He and his supporters have a right to their atheism, but not to intellectual dishonesty about it.
October 1, 2013
Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at its launch in London in 2009. (Zoe Margolis)
This past Friday, CNN conducted an interview with Richard Dawkins, the British biologist most widely known for his polemics against religion and on behalf of atheism.
Asked “whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass,” Dawkins responded: “The very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible.”
This is the crux of the issue for Dawkins and other anti-religion activists — that not only do we not need religion or God for morality but that we would have a considerably more moral world without them.
This argument is so wrong — both rationally and empirically — that its appeal can be explained only by (a) a desire to believe it and (b) an ignorance of history.
First, the rational argument.
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this. For example, at Oxford University, I debated Professor Jonathan Glover, the British philosopher and ethicist, who said: “Dennis started by saying that I hadn’t denied his central contention that if there isn’t a God, there is only subjective morality. And that’s absolutely true.”
And the eminent Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty admitted that, for secular liberals such as himself, “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”
Atheists such as Dawkins who refuse to acknowledge that without God there are only opinions about good and evil are not being intellectually honest.
None of this means that only believers in God can be good or that atheists cannot be good. There are bad believers and there are good atheists. But this fact is irrelevant to whether good and evil are real.
To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, “Do not murder,” murder is not wrong. Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what? Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; slavery in nearly all the world throughout most of history was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings in various Muslims societies are right.
So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?
Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?
My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins’s reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church’s teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted.
In addition, reason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That’s why we have the word “rationalize” — using reason to argue for what is wrong.
What would reason argue to a non-Jew asked by Jews to hide them when the penalty for hiding a Jew was death? It would argue not to hide those Jews.
In that regard, let’s go to the empirical argument.
Years ago, I interviewed Pearl and Sam Oliner, two professors of sociology at Humboldt State University in California and the authors of one of the most highly regarded works on altruism, The Altruistic Personality. The book was the product of the Oliners’ lifetime of study of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.
The Oliners, it should be noted, are secular, not religious, Jews; they had no religious agenda.
I asked Samuel Oliner, “Knowing all you now know about who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, if you had to return as a Jew to Poland and you could knock on the door of only one person in the hope that they would rescue you, would you knock on the door of a Polish lawyer, a Polish doctor, a Polish artist, or a Polish priest?”
Without hesitation, he said, “a Polish priest.” And his wife immediately added, “I would prefer a Polish nun.”
That alone should be enough to negate the pernicious nonsense that God is not only unnecessary for a moral world but detrimental to one.
But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.
Perhaps the most powerful proof of the moral decay that follows the death of God is the Western university and its secular intellectuals. Their moral record has been loathsome. Nowhere were Stalin and Mao as venerated as they were at the most anti-religious and secular institutions in Western society, the universities. Nowhere in the West today is anti-Americanism and Israel-hatred as widespread as it is at universities. And Princeton University awarded its first tenured professorship in bioethics to Peter Singer, an atheist who has argued, among other things, that that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee” and that bestiality is not immoral.
Dawkins and his supporters have a right to their atheism. They do not have a right to intellectual dishonesty about atheism.
I have debated the best known atheists, including Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing), Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Only Richard Dawkins has refused to come on my radio show.
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His most recent book is Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.