Archives for category: Uncategorized

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 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…

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.