Did Prager Sweep Causality Under the Rug?

Thursday, September 23, 2021

As if saying it enough times will make it so, Dennis Prager has written yet another column asserting that a secular society is -- somehow -- also therefore a less free one.

Somehow? you might ask.

Well, you tell me:

Image by Alex Shu, via Unsplash, license.
Here is something any honest person must acknowledge: As America has become more secular, it has become less free.

Individuals can differ as to whether these two facts are correlated, but no honest person can deny they are facts.

It seems to me indisputable that they are correlated.
To deny this, one would have to argue that it is merely coincidental that free speech, the greatest of all freedoms, is more seriously threatened than at any time in American history while a smaller-than-ever percentage of Americans believe in [God] or regularly attend church. [bold added]
Does this not seem like an odd way to open an argument about secularity ... Gosh! what is that word? -- necessitating? ... the decline of freedom in our great republic?

In case your'e having a hard time putting a finger on why it does, let's consider an uncontroversial phrase that I would have thought was also familiar to almost any educated adult and certainly should be to any intellectual:
Correlation does not imply causation.
Prager frequently equates the left with what he calls "secularism." I personally think the left looks more and more religious by the day, and "nature" is a strong candidate for one of its gods.

Be that as it may, let's run with Prager's assumption for a moment that religion necessarily implies belief in a god of the Judaeo-Christian sort. If so, then I completely agree with him on both counts: America is both less religious (in that sense) and less free, and those facts about our culture are likely correlated.

But so, too are US spending on science, space, and technology -- and US suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation, from 1999 to 2009 -- according to the web site, Spurious Correlations. Those numbers are facts and so is the correlation. But I don't think even Dennis Prager would seriously argue that one of these causes the other.

Prager's article says not a peep about causation, but that's something we really ought to consider. America has become less free and less observant of traditional Western religions over the past century.

Anyone who values freedom would do well to ask that question. Prager, oddly, just assumes -- or seems to want the reader to assume -- that less religion somehow causes less freedom. At least one thinker I am pretty sure Prager has heard of, Ayn Rand, would beg to differ, as her greatest student, Leonard Peikoff, once outlined in some detail in his essay, "Religion vs. America."

Within, Peikoff argues in part:
Point for point, the Founding Fathers' argument for liberty was the exact counterpart of the Puritans' argument for dictatorship -- but in reverse, moving from the opposite starting point to the opposite conclusion. Man, the Founding Fathers said in essence (with a large assist from Locke and others), is the rational being; no authority, human or otherwise, can demand blind obedience from such a being -- not in the realm of thought or, therefore, in the realm of action, either. By his very nature, they said, man must be left free to exercise his reason and then to act accordingly, i.e., by the guidance of his best rational judgment. Because this world is of vital importance, they added, the motive of man's action should be the pursuit of happiness. Because the individual, not a supernatural power, is the creator of wealth, a man should have the right to private property, the right to keep and use or trade his own product. And because man is basically good, they held, there is no need to leash him; there is nothing to fear in setting free a rational animal. [bold added]
If the case for liberty is actually secular, then something other than an some woozily-implied causation of less freedom by an absence of Christianity might be causing the two cultural trends Prager brings up, but doesn't seem very serious about understanding.

To wit: His "opposition to slavery was based entirely on the Bible," even if true, does not imply that without religion, we would all advocate slavery. As witness the oath of Ayn Rand's most famous character, "I swear by my life ... and my love of it ... that I will never live for the sake of another man ... nor ask another man ... to live ... for mine."

As for what might be causing the two trends, my note about the left becoming more quasi-religious should offer a clue, but a more full explanation would come from Rand's and Peikoff's extensive analyses of the baleful influence of Immanual Kant -- whose mission was to save Christian altruism from the Enlightenment -- on our culture over time. In short, our society continued moving away from Christianity, but also, thanks to Kant, began moving towards a duty-based ethos and its anti-freedom political correlate of statism.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, To wit: His "opposition to slavery was based entirely on the Bible," even if true, does not imply that without religion, we would all advocate slavery.

Indeed. And you can flip it around to show the historical illiteracy or dishonesty of the claim: Clearly, then, Southern slaveowners must have been thorough-going atheists, right? Objectivists before the name, right? Slept with Atlas Shrugged on their nightstands, right? [*] Nonsense. Simply put, their Bible was the Bible, in which they found every defense they figured they needed for owning slaves.

[*] Paraphrasing a very very stupid leftist I had the misfortune of encountering on-line a couple of decades ago, who stated that the greatest advocates of Galt's speech in American history were Southern slaveowners. There's someone who reduces the IQ of any conversation around him--he'd make gossip about reality TV stars stupider.

More generally, the whole argument, if you want to flatter it by such a label, is similar to the stupidity you hear from the weaker-brained sort of conservative that by denying the existence of God, atheism makes religious claims and is thus itself a religion. The short answer, of course, is that this argument equates religion, one kind of philosophy, with philosophy proper--which leads to the same point you make, that philosophy has degraded greatly since the Enlightenment, such that many atheists now are profoundly more irrational than the best theists then.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for adding those comments, particularly the first: This southerner must have been so shocked at the bare correlation "argument" to have had that particular gem knocked from his awareness momentarily. Of course, Prager would just claim that the plantation owners were misinterpreting that font of clarity, the Bible.

And speaking of Christianity and slavery going hand-in-hand, you remind me of the following comment within C. Bradley Thompson's excellent book about the Declaration of Independence:

"One of the most fascinating aspects of antebellum Southern thought - one almost entirely neglected by modern scholars - was its embrace of socialism as not only compatible with plantation slavery but as its ultimate fulfillment."

This comports quite well with Rand's and Peikoff's thinking and, assuming these scholars were Christian, quite poorly with Prager's.


John Shepard said...

Dennis Prager knows that correlation does not imply causation. He is spinning intellectual ammunition for faithful, unthinking followers, not for the rational, thinking. His use of reason is window dressing for the sake of creating the appearance of reason and rationality on the side of mysticism.

(Not to mention that he has been assaulting freedom of speech for years now in the name of "freedom of speech.")

He is one of the most evil individuals in America today, in my view. A Toohey with a pleasant smile.

Andrew Bernstein, in his 2013 debate with Dinesh D'Souza, memorably stated that the cultural legacy of Christianity is that "It made irrationality respectable," and that "after Christianity, anything goes — you can make any irrational claim; you don’t need any facts to support it." Religious irrationality has paved the way for the altruist-collectivist-statist irrationality of the Left. Left and Right today are two sides of the same coin.

John Shepard said...

That's a memorable quote from Leonard Peikoff. May I recommend his 1980 talk "The Philosophic Basis of Capitalism" which was recently released to YouTube (Talk ~ 1 hr; Q&A ~ 40 min):

"If men accept man as an end in himself, this reality as what's real, and reason as man's means of knowledge, then capitalism, individual freedom, mutual human respect will develop almost automatically. But if men are against these big three, if they demand self-sacrifice and turn to another dimension and extol unreason in any form, then capitalism is impossible and any remnants of it still left from earlier times will quickly vanish, even if people still want the remnants.

"No system, including capitalism, can withstand the opposite philosophic base. It can't withstand the constant pressure of an alien philosophy trumpeted daily by all the leading intellectuals.

"Now this is not just theory. It's how it actually worked out historically. The United States was founded on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of the 18th century. And its pillars, the Founding Father's philosophy, was the same three issues in essence: Reason, which they called the Intellect at the time; Reality, which they called Nature; and Selfishness, which they called the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness.

"Now they didn't hold these ideas consistently, unfortunately. They held many many contradictions. And that's what finally defeated them. But predominantly at the time those were their ideas and on this basis they proceeded to create the freest, the greatest, the most capitalistic country in history.

"The tragedy of the West is the fact that at the very same time — the late 18th century — a philosophic counter-revolution was being set in motion, a revolution against the Enlightenment and against America. Its author was a German philosopher who was the exact opposite of the Founding Fathers on every essential question. I mean Immanuel Kant, who was the father of all subsequent philosophy, including communism and Nazism."


Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for your additional quotes and comments.

I have never been a fan of Prager, but I found this column to be a new low, at least in terms of whom he can fool by pretending to be some kind of proponent of reason.