Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Some thoughts about Dennis Prager's "Judeo-Christian Values: part III"

Dennis Prager is publishing a set of articles about Judeo-Christian values available at Townhall.com. His latest is part III, a spirited defense of the Bible and/or God's moral instruction as the source of moral values, as opposed to reason. Evolution blog has a great response to one of the previous installments which covers a lot of the territory in part III, so I'm just going to hit a couple of obvious points here.

To begin, Mr. Prager contrasts the lofty ideals of the Age of Reason with the disasters in human affairs that followed, stating that
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.
Obviously, either Mr. Prager has ignored the fact that cruelty, superstition, mass murder, and genocide also predate the decline of religion in Europe, or he dates his "decline of religion in Europe" to some era preceeding the year A.D. 1492. But then he goes on to admit that
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 one accepts that reason is an amoral tool, then how can one blame reason for the great tidal waves of cruelty, superstition, etc. that followed the decline of Judeo-Christian religion in Europe? The best one can do along these lines is to say that reason may be a better tool for producing evil than the traditionally faith-based ones, thus the higher body count of the 20th century with respect to, say, the 12th century. Even this point is something that might be objectionable to Mr. Prager, since it suggests that reason might be a better instrument for achieving good ends than one might infer from the Bible or God's moral instruction. But this point that reason might be a better tool for achieving good ends seems self-evident to the 21st century secularist: reason ended up doing a much better job in controlling "the Black Death" than the faith-based alternative, prayer, ever did.

In another sense, Mr. Prager has his argument exactly backwards. Wouldn't most historians agree that the decline of Judeo-Christian religion in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century is an effect, not a cause, of the genocide and mass murder of the previous half?

Another assertion made by Mr. Prager that seems overblown is this one:
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.
For a conservative, that seems a rather bizzare statement, since the founding of the United States largely contradicts it. The Founding Fathers spent months assembled in a Constitutional convention arguing about the form of government for the united states, and the people of those states spent even more months publically debating that form of government. Futhermore, the Founding Fathers were obsessed with the notion that man was not basically good, and that even a largely virtuous people could not be trusted to be free from dangerous factions that might destroy any government that they could institute. The Constitution that they developed was designed with a near-paranoid fear of the type of revolutionary movement that consumed so many subsequent governments even if the Founding Fathers could not anticipate the exact form of the revolutionary movements that might arise. Let's face it, insofar as any government ever created was based on both reason and the belief that man is not basically good, it is the United States of America.

That's not to state that the Founding Fathers didn't have religious principles that they adhered to. But as even a cursory inspection of Russel Kirk's The Roots of American Order might inform you, the Founding Fathers were more interested in drawing their political ideas from pagan, republican Rome rather than Judeo-Christian Jerusalem.

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