Sunday, February 06, 2005

Judeo-Christian Values for Dummies III - Sola Cogitatio Delenda Est

In Judeo-Christian values: part III, Dennis Prager takes on that secular strawman, Reason:

Those who do not believe that moral values must come from the Bible or be based upon God's moral instruction argue that they have a better source for values: human reason.

In fact, the era that began the modern Western assault on Judeo-Christian values is known as the Age of Reason. That age ushered in the modern secular era, a time when the men of "the Enlightenment" hoped they would be liberated from the superstitious shackles of religious faith and rely on reason alone. Reason, without God or the Bible, would guide them into an age of unprecedented moral greatness.

As it happened, the era following the decline of religion in Europe led not to unprecedented moral greatness, but to unprecedented cruelty, superstition, mass murder and genocide. But believers in reason without God remain unfazed. Secularists have ignored the vast amount of evidence showing that evil on a grand scale follows the decline of Judeo-Christian religion.

First of all, Prager misconstrues the Enlightenment as a purely secular and anti-religious movement. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke, and those statesment who drew from the Enlightenment to frame new forms of government, as did our Founding Fathers, did not reject religion, but subjected the irrational abuses of religiously derived superstitions and the outmoded religiously based feudal and aristocratic orders of Christian Europe to the spotlight of rational examination.

Prager, like many religious conservatives today, blame the Enlightenment for everything that has gone wrong in modern Western history, but ignore the fact that our current system of constitutional, secular democracy was based on the very willingness of Enlightenment thinkers to challenge the religious establishment of their day.

Prager goes on to give four reasons why reason alone is not sufficient to build a moral, decent society. This in itself is a strawman, because I do not know of any serious secular thinkers who posit reason as the sole basis for moral decisions. But for the benefit of those who foolishly do, Prager's reasons are sound arguments for why this will not work:

There are four primary problems with reason divorced from God as a guide to
morality. The first is that reason is amoral. Reason is only a tool and, therefore, can just as easily argue for evil as for good. If you want to achieve good, reason is immensely helpful; if you want to do evil, reason is immensely helpful. But reason alone cannot determine which you choose. It is sometimes rational to do what is wrong and sometimes rational to do what is right.

It is sheer nonsense -- nonsense believed by the godless -- that reason always suggests the good. Mother Teresa devoted her life to feeding and clothing the dying in Calcutta. Was this decision derived entirely from reason? To argue that it was derived from reason alone is to argue that every person whose actions are guided by reason will engage in similar self-sacrifice, and that anyone who doesn't live a Mother Teresa-like life is acting irrationally.

Prager misses the flip-side to this argument. To argue that Mother Theresa's actions are derived from a religiously inspired faith in a transcendental God and moral order is also to argue that every person whose actions are so guided will engage in similar self-sacrifice. We know that such is not the case, so religion fails the same test.

Did those non-Jews in Europe who risked their lives to save a Jew during the Holocaust act on the dictates of reason? In a lifetime of studying those rescuers' motives, I have never come across a single instance of an individual who saved Jews because of reason. In fact, it was irrational for any non-Jews to risk their lives to save Jews.

Another example of reason's incapacity to lead to moral conclusions: On virtually any vexing moral question, there is no such a thing as a [missing] purely rational viewpoint. What is the purely rational view on the morality of abortion? Of public nudity? Of the value of an animal versus that of a human? Of the war in Iraq? Of capital punishment for murder? On any of these issues, reason alone can argue effectively for almost any position. Therefore, what determines anyone's moral views are, among other things, his values -- and values are beyond reason alone (though one should be able to rationally explain and defend those values). If you value the human fetus, most abortions are immoral; if you only value the woman's view of the value of the fetus, all abortions are moral.

The second problem with reason alone as a moral guide is that we are incapable of morally functioning on the basis of reason alone. Our passions, psychology, values, beliefs, emotions and experiences all influence the ways in which even the most rational person determines what is moral and whether to act on it.

Third, the belief in reason alone is itself based on an irrational belief -- that people are basically good. You have to believe that people are basically good in order to
believe that human reason will necessarily lead to moral conclusions.

Fourth, even when reason does lead to a moral conclusion, it in no way compels acting on that conclusion. Let's return to the example of the non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. Imagine that a Jewish family knocks on his door, asking to be hidden. Imagine further that on rational grounds alone (though I cannot think of any), the non-Jew decides that the moral thing to do is hide the Jews. Will he act on
this decision at the risk of his life? Not if reason alone guides him. People don't risk their lives for strangers on the basis of reason. They do so on the basis of faith -- faith in something that far transcends reason alone.

These are all basically sound reasons for disclaiming the efficacy of reason alone as a guide to moral behavior. But again it is a strawman argument. Even those secular thinkers who sloppily claim that reason is their sole guide are implicitly in agreement that reason requires a foundation of basic values, or given presuppositional truths upon which to construct rational arguments.

Does all this mean that reason is useless? God forbid. Reason and rational thought are among the hallmarks of humanity's potential greatness. But alone, reason is largely worthless in the greatest quest of all -- making human beings kinder and more decent. To accomplish that, God, a divinely revealed manual and reason are all necessary. And even then there are no guarantees.

Again we are back to the questions that Prager will not answer. Why God? Why can't humans be kinder and more decent without an acknowledgement of God? If you acknowledge that their are moral and decent people who do not believe in God, which Prager has done, then the previous argument falls on its face. And why a divinely revealed manual? Which begs the question all over: who's divinely revealed manual?

Prager's arguments will have no effect on bringing the secular around to his point of view, because his arguments never address the questions that the secular have about Judeo-Christianity. His arguments resound among the believers, he preaches to the converted. He will never explain his foundational presuppositions, he will simply declare them in a booming voice of authority. These are arguments to be heard by the weakly faithful, not the skeptical. When a believer wanders toward that ground, where foundational truths are questions, his answer is "don't go there", with the voice of authority unaccustomed to being questioned.

If the world's fate is in the balance of the struggle of religion and secularism, as he stated in his first installment, then Prager's mission in that struggle is to turn back the deserters from his own side. It is a rearguard action. He does not have the intellectual firepower to go on the offense, to take ground from the other side. His task is not to answer questions that are raised about revealed Judeo-Christianity, but to discourage those questions from ever being asked.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Dennis Prager needs to read Maleficus Maleficorum (memory probably doesn't serve me well here, that should be, but probably isn't, Latin for The Witches Hammer.)

That charming hunk of doctrinal text from the middle ages puts the Catholic Church on record that witches exist, are responsible for all manner of bad things, and need killing.

Dennis Prager also needs to review 20 centuries of virulent anti-Semitism.

Then try again to persuade us how it is religion, and God, deserve some exalted place in moral reasoning.

February 06, 2005 6:46 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

...And even Mother Theresa 'ain't all that', at least according to the Hitch:


Seriously, this running feature is very interesting. Can't disagree with your comments so far.

There's nothing wrong with Judeo-Christian values in general. But why do they feel the need to claim the monopoly?

February 07, 2005 6:10 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper, his answer for the past abuses of religion is that the abuses of secularism, as embodied in the terrible butcher's bill of Nazism and Communism in the 20th Century, were much worse than the witch burning hysterias or the Inquisistion ever were. But he imagines that such movements were a direct outgrowth of atheism, as if Russian society had given up on God and religion prior to 1917, and only then succumbed to Communism. The societies that succumbed to Nazism and Communism were religious societies, whether or not the leaders of those movements were. Hitler certainly was not an atheist.

February 08, 2005 6:58 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Your question is like asking why a person who pays $500 a month for meteor impact insurance believes that all of his neighbors who do not are living on the edge of disaster. If he were to admit that he were no safer than they, he'd have to admit that he was wasting $500 a month.

February 08, 2005 7:01 PM  
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