rewards for dying while killing innocent people is merely one manifestation of the problem. God isn’t going to show up and disavow anything which men choose to attribute to him, which leaves men pretty much free to make up any nonsense they please. Believers who don’t want to risk putting themselves on God’s bad side are easily manipulated by those who (sincerely or not) claim to know what God wants.
Mr. Prager’s rejection of Leviticus 20:13, and his unease at Biblical calls for mass murder, demonstrate that his morality is more rooted in reason and emotion than he is prepared to acknowledge. If only he were as intellectually honest as he urges Dawkins to be…