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Reblogged:Prager's Evasion of Rand Is Embarrassing

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"The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind." -- Ayn Rand

At Jewish World Review, we have the latest shameful iteration of Dennis Prager's shopworn tactic of stereotyping "secular people" en route to pleading that his religion (or at least his idea of a deity) is necessary as a foundation for morality.

Here's a good sample:
Image by Ansgar Scheffold, via Unsplash, license.
"Unlike Prager and other religious people, I don't need God to tell me murder is wrong. My conscience tells me that. I don't need to answer to any God; I answer to my conscience."

This response is held most widely among the best educated -- i.e., the people most likely to reject the existence of God and the necessity of both God and the Bible for either a moral order or for attaining wisdom (without which a moral order is impossible). [superstitious spelling G od corrected throughout]
This atheist, who regards morality as a selfish necessity for a happy and prosperous existence, has never held the view that one's conscience is somehow "enough" as a moral guide.

I have always had a strong conscience coupled with a desire to understand right and wrong. Since my parents were Catholic, I started out religious. But once I realized that faith meant accepting something as true regardless of evidence or argument, it was a matter of time before I quit religion.

Early in my life, I also rejected the whole idea that a supposedly benevolent being would give us minds capable of understanding the world -- except that they could not help us tell right from wrong or we'd have to check them at the door when the most important questions came up.

I held out hope that the religious college I would attend later would supply rational -- if perhaps complex -- answers, only to be disappointed. I was shocked to learn that it was faith all the way down after a certain superficial point. I was also mortified to hear a deity called benevolent one moment -- and told that he'd cast his own creations into eternal torment for the sin of not having heard of him the next.

My mortification was not at this deity, for whom no evidence or solid argument was ever offered, but at the realization that large numbers of people variously swallow this whopper whole, serve it to children, or a little bit of both.

That is wrong.

Wiser men than Prager will say that we create the god we worship in our own image. My god would have understood ignorance or incomplete knowledge. We eventually let each other go, in a manner of speaking: "We" knew I could not worship a sadistic monster.

I was quite fortunate around that time to have happened upon a letter to the editor in the campus newspaper trashing another letter's reference to Ayn Rand in a movie review of The Name of the Rose.

I forget the rest of the letter, but I specifically remember the writer dismissing Ayn Rand -- not by name! -- as not "profound" for holding atheism and selfishness as virtues. I was agnostic at the time, and did not yet regard atheism as a defensible position. And I'd never head of selfishness as a virtue.

Half-intrigued and half-expecting to have a fun afternoon of picking apart a different kind of rubbish, I sought out the reviewer, who had been mentioned by name, and he introduced me to Ayn Rand.

Needless to say, much better than what I had anticipated happened, and for much longer.

I wasn't blown away at first, but this was a unique voice. Rand was not telling me to shut off my own mind. She made cogent arguments that comported with other things I already knew. She appealed to my mind -- not with empty, Judaeo-Christian-like praise for "Reason" -- but with penetrating questions nobody else was asking, solid arguments that started with evidence anyone can obtain, and solid cases a normal person could follow to relevant and often striking conclusions.

Here is one such penetrating question, which I am sure Prager never asks, because it is not "common sense" in the sense that you hear it all the time, unlike, say, Give until it hurts or "Give back" (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean):
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why? [bold added]
This is much more compelling than pleading that one has a conscience or Prager saying, in effect, We need to take the Ten Commandments on faith.

The vital necessity of morality that Rand builds after that will, yes, strengthen one's conscience, but it will help build it on a solid foundation in the first place. This is because for the first time, the reader will have learned why it is personally important to be moral.

That's a far cry from the usual plea that Everyone will be thieves, murderers, and rapists! without the Ten Commandments. Maybe Prager suppresses such urges, but, like Penn Jillette, "I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero."

Jillette goes on:
The fact that these people think that if they didn't have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don't want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don't want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you...
Sure, Prager could quip that the above is a version of the "conscience" argument, but that would be a straw man. One's conscience is a combination of one's implicit convictions and one's emotions (which are a product of one's value-judgements).

These convictions and value-judgements have to come from somewhere and, as Ayn Rand eloquently argued at West Point decades ago, one can passively absorb them from the greater culture (as most people do) or one can engage one's mind to shape one's convictions consciously.

A pervasive and wrong idea in our culture is a semi-mystical idea that one's conscience is innate, and the widespread amalgam of superficial Golden Rule semi-selfishness, Judaeo-Christian morality, and increasing doses of outright altruism lends surface credibility to that idea.

Why do most people think they owe every beggar folding money? Why does practically everybody regard murder as wrong? People will, again because these ideas are also out there, often conclude that the "conscience" is innate, or that we have a moral "instinct." (The latter is a contradiction in terms.)

Philosophical ideas are out there already, and Prager speaks for the religious element of our dominant culture.

If I wanted a sinecure, I'd want Prager's job, because in addition to having half of the culture more or less on his side, the other half -- i.e., practically anyone who explicitly rejects religion -- accepts a secularized version of his morality and often pays lip service to some of the more ridiculous intellectual fashions and cultural trends out there.

Prager is more than happy to package deal these increasingly ludicrous notions with "secularism." This makes it easy for him to say, in effect, See! I told you so! How dare we presume to think for ourselves! Straying from the oral tradition of a tribe of illiterate shepherds was always going to lead to this!

You might protest: But most religious intellectuals do this all the time! Yes, but Prager knows about Ayn Rand. Within the past year, he has hosted professed Objectivists at his self-named site. At least one has raised some of these issues on his show, to his face.

While I am dubious about the whole idea of discussing religion on a show hosted by Dennis Prager, the fact remains that he is at minimum well aware that at least some atheists do not use the argument he still says "we" do.

Dennis Prager should be ashamed and his fans should be appalled, but he -- and most of they -- won't be, because they turned their minds off when it was time to program their consciences. And he's happy to tell them they were right to do so.

In a sense this is very amusing: In 2017 -- five years ago! -- the Ayn Rand Institute called Prager out on this exact issue in a post titled, "If There's No God, Murder Isn't Wrong?" I don't expect Prager to necessarily be aware of everything ARI puts out, but this is easy to find. Even if only for that reason, one might expect Prager to be a bit more circumspect.

If you come to a man asking where to find the truth and he says, "Here it is! And don't look over there! In fact, quit looking and put on a blindfold." you would do well to wonder why he doesn't just point in a direction he thinks is helpful and say, "See for yourself."

The latter is what Ayn Rand and the letter-writer I met ages ago did, and I remain grateful to this day.

-- CAV

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