This is Lee Carter speaking for Atheists United. Two different editorials have come to my
attention, both saying essentially the same things. The first is by Dennis Prager, host of
the KABC talk-show, "Religion on the Line." The article appeared in the KABC
magazine, "Let's Talk," dated October, 1984. The second article appeared in the Los
Angeles Times on February 25th, 1985. It's by Cal Thomas, vice president for
communications of the Moral Majority.
Since they both express some of the most common arguments leveled against atheism,
we thought they shouldn't go unchallenged. Mr. Prager's article is called "The
Consequences of Secularism." And Mr. Thomas's article is called "In Hollywood, Religion
is for Nerds." I'll concentrate on the Preger article because it's a bit more articulate. I'm
Academia vs Religion
"We often hear about religious brainwashing, and we correctly find such
a thing abhorrent. There is, however, a far more prevalent brainwash in
our society that is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and it is a secular one. If
there is one attitude that characterizes opinion makers in journalism, the
electronic media, and the elite centers of academia, it is that religion is
an untrue psychological crutch at best and a major source of intolerance,
backwardness and evil at worst.
A recent survey of leading television writers and producers, conducted by
sociologists from George Washington University and published in Public
Opinion magazine, revealed that 45 percent have "no religion"
whatsoever, and only seven percent attend religious services even once
a month. I am certain that a similar poll of professors in the humanities
at the most prestigious universities would portray a very similar picture.
From my own experience in academia and media, I would only add that
"no religion" is an understatement. Many of those who write and produce
our television shows and teach at leading colleges would be more
accurately described as "anti-religion."
"Religion, Hollywood-style, is something for nerds and weirdoes."Mass
Appeal," "The Thorn Birds" – all of them take the same dim view of
religion, religious leaders, and those dumb enough to think that anything
other than this life matters."
Mr. Thomas makes the same point by saying,
Well, quite so, gentlemen. I'm glad those are Mr. Prager's figures, because when we
quote such statistics, religionists usually claim that we're making them up. The only thing
we would disagree with is his estimate that only 45 percent of the greatest minds at the
most prestigious universities are non- or antireligious. Our own estimate is that the
percentage is much higher, even approaching 100 percent in some academic
departments. Now what does that seem to suggest, Mr. Prager? That the most brilliant
people in the world are really the most foolish? That the longer one studies a subject, the
less he knows about it? This is precisely the anti-intellectual implication of Mr. Prager's
statement. And if the majority of journalists and producers are antireligious, it just proves
that they're pretty well educated. You don't reach the top of this profession by being stupid.
Continuing his article:
"I first realized the extent of the irreligious, or even antireligious, bias in America as a
graduate student at Columbia University. In that citadel of higher education,
religious values were either ignored or attacked. It was taken for granted that a
person who valued reason and knowledge would regard religion as a chemist would
regard alchemy – something that one might study in order to understand what less
advanced people once believed, but which no rational person could believe in today."
Again, quite so, Mr. Prager. I couldn't have said it better. The only question is why it took
you so long to come to that realization? Most of us reach that conclusion during our
freshman or sophomore years. I remember thinking, "Gee, if all these people who've
spent their entire lives studying these subjects disagree with what my parents taught me,
is it just barely possible that they might know something I don't?" You apparently haven't
figured that out, even to this day. But if we are to assume no mental deficiencies on your
part, then we have to conclude that your undergraduate years must have been spent in
some kind of cloistered environment that "protected" you from the terrors of free thinking.
Continuing the article:
"This decline in the importance of religion in our society is particularly
extraordinary when one considers how important religion was in our
recent past as well as to the founders of this country. To cite but one
example, when Columbia University was founded, it offered instruction in
but four areas. One of them was theology. It was taken for granted that
the pursuit of religious truths is at least as important to the cultivation of
an educated and responsible citizen as are science, history, and
Here Mr. Prager implies that somehow old ideas are inherently better than new ones.
There were many other prevalent ideas during the early days of our country – such as
slavery, trail by ordeal, divine right of kings, witchcraft, alchemy, the geocentric
universe. The list could go on forever. And these ancient ideas were all supported by
the theology of the time. But we've now outgrown these primitive concepts. Most
universities have realized that "theology" is an absurd concept. You can't study
something that doesn't exist. So any theological discussion is simply an exercise in
shoveling smoke. The old theology departments were dismantled many years ago and
divided into natural science, philosophy, and psychology. Those are subjects about
which something can be known. Mr. Prager goes on to say...
"This secular blanket over religious thinking is a national tragedy whose
consequences are felt virtually everywhere. I will cite but a few examples
First, secularism has destroyed the single most important source of
personal happiness and psychological health: the belief that our lives
ultimately have meaning. It is axiomatic that if there is no God, life has
no ultimate meaning. Secularism means that we human beings are no
more than self-aware puffs of molecules created by sheer random
Mr. Prager's statement that a belief in the supernatural is the single most important
source of happiness and psychological health is categorically false. I'm sure he would
admit that psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists are among the most
militantly antireligious of the academic ranks. Now why would this be so if supernatural
beliefs brought health and happiness? The fact is that they don't. They bring just the
opposite. Anthropologists report that most primitive tribes spend their entire lives in
misery because of their fear of supernatural forces. Sociologists find them to be the
source of most social conflict. Sigmund Freud and virtually every psychologist since
him have condemned supernatural religion as the single greatest cause of mental
As for the statement that "if there were no God then life would have no 'ultimate'
meaning," well, this may be true. But so what? Giving up an illusion is small price to pay
for a happier and healthier life. Many people may also have been disappointed to
discover that there was no Santa Claus, but it's a necessary part of growing up. And
just because there isn't someone elsewhere in the universe that cares about what
happens on earth doesn't mean that life has no meaning to us – here and now. Mr.
Prager goes on to say that,
"Secondly, secularism leads logically to hedonism. After all, if there is
no ultimate reality infinitely higher than me to live for, I will live for
myself. 'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die' is the
logical consequence of the belief that this life is the one reality."
This is an example of a half-truth. In one sense he's correct. But his implication is that
the only pleasures are shallow ones, and that anyone who does something just for the
fun of it is somehow immature. Wine, women and song, may indeed be pleasurable for
awhile. But for a mature adult they eventually become boring. So we seek the more
deeply satisfying pleasures of good health, family responsibilities, creativity, public
service and all the other attributes that we think of as virtuous. But even a philosophy of
"eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die" is still better than "cringe, grovel
and weep, for tomorrow you may go to hell!"
Mr. Prager continues:
"Third, secularism leads to the breakdown of moral values. If God is
not the source of a standard of right and wrong, who is? The
individual? If so, then Hitler's standard is as valid as mine. The
society? If so, then apartheid in South Africa is as valid as our belief in
Here Mr. Prager simply implies that there has been a breakdown of moral values, but
he makes no attempt to prove it. In fact, the world seems to be far more fastidious
about morality today than it ever was in the past. Today we worry about things such as
racial discrimination, poverty, child abuse, sexual equality, animal welfare, religious
freedom, and so on. Back during the time when religion ruled the world, such concepts
were unknown. Religion sanctioned slavery, torture, censorship and the murder of
anyone who held different religious views.
Where do moral values come from? They evolve from both individuals and societies
into universal standards. I'm contributing right now to the ongoing dialog of what is
moral and what is not. Mr. Thomas admits this when he makes the following statement:
"There is virtually no appearance of religion at all on prime time
television. Whenever a problem requiring moral judgment appears –
which is on almost every show – the response that comes is based
upon some intuitive knowledge of what is good and evil, the advice of
a friend, a remembered counsel or, more likely, the invisible hand of
circumstance... The good people do what is right and the bad people
do what is wrong by some kind of secular compass. No one in prime
time ever talks about religion as a guide in his own life."
So Mr. Thomas is damned by his own words. He admits that the world has reached a
pretty general consensus on how human beings should behave, and these moral
values have nothing to do with supernatural beliefs. In fact, the mass media themselves
are the most important force in creating moral values.
Both Prager and Thomas imply that to determine the morality of an action all we have
to do is ask God – as though that were as simple as asking Daddy. What they both
forget is that God doesn't deliver speeches on television. There are only preachers and
politicians who claim to be speaking for him. And everybody who claims to speak for
God has a different opinion about what he wants us to do. Secularists do have some
chance of reconciling differences because they can at least agree on certain facts.
Theists can never agree on anything because they have no common standards. And
each is supremely convinced that he alone hears the "true" voice of God. The result
has been continuous warfare since the dawn of history.
Mr. Prager continues:
"Fourth, secularism destroys the sense of the holy that is so central
to religion. The consequent impoverishment of culture is
immeasurable. To cite but one example, I am convinced that there is
a direct relationship between the secularization of Western culture
and the staggering decline in its art and music. God inspired Bach,
and his music makes that evident. What inspires the secular
composers and artists of our time? Little or nothing, and in general
their works make that evident."
Again, Mr. Prager reveals his conservative preference for anything old. Again, he
simply assumes that there has been a decline in the fine arts without presenting any
evidence. This is one of the oldest clichés in history. There have been critics during
every age who proclaim that the world was going to the dogs. And I'm sure there were
some during Bach's time who denounced him as decadent.
Now, what Mr. Prager calls a sense of the "holy" is basically a sense of fear – a vague,
free-floating anxiety when faced with the unknown. And Mr. Prager is right about
medieval art. When we look back to the time when religion ruled the world, this sense
of guilt and fear is expressed through their art. We can see it in their obsession with
death and suffering. Without "fear of God," what is left to inspire modern artists? The
same things that have always inspired them: love, courage, justice, dedication – a
sense of outrage over stupidity, selfishness and deceit. What Mr. Prager seems to be
doing is simply comparing the best of the past with the worst of the present. But anyone
can play that game.
Mr. Prager concludes by saying:
"I am profoundly aware of the evils that have been committed in the
name of religion and by religious people. I have no illusions that
religion guarantees moral behavior."
Here Mr. Prager contradicts himself, because the whole point of his article is that
religion does guarantee moral behavior. "Nor," he says,
"do I believe that all religious beliefs are equally valid. Religious
beliefs that do not place ethics at their center can be worse than
To this we can only say, "Amen!" They are worse than nothing. And the problem is that
no supernatural religion does place ethics at the center. Ethics is a branch of rational
philosophy. It's a subject that can be debated. But a belief that certain values have
been handed down by God automatically precludes discussion. And that can only lead
to dogmatism and violence.
Mr. Prager finishes his conclusion by saying,
"But religion is indispensable. And for denying this, our society will pay an
increasingly high price in personal alienation, family breakdown, moral
weakness, cultural shallowness, and increased self-obsession."
Mr. Prager makes the almost universal mistake of confusing religion with ethics. We
agree that a lack of emphasis on ethics may lead to some of these results. But who is it
that's opposed to the teaching of ethical values in schools? The religionists! They
contend that this is teaching students the religion of secular humanism. So they insist
that any discussion of moral values should be left up to parents and the churches –
where young people are then taught conflicting dogmas instead of ethics.
We hope you have found this commentary thought-provoking, and that you’ll tune in
again next week at this same time. Until then, this is Lee Carter, for Atheists United, the