Dennis Prager: A Fisking

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Once in awhile, you see an essay that is so wrong on so many levels and in so many ways that you have to say something. That happened to me today when I visited Jewish World Review and found this column by conservative talk show host and commentator Dennis Prager. This thing is so atrocious I will not be happy until I've ripped it to shreds line by line. And so I will.

Prager opens this essay with the following simplistic paragraphs.

In most of these essays making the case for Judeo-Christian values, I have contrasted Judeo-Christian values only with leftist values: secularism, liberalism, socialism, humanism, environmentalism.

I have done so for two reasons.

First, secular and leftist values are the dominant values of most of the world's elites. If the editors of the major newspapers of the world assembled, they would agree on almost every moral and social issue. The same holds true for the world's academics, whether from America, Latin America, Europe or Asia.

Second, secular/leftist values are the only viable alternative to Judeo-Christian values. At this moment, there are three ideologies competing for humanity's acceptance: secular and leftist, Judeo-Christian and Islam.
Prager, needless to say, is a religious conservative and as such needs to demonize secularism. What better way to do this than to lump it together with the discredited leftist ideology of socialism (and "liberalism", even though in modern parlance this is taken to be essentially the same thing), warily-regarded environmentalism, and their mysterious evil accomplice, "humanism" (a vaguely liberal term I haven't heard in years)? Secularism leads to socialism? How? And what about those Christians who regard environmentalism as "good stewardship"? Where, exactly, are these Siamese quintuplets joined? How do these ideas imply one another if they are distinct? If not, why the repetition? For that matter, how does a religion that extols the spiritual over the material lead to capitalism, a rather worldly political system?

Prager is correct that most of the world's intelligentsia -- which he calls "elites" after the fashion of Laura Ingraham and many other populist social conservatives -- are leftists. But he is off his rocker when he says that, "[S]ecular/leftist values are the only viable alternative to Judeo-Christian values." Has he seen the utter failure of Communism? (Oh, wait! But he has. He decides it's not so viable after all later on. I guess he needed a foil.) How is Communism "viable" -- at least for now? What makes any ideology viable? His apparent criteria speak volumes.

Prager is also out to lunch when he says, "[T]here are three ideologies competing for humanity's acceptance: secular and leftist, Judeo-Christian and Islam," as if mere numbers of nominal adherents are a valid measure of the viability of an ideology. Oh yeah, and then there's that fourth "ideology" -- which I prefer to call an "intellectual tradition" -- known as the classical, or Greco-Roman, tradition. Were the Greeks and Romans really the lost tribe of Israel? Is Prager so ignorant of Western history that he fails to see how the pagans contributed to its development? Or does he have a reason for pretending our great forbears, neither Jewish nor Christian, simply did not exist?

But yes, Judaeo-Christianity and Islam are competing for mass acceptance. Is leftism? Not really. The nihilistic left offers nothing positive to anyone seeking guidance for how to live their lives. This is why so many youths end up adopting religion, including militant Islam, instead. This is not because, as Prager implies, these religions are the "only" alternatives. It is because they are the only widely-known alternatives. Some of us are working to fix that problem by publicizing a far superior alternative.
But Islam is not currently in the battle for men's minds. Outside (and even inside) the Muslim world, it gains power largely through force. There are non-Muslims who convert to Islam out of sheer conviction, but in general, when Islam gains a foothold or actually attains power in a non-Muslim society, it is either through force or threats of force -- e.g., Sudan, Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria; or through a large immigration of Muslims --e.g., Western Europe. Its contemporary spread is not due to the power of its intellectual appeal, let alone the record of its contemporary social and moral achievements.
Prager, I have to admit, nails it when he says that: (1) Islam is not "engaged in a battle for men's minds". (2) Its cultural dominance is achieved through force. And (3) it is lacking in social and moral achievements. In this respect, he accidentally sounds a lot like Ayn Rand, who once noted the relationship between faith and force: "Faith and force ... are corollaries: every period of history dominated by mysticism was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny." This is so because faith is the opposite of reason. One cannot persuade others in matters of faith. One can only hope for the capitulation of others or one is left to force them to do whatever it is their lack of faith is keeping them from doing.

Where Prager gets it completely wrong is in his implied contrast of Islam with "Judaeo-Christian values". While we are indeed witnessing a battle of civilizations, this battle is between Western civilization and Islam. Western civilization is in fact a mixture of two traditions: the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian. Ever since the spread of the latter into the West, there have been periods when that element has been stronger or weaker. If Prager would take the trouble to look up the terms "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance", he might find that the lowest point for the Western world was reached precisely when its cultural milieu was closest to being unadulterated Christianity. The Renaissance arose after classical learning was rediscovered in the West and men began using their minds again, rather than subordinating them in blind obedience to the dictates of religious authority.

In fact, Prager gets this wrong twice in one paragraph without ever mentioning "classical values". (Wow! Infinite word economy!) Note that he says, "Islam is not currently in the battle for men's minds." Was it ever? If one were to compare the achievements of the Christian and Islamic worlds during the Middle Ages, one could say so. For, while classical learning was lost in the West, it was known and improved upon in the Moslem world. Might the classical tradition, from which so many rational disciplines arose, quite possibly have had something to do with the relative accomplishments of the Western and Islamic worlds over historical time?

I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt that Prager is this ignorant of history. I think there is a reason Prager lumps "secular" with "leftist" while appropriating the virtues of the classical, non-Judaeo-Christian strain in Western civilization for his religious tradition. As I just noted, the relative influences of the Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions vary over time in the West. While some might claim that these complement one another, these two strains are actually at odds on a fundamental level. One tradition is based on the epistemology of reason while the other is based on faith. One tradition offers argument and demonstrable achievement; the other authority and misery. Just as Islamic civilization objectively offers nothing in the way of accomplishments, so too would the Judaeo-Christian -- without Greco-Roman rationality to prop it up. Prager knows that there is no rational basis to accept religion, so he has to pretend that the unprecedented accomplishments of the West are a reflection of its predominant religious orientation.

More important than that, he is, in an age of great peril, acting very irresponsibly, for his "clash of ideologies" on the world stage is really just cover for the battle he really cares about: the battle for the West. Prager's only audience is in the West, whose age-old conflict between reason and faith remains unresolved. Having no armies at his disposal, he is at a great disadvantage and must resort to trickery instead. Dennis Prager hopes the West will forget what has made it great so that it will voluntarily accept religious authority again. This is why he both discredits secularism and claims the accomplishments of the secular remnants of an ancient civilization for religion.

Prager might as well conclude his essay now, but the resulting brevity might cause more people to ask the same impertinent kinds of questions I am raising now, in addition to making him look more obviously like the intellectual lightweight he is.

So he solves both problems with the snow-job of pseudo-intellectualism that is the rest of his essay. The game plan is as follows. Distract the audience from thinking too much about Western civilization -- and round out your intellectual bona fides -- by giving a superficial, breezy world tour of alternate philosophies. Ignore the real alternatives in your own back yard and pretend that it is not substance that counts, but numbers. Lots of people who aren't very independent are swayed by feeling like they're part of a huge crowd.
There was a time when Islam appealed to non-Muslims' intellects, and it may one day again. But today, it competes with Judeo-Christian values and leftist ones primarily because of the power of its numbers and of its violent elements.

In our time, only secular/leftist values compete with Judeo-Christian ones on the intellectual battlefield. There really are no other viable doctrines to guide mankind at the beginning of the 21st century. And this is unfortunate. For one thing, despite my belief in the superiority of Judeo-Christian values, competition is always healthy. For another, I am worried that a vast segment of mankind does not have any strong moral code.
Thanks, Dennis. It's mighty white of you to want competition.

This is pure baloney. Will "competition" cause Judeao-Christian values to (snigger) evolve into better ones? Is Prager unsure that God got those ten commandments quite right? And is it his wish that all those "competitors" go to Hell for not following God's will? Not too Christian-sounding, if you ask me. What the hell is this all about?

This is simply false homage to the fact -- obvious in the West anyway -- that knowledge can advance over time as new facts are discovered. This happens to be true in every field except religion. (See paragraph above.) But Prager has to at least pretend that he thinks religious morality really can change over time. He has to pretend that it's not just a bunch of arbitrary dicta from on high. He has to because there is no other way to fool people -- who are accustomed to thinking rationally -- about the true nature of religion.

One theoretical alternative is Eastern religion. Having studied Buddhism under a prominent Buddhist, I came to respect Buddhist and related Eastern thought. Some of its insights (such as having few or no expectations) have benefited me greatly, and I cite them in my book on happiness. But Buddhism and related Eastern value systems are not contenders for shaping humanity. On the practical level, Buddhism is losing ground to secularism even in Asia. And in the West, a minuscule percentage of the population takes it seriously and in a form often so Westernized as to be unrecognizable to its Asian practitioners.

And Christanity is not already losing ground to the more this-worldly outlook Prager dismisses as "secularism"? And isn't this loss of ground precisely why Prager has written this slipshod, disingenuous piece? By his own professed standards, Prager is fighting for the wrong cause! But he wants you to not notice this fact. You are to contemplate how weak Buddhism is as a "humanity-shaper", and how easily it mutates into an unrecognizeable, Westernized form. Prager's only use of the term "Western" is quite revealing. First of all, Christianity has mutated quite a bit in the West, its reformation being its own "Westernization". Prager logically ignores this. It would require him to acknowledge that pesky Greco-Roman influence again. But there's more: Prager obviously judges this as bad. Why?

As for the viability of a belief system to "shape mankind", Prager has it all wrong there. The purpose of having a belief system is not to "shape mankind", as if it were some great ant colony. It is to have a systematic basis for living one's own life properly. "Reshaping mankind" might be a distant consequence of a large number of people adopting a given belief system, but that should have no bearing whatsoever on one's own personal choice. What other people believe, so long as they aren't going to be able to harm you, is likewise a secondary consideration if it is a consideration at all.

But for some reason, Prager doesn't want you to think of living your own life. No. You are to think in apocalyptic terms, in terms of your army marching in lock-step against the Moslem hordes. Prager wants to intimidate you into thinking that only Christianity won't mutate into something else and that its army can beat that of Mohammed.

And the rest is so much similar fluff. Buddhism is great, but it doesn't cut the mustard in promoting good. Prager then kicks the dried carcass of leftism around a bit, and then concludes that -- gosh -- there's nothing else left, so it must be Christianity by default.
On a philosophical level, Buddhism is more of a philosophy designed to enable the practitioner to achieve enlightenment than a societal way of life to combat evil and promote good.

Then there is -- or was -- Communism, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism. They seduced much of the West's intelligentsia, just as leftist ideas do today. That seduction is what led George Orwell to write that some ideas were so stupid only intellectuals could believe them. But since the collapse of the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they hold much less attraction than they once did. Some in Hollywood still idolize Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara is chic among the morally neutered, but Marxism is not a viable alternative for humanity.

So we are we left with Judeo-Christian values and secular left values. The latter, as noted, hold sway among the world's elites. But they are personally so unfulfilling and morally so confused that they cannot work. Western Europe will hopefully awaken to this fact as its socialist economies fail and as it realizes that you cannot fight faith (radical Islam) with no faith (secularism).
That leaves Judeo-Christian values.

It is urgent that the case be made. Much of humanity has little by way of a religious/moral foundation. Many of the more than a billion Chinese, for example, have some ancestral emotional ties to Confucianism, but with each passing year, those ties weaken. And a combination of strident nationalism and a rapacious money-making ethic are replacing it. That is a frightening amoral combination.

The Judeo-Christian value system is not only the best value system for humanity; it is the only viable one. If we do not promote it, moral chaos will ensue. And we can't promote it if we don't know what it is.
Or almost by default.

Prager does say two very important things during his whirlwind tour of belief systems with large numbers of followers. (1) "[Y]ou cannot fight faith (radical Islam) with no faith (secularism). " (2) "Much of humanity has little by way of a religious/moral foundation." To (1), Prager's equivocation of secularism with leftism (which is basically relativism in today's context) makes such a false conclusion inescapable. To fight Islam, the West does need moral certainty. Prager is wrong that this must come from faith.

In (2), Prager cashes in on the same equivocation.

We are indeed in a moral crisis here in the West, and it is true that we will resolve this crisis or lose our war with Islam. But the choice between morality based on faith and amorality based on relativism is a false one.

The power of the West lies in the fact that we have retained the learning of the classical world and, more importantly, still practice the rational methodology which made the ancients great. Unless we learn that reason can and should be used to address moral questions, we will either lose to Islam outright or we will defeat Islam only to slip into a new Judaeo-Christian dark age. It is men like Prager, who would have us forget that it was the ancient Greeks, and not the Biblical prophets, who taught us how to command nature, who pose the gravest threat to the West. In forgetting, at their urging, what makes us great, we will cease to remain great.

-- CAV


8-10-05: (1) Corrected two typos, one HT to Adrian Hester. (2) Added a link to Armchair Intellectual.


Gideon said...

Just plain awesome! Couldn't have said it better myself!

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Gideon! That means a lot coming from someone who is so familiar with Prager. I'd never heard of him until yesterday myself.


Gideon said...

It's well deserved. Certainly you put a lot more effort into your response than I did in mine. Prager is a very interesting character. He thinks he is being quite rational in his opposition to what he terms the "secular left" but at the same time he always denies that reason is sufficient for arriving at morality (partly because he equates what the left and academics do with reason). The one thing about Prager if you listen to his show is that he is very polite and serious, which makes it tricky for some people to attack him.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[Prager] equates what the left and academics do with reason."

Good point, and related to one I meant to make here but forgot. (There was so much to say that I was bound to lose track.)

To wit: Prager also, of course, uses a straw man for "secularism" as well. The left's nihilistic attacks on religion, which often are really just attacks on values as such make secularism look bad all the time. Not to condone self-sacrifice, but when a crucifix in a jar of urine is touted as art, even I get offended, and not just because I sometimes have to explain it away as a secularist. This is an attack on reverence, a profound emotion.

And another point: Prager's book Happiness is a Serious Problem is compared at Amazon by a reviewer to another similar religionist, Joel Osteen. Both seem to package-deal personal achievement and this-worldly happiness with what I think of as "Christianity Lite". On the one hand, this looks like opportunists trying make a buck off of Christianity while it is on the wane. On the other, it encourages a lot of people not to think explicitly about important issues. So it's a good sign and something to watch out for at the same time.


Gideon said...

Just a minor note -- Prager is Jewish. However, like other Jewish Conservatives such as Don Feder and Michael Medved, he is such an admirer of Christianity (at least as he sees it, which frequently differs from what his Christian callers point out to him -- that's part of the problem -- he makes Christiantity and religion in general sound much more reasonable than it actually is) that it doesn't really make that much difference in practice.

You're quite right on the nihilism of of left and its attack on all values.