I was reminded today of Pascal’s Wager. It’s a centuries-old question which Christians like to pose to non-Christians. In its modern form, it’s often abbreviated to “What if you’re wrong?”, but it always means “What if my version of Christianity is right?”

The answer the Christian has in mind is, if the unbeliever is wrong, death will be hell, an eternity of unremitting torture. If the Christian is wrong, death will simply be oblivion, after having lived a good life anyway. It’s the second part of that supposition which came to mind when I read a news story today.

It’s unlikely that the link will be up for more than a few days or weeks, but as I write this it’s at http://wkrn.com/2015/07/02/entire-tenn-county-clerks-office-resigns-over-same-sex-marriage-licenses/. The story tells of the resignation of everyone in the County Clerk’s office in Decatur County, Tennessee. They’re resigning because the recent Supreme Court ruling which would require them to issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages conflicts with their religious beliefs.

The entire County Clerk’s office is apparently comprised of three people: Clerk Gwen Pope and employees Sharon Bell and Mickey Butler. Their last day will be July 14.

What if they’re wrong? What if the god they believe is looking on with approval is imaginary? What if they’re leaving their jobs for no reason at all, with no reward except the satisfaction of being judgmental in public?

Religious beliefs are not the neutral default that most proponents of Pascal’s Wager propose. “If I’m wrong, I’ll just cease to exist, after living the same life I would have lived anyway.” While resigning a clerk’s job is not as portentous as depending on a faith healer instead of a medical professional, it’s still another reminder that beliefs shape actions, and actions have consequences. If there is no afterlife, and the consequences in this life are everything, three clerks in Tennessee have just made their lives (the only lives they’ll ever have) more difficult in service of an empty ancient myth.

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…

I’ve just started reading Dennis Prager’s new book, Still the Best Hope. While waiting for the book to arrive, I’d been reading some of the reviews written by his fans on Amazon. One claim in particular struck me as incredible — the review quotes Prager as saying  “every vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats.” Now that I have the book in hand, I can confirm that the quote is accurate, even though Prager is not.

The complete quote, from page 223 of the book, is

Every vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats, and in the House, even the future Left-wing Democratic candidate for president, then-congressman George McGovern — of South Dakota (not a southern state) — merely voted “present.”

(I think it’s so thoughtful that Prager, perhaps sensing that his home-schooled Teaparty target demographic might not have an atlas handy, helpfully points out that South Dakota is — despite its name — NOT a southern state.)

The book doesn’t cite a source for these voting claims. The first, that every vote against the act came from Democrats, is simply false. The second, that McGovern merely voted “present,” is (at best) a misleading half-truth.

First, a quick review of the history of the 1960 Civil Rights Act.

The legislation was proposed by (Republican!) President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 8601. After it was passed by the House on March 24, 1960, it was amended and passed by the Senate on April 8, 1960. The House approved the Senate’s amendments on April 21, 1960, and the Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 21, 1960. It’s straight out of the How a Bill Becomes Law animation from Civics class, only with less singing.

Unfortunately for Dennis Prager’s revisionism, each of these votes is a matter of public record. Despite his claim that “every vote against” came from Democrats, the facts tell a different story.

For its initial passage in the House:

James Utt, a Republican from California’s 28th District, voted “nay”.
William Cramer, a Republican from Florida’s 1st District, voted “nay”.
Hamer Budge, a Republican from Idaho’s 2nd District, voted “nay”.
Noah Mason, a Republican from Illinois’ 15th District, voted “nay”.
Benton Jensen, a Republican from Iowa’s 7th District, voted “nay”.
Wint Smith, a Republican from Kansas’ 6th District, voted “nay”.
George Meader, August Johansen, Clare Hoffman, and John Bennett (four Michigan Republicans) voted “nay”.
Charles Jonas, a Republican from North Carolina”s 10th District, voted “nay”.
John Taber, a Republican from New York’s 36th District, voted “nay”.
Bruce Alger, a Republican from Texas’ 5th District, voted “nay”.
Joel Broyhill, a Republicans from Virginia’s 10th District, voted “nay”.

My goodness, that’s a lot of non-Democrats voting “nay.” One actual Democrat, George McGovern votes “aye” rather than “present.”

For its passage with amendments in the Senate:

All eighteen “nay” votes did indeed come from Democrats. The nine states they represented were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. These  states don’t seem to have anything in common, other than perhaps the fact that none of them are South Dakota…

Meanwhile, back at the House:

Michigan Congressmen Bennett and Hoffman switch their votes from “nay” to “aye” while their colleagues Meader and Johansen disappear. New York’s John Taber is joined by naysaying Republican Clarence Kilburn (33rd District), and Virginia’s Broyhill by naysaying Republican Richard Poff (6th District). While McGovern does switch his vote from “yea” to “present,” with the exception of Michigan the same Republicans who voted “nay” the first time are voting “nay” now. Clearly, Prager’s claim that the only “nay” votes came from Democrats is an out-and-out lie.

So why did McGovern choose not to support this link in the chain of Civil Rights legislation? Prager implies that it’s because he wasn’t a real proponent of civil rights, but is that likely to be the true explanation? After all, he voted in favor of the original House bill, and did not actually oppose the amended bill. Is it possible that there is some other reason a “future Left-wing Democratic candidate for president” would vote “present” on a bill which passed with 288 “ayes,” 95 “nays,” and 25 “present” votes?

A clue appears when one examines some of those other “present” votes. One Democrat who voted “present” on both the original and the amended bill is Adam Powell from New York’s 16th District. For those who don’t know, the 16th District is now located in the Bronx, and in 2008 it gave Barack Obama his highest margin of victory, with 95% of the votes cast in that district going to the soon-to-be President-elect. In 1960, however, the 16th District was Harlem, and Adam Powell was better known as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African American from New York to be elected to the United States Congress. Are we to suppose that he voted “present” not merely once but twice because he did not support civil rights legislation? The notion seems unlikely, but then what could be the explanation?

A second clue comes from the discussion which took place on the floor of the Senate, as recorded in the Congressional Record for April 8, 1960 (the same day the Senate passed its version of the Civil Rights Act of 1960). Senator Patrick McNamara of Michigan (a supporter of the Civil Rights Act) had this to say:

[O]nce again we are at the stage in the civil rights debate where we must cast our votes either for or against a measure.[…]

The hardest decision, as usual, faces those of us who wanted a genuine civil rights bill, one that would really attack the problems that need solving. Unhappily, we do not have such a bill before us today. We have a watered-down bill that has been so further diluted that it will wash right out of the Chamber and hardly will be noticed in the mainstream of American life.[…]

The real losers are the hundreds of thousands of Negroes in some areas of our country who looked to the Congress of the United States as their last hope for the protection of their rights. […] we raised their hopes with weeks of stirring debate directed at their problems, hopes which now have been dashed again with this bill.”

Is it possible that  a black Congressman from Harlem, and a future left-wing Presidential candidate from South Dakota, would choose to vote “present” rather than “aye” on a bill because it should have been stronger, rather than (as Prager implies) because they were not really proponents of civil rights for black citizens? I think it’s not only possible, it’s certain. The passage of the bill was already assured, and in McGovern’s case, he’d already voted “aye” for the bill before it was “further diluted” in the Senate.

Why does Prager not even raise this possibility? After all, on the very next page, when discussing Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he points out that “most” of them opposed it “solely on constitutional and liberty-related grounds.” I believe it’s because Prager is willing to employ lies of omission to make his case. I have more respect for the truth than that, and that respect compels me to add a caveat here.

I think it’s likely that Prager meant to write “Every Senate vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats.” Perhaps his unattributed source meant to write that, and Prager simply passed it along uncritically, as Prager’s book reviewer on Amazon passed it along as received wisdom. It’s even possible that Prager (or his source) did write the correct statement, but somewhere along the line from raw manuscript to published book it became corrupted. Maybe he even noted that all the Senators who opposed the bill came from Southern states, and that was why he felt the need to add that South Dakota was not a Southern state.

Even supposing that all of these benefits-of-the-doubt are justified, Prager’s attempt to portray the fight for black civil rights as a non-leftist value would still be riddled with dishonesty. He begins by conflating “the left” and “the Democratic party,” and not even the Democratic party of today, but the Democratic party of 50 or 100 years ago. One of the Senate Democrats who voted against the Civil Rights Bill of 1960 was that well-known advocate of leftist values Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who subsequently became a Republican. Prager alludes to this by dismissing the (anticipated) criticism that these Democrats were really conservatives as “completely self serving.” As self-serving as presenting a group containing Strom Thurmond and Russell Long as advocates of “Left-wing values,” Mr. Prager?

The fact is, these “Dixiecrats” voted as they did because they represented Southern constituencies, not because they represented “Left-wing values.” Anyone who was more committed to being honest than being persuasive would have said so.

Dennis Prager is apparently not so committed to the truth.

I will have more to say about this book in the coming days and weeks.

There are about half a dozen “boycott the Grove” profiles on Facebook today. The one group which boasts membership in the double digits is apparently signing people up against their will. It’s encouraging that none of them are getting much traction, but they do serve to show the dishonesty which permeates the Religious Right.

These sites argue that the brief “banning” (from The Grove) of Manny Pacquiao happened because he took a stand against same-sex marriage. Curiously, not one of them notes that the “ban” was lifted after Pacquiao affirmed his stand against same-sex marriage.

The fact is, Pacquiao was not banned for expressing his opposition to same-sex marriage. Thousands of Angelenos are opposed to same-sex marriage, and some institutions (such as the Catholic Church) have made such opposition an article of faith. Dennis Prager and R.J. Moeller have expressed their opposition loudly and publicly, on the internet and over the radi0. In all his years of public opposition (including testifying before Congress in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act) Prager has never been banned from The Grove. Indeed, he is ignoring his own call for a boycott by signing books tomorrow night at The Americana (another Los Angeles mall owned by the same people who own The Grove).

Pacquiao was deemed “persona non grata” for a brief time because a poorly-written article in a conservative publication made it seem as though he was endorsing the Bible’s call for the execution of practicing homosexuals. That article states:

“God’s words first … obey God’s law first before considering the laws of man,” says Pacquiao, addressing Obama’s pronoucement on legalizing same-sex marriage during an exclusive interview Friday night with the National Conservative Examiner in his residence at the Palazzo Complex  in Los Angeles here in California.

Engaging a radical shift as manifested by his insights shared during Bible studies which lasted more than one hour, around 10:00 p.m., with a song and his substantive prayer, Pacquiao counsels people to “just believe” what the Scripture says.

Pacquiao’s directive for Obama calls societies to fear God and not to promote sin, inclusive of same-sex marriage and cohabitation, notwithstanding what Leviticus 20:13 has been pointing all along: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

Several news organizations, including the L.A. Weekly, picked up the story and interpreted the unattributed quote as being from Pacquiao, as apparently the preceding two quotes had been.

However, as Pacquiao later clarified, he doesn’t think practicing homosexuals should be put to death, and hasn’t even read Leviticus. The author of the article was simply quoting God, not Pacquiao.

Now, either the swarms of religious Conservatives calling for a boycott of The Grove don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying homosexuals should be put to death,  or they’re simply ignoring the fact that it is that sentiment which led to the ban, not “opposition to same-sex marriage.” Pacquiao still affirms his opposition to same-sex marriage, but neither he (nor Prager, nor Moeller, nor any of the other opponents to same-sex marriage) are unwelcome at The Grove.

One wonders what those calling for a boycott were hoping to accomplish in the first place. To “hurt” the owners of a shopping mall, as Prager stated it was his objective to do, one must presumably persuade store owners who are leasing space at the mall to move their retail operations elsewhere. Otherwise, a boycott is just hurting the innocent store owners, who must still honor their contracts and pay the same rents with diminished revenues.

It seems that perhaps they didn’t reason things through.

I’ve listened to Dennis Prager in Los Angeles for more than twenty years, ever since his weekend evening Religion on the Line shows on KABC. I’d always respected his seeming willingness to give serious consideration to opposing viewpoints, since that trait is rare among all people, but especially rare among the religious. Prager, who has adopted the motto “clarity before agreement,” was not afraid to engage in a public debate with Sam Harris, and not only featured the author of Breaking Up With God on his Ultimate Issues Hour, but reprised that broadcast a few months later as a “Best Of” show, even though (in my opinion) he was bested by both atheists. Surely, I thought, he was more committed to truth than to polemics.

While that may well be the case, I now have reasons to believe that he doesn’t always honor that commitment.

My doubts began when I started actually calling his show to discuss various topics of interest. On numerous  occasions I made my point, heard his counterpoint, and was twenty seconds into reciting my rebuttal when I realized that I was talking to empty air. He usually gives himself the last word this way, and thus lends strength to even his weakest arguments. The tactic leaves the impression that the caller was gobsmacked into stunned silence by the brilliance of Mr. Prager’s rhetoric, when in fact the silence is entirely due to Mr. Prager’s real-time editing.

Still, it’s his show, and as he says, radio time is as scarce as parking space in New York City. If he wants to ramble on for fifteen minutes about cigars and fountain pens rather than spending the time discussing whether Noah’s flood was moral or whether atheists or theists have the most compelling myths about the origin of the universe, it’s all entertainment and it’s his audience.

Yesterday his show featured an extended soliloquy about the wisdom of following the heart versus the wisdom of following God. As an atheist, I believe we all follow our hearts when deciding what’s right and what’s wrong, even when theists like Dennis Prager claim the contrary. When Dennis followed up the show with a “Pragerisms” quote on Twitter that said

No God, no wisdom – because the substitute for God is the heart which has no wisdom

I replied (also on Twitter)

The heart wisely ignores “the Lord your God” when reading Leviticus 20:13, and substitutes its innate wisdom

Shortly after that, my Twitter account was suspended. The reason it was suspended is that Dennis Prager complained that he didn’t want me addressing such replies to him. My reason for doing so had been to highlight that “the heart” knows it’s evil to kill people for engaging in consensual sex with the wrong sort of freely consenting adult (as Leviticus 20:13 demands), and that in this matter at least the wisdom of the heart is superior to the wisdom of God as it’s presented in Dennis Prager’s authoritative reference book. Rather than engage, or offer a rebuttal, Mr. Prager simply tried to shut me up and shut me down.

It’s difficult to express how disappointing it is when someone for whom I’ve had so much respect for so long reveals that he too has feet of clay (see Daniel 2:31-43).

It was a simple matter to get my Twitter account restored, just as it’s trivial to continue to follow @DennisPrager even though I’ve officially been “blocked”. But I have decided that, rather than engage in a battle of slogans and bumper stickers on Twitter, or on Mr. Prager’s radio show where he can call the shots, I would prefer to make clear and complete arguments which accept commentary from anyone. Unlike (apparently) Mr. Prager, I really do believe that clarity is more important than winning an argument.  I would rather leave my opponents (and neutral bystanders) unconvinced than win their approval by bogus arguments which permit no reply.

So here I am, and here we go.