Sunday, September 7, 2008

If There is No God, What Really Follows

I came across this list by Dennis Prager in which he describes what would happen if there was no God, or more appropriately, if people came to believe that there is no God. It's the usual claptrap about religious belief that uses the old argument from morality to prove the existence of God, or at least argue for the necessity of belief. The problem with his list is that its full of holes, each point grasps very little about the nature of religious belief, particularly Christianity (although Prager is Jewish he has to have read a Chick tract somewhere or other), and woefully ignores history, philosophy, and sociology. Let's get down to brass tacks and rip this apart shall we? Atheist, Agnostic, or Theist, the discussion between us is not helped by this sort of thing.

First, the introduction. Prager here talks about how students learn all about the Inquisition and how it is linked to religion, but that they are never told the secular roots of the twentieth century's great calamities, such as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. That's odd, because I remember learning in school that these ideologies lead people to slaughter one another and never thought, "gee I wonder if it was Catholicism's fault that Stalin happened?" Prager seems willing to ignore the genocidal parts of the Old Testament, where God specifically orders the Jews to massacre and enslave their neighbors. Of course this doesn't let Stalin off the hook, or Hitler, or anyone else, but it does undermine his claim that God is a meaningful source for morality. The problem is also that he lumps all secular belief systems together. A Liberal secularist and a Marxist are two different people, and even within Marxism, there were those who opposed Stalin and Lenin's excesses of power.

Prager then goes on to write this:

For all the problems associated with belief in God, the death of God leads to far more of them. So, while it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence, what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God.

Unfortunately he doesn't follow this line of thought through, and acknowledges little positive influence that secularization has had. Gays would still be burned, tithes forcibly collected, science stifled, and his own ancestors would still be stuck in Ghettos if it wasn't for it. But these details aren't worth noting, instead there is nothing but bloodshed and decadence because people stopped kneeling and blindly accepting everything their priests and poorly edited books told them. The idea that maybe these movements and dictators could inspire such ferocious and bloody loyalty because they took on the trappings of the old churches is also not considered.

Anyways, to his points, he's got fourteen of them, just like Mr. Wilson.

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."

The problem is that even WITH a God we are left with subjective moral facts because every religion claims their God wants things a certain way. A secular worldview could take such principals as Utilitarianism for a way to think about the issue, or base its reasoning from enlightened self-interest, which even religion has to fall back on (after all, when one acts good to get into Heaven, isn't that stemming from the same desire?)

2. Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced.

Number one, what is this objective meaning worth? Since only God knows it, it really doesn't do us much good. We assume it's out there, but it's not even much of a crutch since we have no idea what it is. Number two, simply because there is no God does not mean human life is worthless, or is equal to a pebble. If we are the products of random chance, it took more variables to make us than that pebble, or even a rock the same size as us. That alone means that humans do not lose their uniqueness under such a universe.

And intrinsic purpose? What is that? Notice how Mr. Prager claims that without God we lose our intrinsic purpose, and that we also (point 8) lose our free will as well. This seems to be a contradiction. An intrinsic purpose and meaning imply a determined being, one that isn't free.

3. Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die — some
horrifically, many prematurely — and there is only oblivion afterward.

It's tragic even if there is a God. A being claims to be all loving and all powerful, but we are left to suffer anyways under the illusion that it cares. Nothing really changes if the secularist has his or her way.

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.

So many flaws in this statement. Let me screw my head back on, it just spun off. Alright. there we go. Several things are wrong with this argument.

Humans do need instruction manuals. We are not born with intrinsic notions of right and wrong. we have an instinct towards self-preservation and that's it. over time this drive is channeled into service towards others, as well as being courteous and polite. I agree there. But the problem is that acting rightly is not a set of specific instructions like flying an airplane. There are too many variables. The notion that one cannot trust their heart because the heart can't tell you how to fly a plane, is terribly misguided because it confuses one set of instructions for another. More appropriately, ethics is a game and not a guide to operating a piece of machinery. One has to react and plan in a given situation with others.

This runs counter as well to most Christian ethical thinking (although the author is not a Christian, he has the Judeo-Christian God in mind), since Christian ethics COME from the heart. There is no more law, there is only love, which is a force and not a body of set principals. This is, after all, why Christians claim they can eat bacon and their women aren't ritually unclean while menstruating.

The heart and reason are all we have, even if we are religious. So many groups claims so many different ethical and moral imperatives that it is hard to see what believing in a God means. Plenty of groups say one thing is allowed and others claim the exact opposite, even when they claim to follow the same book.

He also claims that the secular world claims to not need a manual. This is not true either, as there are several ethical codes of conduct that different groups have come up with (Marxism, Buddhism, Humanism, Utilitarianism, Objectivism, etc.), while not relying on any divine revelation. One may not agree with them, and neither holds sway over the majority of atheists, but most theists in the world don't believe in the Resurrection of Christ either.

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.

What the author fails to realize though (and maybe he needs to read Jack Chick, I know, I know, I keep saying that) is that for Christians salvation is by faith not works. Adolf Hitler can repent on is death bed and go to heaven. His horrible crimes would still have been committed. Mother Teresa can have a crisis of faith before she dies and where does she end up? In hell. There are also plenty of religions that don;t have heaven and hell, and in the Old Testament it's not clear what happens when people die. They simply go to sleep with their ancestors for the most part.

6. With the death of Judeo-Christian values in the West, many Westerners believe in little. That is why secular Western Europe has been unwilling and therefore unable to confront evil, whether it was Communism during the Cold War or Islamic totalitarians in its midst today.

In City of God, Augustine confronts the pagans who said the same thing of early Christians. they blamed them for undermining the Empire and allowing it to be lax in its defenses, letting the barbarians to invade. Secularists are accused of the same things these days. When the ruling classes lose their grip on power, or when they themselves are too weak to fight, they often blame those with different beliefs for their troubles

The author seems to willingly ignore many of the secularists who serve in the armed forces of those nations involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as many of the intellectuals and public figures who have condemned Islamic extremism, especially in the reaction to the Danish depictions of a certain prophet.

The fact is that secularists do oppose Islamic totalitarianism, they just think that labeling it as a crusade and invading countries preemptively is not a good decision and are critical of a war against terror that allies the US with such progressive regimes as Saudi Arabia

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.

This is an incredible bizarre argument. Prager admits that religious beliefs are irrational, which the first thing. Second he thinks that becoming secular makes you a Communist, a common ploy among theists. And third he is right in suggesting that secularists were responsible for bringing about sexually equality, and he seems to think this was a bad thing, founded on "irrational" beliefs.

This argument is really grasping for any veneer of intelligence. We should believe in God because it will make us more rational on the outside and keep our irrationality on the inside. This is another unhistorical claim made by the author. We only have to look at the Crusades and witch hunts to know that irrational beliefs, when they are the foundations of a society, will produce irrational actions and are not confined simply to theology or (in the case of Marxism) philosophy. Religious people always want to make their societies function according to their faith. Occasional it works well as in the Civil Rights movement, but most of the time ends up with books banned, books burned, people labeled heretics, and people burned.

8. If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot, whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.

Soooooo if God controls everything, God knows what we are going to do, and we can't go against God's will, we are still free. The prisoners in concentration camps and gulags had more freedom than we do if God exists. Actually only an atheist can believe in free will, but one who is not a strict materialist (i.e. Peter Unger).

9. If there is no God, humans and "other" animals are of equal value. Only if one posits that humans, not animals, are created in the image of God do humans have any greater intrinsic sanctity than baboons. This explains the movement among the secularized elite to equate humans and animals.

Okay, first, they don't want to equate humans with animals. They want to give them equal consideration when it comes to causing a being unnecessary pain. They are also not unanimously supported by the secular community and they have religious advocates as well. Second, they are not "elites." Secularists don't have a Pope or a High Priest. Thirdly, as humans we can value members of our own species without needing to make reference to God. Simply saying humans matter because they are made in the likeness of a man in the sky is no real argument. If any other creature had a God it would make its God resemble it. Horses would give their gods hooves, pigs would have gods with snouts.

10. Without God, there is little to inspire people to create inspiring art. That is why contemporary art galleries and museums are filled with "art" that celebrates the scatological, the ugly and the shocking. Compare this art to Michelangelo's art in the Sistine chapel. The latter elevates the viewer — because Michelangelo believed in something higher than himself and higher than all men.

The fact that religious people have often destroyed works of art is of course ignored. While many people in the past were inspired by religion for their art (and many are still) getting rid of religion does not lead to the end of it. Look at most of the songs written, and how many of them are about human love. Something is motivating the writers of these songs, and it is entirely worldly in its subject matter. While I'm not too happy about the state of the art world, I wonder if Mr. Prager has been to many art galleries, and how many Catholic churches he has entered. While the "scatological" is not found there, plenty of art that celebrates suffering and gore can be seen.

11. Without God nothing is holy. This is definitional. Holiness emanates from a belief in the holy. This explains, for example, the far more widespread acceptance of public cursing in secular society than in religious society. To the religious, there is holy speech and profane speech. In much of secular society the very notion of profane speech is mocked.

The concept of "holy" only exists within a religious context. Remove that and the term is not meaningful, true. But losing the term doesn't really matter. If you took away Judaism, you would lose the ability to call things Kosher, but so what? Most people would not notice its loss in their daily lives.

12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.

Hubris exists with God and without it. People simply think they are carrying out God's will. In fact this is a form of hubris which is more dangerous because any one can believe it. Secular hubris is usually much more well founded, it takes a period of success and a position of power to develop.

13. Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver.

The problem is that the people who did the most to oppose the early advocates of these rights were themselves religious too. And God can take rights away, he often does so in the Bible and Koran, as well as in the Book of Mormon. Look at how he treats Job. How can God punish us for breaking his laws when we could not elect him? That doesn't seem to be the kind of thing our founders would approve of, even if they did put vague religious phrases in their manifestos an declarations.

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.

Crimes are crimes, we don't need to play the numbers game. Do secularists commit crimes? Of course. Have Secularists slaughter people? Yes. This is an argument for secularism, not religion. Why? Because if he exists, God allowed the Nazis and Soviets to kill so many people. He also let his own followers kill people as well. Think of all the people who prayed, asking to be spared from the gas chambers, and whose prayer weren't answered. Believer and non-believer both perished. Is this a God worthy of worshipping? Believer and non-believer both perished.

Even with God, all is permitted. Its simply a matter of waiting for the right, convenient revelation.

As noted at the beginning, none of this proves, or even necessarily argues for, God's existence. It makes the case for the necessity, not the existence, of God. "Which God?" the secularist will ask. The God of Israel, the God of America's founders, "the Holy God who is made holy by justice" (Isaiah), the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who demands love of neighbor, the God who endows all human beings with certain inalienable rights, the God who is cited on the Liberty Bell because he is the author of liberty. That is the God being referred to here, without whom we will be vanquished by those who believe in less noble gods, both secular and divine.

Okay, he finally ends his argument, and once again leaves me aghast. He claims he is not arguing for God's existence, but he is. The argument from morality is just that. X exists, X can only come from God, therefore god exists.

Does he make a strong case? I think that history, real life experience, and logic show that he is wrong. Why? Because the middle part of his arguments, where X comes only from God, doesn't hold up. Only if X comes from God, without any doubt, can it be said that God exists. Since I have thrown doubt on his attempts to do this, Mr. Prager's argument is neither true, nor valid for all that matter. His attempt to cloud everything with the smoke and mirrors of patriotism only highlights his weakness.

He still needs to make an argument why "the God of Israel" is the right God. Simply writing an answer to the question is not sufficient. Everyone claims their God can deliver the same moral goods. He invokes the ten commandments as a code to follow, ignoring Leviticus and Deuteronomy and the clearly intolerant parts of the Bible. He commits all the usual fallacies of religious thinkers and ads a few brazen and unfounded allegations of his own to give his failure flourish.