Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stephen Bourque analyzes mystic Dennis Prager

Dennis Prager (b. 1948) has a clear central purpose in life: to tell others how to do good and oppose evil. "Good" by what standard? By the standard of what Prager, an advocate of Judaism, calls "ethical monotheism" and some of his critics call "Pragerism." He has written four books, composed many magazine columns (online and in print), delivered hundreds of lectures to live audiences, founded an online "Prager University," and conducted thousands of radio and television shows, often in "talk" format. He has a large following in the U. S. Judaeo-Christian subculture, especially among conservatives (individuals whose main ideological values are God, Tradition, Nation, and Family).[1]

Stephen Bourque, writer and editor of the weblog One Reality, lives in Massachusetts, where he works full-time designing electronic circuits and developing firmware. His other interests include gourmet foods, visual arts, and music. He somehow manages to find time for philosophical and intellectual activism, mostly in the form of thoughtful posts on his weblog. His growth in knowledge and intellectual skills has been a pleasure to watch.

In keeping with the purposes of The Main Event, the following interview with Stephen focuses on two points: (1) His experience, as an activist, in thoroughly analyzing a sample of Prager's work; and (2) his reflections on Prager as an advocate of mysticism, including the general nature of Prager's arguments, their implications, and style of advocacy.

1. First, Stephen, could you summarize the steps you took, as a brief history of your project? For example, what was the time frame from start to finish? The project took just about a year to complete. I started it with an introduction on Dec. 4, 2008, and followed with installments at fairly regular intervals up to the fourteenth and final article on Dec. 8, 2009.

The project itself was quite spontaneous. During routine online reading, I happened upon an article that Prager wrote, called “If There Is No God.” I was familiar with him from his articles, which I always found to be more thoughtful and philosophical than the writings of some of his conservative colleagues.

This article, “If There Is No God,” resonated with me. It was his structure, his organization of fourteen philosophically dense and wide-ranging points that caught my attention. As I read it, I found myself rapidly identifying his premises -- which of course I consider to be mistaken -- and answering each point in my own mind, at least in an informal way. Now, I always do that when I read, but when I got to the end of his article, I was amazed at how much ground had been covered. I credit Prager for this.

There’s something else, too. I had not gotten past Prager’s second point before I started thinking to myself that this sounds like Ivan Karamazov talking, the character from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which is one of my favorite novels. And sure enough, in Prager’s last point, he himself brought up Dostoyevsky. That coincidence, and the fact that Prager was clearly trying to make an intellectual argument much larger in scope than the typical opinion piece, got me excited about answering it.

2. As an engineer you are accustomed to estimating labor for projects. How much time would you say you invested in this project of philosophical activism? My wife would chuckle at this question, Burgess, for she knows I am a chronic under-estimator of the time required to finish a project -- both as an engineer and as a writer, I am sorry to admit. It took more time than I would have guessed at the beginning of the project. I would estimate each installment took me about ten hours to write, adding up to about 150 hours for the whole project. Almost all that time was spent composing and editing. There wasn’t much research involved.

3. To have worked for more than a year on such a project shows not only the virtue of persistence but a high level of motivation. What were your reasons for undertaking this project? A general motivation for any writing I do is to clarify my thinking on a topic. I’ve heard philosopher Leonard Peikoff say that you don’t really know something until you write about it, and I think that is a great observation.

For this project, however, I had a special purpose in mind: to combat the idea that faith in God is the only basis for morality, the only way to determine absolute right and wrong. Prager missed the mark with his conditional statements. He should not have posited “if there is no God” but “if there is no morality.” I wanted to show to some religious readers, the ones who have active minds, that the roots of objective values exist in the natural world. To plant the basis of one’s morality in a supernatural realm, as believers in God do, is to agree with the subjectivists that there are no absolutes grounded in the natural world.

This is a crucial point, so I’ll elaborate. Most religious conservatives, including Prager, rightly criticize the subjectivism and moral relativism demonstrated by “liberals.” But these same religionists don’t recognize that they are implicitly conceding all ground to their foes. Secular subjectivists deny that moral absolutes can have roots in the natural world. Religionists say that moral absolutes don’t have roots in the natural world -- but they do in heaven. In relation to the natural world, these two positions are identical.[2]

So this is a major theme that I wanted to get across – that however much conservatives and “liberals” think they are opposites, they share much more on the issue of moral absolutes than either group might care to admit. This common position should not be surprising, after all, because both leftists and conservatives share the same morality. In terms of metaphysics and epistemology, the two groups are distinct, but in terms of ethics, they support the same position: namely, altruism. I don’t think I emphasized this last point in the series. Maybe I should have, because it is crucial.

To think these are the only two choices – either an alleged rationality that disqualifies morality, or a morality that depends upon faith -- is not merely a mistake; it is a disaster. The choice amounts to picking either the Gulag or the Salem Witch Trials, to use Prager’s examples, as the model for our future. This is not hyperbole. If we are going to save America, we must convince civilized people that reason is our only means of knowledge, that faith is a license to kill your neighbor as surely as it is to be kind to him, and that moral principles, including the principle of individual rights, are absolutes that can be based not upon faith but upon the sense-perceptible facts of reality as philosopher Ayn Rand has shown in her essay "The Objectivist Ethics." We must rescue morality from religion's grip. The stakes could not be higher.

4. How did you -- with a job and a family -- make time to produce this series of articles? Well, it was a bit of a challenge to balance everything. I wanted to keep up with other topics on One Reality, too -- not just the Prager project -- and there were some weeks when I was too busy with work to do any writing at all. One factor that was very helpful was that my wife is an Objectivist and a blogger, too, so we would often sit side by side, each working on our own writing projects, bouncing thoughts off one another, refining our ideas, and even proofreading. So, in a sense, a lot of the time I spent writing was family time. It would be hard to overstate the importance of our mutual support and the fact that my wife and I are in agreement in every fundamental respect. A project like this, and our activism and intellectual growth in general, is part of our life together.

The biggest time problem for me – one I have yet to solve – is that since I started my blog almost two years ago, my reading has dropped off significantly. The hours I spend writing have directly supplanted the hours I formerly spent reading. Plus, the reading I do now tends to be of the current-events variety, which I loathe. I love fiction and drama, and I am aghast at how little time I have spent reading for pleasure in the last couple of years. I have to figure out how to work the reading back in without letting the writing suffer – and since I can’t add hours to the day, I guess I’ll have to improve my efficiency somewhere.

5. What was the most time-consuming part of the project? I’m a painfully slow writer. I’d love to have the words gush out like notes from the mind of Mozart, setting them down in the perfect order from left to right, top to bottom, as fast as my pen – or rather, keyboard – can set them down, but my brain doesn’t work that way. For that matter, perhaps neither did Mozart’s. In any case, I labor over every word, sentence, and paragraph. Plus, I’m a perfectionist. That doesn’t mean everything I do is perfect -- far from it -- but it means I am perpetually dissatisfied with it. Even when I am dashing off an email or a text message, I am a stickler for grammar and coherent thought.

6. What was the most intellectually difficult part of the project? Interestingly, Burgess, I have to say that intellectually most of this material was close enough at hand for me to write about it without much difficulty. I don’t mean it was a breeze -- it was a lot of work -- but compared to some other topics, like economics or environmental science, religion is relatively easy for me. I’ve been thinking about religion for a very long time. As a child, I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, so I went through all of this thinking first hand, and had thoroughly rejected supernaturalism on my own by the time I was seventeen. Of course, I would not have been able to articulate a positive case for reason until after I discovered Ayn Rand at eighteen, but I had at least thrown off all the fairy tales by then and was strongly committed to understanding the real, natural world.

If I had to highlight one intellectually difficult part of the project, I might point to the chart I made in Part 13, showing the logical hierarchy of the derivation of individual rights. I had labored through a similar exercise years ago in order to satisfy my own understanding -- basically, to check my premises and obtain a more sound grasp of why rights are valid. Anyone familiar with Ayn Rand’s writings, particularly her essay "Man’s Rights", will recognize all the propositions, connections, and interdependencies as hers. Despite the unparalleled clarity of Rand’s writing, a lot of intellectual effort is still required to grasp and integrate all the concepts in the chain. After reading Rand, you might feel like you’ve “got it,” that it is all so obvious and right. It is right, but the scope is so vast, it takes months and years to check, double-check, and triple-check all the connections. The chart was fairly easy for me to recreate for this project, but it was a lot of work back when I first did it.

7. You initially stated your goal as dashing "the notion that there are only two choices in the realm of morality: either to be religious or to reject morality." With that focus on ethics, you still managed to comment in every other branch of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, politics, and esthetics. How did that happen? All the credit here goes to Ayn Rand. She is the thinker who was able to connect the dots on the most wide-ranging topics possible. It is thanks to her work that I can grasp philosophy in a systematic manner, with its major branches of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and its minor branches of politics and esthetics. Ayn Rand could take the most innocuous-seeming concrete and not only demonstrate its philosophical implications, but show how the same kernel of an idea would play out in other fields. To give an example I remember reading, she could see a streaker running across the stage at the Academy Awards on national television, and not shrug it off with a smirk as most people would, but regard it soberly as an instance of nihilism, akin to rock-throwing louts and student “rebels” of the New Left. She would have been able to tell you, on the spot, how that streaker was connected to modern art, drug use, “anti-heroes” in movies, the hippie movement, “word salad” literature, apathetic sexual promiscuity, and ten other things that most people would regard as totally disparate concepts. I have never encountered her equal in the sheer energy and genius she directed toward identification and integration.

Seeing value in this ability, I’ve made a habit of being a “philosophical detective” myself. Naturally -- and fortunately for me, equipped as I am with an ordinary, moderate intelligence -- one does not have to be a millennial genius like Ayn Rand to do this. Anyone can, and in fact must, think independently if he is not to drift on the sea of ideas. Basically, it’s a commitment to not being mentally lazy – or to put it positively, it’s a commitment to productive mental action, fitting and connecting every new thing into what one already knows.

8. Who was your target audience? Why? I was hoping to reach the minds of readers who hold religious premises and basically agree with Prager on all his points, but are honest enough to consider a perspective based in the natural universe. Obviously, a religious true believer is not going to be accessible here -- or anywhere, for that matter. But I would guess that there are a lot of people who persist in religion mostly because they are revolted by modern intellectual trends -- subjectivism, moral relativism, leftist politics, and so forth. They see religion as the only refuge from such plainly false ideas. And who can blame them? For a century, the progressives and so-called “liberals” have repeatedly declared themselves to be so much smarter than everybody else. Taking them at their word, the religious hold the subjectivists to be the embodiment of reason. That is absurd, of course, but that is the conventional view. Then, when these subjectivists scoff at morality, at the notion of right and wrong, the religious draw the obvious conclusion: reason cannot provide a basis for morality. They associate reason with the irrationality of the left. And so they retreat to faith.

One of my major purposes in this series and in general is to dash the false dichotomy of left versus right, “liberal” versus conservative, the subjectivist versus the mystical or intrinsic. Neither position is correct. A third alternative is the answer: an objective commitment to reason and reality. I would like to get this message across to religious conservatives: As long as they hold that individual rights derive from the supernatural, they are acting to defeat freedom, not to uphold it.

9. In the article you analyzed, does Prager speak much in favor of or even about any particular form of mysticism (such as faith, revelation, authority, or holy scripture)? If not, how does Prager connect the metaphysics of his worldview, which is God as the cause of all, to the ethics of his worldview? In other words, what, if anything, does his brief Town Hall column -- as an isolated sample of his work -- suggest about his epistemology? That’s an interesting question, Burgess, because Prager does not come right out and say, for instance, that truth must be revealed through an act of faith. He does not hit you over the head with pleas to reject your senses and put your faith in God. He comes across as very reasonable. But beneath it all is faith, nonetheless. At the end of his post, Prager has the courtesy to tell us what he means by the term “God” -- the God of the Ten Commandments, the God of the Founders, the God that demands “love thy neighbor.” Setting aside my doubt that the Founders -- Deists who constructed a wall of separation between church and state -- would have regarded God in quite the same manner as Prager does, clearly Prager is talking about a God of Scripture, of revealed word. And for him, God must be an active presence in our lives, a rewarder and a punisher -- not a mere metaphysical abstraction or technical device, like an Unmoved Mover, that has no relevance in day-to-day life.

A clue to his faith-based epistemology comes from his characterizing his opponents as “believers in less noble gods, secular and divine.” Evidently, he cannot even conceive of a faithless means of knowledge about ethics. Reason, for him, would be something like having a “faith” in one’s senses, science, and logic. This is a distortion of reason, and I cannot see how anyone who holds this idea could avoid degenerating into subjectivism.

I suppose there is a slightly more sinister possibility, too. Perhaps when Prager characterizes his opponents as believers in secular gods, he is doing it not because he truly thinks science is just as much a matter of faith as is religion, but simply because he wants to discredit science. If this is true, it is a fascinating confession. To attempt to discredit science and reason by saying they are forms of faith implies that one knows, at least on some level, that faith is a shoddy foundation. In effect, his argument is that science, being faith-based, is just as ineffective as religion is at establishing truth. That would be an astonishing argument coming from someone who is supposed to be claiming the superiority of faith. I am not saying Prager falls in this camp -- I certainly can’t tell this from the articles I’ve read -- but I have seen this position taken by other religionists.

10. Near the beginning of his Town Hall column, where Prager said, "[I]t is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence," were you surprised? Yes -- and pleased. This is what I mean when I say that Prager seems to be more honest than many of his conservative colleagues. Unfortunately for him, though, his refreshing candor does not help him escape the ultimate irrationality of his argument. His position comes down to this: "I can’t prove there is a God, but without Him everything is permitted, including bad art, rape, murder, and any imaginable atrocity -- so we sure as hell better believe in a God." That is simply not sound logic. One cannot wish something into existence.

The statement, “it is not possible to prove or disprove God’s existence,” glosses over the fact that it is not necessary to disprove God’s existence. Arbitrary assertions ought to be dismissed out of hand; it is incumbent upon someone claiming a god exists to present evidence to that effect.

11. Based only on the small sample of his work that you have seen, how would you characterize Dennis Prager as an advocate of mysticism and its products?
Because of his basically civilized approach, I would think that Dennis Prager would be a more effective advocate of religious ideas than other popular religious conservatives like Doug Giles, Laura Ingraham, or Ann Coulter. Giles’s brand of humor is off-putting. He comes across as a nut, and a scary one at that. Coulter can be funny for short stretches when she is savaging leftists, but she subverts it all with a knee-jerk, unquestioning faith both in God and in the Republican Party platform. She is smart, but she is not a deep thinker. It is possible that the very sarcasm that I find unconvincing is precisely what affords these types of commentators their popular appeal. Maybe being more thoughtful or philosophical would interfere with their popularity. I don’t know.

On the other end of the intellectual scale is a guy like Dinesh D’Souza who dives right into the philosophy. Ultimately, his dive is very shallow, though it makes a big splash -- that is to say, he is conspicuously, almost boastfully, philosophical and “scientific,” and he is very well read, which he takes pains to let us know about. But, by his insistent questioning, he sets himself up to have to answer, which he cannot do satisfactorily. In a sense, he shines the light on his own weak arguments. Strangely, his approach strikes me as what we would expect more from leftists than from right-wingers. He is convinced of his superior intelligence and struts about with an absurd confidence in his self-proclaimed abilities to defeat the “new atheists” in debate -- as if the “new atheists,” who stand for nothing, were fearsome opponents.

Prager avoids both of these categories. He is thoughtful and operates in the realm of ideas, but without showing off or bullying his audience. And as far as I know, he does not indulge in or rely upon sarcasm and name-calling to stir up his readers. I think that is an effective approach for reaching active minds. I don’t agree with his religious viewpoints, but I consider him to be a civilized and worthy opponent.

12. Do you have any further comments about the appropriateness of Prager's style for his purpose, audience, and subject matter? My experience with his writing is confined to his columns. I didn’t know he had written anything more substantial than that until you mentioned his books in the introduction. I think his style is generally well suited to the Townhall type of forum. His writing has a sort of straight-shooter, common-sense appeal. It’s direct, accessible, and reflects his principles, which as far as I can tell, are quite consistent. However, his style is not perfectly suited to what he was attempting in “If There Is No God,” in particular. His thesis is too ambitious to be constricted to a single column. I wonder now if he would have liked a larger canvas to expand upon, both in terms of space and in terms of his own ability to add color and depth to his arguments. Each of his fourteen points cries out for more attention. Maybe that’s part of my attraction to the project. Prager offered this rich and compelling topic and left it incomplete, as a mere sketch.

13. Did you expect comments from religionists on your weblog posts? I was hoping to receive some comments from religious people, and in fact, I did receive a few. Happily, all the comments I’ve gotten so far on my blog – including all my posts, not just this series – have been very civil. One commenter in particular, who I assume is the same “Anonymous” who chimed in on four of the posts -- Part 1, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 -- was particularly thoughtful. He asked questions and wrote coherent sentences, and though it took me a while to reply, I wrote some detailed responses that I hope addressed his points.

At the same time, though, “Anonymous” made the one comment that I found to be a little upsetting. He accused me of “Christian bashing” and thinking that Christians “must be idiots,” which I think is completely unjust and cannot possibly come from a fair reading of my posts. That is simply not the way I think. I do not go around thinking people who disagree with me are idiots, and I don’t think any of my writings could be construed to take that position. If anything, I’ve indicated the opposite – that some of history’s smartest thinkers are the ones who are most profoundly wrong. So, I wasn’t very upset by this comment because I think it is completely undeserved, but I was a little dismayed that an otherwise thoughtful commenter would come away with this impression.

14. Are there any final points for your readers, either about Prager -- especially as a mystic -- or about your activism? Well, there is one point that I haven’t mentioned yet. Despite the fact that this series has been very beneficial for me and perhaps for some others, I do not, in general, think it is fruitful to engage in point-by-point rebuttals of religion. From time to time, it makes sense to combat specific religious arguments with a positive case for reason -- and Prager’s article was an opportunity to do so -- but I would not like to make a habit of it.

There are two reasons for this. First, I’ve already pointed out that arbitrary assertions need not be regarded at all. It is impossible -- and quite futile -- to argue with someone who thinks that black is white and A is non-A if God says so. A discourse on such terms is not an argument at all; it is a waste of time.

More importantly, though, atheism isn’t about anything. It is not a positive set of ideas, or a system of thought, or a philosophy. It is simply a corollary of being committed to rationality. It ought to be entirely uncontroversial. There is something almost surreal and ridiculous about God being such a point of contention in the twenty-first century. I am not primarily an atheist, and I am not particularly interested in rebutting religious claims.

My goal as a writer and a human being is to defend and exemplify reason. I hope that my writing contributes, even if only in a tiny way, to an intellectual movement that advances reason, rational selfishness, individual rights, and laissez faire capitalism. I am encouraged by the recent prominence of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. And even if my efforts amount to nothing more than a drop in the sea, I will continue to think and write for my own selfish purposes. We make the world we live in.

Stephen, thank you for taking the time to discuss your views, not only about Prager's position but also about the process that you -- as a philosophical and intellectual activist -- went through to produce your series of analyses. It is an inspiration to others. Thank you, Burgess, for your support, and for your own intellectual activism on Making Progress and the SGO, which I have admired for some time.

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 convictions: (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] For the issue of the source of values (traditionally called "the problem of the relationship of facts and values," read: (1) Craig Biddle, "The Is-Ought Gap: Subjectivism's Technical Retreat," The Objective Standard, Summer, 2009 (Vol. 4, No. 2), which describes the traditional problem and offers a bridge over the gap, a bridge that infers values from sense-perceptible facts of the natural world; and (2) Leonard Peikoff, "Fact and Value," The Intellectual Activist, Vol. 5, No. 1, written to students of Objectivism, and available on The Ayn Rand Institute website here.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great interview. Thanks!

    --Daniel Wahl


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