Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Neoconservatives' two forms of mysticism

Neoconservatism is an intellectual movement. Its leaders -- such as David Brooks, a writer for The New York Times and an adviser to Senator John McCain -- hope to steer the United States toward "national greatness" paid for by sacrificing the wealth and lives of its citizens.[1] The underlying philosophy of the neoconservative movement starts with a foundation of a metaphysics of supernaturalism (via Plato) and an epistemology of mysticism. Unlike most other mystics examined here in The Main Event, neoconservatives speak of mysticism in two versions, one esoteric and one exoteric, as explained by C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook, authors of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.

1. ESOTERIC MYSTICSM. Esoteric doctrines are ideas that theologians and other mystics discuss only among themselves and teach to select students in the inner circles of their movement. (The English word "esoteric" is related to the Greek adjective esoteros, "inner.") Esoteric doctrines are hidden from the public, that is, from the uninitiated individuals who might misunderstand the ideas and react with hostility.

In the 1930s to 1960s, the philosophical and intellectual founders of the neoconservative movement objected to reason as an ideal of the Enlightenment period (roughly 1700-1800). "Through reason," says Leo Strauss (neoconservatism's philosophical founder, 1899-1973), man "becomes aware of his world and its dependence on the 'upper world'." However, Strauss explains, reason is unable to rise to the highest truths, those grounded in that upper world. (p. 110)

What guide do the neoconservative leaders follow in climbing to the highest truths? Thompson and Brook show that Strauss, a Platonist, "seeks a mind meld with the eternal beings," that is, the Platonic Ideas. (p. 106) How can one gain such knowledge? As the first step, "Strauss thinks men gain access to the ultimate nature of things via thinking about what men say about them. Opinions are therefore the basic fact of social reality and are man's 'most important access to reality' . . . ." (p. 107)

As Plato's Socrates found, in Strauss's interpretation of Plato's dialogues, even that dialectical approach is insufficient for attaining higher knowledge. A second step is needed: recognizing that "some kind of nonrational or mystical great leap forward is required for the last push to the summit of wisdom," Thompson and Brook note. This second step is "divination" (daimonion in Greek), which is a kind of "divine illumination" or "revelation" from Plato's world of Ideas, says Strauss. (p. 108)

2. EXOTERIC MYSTICISM. Exoteric doctrines are ideas that theologians and other mystics discuss in the outer circle of their movement or among the public outside the movement, that is, those individuals who have not been "initiated" into special vocabulary and procedures. (The English word "exoteric" is related to the Greek adjective exoteros, "outer.")

The founders of neoconservatism complained that in the Enlightenment reason had "swept aside" the "faith, revelation, and mystic insight" of Medieval Christian culture. "Reason, argue the neocons, shatters everything that gives meaning to the lives of ordinary people; it undercuts their belief in everything that unites and brings order to society." Mysticism, the neoconservatives believe, is crucial to a united and orderly society. Mysticism is the foundation, and therefore for ordinary men the justification of ideas such as "the immortality of souls, . . . an afterlife, and . . . divine punishment, all of which [ideas] are necessary for [ordinary men] to bear the drudgery, injustice, and pain [of] . . . life in this world." In conclusion, the "neocons believe that all societies need religion," say Thompson and Brook. (pp. 78-79)

When leading neoconservative intellectuals speak in public, they advocate conventional monotheistic religions -- with their supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism -- as guides for non-intellectuals. (pp. 79, 126-127) A secular supplement to conventional religion is "civic religion." It turns the city or nation into a god to whom wealth and lives are sacrificed by their citizens. (p. 86)

"The [neoconservative] philosophic statesman knows that any such . . . civic religion makes truth claims that it cannot verify rationally," say Thompson and Brook. (p. 127) Lacking a rational base, neoconservative ideas about religion or national crusades require "benevolent coercion" to ensure public conformity. (pp. 127-128) Thus brute force must supplement mysticism -- as pro-reason philosopher Ayn Rand pointed out in her essay, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World."[3]

SUMMARY. Neoconservatives rely on and advocate mysticism in two forms. The first, intended for the inner circle of the neoconservative movement, is the secular, philosophical mysticism of "divination." The second, intended for the non-philosophical public at large, is the mysticism of conventional religion -- faith, revelation, and the authority of scripture or priests.

Burgess Laughlin, author,, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] This post draws from Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by C. Bradley Thompsom and Yaron Brook. I reviewed it here: (fully) and (narrowly). Their book, which I highly recommend for anyone who has a philosophically deep interest in current U. S. politics and culture, is available here: For David Brooks, the journalist, see the many entries under his name in the index of N:OI

[2] The N:OI index has no entry for "mysticism," "faith," or "divination." My own notes in the index cite: for "mysticism," pp. 79, 96, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 147, 148, 152, 164, and 224; for "faith," pp. 78, 79, 86, 87, 99, 108, and 147; and for "divination," pp. 108 and 147. The index does include entries for "Reason," citing pp. 23, 25, 49-50, 68, 73, 79, 85, 87, 107, 110, 146, 147, and others.

[3] Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," Ch. 7 of Philosophy: Who Needs It, 1982.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Imam Rauf on Sufism

REVIEW. An October 7 post describes Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as an activist and briefly reviews his book, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. His book does not openly advocate mysticism. An October 17 post explains that Imam Rauf and his book are thoroughly immersed in a religious worldview. Mysticism is an integral part of that worldview. He assumes mysticism as the norm.

This post explores Sufism, a thread woven throughout Rauf's book. Rauf does not make explicit the value of Sufism in his own life or Sufism's role in establishing his book's theme -- Christians, Jews, and Muslims share an "Abrahamic tradition" that provides a common ground for building a bridge between Western and Islamic cultures.[1]

WHAT IS SUFISM? As a religious worldview, Islam is a whole. It guides the individual in his outer life (particularly his actions in society, including rituals) and in his inner life (particularly his relationship with God). Shari'ia, the body of religious laws based on holy scripture, governs a Muslim's outer life. Following shari'ia is required of all Muslims. Shari'ia is exoteric, that is, instructions for following it are offered publicly to everyone. Islam has simpler expectations of Muslims' inner life. For example, all Muslims should "polish their mirror" (Rauf, pp. 69-70) by being virtuous so that they can reflect God's face when he looks at them. Part of being virtuous is rejecting vices, especially the vice of egoism. (Rauf, p. 65)

In contrast, Sufism, which provides a path for becoming spiritually closer to God, is elective; few Muslims choose to follow the path. Sufism is esoteric, that is, instructions are provided privately by a few teachers to a few students. As specialized Islamic mysticism, Sufism has two forms. In the metaphysical form, the Sufi strives to be in the presence of or even united with God. In the epistemological form, the Sufi tries to gain knowledge of God through direct experience of God. Thus, Sufism attempts to bridge "the gap between human reason and sure knowledge of the Divine," says one Muslim intellectual. (Glasse, "Sufism," p. 375, col. 2)

MOTIVATIONS FOR SUFISM. Why would anyone endure the reportedly arduous and long training that Sufis undergo? One answer comes from Imam Rauf: "A common feature of human life is suffering, whose primary cause is . . . the state of being separated from God." (Rauf, p. 66) Further, "Sufis are taught . . . to learn how to suffer so as to remain unaffected by suffering (even to die before they die so as to embrace immortality), to know how to . . . detach [oneself from this world] so as not to be affected by the . . . loss of possessions." (Rauf, p. 67)

A second major motivation for Sufis is to see "God who is Absolute (most real) Reality. To move closer to God, the Sufi leaves the world -- and the self -- behind because it is merely an appearance of the Real." (Glasse, "Sufism," CEI, pp. 377-378)

METHODS OF SUFISM. A Sufi walks a steep path in his ascent to God. (Rauf, p. 70) He moves upward from "station" to "station." At each station, he may experience a reward from God: a special state of mind, a "heightened consciousness." (Fakhry, p. 239) One way to achieve that heightened consciousness, Sufis say, is through dhikr, "divine remembrance." Dhikr is a ritual in which the Sufi repeatedly chants the names of God or verses that appear in the Qur'an. (Rauf, p. 63) Through this ritual, the Sufi may "remember" in this realm of earthly life the sights he has seen in another realm that is now closed off to him by veils. (Rauf, p. 71) "Chanting la ilaha illallah ["There is no god but God."] as a mantra has positive effects," Rauf says, "especially when done in a group. It can bring people to ecstasy, soothe, and calm, energize, and enable some to make more translucent the veil between them and God." (Rauf, p. 49)

Dhikr is one part of Sufi "technology." Another part is guidance. The Sufi path of ascent (tariqah) to God requires guidance from a spiritual leader (mudhakkir). (p. 70) Some spiritual leaders say they studied with earlier masters (shaykh) who studied with still earlier masters and so on in an unbroken tradition or "chain" (silsilah) leading back to Muhammad's companions and then to Muhammad himself. (Glasse, p. 376. col. 1) For an example of a chain, see:

These historical chains of teaching and studying show the survival of Sufism from the generation of Muhammad onward. What explains the geographic spread of Sufism? Muslim conquests opened doorways to other cultures, from Spain to Indonesia and Central Africa to Russia. Today, however, Sufism is expanding beyond the boundaries of Muslim political control -- and may serve as an advance guard of that control.

DISSEMINATING SUFISM TODAY. What is the state today of Sufism in the USA, one of the countries of the West that are under assault from many forms of mysticism? As an army may march in columns, so Sufism is entering US culture in several "columns." What distinguishes one column from another is each column's relationship to Islam.

1. ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. One Sufi column is a stream of Islamic Sufi "orders." In a religious context, an order is a type of social organization; it is dedicated to a particular religious purpose. An order's members submit to religious regulation of their lives. These regulations are formulated and applied by the leaders of the organization. Catholic Christianity includes monastic orders (monks) and preaching orders (friars); each order has its own regulations. Islamic Sufi orders apply shari'ia to their members to closely regulate their lives. An example of an Islamic Sufi order is the old and traditional Naqshbandi Order. There are at least ten Islamic Sufi orders operating in the USA.

2. QUASI-ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. Imam Rauf is a member of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, which was founded in the 1980s. (Padela) It is a recent "dervish" (ecstatic dancing) branch of a traditional order. It is open to men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims:

3. NON-ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. The Sufi Order International is an example of a non-Islamic Sufi order. Its supporters say that its Sufi doctrines and practices are independent of Islam because Sufism was alive in the Middle East and India before Muhammad.

4. SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS. Some organizations that are not orders nevertheless support Sufism. An example is the American Sufi Muslim Association, which Imam Rauf founded. (

All four classes of Sufi advocates and supporters aid the cause of mysticism, which is the common denominator they promote, no matter what competitions or conflicts arise between them or between the individuals in their organizations. The power of organizations is their ability to concentrate resources on particular goals. For Sufi organizations in a non-theocratic country, that power consists mainly in disseminating ideas through official events such as lectures, as well as through websites, books, and classes in which experts advise and teach novice Sufis. In affecting a culture, having more, but smaller, organizations can be more powerful than having a single, monolithic organization for two reasons. First, multiple smaller organizations are multiple voices bearing the same message from a variety of viewpoints. Multiple voices repeating the same essential message are more likely to catch the attention of nonbelievers.[2] Second, each of the multiple small groups, with its own special interests, can appeal to a different segment of the larger population.[3]

In the USA, Sufi centers appear across the country. The web page shows activity centers for one small order of Sufis, the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Order. Including the orders, more than fifty organizations in the West are spreading Sufism:

CONCLUSION. Sufism is a mystical movement that has flourished in Muslim countries and is now spreading through the West. Its core procedure is abandonment of one's self and this world in order to experience being closer to God and thereby come to know God directly. Sufism's advocates seldom appear in mass media news as Sufi advocates, yet their movement is well established. It is an example of a movement that has quietly built a sub-culture and sub-society while remaining largely unknown to the majority society.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] This post, like others on this weblog, is an entry in a journal. I am not documenting every statement. Page numbers in parentheses refer to Imam Rauf's What's Right with Islam or other sources identified in "For Further Study." [2] Onkar Ghate and Yaron Brook make this point in their lecture series, "Cultural Movements: Creating Change," at The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights website (Participate tab, Activism tab, right column on Nov. 3, 2010 or, if no working link, search for title). I highly recommend it. [3] Leonard Peikoff describes a similar situation, in Ch. 7 ("United They Fell") of Ominous Parallels. Various political parties in Germany in the 1920s competed with each other for power while generally supporting the same fundamental principles.

(1) Ernst, Carl W., "Tasawwuf" (Sufism), Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, The Gale Group, Inc., 2004; High Beam Research, 9 Aug. 2010, Posted by Worldwatch on (Ernst is the author of books such as Guide to Sufism.)
(2) Fakhry, Majid, Ch. 8 ("The Rise and Development of Islamic Mysticism"), A History of Islamic Philosophy, 2nd ed., New York, Columbia University Press, 1983.
(3) Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989. (A newer ed. is available.)
(4) Kinney, Jay and Henry Bayman, "Sufism, the West, and Modernity," University of Georgia, (A brief description of the four kinds of Sufi organizations, including particular orders in the West.)
(5) Padela, Aasim I., "Imam in the Middle, But Is He in the Center?," Huffington Post, posted Sept. 5, 2010, 10:30 am, at (Padela, a scholarly Muslim who has met Rauf, examines Rauf's standing in the Muslim community.)
(6) Rauf, Feisal Abdul, What's Right With Islam Is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, Harper Collins, 2004.
(7) Wikipedia, "Sufism", as of August 30, 2010.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rauf's mysticism in "What's Right with Islam ..."

An October 7, 2010 post described Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's activism, particularly for his core purpose in life, building a bridge between the West and the nations dominated by his Islamic worldview. That post also briefly reviews his book What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims in the West. The purpose of this post, the second in the series, is to briefly describe the manner in which Rauf uses his book to advocate for mysticism.

One characteristic to keep in mind while reading and evaluating his book is that it is a thoroughly religious book. (For "religion" and similar terms, see the Glossary in an Aug. 27, 2010 post.)

The intended audience is mainly religious readers:
- American Jews.
- Devout American Christians.
- American congressmen (almost all of whom loudly declare their religiosity).
- Conflicted American religious conservatives (such as George W. Bush, Rauf says).
- Generic "spiritual seekers" wondering why Islam is the fastest growing world religion.
- American feminists intrigued by the possibility that life in Saudi Arabia may be compatible with feminism.
- Young American Muslims torn between the image of Osama bin Laden on American TV versus their "sweet grandmother who sits forever on her prayer rug praying that [her grandchild] will marry a devout Muslim . . . ." (pp. xvii-xviii)

The subject of the book is religious: The need for reconciliation between the "West" (which Rauf considers to be synonymous with Judeo-Christian culture) and Islamic nations. Their common foundation in "the Abrahamic tradition" both requires and makes possible reconciliation, Rauf holds. (pp. 282-283)

The theme is religious: "Religion, which speaks to the eternal in us, must be the foundation of a robust, harmonious society and the animating principle of the whole life of a people." (p. 284)

The fundamentally religious nature of the book explains why the author does not advocate for mysticism. He assumes it. Mysticism permeates the book. Evidence of Rauf's mysticism appears throughout his book in the form of particular kinds of mysticism:
- Faith, which "refers to right beliefs about God." (p. 47)
- Revelation, for example, passing the Qur'an from God to the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. (p. 42).
- Prophecy, for example, in the roles of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. (pp. 57-58).
- Holy scripture as the ultimate authority. (p. 57)

In conclusion, Rauf has described world problems and offered solutions, but always within the context of religion in general and Islam in particular. That religious worldview permeates the book. It is a given, an ever-present premise. The essence of that worldview is that our guide to action, individually and socially, comes to us mystically from a supernatural being. The lesson here is that an advocate of mysticism need not always evangelize for it or attempt to defend it directly. In part, he can work for mysticism by mostly assuming it to be the norm.

Rauf does mention Sufism ten times. He says Sufis are "the mystics of Islam." (p. 49) Sufism will be the subject of the third and last post in this series.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Imam Rauf, "What's Right with Islam ..."

INTRODUCTION. The purpose of The Main Event is to identify activists in the conflict over reason versus mysticism: Who are they; what are their key ideas; and how do they disseminate their ideas? This post begins a brief, exploratory look at one advocate of mysticism, Feisal Abdul Rauf.

APPROACH. The approach here is to move from effects to causes. First, I am examining one of Feisal Abdul Rauf's books, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, New York, Harper Collins, 2005, 314 pages. The main purpose of Rauf's book is not to directly promote his form of mysticism, but to promote the conclusions he has reached about a current problem, the conflict between the USA and Islam. However, his conclusions are shaped by the fundamental principles of his worldview, Islam, which is mystical in its historical and philosophical origins. Also, as we will see in a later post, Rauf is a Sufi, a person who supports sufism, which is a formal attempt to be closer to God through spiritual and ascetic exercises. (Sufism is optional for Muslims, just as becoming a monk or nun is optional for Catholics.)

AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST. Born in 1948 in Kuwait, Rauf moved with his Egyptian father (a Sunni Islamic scholar) to New York City in the 1960s. There his father helped create the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which was the first mosque designed and built as a mosque in New York City. The project -- gathering the funds, designing the building, and completing construction -- was a twenty-five year task ending in 1991, a sign of the elder Rauf's long-term dedication. Meanwhile the younger Rauf had graduated from Columbia University (BA, physics) and, c. 1970, obtained a masters degree in plasma physics from Stevens University.[1]

Feisal Abdul Rauf turned from studying nature to advancing his religion. He became the imam (spiritual leader of a local Muslim community) of Masjid al-Farah in New York City in 1983 and has apparently continued in that position for twenty-seven years.[2] (In Arabic, masjid means a "place [ma-] of prostrations"; the classical Arabic term masjid evolved into the Egyptian-Arabic term masgid, French mosquée; and English "mosque.")[3]

During these years, Rauf earned an income in the fields of teaching, sales, and real estate.[4] The first two fields provided an opportunity to practice the skills he needed for his core purpose in life: "selling" the principles of his worldview and its applications. Other actions by Rauf that directly or indirectly disseminated his ideas included founding the American Sufi Muslim Association (1997), dedicated to improving relations between U. S. Muslims and U. S. society. The ASMA changed its name (but not its initials) to American Society for Muslim Advancement. Rauf also became a member of the World Economic Council of 100 Leaders, a group dedicated to encouraging dialogue between Islamic countries and the West.[5]

In 2003, Rauf founded the Cordoba Initiative, an organization connecting the West and the world's Muslims. The CI has offices in Malaysia and New York. In 2009, Rauf announced plans--made by Park51, a nonprofit corporation--to finance and erect Park51, a building which will house an apartment for Rauf and a "nonsectarian community, cultural, and interfaith spiritual center" including a prayer room (for up to 2000 Muslims).[6] Why did Rauf name his original project the Cordoba Initiative? The southern Spanish city of Cordoba was the capital of a supposedly tolerant, "ecumenical" Islamic state c. 800-1200 CE.[7] That sort of society--a tolerant, ecumenical one--is one of Rauf's goals, as shown in his book.

THE BOOK. In What's Right with Islam, Rauf's purpose apparently is the same as his core purpose in life. "We strive for a 'New Cordoba'," says the author, "a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims and all other faith traditions will live together in peace, enjoying a renewed vision of what the good society can look like." (p. 9) To create that shining city of the future, the author and his followers must solve a problem of the present time: bridging the chasm between Muslim countries and the West.

The structure of the book follows naturally from Rauf's work to solve the problem. In Ch. 1, "Common Roots," the author stresses the shared ground of the West and Islam. By "West" he means Judeo-Christian culture emanating from Europe, and by "Islam" he means mostly the culture of the Muslim-majority countries colonized by Europeans in the 1800s and 1900s. The common root of the two cultures, Rauf holds, is the "Abrahamic tradition," which is the tradition of monotheism flowing through Abraham to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (pp. 12-15) That tradition includes two fundamental commandments. First is the "vertical" commandment for all individuals to worship God. Second, and following from the first, is the "horizontal" commandment to love all other individuals. (pp. 18-19)

Rauf next closely examines "What's Right with Islam" (Ch. 2) and "What's Right with America" (Ch. 3). Rauf is thus following a familiar pattern for mediators and reconcilers: First agree on the good in each side. In Ch. 4, "Where the Devil Got in the Details," the author identifies and explains the errors both sides have made. However, because he is writing to Westerners, the author focuses mostly on concepts misunderstood in the West, he says. An example is "jihad." (pp. 135-138) In Ch. 5, the longest in the book, Rauf more deeply explores the past. "Our history shapes how we continue to act, and thus our future." An example contrast is between the prophet Jesus, whose life ended in political and personal failure, and the prophet Muhammad, whose life ended in political and personal success, Rauf says. (p. 175)

In Ch. 6, "A New Vision for Muslims and the West," the imam offers his plan. Everyone needs to make changes. He assigns tasks to Americans in general and to U. S. Christians, Jews, and Muslims in particular. For example, the U. S. needs to act "as the Great Conciliator" (p. 281) and stop supporting authoritarian Muslim regimes; and Muslim theologians must correct their misinterpretations of the Qur'an and other holy scripture. An example is Muslim theologians' inference that all charging of interest ("usury") is immoral even if a business is borrowing in order to expand, thus creating greater profits and more jobs. Christians and Jews, Rauf says, have abandoned that interpretation of their holy scripture and have gained prosperity a a result; Muslims have not reinterpreted scripture and have lost the economic competition because of it. Rauf thus supports "democratic capitalism," by which he means the welfare state. (pp. 3-4 and 208-210)

The Conclusion, "On Pursuing Happiness," makes the point that trying to bridge the gap between the West and Islam can succeed if we have "faith in the basic goodness of humanity and trust in the power of sincerity and dialogue to overcome differences with our fellow human beings." Both faith and trust are an application of the Abrahamic tradition, Rauf says. (p. 282)

Thus, in 300 pages the author bolts together principles of Islam, principles of other religions, facts of religious history, and analyses of current problems between the West and the Muslim world. The result, he hopes, will be a bridge that allows the U. S. and Muslim countries to see that both will gain from emphasizing common principles and working together to correct mistaken views of the other.

(Next: the mystical elements in Rauf's book and the mystical nature of Sufism.)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For his youth and education: Untitled introductory and "Early Life" sections of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, on Sept. 11, 2010. [2] For Rauf as imam: The untitled introductory section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [3] For the etymology of "mosque," see: Cyril Glasse, "Mosque," The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st ed.) [4] For Rauf's income: "Career" section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [5] For founding ASMA and joining WEC: "Career" section of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [6] For Cordoba House: "Career" and "Cordoba House and Park51" sections of "Feisal Abdul Rauf," Wikipedia, as of Sept. 11, 2010. [7] For a contrary view, see Andrew G. Bostom, "The Cordoba House and the Myth of Cordoban 'Ecumenism'," at

Friday, August 27, 2010

TME Glossary

This glossary contains my definitions of terms/concepts that appear in The Main Event. I make no claim that they are suitable in all contexts or match others' uses of them. I expect to add terms and revise definitions. To offer alternatives or questions, use the comment section. For a discussion of objective definitions, see Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 5.

CHRISTIANITY: Christianity is a kind of monotheistic religion. (That is the genus in the definition.) Four fundamental (essential, causal) ideas make Christianity what it is. (1) One omnipotent, omniscient God created everything and can manage it moment to moment. (2) Man must, through mystical communication, learn ethics from God, and those ethical rules are recorded in holy scripture for later generations to read. (3) Two sets of historical events conveyed God's word to man at particular times and places: (a) God revealed himself and his ethics to Jews before 1000 BCE and they recorded God's rules in the Pentateuch; and (b) God, in the shape of the Son (Jesus Christ), was present on earth in sense-perceptible form at a particular time (c. 5 BCE-c. 35 CE) and place (Galilee) for the purpose of offering salvation of one's soul for eternity. (4) To be a Christian, one must accept Jesus as Savior and follow the holy scripture in the Old and New Testaments. The third and fourth ideas -- God's revelations to the ancient Jews and a sense-perceptible form of God on earth -- differentiate Christianity from Judaism and Islam. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share the first two fundamental ideas, and they are distinguished by the particulars of the last two ideas. (Rev. Sept. 10, 2010)

"Christianity" (like "Judaism" and "Islam") is a proper name for an "abstract particular," that is, a set of particular ideas, customs, and symbols. There are "Christianities" in that various individuals accept the essential ideas, but differ widely in the nonessential ideas. For example, there is no one Christian ideology, but rather a range of them. Example Christian ideologies are: (1) CHRISTIAN ANARCHISM (Leo Tolstoy's idea, but not his term), the belief that Christians should mix with the larger society; help others individually; teach through individual example; and be pacifist, while separating themselves from politics.[1] (2) CHRISTIAN SEPARATISM, the belief that Christians should locally join purely Christian communities isolated from the world -- that is, join a network of hermits, a monastery, a convent, or a similar organization. (3) CHRISTIAN PARTNERING: Christians should neither control government nor be controlled by it, but be willing to work with any government anywhere to better the lives of Christians and others. (4) CHRISTIAN THEOCRACY: Christians should form a government that forces all individuals to be or at least act like Christians.

CONSERVATISM: This word names a certain type of ideology ("-ism"), the type whose highest values are four floating abstractions: God, Tradition, Nation (or other form of tribalism), and Family. Conservatism, as an ideology, can grow from any theistic, supernaturalist worldview; thus there is Christian conservatism, Muslim conservatism, Jewish conservatism, and so forth. As always in society, some individuals are mixed cases, as with "atheist conservatives." Classical liberals, though they may be religious, are not conservatives but radicals in their advocacy of reason and individualism. (See also:

CULT: A "cult," in its original religious usage in the ancient world names the idea of a group of people, at least partly organized, who associate in order to venerate a common high religious value, usually a particular god. (E.g., see the ancient Greek cult of Dionysos, in Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, pp. 290-295.) In a modern usage, "cult" names a certain type of religious organization, essentially one that: (1) has mystically created, esoteric doctrines which isolate it from the larger society; (2) insists on its members agreeing with those doctrines as a criterion for organizational membership; and (3) "owns" the members in some form of collectivism. (A consequence of that third essential characteristic is the use of fraud or violence to prevent its members from leaving the organization.) A modern example was James Jones's People's Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana. (For conventional usages: "cult," Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Merriam-Webster, 2002,

A cult is a social entity, specifically an organization. It is not a mere movement. A mystic guru who attracts followers but does not organize them is not a cult leader and does not have a cult, in this modern meaning of the concept. Likewise, a cult is not a religion (which is one type of worldview, which is a set of ideas), though a cult may be religious in purpose and content.

DISASTER (CATASTROPHE): A disaster is a situation—economic, political, or military—in which the victims are so injured by adverse events that they are incapable, within a single generation, of returning to their previous, more prosperous state without help from the outside. For the USA, the War Between the States (the US Civil War) was not a disaster, as defined here; but for Japan, World War II was a disaster, though aid and guidance from the USA did help Japan become a civilized and prosperous nation.

IDEOLOGY: An ideology is a set of concepts and principles that apply a worldview (which is universal) to a particular milieu. Marxism is an example. It applied a post-Kantian philosophy to Marx's time.

In Somalia, proponents of several ideologies claim to apply Islam to their efforts to improve the world.[1] One ideology there is TRANSNATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY ISLAM (TRI). Al-Shabaab, the organization which advocates TRI, operates mainly in Somalia but plans to expand. Al-Shabaab advocates a "Leninist" international revolution with Islamic content). It has "goals of implementing Shari'ah, rejecting 'false borders and entities created by colonialism', uniting Islamic countries, and restoring the Caliphate"). A second ideology in Somalia is ISLAMIC NATIONALISM. It advocates an Islamic democracy for each nation-state. The organization advocating this ideology is the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia based in Asmara (A.R.S.-A).[2]

For further examples, consider the Iranian Revolution. Various movements, each with its own ideology, combined to overthrow the Shah's government. Most of the ideologies were rooted in Islam but applied differently to Iran in the 1970s. (See "Ideology of the 1979 Iranian Revolution" in Wikipedia here.)

INFLUENCE: When activists influence other individuals, what does "influence" mean? Influence is giving information to an individual who wants that information because it will help him achieve a goal he has set for himself. For there to be influence, the person influenced must receive information and put it into practice. The influence can be explicit, as when (1) a Christian theologian writes a book advocating that the followers of Jesus should set aside reason and read the Bible for guidance, and (2) the theologians' readers read the book and put the advice into practice. Sometimes influence is implicit: Followers of a mystic may simply observe the mystic's posture, style of speaking, and general manner of living -- and then copy them.

ISLAM: Islam (Islaam) is a kind of monotheistic religion. (That is the genus in the definition.) Four essential ideas cause Islam to be what it is. (1) One omnipotent, omniscient God created everything and can manage it moment to moment. (2) Man must, through mystical communication, learn ethics from God, and those ethical rules are recorded in holy scripture for later generations to read. (3) At particular times and places (Arabia, 610-632 CE) and to a particular person (Muhammad) through mystical communication, God communicated ethics to man and man recorded it in holy scripture (the Qur'an, firstly; the Sunnah, secondly; and the Hadith, thirdly) for later generations to read. (4) To be a Muslim, one must meet certain requirements: (a) belief (imaan, faith in ideas such as God and God's revelations); (b) practice (islaam, in a, narrow, technical usage of that word, meaning certain acts [worshipping God in certain ways; following the Five Pillars; and implementing sharii'ah]); and (c) virtue (iHsaan, which means worshipping God attentively and striving for "excellence" in all things, including killing).[2] The first two ideas are common to Judaism and Christianity. The particulars in the last two ideas distinguish Islam from the other monotheistic religions. (Rev. Sept. 10, 2010)

"Islam" is a proper name for a set of particular ideas, customs, and symbols. There are "Islams" in that various individuals accept the essential ideas, but differ widely in the nonessential ideas. For example, there is no one Islamic ideology but rather a range of them. For examples, see Ideology.

JUDAISM: Judaism is a kind of monotheistic religion. (That is the genus in the definition.) Four fundamental ideas cause Judaism to be what it is and, in part, distinguish it from other religions. (1) One omniscient, omnipotent God created everything and can manage it moment to moment. (2) God transmitted ethics to man through mystical communication and men recorded it in holy scripture for later generations to read. (3) God chose a certain people, in Judea before 1000 BCE, to carry his ideas to the world. (4) To be a Jew one must accept God, whose revelations are recorded in the Pentateuch, as ethical guide. The first two ideas are common to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It is the particulars of the last two ideas that distinguish Judaism from the other monotheistic religions. (Rev. Sept. 10, 2010)

"Judaism" is a proper name for a set of particular ideas, customs, and symbols. There are "Judaisms" in that various individuals accept the essential ideas, but differ widely in the nonessential ideas. For example, there is no one Judaic ideology, but rather a range of them. Two examples are: Pragerism (a semi-humorous but pejorative term applied by Dennis Prager's opponents); and Religious Zionism.[3]

MOVEMENT: A movement is a mental grouping of individuals taking action (including advocacy) toward a common goal of changing certain conditions in which they live. There may or may not be organizations within the movement. The individuals in the movement might be physically isolated, or join in networks, or form organizations (including institutions). The concept "movement" refers to the fact of individuals moving toward the same goal. The Objectivist movement is an example. It includes thousands of individuals who are working toward creating a society based on rational principles. Some work in isolation; some network; a few organize; and a very few form institutions.

MYSTICISM: Metaphysical mysticism is the claim to be "one" with or a part of a supernatural world. Epistemological mysticism is a claim to knowledge drawn from any source other than reason (integration of the data of the senses). The epistemological sort of mysticism is the sort that is a focus of The Main Event.

ORGANIZATION: An organization is a type of association. That is the genus. It is an association which has these defining characteristics: (1) an overall purpose, which its members support; (2) a leadership chosen by a procedure or subgroup known to the organization's members; (3) standards (and therefore "gatekeepers") for admitting new members; and (4) structure (that is, a defined relationship among its members). There are two basic types of organization: (1) ad hoc, having a short-term purpose which, when fulfilled, would lead to dissolving the organization (an example being a committee to elect a particular politician at a particular election); or (2) an institution, which is an organization designed to continue towards its purpose even if, one by one, the original founding members resign or die (an example being an organization designed to disseminate a particular philosophy). In contrast with an organization, a movement (see MOVEMENT above) is a mental grouping of individuals who have the same purpose and are taking actions toward it but may not associate with each other or even know of each other. A movement may have organizations (or other forms of association, such as networks) within it. An "organized movement" is a contradiction in terms except in one sense: A particular organization attempts to lead a whole movement, wherein the members of the movement are also members of the organization.

PHILOSOPHY: A philosophy is a type of worldview, the type that relies, it says, on the use of reason to develop and systematize ideas about the basic nature of the world and man's place in it.

RATIONALISM: Here "rationalism" means the idea that all that is important in knowledge is making sure that our conclusions follow syllogistically from our premises, which might come from anywhere. This is not reason, for reason begins, not with arbitrary premises, but with observation of reality and then proceeds—through integration and differentiation—to form concepts, principles, and theories. (Some writers, especially in the field of history of ideas, use "rationalism" to name adherence to reason. Here, however, rationalism is a contrast to empiricism, that is, the notion that we can observe the world but form only the simplest abstractions—such as "table" and "chair"—from our observations.)

REASON: Reason is the faculty (ability) that forms ideas from sense-perception and applies them to living; reason is thus the faculty of identifying facts and values.

RELIGION: A religion is a type of worldview, the type that relies on mysticism (usually faith, revelation, and clerical authority) to develop and systematize ideas about the basic nature of the world and man's place in it. A religion (as a worldview) is a cause; socially and culturally, some of the effects include organizations (such as the Order of the Dominican Friars), rituals (such as baptism), books (holy scripture and the many books that explain it), events (such as sermons), and paraphanelia (such as rosary beads).

SECT: The term "sect" names a certain kind of religious movement, one that has a certain relationship to a larger religious group (a "denomination"). The term/concept "sect" is thus a relational term. The beliefs or practices of the members of the sect differ in some ways from the larger group's beliefs or practices. Those differences cause conflict with the larger group. An example of a denomination is the Catholic Church; an example of a sect within the Church (or at least within the Catholic movement generally) is the Community of the Lady of All Nations (CLAN, also known as "The Army of Mary"), a sect of individuals who believe that Mary, mother of Christ, was reincarnated as Marie Paule Giguere, who became the founder of CLAN. The Catholic Church said the sect is heretical and excommunicated its main supporters. Not all sects are declared heretical. Not all sects become organizations. A sect is not a cult.

THEONOMY: This term is sometimes a synonym for theocracy. However, strictly speaking, the term "theonomy" names one aspect of a theocracy: the law (nomos in Greek) which government enforces is God's law. All theocracies are theonomic, but not all governments following God's law, at least in part, are theocratic as a whole. For example, the U.S.A. in the 1950s was theonomic in part, at least at the state level. Examples are "Blue Laws" closing most businesses on Sundays and regulations requiring a moment of prayer in governmental schools.

THEOCRACY: A theocracy is a form of government in which its supporters claim to govern as God (theo-) wants. Because God is omniscient and omnipresent, a government of God is totalitarian in intention if not in result. A theocracy is totalitarian because it implicitly covers all aspects of life, though it may not explicitly legislate in some areas. "Theocracy" subsumes various species differentiated by type of personnel or structure. One species of theocracy is a hierocracy, which is a government run by priests (ieros, "holy," in Greek). A theocracy might be republican, democratic, aristocratic, or monarchist in structure, but still be a theocracy, that is, a government run by God's minions, following God's principles, and in God's name. A theocracy might be "hard" (using coercion ruthlessly to enforce conformity) or "soft" (using coercion sporadically). The essential characteristics remain the same: rule (-cracy) in the name of God (theo-). For an example of one mystic's defense of theocracy, see Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America, pp. 104-106.

WAR: A war is a physically violent conflict between two or more governments (or a government and a would-be government, such as a secession movement), or their proxies, that occurs in more than one location and event. World War II is an example. Metaphorically, a war is a sustained verbal, legal, or other social conflict over fundamental values; today's "war" between reason and mysticism is an example. A physical war threatens life itself; fighting in it is an action taken in an emergency justifying the abandonment of normal legal procedures and etiquette. A metaphorical war is not an emergency; fighting in it does not justify abandoning normal legal procedures and etiquette. Switching from one meaning of "war" to the other, within the same argument and without notice, is the fallacy of equivocation.

WORLDVIEW: A worldview is a set of interconnected concepts and principles which explain the basic nature of the world and man's place in it. A worldview is a religion if it cites some form of mysticism (revelation, intuition, special authority coming from God, and so forth) as its source. A worldview is a philosophy if it says it uses reason. Both types of worldview have at least four branches: metaphysics ("theology" for religion), epistemology, ethics, and politics. Any particular worldview may be syncretic, eclectic, a mixed case, or a fraud (e.g., claiming it is based on reason when it is not).

Burgess Laughlin
Author,   The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For one author's argument that Christianity leads or should lead to anarchism, see: Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Here is an interview with the author:

[2] For names and descriptions of ideologies in Somalia: [2] For key terms/concepts of Islam: Cyril Glasse, "Islam," "IHsaan," and "Imaan," The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989, p. 192, col. 1. The H represents the Arabic letter Haa'. [3] For the ideology (and movement) of Religious Zionism:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dennis Prager, mystic activist

SUBJECT. This post surveys Prager's activism in its general characteristics. What motivates him? What forms of activism has Prager taken to disseminate his ideas? To whom is he speaking? What lessons has he learned from his experiences as an activist? The following is a preliminary sketch of the actions of a man who is extraordinary in at least one respect: his activism, which is an extension of his central purpose in life, is the core of his life.[1]

REVIEW. As explained in earlier posts, "Stephen Bourque analyzes mystic Dennis Prager" (Jan. 20, 2010) and "Prager on Reason and Mysticism" (March 13, 2010), Dennis Prager's worldview is the religion of Judaism. The metaphysics of his worldview is theism. The epistemology is ultimately mysticism in various forms, though he says of himself: ". . . I am cursed and blessed to be very rational." (pp. 2-3) The ethics of his worldview is altruism. (He has said [p. 90] that he has had a "lifelong interest in altruism.") The politics of his worldview is apparently the mixed economy of a conservative welfare state, but he describes it as "the American central value system with the free market, liberty, and basic Judeo-Christian principles." (p. 84) His ideology -- that is, his application of his universal worldview to dealing with the problems of his particular milieu -- is conservatism (valuing God, Tradition, Nation, and Family).

Prager uses "reason" to articulate and advocate for his ethical and political ideas. His mysticism -- faith, revelation, and so forth -- is always present in his discussions by implication, but occasionally it is explicit too. He spends most of his time advocating for or discussing ethical and political issues, but the flood of his activities carries with it occasional messages about reason and mysticism.

BACKGROUND. As explained in the March 13, 2010 post, Prager's central purpose in life is to propagate "ethical monotheism" -- that is, the ethics that comes (mystically, but with "rational" elaboration) from the one God. For Prager, spreading ethical monotheism is not a mere wish, nor even a sideline form of activism. It is the productive core of his life. His products include thousands of hours of recorded call-in talk-radio shows; lectures likewise recorded; instructional videotapes; and informative books. All are for sale.

Prager's central purpose is an application, to his individual life, of the purpose of Jews as a group. "The purpose of the Jewish people," he says, "is to bring the world to God," that is, to present to the world God and the ways God wants individuals to act. (p. 24)

Prager has designed his life so as to best fulfill his central purpose. For example: "Dennis has organized his life," notes Luke Ford (his informal biographer), "to say and write what he believes to be true without fear of repercussion. He has never wanted to be dependent on [any one particular] boss. Thus, he has earned money for decades from multiple sources (speeches, radio, writing)." (p. 5, minor edits here and elsewhere)

HIS LIFE AS AN ACTIVIST. Prager was born in 1948 into a "modern Orthodox" Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, There he attended two yeshivas (Orthodox schools of religious and secular studies), from kindergarten through high school. He became fluent in Hebrew and began studying Russian. In school, he met Joseph Telushkin, who became Prager's best friend and, a decade later, a co-author. For Prager, as for so many others, networking paid unpredictable benefits in the years ahead.

"After school," Prager said, "I'd take a subway into Manhattan and go to museums and concerts and plays. I didn't do any homework." Academically, he graduated 92nd in a class of 110, but, because he was senior class president, he spoke at the graduation ceremony. (pp. 15, 16, and 18) His early public speaking was an element of his life that foreshadowed his career path.

A second element was his attitude toward the schools he attended. He said, "I hate to be told what to do unless it has a divine source. I don't want morons telling me what to do." (p. 19) Prager has also identified a third element. "The ability to read how others react to you is about as important a subject as there is in life. I think I am very aware of this. I think it is something I was aware of at an early age. . . . One of the reasons I was able to become an interesting speaker was that I was very aware even in private conversations in high school, whether or not I was boring the person I was with." (pp. 22-23) A fourth element emerged in his teen years: He was a fan of talk-radio, listening and calling frequently. "(p. 22) A fifth element was expecting reasons -- articulated explanations (even if they were ultimately based on something beyond reason) for any belief or action. He rejected some Orthodox Jews' "explanations" such as because God said so. "I left keeping kosher after [attending] yeshiva precisely because no reasons were given." (p. 23) "I believe you have to do things because God said so, but even if God said so, why did God give me a brain if not to understand why he said so?" (p. 24)

After his first year of Brooklyn College, he briefly toured Israel and Europe. (p. 26) At age 21, Prager was influenced by Rabbi Louis Jacobs's book, We Have Reason to Believe. "[W]e can use the faculty of reason to believe in God? Just the title alone changed my life," says Prager. (p. 27) Before his junior year and paid by an Israeli sponsor, he traveled to the Soviet Union for a month, smuggling in religious items and surreptitiously meeting Jewish leaders. He saw dictatorship first hand. (p. 28) Returning to the US, and still a student at age 21, he began speaking to U. S. Jewish audiences about his experiences with Russian dissidents. He donated his speaking fees to the Free Soviet Jewry movement. In 1970, he led conservative demonstrations at a United Nations World Youth Assembly, a convention dominated by socialists and others who hated Israel and the United States. That experience, he said, "cemented [my] ability to speak calmly in the face of hostility." (p. 30)

While in college, he later said, "[I was] very worried -- what will I do for a living? I was not prepared to abandon this sense of mission in life [bringing Jewish ethics to the world] but how do you make a living from that?" (p. 29)

In 1970, he graduated from Brooklyn College, with majors in history and anthropology. (p. 32) He studied next at the Middle East Institute and the Russian Institute of Columbia University's School of International Affairs. Graduate school was difficult because many of his professors were Marxists and he was not. "Since entering graduate school, I was preoccupied with this question: Why did so many learned and intelligent professors believe so many foolish things? . . . One day . . . [s]eemingly out of nowhere, a biblical verse -- one that I had recited . . . in kindergarten . . . -- entered my mind. It was a verse from Psalm 111: 'Wisdom begins with fear of God'." Prager said, "[The] verse . . . put me on a philosophical course from which I have never wavered." He sees the terrible consequences of "godless ideas," and that sight energizes his faith. (p. 34) "I have learned a lot in life because . . . [w]henever people tell me almost anything, I [ask] why." (p. 35)

At about the same time, 1970-1971, Prager taught Jewish history at Brooklyn College. (p. 34) His communication skills grew with each such experience.

In the summer of 1971, Prager toured communist Eastern Europe. Working from those travels, he wrote an essay and a book review for two national conservative magazines. (p. 35) In 1973, he dropped out of graduate school to work with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to write an introduction to Judaism -- a book "that [unlike his highly specialized Master's thesis] would actually touch people's lives." (p. 36)

In 1975, Prager, age 27, and Telushkin self-published their book, The Eight Questions People Ask about Judaism. Prager wrote the book by drawing on his experiences in lecturing and answering questions on campuses and in discussions of Judaism in missionary work in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The book illustrates a lesson of successful philosophical and intellectual activism: The activist should state broad principles (such as, for Prager, belief in God and the necessity of having values) but also offer suggestions for thinking about those principles and applying them to daily life. (p. 36)

Prager and Telushkin had offered the book to the Jewish Publication Society, but the JPS rejected it as "too advocative." Prager notes, "Joseph and I published the book on our own and sold so many copies that we lived off the sales of the book at lectures for years." Prager explained that, outside some individuals in the Orthodox minority, few Jews advocated Judaism. One exception was the scholarly and mystical Chabad movement. (p. 37 and

Prager and Telushkin added a ninth question to their book and a mainstream publisher issued it in 1976 as The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. Aimed mainly at "secular Jews," that is, individuals born into Jewish culture but no longer following its faith-based customs, it became the most widely used introduction to Judaism. (p. 36)

Prager works for the long-term. He autographs copies of the Bible, and he believes "his contributions won't be recognized for a millenium," says biographer Luke Ford. (pp. 38, minor edit, and 90)

Also in 1976, Prager, at the age of 28, became the administrator of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles. Its purpose was to produce leaders for the Jewish community. When he gave free copies of his book to the camp counselors at the institute, he learned a lesson in dissemination. "By the tenth person, I realized what a terrible mistake I had made. I knew not one of them was going to read it and that none of them treasured it. Had I charged one dollar for the book, they would've appreciated it." (p. 38)

Later in the same year, the host of a local television program interviewed Prager for his first television appearance. (p. 40)

Prager was alert to judging the state of the culture in which he was speaking and he sought better tools for advocacy. The 1980 election of conservative Ronald Reagan led Prager to see that the fundamental difference between the left and the right is "philosophical and moral," not merely economic. (p. 40)

In 1982, Prager became the host for a Los Angeles radio program, "Religion on the Line," featuring an interfaith dialogue. Prager said later that his first (trial) appearance on the program produced one of the happiest moments of his life because he "ached to get [his] ideas out." He began as host of the two-hour program on Sunday. (p. 41)

"I opened radio to Muslims. . . . I deliberately sought them because it's a major religion. I had Muslims on so often . . . that they invited me to various mosques to speak. . . . The first public demonstration I organized was on behalf of Muslims in [Russian-occupied] Afghanistan." (p. 41) "It was their failure to organize demonstrations against Islamic terror [after August 2000, the Second Intifada in Israel] which caused a certain breach." (p. 45)

In 1983, Prager resigned from his seven-year directorship of the Institute, and, again with a co-author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, published his second book, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. (p. 42) In the same year, his radio appearances expanded to four days each week. He also wrote a regular column for a Los Angeles newspaper. (p. 44) Thus, Prager by this time had multiple channels for communicating his ideas: lecturing; teaching university courses; hosting a radio talk show on religion and its applications; and writing newspaper columns, national magazine articles, and books.

In 1985, perhaps partly to avoid being edited by others whose views he didn't share, he began publishing a journal for his own writings, Ultimate Issues. Prager continued the journal, with its nearly ten thousand subscribers, for fifteen years. Catholic conservative William F. Buckley praised the journal. As another instance of attempting to support himself through sales directly to his readers and listeners, Prager began selling audiotapes of his lectures. "It was actually the Ayatollah Khomeini [who led the Islamic revolution which overthrew the Shah of Iran] who made me aware of the power of tapes," said Prager. (p. 44)

In 1986, in a house of Chabad at the University of California at Los Angeles, he lectured to students and others. The topic was happiness. "I record all my talks . . . ," Prager says. "I am misquoted often and then I have proof . . . . " From around 1970, he had sold recordings of his lectures to subscribers. His tape of the 1986 lecture on happiness sold well. His experience with this lecture illustrates two points for activists. First, activists cannot always accurately predict market response. Some lectures and books sell much better or worse than the authors predict. Second, a small, short-term project can unexpectedly grow into a larger or more long-term project. Six months after Prager originally presented his lecture, "Happiness is a Serious Problem," it led to an essay for Redbook magazine and then a condensed essay for Reader's Digest. (p. 49)

However, before he committed to writing a book on happiness, he tested his expanded material (for sufficiency and interest) by presenting a course (eight 90-minute sessions) at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. That succeeded, so next he presented a longer course, sixteen 90-minute sessions. When that went well, he agreed with a publisher to produce a book, but he did not complete it until 1998, 12 years after the original lecture. (p. 49) The progression shows the value of small projects. They can be both experiments and "seed capital" for larger projects.

Throughout all of these public activities, Prager also continued influencing individuals one by one. For example, in 1989, he spent an hour and a half discussing marriage, divorce, and children with a doctor who asked for help. The doctor became an Orthodox Jew. (p. 52)

"In late 1991," says biographer Luke Ford, "Dennis launched the Micah Center for Ethical Monotheism. The purpose of the activist education center is to have a 'place of activity' devoted to his life's mission of spreading ethical monotheism through every available means." (p. 54) The Center has produced training videos about ethics, such as the comedic "For Goodness Sake." (p. 55)

In April 1992, Prager began teaching the Torah, the first five books of the Bible , by lecturing on the twenty percent of the verses that most intrigued him. He taught, on average, about sixteen nights per year, at the University of Judaism (now called the American Jewish University). He finished the series of Torah commentaries eighteen years later, in 2010. The lectures are recorded on more than 300 CDs. Prager has said that the project was the most important of his life and the least well known of his major projects. (pp. 57-58) The effects of an activist's projects are not automatically proportionate to his investment of time.

Also in 1992, he completed ten years of hosting his call-in radio program, "Religion on Line" -- over 500 shows. (p. 53) His radio career continued but the hours and breadth of audience varied as opportunities arose or dried up. When Prager faced difficult career problems, he asked himself, "[W]hat does God want me to do?" (p. 85)

How does Prager conduct himself in debate? In November 1996, Prager wrote an article for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. The subject was ordaining homosexuals as rabbis, an action Prager opposed, according to biographer Luke Ford. Prager held the view that the Bible had introduced a "heterosexual revolution" into the world and that it deserved defense. The editor of the Journal, which is heavily left-wing according to Prager, published his own rebuttal alongside Prager's essay. (Ford, pp. 64-67)

In subsequent issues, the Journal published readers' letters on the subject. Most of the letters rejected Prager's position and attacked him personally (calling him "homophobic" and so forth), but "not one dealt with the issues I actually raised," Prager said in his own publication, The Prager Perspective. (pp. 65-66) He ignored all but one of the letters that maligned him. The one letter to which he responded was a letter signed by sixteen rabbis, some of whom had been Prager's friends. He addressed their charges one by one, Prager says. Most disappointing to him, however, was the public silence of other rabbis whom he knew personally to support his position. (p. 66) Such experiences are a painful part of advocacy, for some advocates.

"The only thing I ever lose sleep over," Prager says, is when I am misquoted. It drives me crazy for idealistic reasons. I live so that I can have a good influence on people. If people change what I say, they undermine my ability to do good . . . . If people call me names, that truly doesn't bother me." (p. 68) This is another example of an activist using his central purpose in life as a razor to lop off the unimportant so that he can concentrate on the important. A dedicated advocate continues his advocacy despite attacks and disappointments.

In the Spring of 1998, Prager brought online. At that time, it was mainly a sales outlet for Prager's various products. (p. 67) In 1999, Prager's radio show was broadcast to a national audience, but the syndicator dropped him in late 2000. A Christian group, Salem Communications Corporation, added his show to their syndicated network (Salem Radio Network). His radio-show income is about one million per year. (p. 71) In 2009, Prager created Prager University online. It offers five-minute videos on topics such as "The Case for Marriage." (p. 55)

PRESENT ACTIVITIES: DENNISPRAGER.COM. Now that we have quickly examined key points of Prager's work life over the last fifty years, let us look at a cross-section of his work as an activist today. The simplest way to do that is to briefly tour his website,

Start with three elements in the banner at the top of the home page. First, you can listen to his radio show when it is transmitting. To hear earlier shows, up to three weeks old and without the interruptions of commercials, you can purchase membership in "Pragertopia." A second element in the banner is a block containing a phone number and an email address for listeners who want to make a point for discussion on the radio show. This feature allows interactive activism, that is, the activist, Prager, offers an opportunity for his supporters (and detractors) to ask questions and offer their own viewpoint. The variety and the clash of viewpoints in discussion and debate make the activist's presentation more entertaining and informative, thus drawing (and keeping) an audience and thereby helping disseminate the activist's ideas. A third element in the banner of the homepage is a button ("Shop Now") that gives access to the products sold through the store: videos, DVDs, recorded lectures, Bible study courses, and books by Prager. The last item in the banner is an advertisement for courses in Hebrew and Bible study.

The left side of the website lists buttons for such topics as "The Dennis Prager Show," which has subtopics such as "What author/expert did Dennis have on?" Prager interviews authors on a wide range of subjects. On July 8, he interviewed William Rosen, the author of The Most Powerful Idea in the World: The Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. On July 13, he spoke to David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, and author of In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity.

Also in the list on the left is "Denis's Columns." They appear to be articles written weekly, and perhaps published only on the website. Under "Meet Denis" is a tab labeled "Books That Most Influenced Dennis." This list, and much of the work that Prager does, implies that Prager sees that ideas are a cause of history. He is a religious activist, intellectual activist, and political activist who puts that view of history into action.

CONCLUSION. Dennis Prager is a mystic in the foundation of his ethics. His intense and sustained activism is devoted to disseminating Judaic ethics, with occasional references to that mysticism carried along in the stream of discussion and debate. He works in a variety of communication channels and addresses a variety of audiences. He knows ideas move history and he is working for the long-term. Dennis Prager is a formidable advocate.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] I have two sources for this sketch. First is the frequently updated collection of biographical notes written by Luke Ford, an admirer of Prager, at It was 92 pages long when I printed it out on Aug. 12, 2010. The second source, as a back-up, but not cited in this post, is the Aug. 12, 2010 Wikipedia page for "Dennis Prager." I have not independently verified either source.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A mystic in reason's camp?

A SIGHTING. How widespread is mysticism in our culture? Answering that question is one long-term purpose of this weblog. The following anecdote, by Peter Namtvedt (a fellow member of Northwest Objectivists), shows mystics might be found anywhere in our society, even at a gathering of Objectivists, the foremost advocates of reason today. My comments and questions follow his account.


Earlier in July, my wife, Mary Ann, and I were among the five hundred people attending OCON2010, an Objectivist conference in Las Vegas. We had signed up for a buffet sponsored by Diana Hsieh, a leader of activists in the Objectivist movement. The purpose of the buffet was to bring together Objectivist activists for their shared interest. The large group made it difficult to hear what others were saying, except three more vocal people we sat with at the end of a long table.

A young woman directly across from me talked to two young men about her knowledge of mysticism. She insisted that it was based solely on her personal experience. I asked her if she had found others who had the same experiences and she replied "No."

I also asked her how she was able to retain a grasp on Objectivism as a philosophy of reason while believing there was any substance to the experiences she called "mystical." She insisted she was holding true to Objectivism, and she was also sure that some day scientific research would validate her experiences and permit conciliation with Ayn Rand's philosophy of reason as an absolute and exclusive source of knowledge.

She described her mystical experiences. On one occasion, she said, she was in a room alone and suddenly got the conviction that someone she knew was standing behind her. The experience was very vivid and, although she found no one there when she turned around, it was real, she said. On another occasion, she visited a cemetery and heard her dead relatives speaking to her.

In the buffet conversation, she made no remarks relating to religion or a god, only to unexplainable "secular" incidents that came to her mind without any use of sense perception. I expected her to start on the topic of angels, which I have heard is a branch of mystical thought popular these days, but she said nothing about it.

I finally objected to this talk and asked the three of them to tell us about their activism on behalf of Objectivism. However, they regarded talk about this young woman's mysticism as more interesting.

I recently searched online for key phrases she used. They match terms in a guest post by Rich Engle, on the weblog Objectivist Living.[1]

As I continued reading the discussion thread on that weblog, a comment by the same fellow on December 17 rang a bell. Here he quotes from a "Starbuck's manuscript collection" (which means nothing to me) some thoughts that reminded me of the definition of religion offered by German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.[2] Schleiermacher wrote about the essence of religion being the exaltation or awe one might feel standing on a beach looking out at the ocean. No single statement in his book sums it up thus; I pieced that thought together from many fragmentary statements. Perhaps Schleiermacher's "feeling" is akin to that of Engle and the woman I talked to at the conference. There is a commonality here.[3]

Peter Namtvedt (July 23, 2010)


I was not present at the incident Peter describes, but I have had similar conversations.

IDENTIFYING THE TYPE. Part of the purpose of The Main Event is to identify the actions and ideas of advocates of reason and advocates of mysticism, not debate about them. In that setting, two questions arise about the young mystic Peter describes.

1. What are the essential, defining characteristics of her particular episodes of mysticism? First, the young woman's mystical episodes are personally experiential ("feelings"). In the conversation related by Peter, she is not claiming to be at one with the universe or having a conversation with God. Second, her experiences somehow become whole thoughts -- e.g., such a mystic might say, "I heard my dead relatives speaking to me."

This combination of personal experience directly and mysteriously producing a claim to knowledge distinguishes this mystic from two other kinds of mystics. The first kind, exemplified by Plotinus (205-270), has "ineffable" experiences (that is, experiences that cannot be expressed in words). The second kind includes mystics, such as Muhammad (570-632), who receive verbal (conceptual) communications directly from a supernatural source. Peter's mystic, at least as far as she described it in Peter's account, somehow automatically forms knowledge -- as statements -- from her mystic experiences.

2. What term would best label this young woman's form of mysticism, to distinguish it from others? I do not know of a single term. However, this form of mysticism is "empirical" in that it is a direct "experience" and it is cognitive in that it does, the mystic claims, give rise to "knowledge" in the form of statements about a "reality" not knowable by sense-perception (the world of the dead; or a dimension of reality in which someone is present behind me, but is not visible; and so forth). In summary, such a form of mysticism is empirical in origin and cognitive in its product.

TENTATIVE CONCLUSION. Advocates of mysticism or reason can appear even in unlikely places. In social situations in which their view is unwanted, their advocacy can be as simple as stating their view and responding to questions.

Comments that correct, expand, or supplement this post's preliminary observations are welcome.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith at

P.S. Thank you, Peter. I am very grateful that you brought this particular stream of mysticism to my attention. From it, I have learned of (1) the existence of mystics on the periphery of a social network of advocates of reason; and (2) U. S. psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James (1842-1910) as an originating mystic, that is, a mystic who formulates and systematizes descriptions of mysticism that others will repeat or modify in their efforts to spread and defend their doctrines.

[1] At

[2] For Schleiermacher: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[3] For Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) and his mystical experiences: Ch. 7 ("Kant: A Philosophy Professor Limits Reason to Make Room for Faith") of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Prager on Reason and Mysticism

The Jan. 20, 2010 post on The Main Event, "Bourque on mystic Dennis Prager," interviews Stephen Bourque, who in a year-long series of posts on his weblog One Reality, analyzed a theme of Prager's career: To live rightly in this earthly realm, we need an absolute morality that can come only from God.

Dennis Prager (b. 1948) is an influential, articulate, and prolific writer and speaker. He is popular in the USA's Judaeo-Christian movement, particularly among conservative statists.[1]

SCOPE. Interwoven among Prager's messages, in his many publications, are brief points he makes about reason and mysticism. In line with the overall purpose of The Main Event, I am here trying to identify the nature of those points, but as they emerge in only one of his writings, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.[2] Because I am merely sampling, the conclusions I draw here are subject to correction after wider study of his large body of work.

THE RELIGIOUS ACTIVIST. All his life, Prager says (p. 13), he has been searching for "a way of life -- religious or secular, Eastern or Western, rational or mystical -- which is likely . . . to unlock whatever goodness lies in human beings." His book describes (p. 14) the answer that he found: Judaism. "We are only attempting," he says, "to restate for our generation what Isaiah and others stated for all generations" in the Bible. Prager adds (p. 14) that he is a product of "Judaism and Western reason."

From his successful search for a way of life, Prager's central purpose in life arose: ". . . to bring the idea of a universal God and [God's absolute, universal] morality, or ethical monotheism, to mankind."[3] Ethics is Prager's personal focus. He works from that interest to more fundamental questions such as the existence and nature of God.

THE BOOK. Prager first published his book in 1975. It answered eight questions. He expanded the book to nine questions and republished it in 1981. His audience is anyone considering Judaism, the religious worldview which, Prager holds (pp. 28-29), God revealed as broad ideals but to a particular people at a particular place more than 3000 years ago. Jews -- defined not by race or geography, but by adherence to that worldview -- have since then developed God's broad ideals into a traditional set of detailed rules guiding daily life. Accordingly Prager's purpose in the book, he notes (p. 39), is to describe and advocate Judaism as a way of life: its origins, fundamental principles, problems, and benefits. The book has nine chapters, each answering a question Prager heard repeatedly in his missionary travels in the USA and USSR.

Prager's views of reason and mysticism arise from and make sense in the framework of his worldview. In The Nine Questions, he reveals the main points of his metaphysics, theory of man, and ethics, as well as a sliver of his politics. However, understanding his epistemology requires more detective work.

METAPHYSICS. Prager's metaphysics -- that is, his most fundamental view of the nature of reality -- is straightforward. He says (p. 26), "[T]he physical world is very real. But it is not the only reality. There is a metaphysical reality as well." God created both worlds. (For Prager, the term "metaphysical" means supernatural, that is, "transcendent.") God is the foundation of Prager's worldview because God causes everything. What is God's nature? God is neither a "grand old man sitting up in heaven" nor a "cosmic butler" who answers our wishes in prayers (p. 31). What then is God? "The Jew cannot know what God is," Prager answers (p. 33).

THEORY OF MAN. Where does man fit into this system of God and the two worlds? Man can "relate" to God, who is "the One Who has no body" (p. 57); and man should follow God's guidance (ethics). What then is man's nature? Prager says (p. 100) that though man is not inherently evil, "since man is naturally selfish, not altruistic, it is easier to do evil than to do good." God created man with a propensity to evil, but God, who is "loving and just," also endowed man with a "touch of the divine" and with a universal purpose (to spread God's morality throughout the world), explains Prager (p. 26).

ETHICS. What is the code of ethics that God wants Jews to convey to the rest of the world? It is Judaism's "all-encompassing value system and way of life," Prager answers (p. 132). That system includes general principles (e.g., the commandments from God) and particular rules (inferred by Jewish intellectuals in a long tradition), such as how to slaughter certain animals before eating them. The core of Jewish ethics is altruism, which is the belief (-ism) that one should be focused on others: God, people, and animals (p. 63).

POLITICS. Prager says little in The Nine Questions about politics. An objective reader may tentatively infer some positions from Prager's statements, subject to correction from other sources. First, he notes (p. 91) that Christians and Jews should be motivated by their common desire to "convert a secular amoral world into a religious moral one." This does not directly specify politics, but it does offer a justification for a theocracy, that is, a state dedicated to applying God's word to life in society. Second, Prager defends (p. 119) the existence of Israel as an opportunity to create a Judaic "model state," indeed "a Jewish state" (p. 121). A state justified by its role in protecting and spreading the word of God is a theocracy.

OVERVIEW. Prager is an ethical absolutist. He believes there is a metaphysically objective ethics, the revealed word of God, and it is absolute and universal. An objective reader might ask how a Jew can know: that God exists ("This is life's most crucial question," p. 18); what God's nature is; that God wants everyone to follow certain principles (p. 21); what those principles are; and how one should apply the broad principles to the details of daily life.

Answering these questions can involve a long and confusing effort, as Prager shows in Question 1. Why engage in such a process? To live a life worth living, we must know what to do and in enough detail to be able to practice it.

This is the Jew's dilemma: Man must know that God, the source of a required absolute morality, exists, but because of man's own natural limitations and God's supernatural identity, man cannot know. Here emerge signs of the philosophical skepticism which frames Prager's multiform epistemology. Philosophical skepticism is the idea that one can know nothing (radical skepticism), or know only certain things, or know some things but only to some extent (moderate skepticism). Prager favorably quotes (p. 19) a theologian who says "man's certainty with regard to anything is poison to his soul."

Prager rejects ethical pragmatism, by which he apparently means looking only at short-term benefits for oneself. "Committing evil can be regarded as highly practical," he states (pp. 22-23). He likewise rejects (p. 22) "feelings" as moral guides. He apparently (pp. 20-21) believes the answer to "How can I know?" -- the answer to which connects God and ethics -- should be a chain of three elements.

The first link is reason. Prager seems to be saying (pp. 26 and 27-31) that despite its limitations, it can suggest that the existence of a God is the most probable explanation for the existence and orderliness of the world we live in, but we lack certainty. However, throughout Question 1, Prager sends mixed messages about the role of reason. He sometimes explicitly describes it as an enemy, but at other times by implication relies on it for demonstrating certain points and assessing probability.

The second link between God and ethics is supposition. Since we believe, somehow, that we need an absolute and detailed guide in life and we believe such could only come from a God, we need to presuppose God's existence, even if we cannot prove it (pp. 26 and 27-31).

The third link is faith. Since we have justified belief in God's existence by probability (determined by reason in some form) and presupposition (from necessity), we can then accept it on faith, which brings us assurance. However, while necessary, faith alone is not sufficient, Prager holds (p. 32).

MYSTICISM IN GENERAL. In The Nine Questions, Prager does not take a position on mysticism, objectively defined as any claim to knowledge other than through reason; nor does he himself define it in any of its narrower conventional uses (e.g., a brief state of communion with God). He does approvingly cite (p. 189) works on Jewish mysticism. Further study is required for determining more about his meaning of "mysticism" and his evaluation of it. What then is his view of particular forms of mysticism, objectively defined?

1. FAITH. In The Nine Questions, Prager does not formally define faith. The objective definition of faith -- acceptance of an idea without, or even contrary to, evidence and proof -- does fit his usages of the term. E.g., for Prager (p. 19, quoting Rabbi Emanuel Rackman), having faith in God's existence (as a basis for following God's law) is a virtue, one accompanying the virtue of humility, which arises from perpetual doubt. Prager's unquestioning acceptance (e.g., pp. 87 and 111) of Biblical accounts of revelations and prophecies is an example of faith. However, he says he rejects "blind belief" (p. 139) because it leads to fanaticism (pp. 19-20). Instead, he encourages (p. 140) Jewish parents to offer "reasoned and meaningful answers to their children's questions."

2. COGNITIVE OSMOSIS. There are bits of evidence (and only that) that Prager supports the notion of gaining knowledge through social osmosis (e.g., pp. 135, 137, and 138), which is a natural refuge for skeptics. He speaks of "implant[ing] . . . Jewish identity" through immersion in Jewish culture in Jewish homes and schools. Perhaps he is only speaking loosely and means that individuals learn from the culture around them.

3. RATIONALISM AS "REASON." In The Nine Questions, Prager's views of reason are vague and conflicting. Sometimes reason seems to be an oracle: reason suggests answers and talks to us. Reason is, Prager apparently assumes, useful for tidying up arguments that we present to others. Indeed, we can use reason to justify anything. "Reason rarely argues for moral behavior. In fact, reason can nearly always be used to justify immoral behavior . . . . The use of reason to justify what is wrong is so common that we have a special word for it -- rationalization." Reason for Prager (pp. 23 and 24) is only syllogizing.

Based on three points, Prager holds that we cannot rely on reason to develop ethics. First, "reason is amoral" (p. 24), and the moral cannot arise from the immoral or the amoral. Second, unless it is guided by a prior commitment to God (p. 37), reason tends to support evil. Third, reason is weak; it has no authority: "Reason cannot demand good behavior (even when it suggests it)," Prager says (p. 24). Reason only suggests or asserts things. We need something "higher than reason" to "compel" us "to act morally" (p. 25). However, Prager seems to contradict himself. He also says (p. 28) "logic and reason . . . compel us to reject it [the idea that beauty and justice and other fine things are merely the result of random collisions of molecules, as the conventional atheists claim] as a probability." Can reason "compel" or not? Perhaps the resolution of this seeming contradiction is that Prager believes reason can be compelling in natural science (a question of fact, the "is") but not in ethics (a question of value, the "ought"). Shadowing Prager's account of Judaism is an unstated is/ought dichotomy.

Another instance that might make readers wonder what Prager means by "reason" is this statement: "In Judaism, we can affirm the existence of God without suspending either our reason or our questioning. Indeed, for the Jew, reason and questioning should ultimately be a source of affirmation that there is a God" (p. 37). An objective reader notes that questioning is an element of reason (in its full, objective meaning), so what would "reason and questioning" mean?

Further, Prager speaks (pp. 87-88) of a Christian argument being "logically unsatisfactory" to Jews. The "religious Jew need not abandon reason" (p. 140) but (p. 143) can "use logical arguments" in advocating Judaism to younger people and reason to explain Jewish laws as a way of persuading people to follow them. Prager also disapprovingly notes (p. 45) that many Jews advocate blind obedience to those laws. He says (note, p. 25) faith and reason must be used together. Using either alone leads to immorality.

All of these seemingly supportive uses of "reason" show that Prager's view of reason is rationalism, which is an emphasis on syllogistically correct arguments that start with arbitrary premises. Premises accepted on faith -- such as "God exists" -- are arbitrary.

Prager's worldview is hierarchical and interconnected. In politics, there must be a state, Israel, that serves as a refuge to protect the social and cultural movement that has persevered in bringing God's ethics of altruism to man. As a theory of man, Prager holds God made man complex: in part mere animal and in part a divine spark, which includes, in his epistemology, a need for and very limited ability to articulate reasons for believing and doing things God commands us to do. Thus man needs both mysticism and rationalism -- humbled by skepticism -- to justify following God's rules ("ethical monotheism"). In metaphysics, God is the cause of all.

Those are Dennis Prager's beliefs, and he is a full-time activist disseminating them.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For an overview of Prager's life and beliefs: (a) a biographical sketch at ; (b) admirer Luke Ford's rough chronology of social, professional, and intellectual events in Prager's life at ; and (c) Prager's own website at . [2] Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1981. For brevity, I speak of "Prager" as a reference to both authors. [3] The quoted passage comes from p. 13. My inference of Prager's CPL, here a term by analogy, comes from that page and pp. 20-21, where he speaks of the aims of a "committed Jew." That Prager has applied that general religious commitment to his personal CPL is evident from his career as speaker, writer, and teacher. See [1].