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].


  1. Prager espouses all the bad ideas in philosophy in one fell swoop:
    1.) destroying the hierarchy of knowledge by deriving, a la Kant, his god from supposedly innate moral precepts.
    2.) The Hegelian social primacy of consciousness, and
    3.) The Humean Is/Ought dichotomy.
    Who can top that? Ali Imdad

  2. What a excellent, fascinating analysis!

    Several points:

    1. "God's Altruism" -- Perhaps it was not emphasized in Nine Questions but the idea of justice plays a big role in Prager's work. I would argue that it is Prager's emphasis on moral judgment that is the secret to his appeal. Prager appears to see no conflict between his support of altruism and justice.

    2. Faith in Judaism -- My experience with Judaism suggests that faith tends to be de-emphasized or outright rejected. Those who reject the concept of faith insist that the the truth of the Torah can be established by reason. See for example Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's works, specifically Living Up to the Truth. Gottlieb's and other similar orthodox Jewish arguments have been criticized in R. D. Gold's book Bondage of the Mind.

    3. Prager's political views tend to follow the mainstream of the neo-conservative movement (though he has developed some more "libertarian" tendencies). His neoconservatism is particularly evident in his foreign policy views. I have heard him agree that it is the moral responsibility of the United States to spread liberty throughout the world.

    Gideon Reich


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