Photo: Atheist Bus Canada, CC BY 2.0
Dennis Prager is a talk show host, and a religiously conservative one at that. I wouldn’t normally talk about such things on this blog, but the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page today shared one of his videos (mostly as a “here’s what we’re up against” kind of thing), and as far as I’m concerned it advocates for a poorly-considered line of reasoning that actively aids discrimination against atheists in America.
“Only if there is a god who says that murder is wrong, is murder wrong, otherwise all morality is opinion. The entire western world, what we call western civilization is based upon this understanding.“
This is a direct quote from a video titled (rather unsurprisingly) “If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong,” a video which, for all its platitudes, it essentially one big middle finger to the atheists and freethinkers of America. Oh, sure, he says that this “doesn’t mean that if you don’t believe in god that you can’t be a good person,” and that “there have been plenty of people who believed in god who were not good people,” but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s entirely writing off the work of millennia of non-Christian philosophers and ethicists (who in large part founded western civilization—regardless of what Prager erroneously believes) who have worked to define morality in a non-theistic way.
Furthermore, in its hypocritical ignorance, it contributes in a serious, non-negligible way to the continuing persecution of atheists and humanists in America today. There is a very good reason why one of the major slogans of the atheist and secular rights movement in America is “Good Without God,” and that’s because many people in America are labouring under the pernicious belief—supported by men like Prager—that “good” is a term literally devoid of meaning to nontheists.
Take this statement:
“Without god we therefore end up with what is known as moral relativism, meaning that morality is not absolute but only relative to the individual or to the society. Without god, the words good and evil are just another way of saying “I like” and “I don’t like.” If there is no god, the statement “murder is evil” is the same as “I don’t like murder.””
It’s true that without a single arbiter of the definitions of “good” and “evil” we end up with (shock and horror) multiple arbiters of the definitions of “good” and “evil,” and that’s certainly how moral relativism works—but that doesn’t deprive meaning from the words “good” and “evil.”
What Prager is espousing is called a tautology: he’s defining good as “what god says is good.” Stop me if you can see the circularity there. Under that definition, it’s literally impossible for anything to be good without the say-so of a deity. His premise assumes his conclusion, a logical flaw that used to be known as “begging the question.”
And I, for one, refuse to grant him that definition. I do this for two reasons.
First, there are very valid, deity-free ways to arbitrate whether something is morally good or the opposite.
I myself start from two general principles. On the one hand we have the so-called “Golden Rule” to do unto others as you would have them do unto you—essentially “have empathy, and imagine the effects your actions have on others.” On the other hand, we have what I call the “societal rule” to act in such a way that, should everyone do the same, there would be a better world as a result—essentially, “think about what would happen if everyone did what you’re about to do.” Those pretty much rule out murder as “wrong”—not just “disliked”—because it violates both precepts: neither would I want to be murdered, nor would the world be a better place if murder were commonplace. With fundamental human qualities like empathy and reason, it isn’t a challenge at all to decide whether murder is good or not.
Second, the Judeo-Christian worldview he assumes to be singular and monolithic is (in a surprise to literally no-one) not so. There are many, many things considered moral by some Christians and immoral by others. Christians from various sects examine their texts and determine, for themselves, what “god thinks is good.” For some that means not using contraception; for others that means not buying cars. But make no mistake: humans are no less the arbiters of “good” and “evil” within Christianity than they are without. By his own definition, that makes Christians moral relativists as well.
And that’s the kicker: Prager’s a moral relativist, too. We all are. We all decide for ourselves how to arbitrate what counts as “good” and “evil.” Prager’s specific brand of Christianity—whichever one he espouses—is one arbiter, masquerading as a universal arbiter. Prager’s moral choice is to hand over his powers of arbitration to his Christian sect and their leadership and traditions. He’s just lying to himself about what he’s doing.
In doing so, he’s contributing to the myth that there is—or could ever be—a single, monolithic moral arbiter for actual, non-theoretical living humans without actual two-way communication with their deity of choice.
Meanwhile, doing that feeds into the destructive lie that for non atheists and secularists the word “good” can have no meaning, which actively harms real living people. To me, that makes his stance immoral or—in his words, I suppose—”evil.”
Moral absolutism like Prager’s, because of the harm it does, is the antithesis of “good.” Maybe he should think about that before he tries telling people that without a god, murder isn’t wrong.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.