• Paul D. Wilke

Can We Be Good Without God? A Response to Dennis Prager

Here's a recent video from Dennis Prager making the argument that, if there is no God, then murder isn't wrong. Watch it first and then I'm going to take a closer look at some of the arguments he makes.

The first question that Mr. Prager asks is “How do you know that murder is wrong?” He argues that we cannot prove murder wrong by making scientific arguments, that there’s no way to prove a moral claim like this without appealing to the existence of God. “Without God, there are no moral facts.” He goes on to say, “In a secular world, there can only be opinions about morality. They may be personal opinions or society’s opinions, but only opinions.”

I want to argue that every human society, no matter how religious, can have only opinions about morality. Stating this fact is not meant to diminish or devalue the role they play in our everyday lives. Moral systems evolve from a community’s interpretations of the accepted ways people should treat each other. Those beliefs come in a variety of forms, but they are still subjective in the sense that each society decides what values to emphasize. Mr. Prager’s assertions above are themselves belief claims and ones that cannot be proven.

These claims, as we will see, are backed primarily by the dubious veracity of the Judeo-Christian sacred texts. To believe those sacred texts are the products of divine revelation is to take a leap of faith into a pool of willful ignorance. It requires a believer to emphasize certain teachings - for example, those that coincide with one's pre-existing cultural beliefs - and de-emphasize, ignore, or explain away others that conflict. In the end, this places the followers of Mr. Prager's brand of revealed religion in an impossible position, at least when it comes to providing convincing proof for their beliefs. Let me explain why.

Mr. Prager is a big fan of the Ten Commandments. He tells us, "No document in world history so changed the world for the better as did the Ten Commandments" And, "In three thousand years no one has ever come up with a better system than the God-based Ten Commandments for making a better world, and no one ever will." He also credits the Ten Commandments for giving us universal human rights, women's equality, ending slavery, and creating parliamentary democracy.

These are astounding claims to make given everything else that has happened over the last thirty centuries. One could ask, for example, why it took nearly three thousand years to finally get universal human rights, end slavery, or win women's rights if the Ten Commandments were so revolutionary. In Mr. Prager's version of reality, and based on his interpretation of the biblical flood story, God gave us the Ten Commandments only after destroying most of our ancestors in a great flood. After correcting his initial error, God decided that we required a divinely-ordained set of rules to follow instead of just our conscience.

This turned out to be the Ten Commandments. Prior to this, "God created man without giving him a Ten Commandments or any other revealed moral instruction. The only moral code was the one God built into the human being: the conscience. Clearly this was not enough to make a good world. The world sank into evil. This is another biblical lesson that runs entirely counter to a dominant belief of the modern age. The secular world holds that religion and God are morally unnecessary; the individual’s conscience is sufficient to guide moral behavior. The Bible, as usual, knew better."

But did the Bible really know better? Any reading of the Bible - both the New and Old Testament - shows that there are more like ten thousand commandments, not ten, and many of them are non-starters by today's secular moral standards. Only by an extremely cherry-picked reading of the Bible do you get to universal human rights, women's equality, or an argument against slavery.

The recent advances in the human moral outlook occurred in spite of the Bible. Why is that? Why did it take so long for the West to expand its moral arc to include historically oppressed and persecuted groups if the Ten Commandments and the Bible were so morally foundational?

The answer is that, unfortunately, the Ten Commandments don't really offer anything unique to humanity. Murder is abhorred in just about every culture. We didn't need a commandment from God to tell us that. You can't really have a functioning society if there are no rules of the road about killing. "Honor thy father and mother?" Confucians would say that's a good start. What else? "Thou shalt not steal?" Buddhists and Hindus would not disagree. "You shall have no other gods before me?" Well, this one is a problem.

We find here evidence for the intolerant fundamentalism that gave religion a bad reputation. What if, for example, another religion has the same commandment? Say...Islam? What happened to those who didn't follow your God but lacked the power to defend themselves? The fate of the Aztecs and the Incas can tell us a lot. The Old Testament also gives us some idea of what happens to those who do not follow the one true God.

Consider those parts of the Bible that Mr. Prager simply ignores because they do not coincide with his own values. For example, here's what should happen to unbelievers straight from Deuteronomy 13: 6-18:

6 "If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people."

Or about homosexuals from Leviticus 20:13:

13 “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.


Or about rape and women's equality from Deuteronomy 22: 28-29:

28 "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives."


Or slavery from 1 Timothy 6: 1-4:

1 "All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare[a] of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on. 3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing."

Of course, there are those who will object to my own cherry-picking that shows the Bible in the worst possible light. But Mr. Prager is doing the same thing when he emphasizes the moral value of the Ten Commandments while ignoring everything else. He has no choice but to ignore the bad parts. Defending the verses above by today's moral standards is impossible.

These are just a few examples from parts of the Bible that no one reads anymore that show just how prone to interpretation every human moral system is. Each of the injunctions above was practiced at some point in time among certain Christian or Jewish societies.

I'm certain that Mr. Prager does not support slavery simply because it was condoned in the Bible. But the verses above, among others, were preached from antebellum pulpits in the Old South to justify maintaining the status quo of a morally bankrupt slave society. I have no doubt that Mr. Prager does not want to kill homosexuals just because the Bible says so, but elsewhere bigots have drawn upon scripture to justify institutionalized persecution. After all, how do we really know that murdering gays is immoral if God's revealed text says it's OK? How do we really know that murdering unbelievers is immoral if God's revealed text says it's OK?

At the end of the day, that elusive objective morality Prager longs for is not to be found in the Bible. We can see the subjective selection process that believers like Mr. Prager are forced to engage in to make Biblical values match up with their own. Clearly he is not taking every command in the Bible at face value. And that's to his credit, I guess.

In the end, fortunately, Mr. Prager, like most of us in the West today, is also a product of the secular values he seems to view with such suspicion, even as he picks and chooses which of God’s commandments to obey in practice and which to ignore. But what about everyone else?

A glance at the history of the last three thousand years will reveal just how many ways societies could interpret the Bible's commands. For centuries, suspected witches, heretics, and non-believers were condemned based on radically different interpretations of scripture. No doubt the religious authorities of those eras genuinely believed they were carrying out God's word to the letter of the law as they interpreted them. That makes the Bible a dangerously subjective document, given the brutal epochs in which it originated, and one where people can find arguments to justify anything from genocide (Joshua 6:20-27) to when to stone your rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

That’s not to say that we’re therefore trapped in a quagmire of anything-goes moral relativism. We have the tools today to examine morality without resorting to sacred texts. If we can't distill it all down to a few, bumper sticker length rules, we can nevertheless have a better idea of what kinds of morality are beneficial and what kinds are not.

Unfortunately, religious conservatives like Mr. Prager seem to have an allergy to secular explanations for morality, craving instead an overarching explanation that makes sense of all the apparent chaos and absurdity of existence. Ivan Karamazov's cry, "If there is no God, everything is permissible" still resonates today with many believers. Ivan would have been better off saying, “Without morality, all is permitted,” but he’s unable to divorce morality from God, and this anchors him to the idea that morality can therefore only flow from God.

Rather than punting the responsibility for our morality to a nebulous God created by misogynistic and xenophobic tribesmen thousands of years ago, it’s on us to figure out what works best. Getting this right is not easy, and history is littered with cautionary examples where societies plunged into the moral abyss.

Remember, God destroyed the world because of Man's wickedness and so gave us the Ten Commandments and finally the Bible as a moral guide to steer us in the right direction. But it would be fair to ask after three millennia, 'How has that worked out?' Talking about this gap between ideal and reality, Sam Harris writes, "How badly must human beings behave to put this 'sense of universal rightness' in doubt? While no other species can match us for altruism, none can match us for sadistic cruelty either." [1]

Mr. Prager says, “Without God, good and evil is just another way of saying ‘I like’ and ‘I don’t like.’ In fact, a better way to put it is that the idea of good and evil is another way of identifying whether a practice or belief is helpful or harmful to well-being. Mr. Harris uses the metaphor of a “moral landscape” with peaks and valleys, the peaks representing moral beliefs that tend to promote well-being and the valleys representing moral beliefs inimical to well-being. [2]

The basic idea is that the best moral systems are those that tend to promote the well-being of those practicing them. Well-being I would define as the freedom and opportunity for individuals to achieve as much of their potential as possible, no matter whether they are men, women, black, brown, white, gay, lesbian, or anything else in between.

A moral system that successfully promotes the well-being of a majority of its members will tend to create well-functioning, moral societies based on a shared set of values. The peaks in the moral landscape can include a belief in God, or gods, but that is not necessary at all. Similar to Mr. Harris, I am arguing that defining human prosperity, both at the individual and societal level, can inform our moral debates about right and wrong better than religion can. An approach like this would be grounded on observation, scientific evidence, and free and open debate, rather than opaque interpretations of scripture.

Such an open society would almost by default consider murder an act antithetical to the well-being of its members. In other words, to answer Mr. Prager's initial question, "How do we know murder is wrong?:" We know it's wrong because it is harmful to the well-being of the victim (murdered), the perpetrator (punished), and society. In fact, we in the West live in a society that grounds its morality in this way, which in part explains why overall levels of violence and murder rates have been in long-term decline.

Rather than fearing the retribution of an all-seeing God, most people have internalized the idea that murder is wrong for the reasons I just listed above. If Mr. Prager's thesis was correct, the secularization of society he criticizes and the demotion of God he laments should be resulting in a more violent society. If we don't believe there is a God watching, we'll just do whatever we want. Anarchy. Chaos. That's simply not the case.

[1] Harris, Sam. "Chapter 4: Religion." In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 170. New York: Free Press, 2011.

[2] Ibid., 15-21, 38-41.