Prager, Irrationality and Religion

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

In his latest column, “Mormons Have Irrational Beliefs? Who Doesn’t?” Dennis Prager falls into some common errors concerning the concepts of faith, belief, reason and irrationality.  First, let me point out that I do not disagree with all of the claims in his column and those made during the discussion of his column on his radio show, in particular the importance of behavior.

Where I do disagree can be seen when Prager says,  “I read and hear these dismissals of Mormonism with some amusement — because everyone who makes these charges holds beliefs and/or practices that outsiders consider just as irrational.”   While true, this is completely irrelevant, and in fact only makes sense if one accepts a sort of intellectual relativism.  

Unless one is to deny the existence of objective truth, which unless I am really mistaken Prager does not do, what outsiders, or insiders for that matter, think is rational is irrelevant. What matters is what is true.  Granted this is not always easy, or at times even possible, to determine.  But that we cannot always know does not mean that we can never know.  More to the point here, it does not mean that there must be some sort of equivalence in disputed claims where all are “just as irrational.”  

A key problem is that Pager, or at least his argument, seems to accept the atheistic view of reason that sees reason as 1) a system of thought and 2) as materialistic, applying only to the natural world. Both views are false. 

Reason is simply a tool, a set of principles and practices for eliminating error.  It cannot stand alone as a system, but requires a framework in which it can be applied.  When atheists say that religious belief is irrational, what they are really saying is that religious beliefs do not fit within their naturalistic understanding of the world.  Reason actually has little to do with it.  They get away with this because they are conflating their world view with reason, as if there was no difference, and unfortunately many religious people have simply accepted it.

To see this consider one of the examples cited by Prager, and one where I would agree with him; that is the Mormon practice of wearing sacred undergarments.   Within the Mormon world view this is perfectly rational. In fact, one could easily argue that it would be irrational to disobey God, or to demand that God always give us reasons that we can understand, as this would put us in the position of judging God.  To ridicule this practice is not some indication of rationality, but simply bigotry.

If that was where the claims of Mormonism ended,  I would probably be  in more agreement  with Prager.  But their claims do not end there. The core problem  can be seen with an example Prager gives of his own “irrational” belief cited to demonstrate  his are “just as irrational.”  Prager says,   “I believe the Torah is a divine book.”   The   corresponding Mormon claim would be that the Book of Mormon is a divine book.

Unlike other beliefs, these are very foundational, and they are vastly different, not just in their end result, but in theirbacking, and thus their rationality.  Both the Book of Mormon and the Torah,  purport to be not just religious texts containing religious teachings, but books that are at least to some degree grounded in historical events.  

While we cannot demonstrate the historical existence of everything in the Torah,  neither can we disprove it, and in fact there is a lot of evidence to support  the Torah.  However we do not need to demonstrate the validity of the Torah to show the distinction with the book of Mormon. 

The Torah fits, at least to some degree, into known history.  There is no dispute, for example, that there was an Egypt ruled by pharaohs, and in fact that many of the places mentioned existed.  Nor is there any dispute that the Jewish people settled in what is currently Israel.  The bottom line is that while one might not be able to demonstrate that the Torah is a divine book, it would be irrational, and just flat out wrong to claim that there was nothing at all historical about its account.  Even if a myth, it was myth that drew on at least some history.  

But even this cannot be said of the Book of Mormon.  It also purports to be a history of peoples,  in  this case  those in the New World.  The problem is that not a single New World person, peoples, place, nation or event can be collaborated. At the time Smith supposedly translated this book, this was not necessarily irrational as very little was known. But that is no longer the case.  We know a lot about the history of the new world, and the descriptions in the Book of Mormon simply do not fit, and in fact often run counter to what we do know.  

Thus there is a vast difference between the two claims.  Our ability to know is not binary, but comes in many degrees.  Some things we can say are established, such as Obama is currently the President of the United States.  Others are not as clear, such as what caused the Maine to explode in Havana Harbor.  Still others are probably unknowable, some are unlikely, and some the evidence it pretty strongly against. 

The claim that the Torah is a divine book may go beyond what the evidence supports, but it does so into the gaps in our knowledge.  It may be a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith that has a lot of evidence to support it.  To believe the book of Mormon is divine may also be a leap of faith, but it is one that not only has no evidence to support it, it runs contrary to what we know, and in fact is pretty clearly false.  

The equivalent would be for Prager to hold that the Torah was divine,  even though there was no mention in history of an Egypt, Canaan,  Philistines,  Sinai, Red Sea, or anything else mentioned in the Torah, and in fact some the things mentioned were only introduced into the Middle East much later.

Having said this, I probably should conclude by addressing a related question:  how does this apply to Romney running for President, which I suspect was somewhat the background for Prager’s column.   As I wrote last October,  “The simple answer is that it doesn’t.   The Constitution is pretty clear that there should be no religious test for office.  The office of the president has no religious function, and therefore the religion of the candidate should be largely irrelevant.  It would only become relevant if the candidate chose to make it an important part of their campaign, but this would in and of itself raise red flags.  But Romney has not done this, and nothing in his career would indicate that he would.”

Jun 20th, 2012

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