Is murder wrong?: Progressive dialogue

In my last column, I made the case that if there is no God who declares murder wrong, murder is not, in fact, wrong. While human beings can believe that murder is wrong, without God, right and wrong are our moral opinions, not moral facts.

This is so basic and so logically obvious that no prominent secular or atheist philosopher I have dialogued with over the past 35 years has disagreed with it. Professor Jonathan Glover, one of Europe’s preeminent moralists, acknowledged this at the beginning of our debate at Oxford University. So did professor Steve Stewart-Williams, lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales, an atheist who is the author of “Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life” (Cambridge University, 2010). The very premise of his book is that because there is no God, there is no ultimate morality or meaning to life, so we have to fashion a godless morality and meaning. And one of the most revered liberal philosophers of the modern era, Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty, wrote that for secular liberals (like himself), “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ ” (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” [Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

The other point I made is that I believe that this fundamental moral issue of life — if there is no God, murder isn’t evil — is rarely preached from non-Orthodox pulpits or taught in non-Orthodox seminaries. I would like to add two points. One is that I have no denominational agenda here: I am not Orthodox, and I have attended a Reform synagogue for about 25 years. The other is that the divine basis of morality and the need to spread that idea was one of the core beliefs of Reform Judaism when it was founded.

What I want to discuss in this column are Jewish Journal reader reactions to this column.

First, reactions as printed in the Comments section of

Comment by Dern: “Were I to submit such an article to any credible institution, I would expect them to throw it in the trash, not put it on the front page. This article is so bad I just had to comment on it. Why does JewishJournal print this stuff?”

Comment by Reader: “I see three possibilities here: 1) Dennis Prager is intellectually dishonest; 2) Dennis Prager is just not very bright; 3) both of the above. This kind of straw-man argument is just pathetic and I hoped I could expect better from the Jewish Journal (guess not as long as you keep publishing this tripe).”

Comment by Craig S. Maxwell: “So much then (I guess) for Jefferson’s self-evident truths. Or does Dennis think our nation was founded on a mere poetic fiction? … See Peter Kreeft for more details at:”

Comment by Rheda Gomberg: “What a waste of my time. What the hell did he say? How can anyone be so full of himself and say so little. Shame on JJ.”

Comment by LA Reader: “Mr. Prager’s tripe is a continuing embarrassment to this newspaper. Let him leave it in talk-radioland, where it finds an eager audience.”

There was also one letter in the printed edition of the Jewish Journal. It came from Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

Dr. Holo wrote, among other things: “I object to his heedless and gratuitous hostility. It is difficult not to read Prager as a provocateur, claiming incisive and close analysis, while in fact painting in broad strokes of facile caricature.

“HUC-JIR and every other synagogue and seminary with which I have interacted teach God as the source of morality, even if they do not always cast aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.”

I cite these reactions because they typify the way too many on the left react to ideas with which they disagree: belittle the person who made the argument and demand he not be published (or be invited to speak at a university or to a progressive church or synagogue).

No one, including Dr. Holo, refuted my thesis that if there is no God, murder isn’t wrong. 

For example, Craig S. Maxwell cites Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” as a refutation of what I wrote. But one of Jefferson’s self-evident truths is that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” No Creator, no unalienable rights. Sounds like what I wrote. And Mr. Maxwell’s citing Peter Kreeft is even odder. Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, just made a video course for Prager University titled “If Good and Evil Exist, God Exists.”

Nor does Dr. Holo deny that murder is wrong only if God says so. On the contrary, Dr. Holo writes that Reform rabbis and the Reform seminary clearly affirm this principle. That was good to hear, although I suspect that it will come as somewhat of a surprise to the many Reform rabbis and congregants who believe that good and evil exist quite independently of God’s existence. It is even better news — although, I admit, hard to believe — that Reform rabbis “teach” this to their congregants.

Dr. Holo accuses me of “facile caricature.” But the only facile caricature here is Dr. Holo’s of me. He describes me as a “provocateur” engaged in “heedless and gratuitous hostility,” who “always cast[s] aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.” I grant Dr. Holo the moral sincerity of his progressivism. Why can he not respect the moral sincerity of my opposition to his progressivism? Or does he believe that to oppose the left is, by definition, the act of a provocateur engaged in heedless and gratuitous hostility? And as for casting “aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently,” in a lifetime of writing and speaking, I have never done that. I deeply admire atheists who lead moral lives. 

Hopefully one day, Jewish progressives will hear a critique and respond not with ad hominem put-downs, but with, “Could there be some truth in this critique — especially when it comes from a committed, and non-Orthodox, Jew?”

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Editor’s Corner – Junk Science

“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, “so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether “intelligent design,” which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush’s views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.

A really big lefty.

The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society’s oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.

Bryan’s objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level — of which Darwin had no idea — as proof of Darwin’s blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of “light-sensitive freckle” are so astounding, he orated, “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?”

Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth.”

The end result would be social Darwinism by those who “worship brute ancestors” and the unrestrained use of eugenics.

What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin — Charles Darwin — into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.

The president’s partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?

No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, “are preeminently important religious activities.”

Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote — and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove — we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.

A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class — or perhaps in a design class.

Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best — to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, “Is the Bible True?” Silver answered Bryan — and Bush — in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.

“Science or religion?” Silver said. “Which will survive? Why, both — if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”