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Prager Takes on Dawkins

Dennis Prager has a column responding to Richard Dawkins, who answered a question on whether we could have morality without religion by saying, “The very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible.” His response is predictably absurd.

This is the crux of the issue for Dawkins and other anti-religion activists – that not only do we not need religion or God for morality, but we would have a considerably more moral world without them.

This argument is so wrong – both rationally and empirically – that its appeal can only be explained by a) a desire to believe it and b) an ignorance of history.

First, the rational argument.

If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

Gosh, what a sparkling new argument. *yawn* But here’s the problem: This is not an argument for the existence of God or the truth of any religion. Even if the argument is absolutely true, it does not even attempt to argue that such a God actually exists or that any religion is true. At best it’s an argument for why they hope that God exists and their religion is true. But if there is no God, the moral proclamations of religions would suffer from exactly the same problem that Prager claims secular morality suffers from. I call this the “Simon says” argument.

But if there is no God — or even if there is — we still have to figure out how to live with one another in societies, whether they be primitive tribes, modern nation-states or the human race as a whole. We have to figure out how to co-exist with one another. And if they really believe that without believing in God they’re going to go off and start raping and pillaging, that speaks volumes about them, don’t you think?

To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, “Do not murder,” murder is not wrong. Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what? Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; the history of slavery throughout the world was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings are right in various Muslims societies.

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?

But bear in mind that all of those things, including murder, is justified on the basis of religion. If God exists and the Bible is an accurate record of his actions, God is the greatest mass murderer in history, by orders of magnitude. No one else even comes close. The Bible says that he murdered virtually everyone and every animal on earth in a global flood in a fit of rage. And he explicitly commands murder over and over again. So with God, why is murder wrong?

Comments

  1. trucreep says

    A much simpler and basic critique of this “reasoning” is that the bible is full of contradictions, and is a book put together by men (even if you believe it’s the word of god or written by god, which works are included are chosen by people).

  2. Abby Normal says

    So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?

    If God appeared to you and informed you he doesn’t much care about murder one way or another, would you start pushing to have it legalized or would you prefer to live in a society where murder is a criminal act?

  3. Sastra says

    So with God, why is murder wrong?

    It’s wrong by definition — with or without God. It’s a stupid semantic point.

    Nobody ever really argues that “murder is okay.” They instead claim that no, X was NOT murder, it was a justified killing and perfectly fair and reasonable in THIS case because … blah blah blah. So this particular example is just silly. “Cheating” is also wrong-by-definition. Cheaters who defend themselves are forced to take the tack that what looks like “cheating” is not really so, if you consider the circumstances as a whole.

    The Divine Command Theory of morality falls apart the minute anyone tries to explain why what God commands makes good sense — and believers virtually all think it does (with the exception of some Calvinists, of course.) Doesn’t matter whether the so-called commands do or don’t. The mere fact that God’s motivations are not the ultimate terminus of explanation — that appeals to what is fair or just or reasonable or loving or compassionate can be made –is enough to demonstrate that morality is not derived from ONE opinion either.

    So who made God the authority? I didn’t vote for him.

  4. gshelley says

    And if there is a god who is the source of morality, the labels “good’ and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “god likes it” and “god does not like it”

  5. arakasi says

    I’ll be willing to bet that the vast majority of South Africa’s population thought aparteid was wrong. It’s just that their opinion didn’t count because they didn’t have the good sense to choose white parents.

  6. says

    This argument is based on taking the words “objective” and “subjective,” and swapping their meanings. So getting your morality from an imaginary being whose existence is unproven and exact nature a subject of opinion is “objective;” and getting your morality from empirical observation of which actions have which consequences is “subjective.”

    So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?

    Well, let’s just say that if I see a gun pointing at me, I won’t need any god, or any belief in any god, to tell me this is a bad thing.

  7. scienceavenger says

    This “argument” drives me nuts. There’s no there there. Prager The Overrated’s conclusion is true, the contingent clause is just not necessary:

    ,,,the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    Yes, exactly! Moral edicts are subjective. So? And? And nothing, except crazy shit they make up that doesn’t apply on planet earth, like how arguments for said moralities would carry no weight, people won’t be able to get along, bla bla bla.. To see how contentless this is, imagine Prager had said the following:

    ,,,the labels “reasonable noise for 4 a.m.” and ““too loud for 4 a.m.” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    Yes, they are. Acceptable noise levels at various times of day are a subjective issue for human beings to figure out. And you know what? Every society on earth manages to do so, and without the need for an Objective Noise Dictator determining the answers for us. But to “reason” as Prager does, without said Objective Dictator, we are in a hopeless quandary as to what limits to set, and no argument we make can have any persuasive power. The opinions of people will vary randomly.

    The missing piece of the puzzle of course is that our morals are dictated by who we are – mortal beings who sleep at night. Were we immortal risers-from-the-dead like Jesus, or could regenerate like Dr. Who, murder might not be immoral. And if we didn’t need to sleep, we could party all night and not piss off the neighbors. But as it is, we decide its immoral to murder…and to blast your boom car at 4 a.m., with no need for any gods to do so.

  8. wscott says

    If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; the history of slavery throughout the world was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings are right in various Muslims societies.

    Wow, you’d think he could’ve bothered to include even one example of an immoral practice that wasn’t justified on religious grounds.

    So getting your morality from an imaginary being whose existence is unproven and exact nature a subject of opinion is “objective;” and getting your morality from empirical observation of which actions have which consequences is “subjective.”

    Exactly. If we did have some objective, reliable method of knowing 1) that God in fact exists, and 2) what he really wants, then you might be able to claim objective knowledge. I’m guessing Praeger is a Biblical literalist, but the majority of Christians are not. The minute you start cherry picking listening to the still small voice in your heart that tells you which passages to follow and which to ignore, you no longer have an objective process. Even if God exists, such a process would still be indistinguishable from the reasoned “subjective” morality they decry.

  9. Chiroptera says

    Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what?

    So, if you commit a murder, people in those societies will do something about you. If you really need the threat of punishment to decide what is good or bad, or if you need someone else to tell you what is good or bad, then there you have it.

  10. busterggi says

    Prager’s god had no trouble with slavery, rape (unless it wasn’t paid for retroactively in cash), child labor, feudalism, genocide, pedophilia, treating women as property and a whole bunch of other immoral actions. I can better without him.

  11. says

    …the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    That’s utter bullshit. Our ideas of what’s “good” or “evil” are based, in large measure, on repeatable observation of benefits and harms that result from various actions. When I say “stealing is wrong,” that’s not an opinion, it’s a conclusion based on the repeatedly-verified observation that stealing causes material harm to whoever one is stealing from.

    Where did the civil-rights movement come from? It came from huge numbers of people OBSERVING that darker-skinned people showed no sign of being “inferior” to whites by any meaningful measure.

    Where did the gay-rights movement come from? It came from huge numbers of people OBSERVING that gay people didn’t exhibit any sign of those bad things we’ve been hearing about gay people all these centuries.

    If you reject the idea that morality can come from some form of rational enquiry (“methodological materialism”), then you reject the basis for every advancement we’ve made as social/moral beings since the ancient Greeks. But then maybe that’s what backward bigots like Prager really want.

  12. says

    Raging Bee:

    When I say “stealing is wrong,” that’s not an opinion, it’s a conclusion based on the repeatedly-verified observation that stealing causes material harm to whoever one is stealing from.

    I think the heart of the argument is more about the proposition that harm is wrong, rather than the rational conclusions that derive from that proposition. The argument appears to be that harm is wrong is arbitrary.

    To a certain extent, I agree. But, where the proposition that harm is wrong may be arbitrary, the proposition that God is the source of morality is just capricious. The proposition that “harm is wrong” provides a logical framework from which to derive morality. “God is the source of morality” provides no such framework. Arguments among the religious demonstrate there is no consistent morality to be had from the Bible (or any religious book I’ve read, really). Even such a simple moral question as, “When you pray, do you do it loudly and in public, or in the closet of your own house?” are impossible to answer from the Bible.

    So, yeah. “Harm is wrong” may be an arbitrary starting point for a moral framework. But, at least it provides a framework from which morality can be derived logically, and specific instances of the application of this morality can be debated honestly on their logical merits, rather than references to contradictory passages from a terrible book.

    Also, I don’t think many people would disagree with the proposition that “harm is wrong.”

  13. scienceavenger says

    That’s utter bullshit.

    No it isn’t, its as firmly grounded as anything could be. Your examples merely back your subjectivity up a step or two, because there is no ultimately objectively based reason why you should care about the various harms you speak of. The is-ought puzzle remains unsolved.

    Now its true we have been able to reject various forms of morality because we found they were based on falsehoods as you describe (racism, sexism, etc.). But at the end of the “why” chain of inquiry remains subjectivity, and that will never change.

  14. scienceavenger says

    But then maybe that’s what backward bigots like Prager really want.

    I’d argue the exact opposite. What people like Prager want is for us to swallow the line of bullshit that our morals are worthless if they don’t have an ultimately objective basis. It’s a trap we can’t get out of, and they know it. The way out is to not play that game. Our morals are based on our shared humanity: our instincts, desires, values, and the knowledge of reciprocity from others, and that’s enough.

  15. magistramarla says

    I like my husband’s response to this – “I don’t have morals, I have ethics”.

  16. says

    The argument appears to be that harm is wrong is arbitrary.

    And that argument is false. Even if “harm is wrong” is nothing but an opinion, it’s an opinion so uniformly shared by such an overwhelming majority of humans throughout our history as to be, for all practical purposes, an inescapable fact on the ground.

    Your examples merely back your subjectivity up a step or two…

    Yeah, I backed it up from individual opinions to universally observable facts, and universal needs, on which those opinions are clearly based. That’ makes it objective — or, at the very least, a LOT more objective than liars like Prager claim it is.

  17. says

    Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right

    Not to pick nits or nothin’, but his very first example is a self-defeating argument. Apartheid was the very essence of the minority choosing a set of laws to govern the vast majority of the people in order to hold on to their power. As such, the minority of Christians are actually attempting to use their morals in exactly the same way. As such, he’s arguing against his own position and losing.

  18. Chiroptera says

    And if belief in God is so important for morals, then why do Muslims and Christians have such different beliefs about morality? Why do different denominations of Christians, using the very same Bible, have different beliefs on what is moral? Why do different people who go to the very same church often have arguments about what is moral?

    Throwing God into the mix doesn’t seem to make “morality” any more obvious or less arbitrary. All it seems to do is give the believers an excuse to kill those who disagree with them.

  19. pacal says

    Prager says:

    If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    So something is “objective” if God says that X is so. That is nothing more than might makes right.

  20. joseph says

    This reminds me of a post a friend of mine put up on facebook:
    “If you can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, you don’t lack religion you lack empathy.”

  21. freehand says

    I was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed to help maintain slavery in the US. They of course used biblical justification for it.God apparently has changed his mind on this issue, and only lately, too. The fact that religion, even different sects of Protestant Christianity, even the same sect over the course of a few decades, come to different conclusions on morality shows that belief in gods do not lead to a reliably identical moral code.

    Besides which, the God I grew up with is OK with child rape, slavery, and genocide, so fuck Him.

    As for where morality comes from, we are social animals with many social constants in all of the various cultures we have created over time. Our ability to empathize, similar social needs spanning all human existence, and an apparent predisposition to learn a moral code as we grow up explains the why. (Obviously we have much more to learn about this process, but even puppies learn how to behave – why would it be surprising to observe that humans do?)

  22. matty1 says

    Sigh,
    1. There is broad agreement about what morality actually is – not causing harm, treating people as ends rather than means etc. There are plenty of arguments about individual cases but they tend to be about how the general principles apply not whether they are valid. The fact such agreement stretches across people with varied views on God strongly suggests no agreement on him is needed.

    2. If we are talking meta-ethics or what philosophical account explains morals then that is a different question with no universally accepted answer but lots of attempts. However I personally think that “because someone powerful says so” is the weakest of the lot by a long way, it is Prager’s thinking that leads to morality being a matter of opinion with no external basis and saying the opinion holder made the world or controls the afterlife does nothing to improve matters.

  23. exdrone says

    People make moral judgements instinctually and then look to rationalize them afterwards. Using a religious reference for that rationalization does not make the judgement any more morally correct, but for some, it might make it more comforting.

  24. says

    So something is “objective” if God says that X is so. That is nothing more than might makes right.

    It’s not even that — it’s IMAGINARY might makes right.

  25. hunter says

    Prager loses right off the bat:

    If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

    And if there is a god, the labels “good” and “evil” are still merely opinions. They are substitutes for “my god likes it” and “my god doesn’t like it.” There is no such thing as a morality that is an objective reality.

  26. hunter says

    matt1 @23:

    I think Prager, like so many “Christians,” is hampered by not knowing the difference between rules and values.

  27. macallan says

    So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?

    Because the vast majority of all people prefers not to be murdered, fuckwit.

  28. hunter says

    colnago80 @29:

    Actually, I knew that, but his arguments fit so neatly into the “Christian” supremacist fold that his actual background doesn’t seem to matter all that much — after all, most of the rules being tossed around are cherry-picked from the Old Testament.

  29. says

    The argument appears to be that harm is wrong is arbitrary.

    To a certain extent, I agree. But, where the proposition that harm is wrong may be arbitrary, the proposition that God is the source of morality is just capricious. The proposition that “harm is wrong” provides a logical framework from which to derive morality. “God is the source of morality” provides no such framework….

    ….So, yeah. “Harm is wrong” may be an arbitrary starting point for a moral framework. But, at least it provides a framework from which morality can be derived logically, and specific instances of the application of this morality can be debated honestly on their logical merits, rather than references to contradictory passages from a terrible book.

    Thumbs up. That’s one of the points I like to make about secular forms of morality versus Divine Command Theory. There is an overarching rationale that can be intuited, examined, extended, and argued over. It means morality can be understood. We’re able to explain why a particular action is moral or immoral using that framework. Sure, DCTers could argue that “harm is wrong” is an arbitrary premise, but at least we can take it somewhere and strive to be consistent in how we do so. It also helps that this morality tends to lead to societies we can appreciate if it’s applied consistently enough.

    Meanwhile, the similarly arbitrary “disobeying god is wrong” has trouble getting started, since there’s no consensus on what a god is, much less what it commands. The god(s) of the Torah/Bible/Quran aren’t known for having an intuitive consistency, either. DCT effectively places morality outside human understanding because we’re missing the foundation. I think I’d have a hard time tolerating a “true” DCT-based society since I wouldn’t be able to discern what’s legal or illegal at any given moment. In practice, though, it usually results in a totalitarian affair where some dictator declares himself the god’s representative and uses that position for his selfish gain. In those cases, you might as well dump the god and declare the tyrant to be the source of morality since he’s more accessible and human selfishness is something within our understanding.

  30. Nick Gotts says

    DCTers could argue that “harm is wrong” is an arbitrary premise – Bronze Dog

    I don’t think it should be conceded that it is arbitrary. That suggests that there is no justification for adopting it – but the justification for doing so is simple: it will tend to reduce the amount of harm people suffer. If you need some further justification beyond that, you’re a psychopath. The implicit claim behind the “arbitrary” label is that the only possibilities are that there is some ultimate determiner of morality (i.e., God), and that it is just a matter of personal taste, like a preference for chocolate over strawberry ice cream. This is simply false: we can, and do, criticize and defend moral judgements and proposed moral principles on the grounds of logical consistency, and the consequences of adopting them. In a similar way, esthetic judgments (e.g. “George Eliot was a better novelist than Tom Clancy”) are neither handed down by a final authority, nor merely subjective.

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