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.
January 2, 2013

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 jewishjournal.com.

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: http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism/relativism_transcription.htm”

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 PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

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