Religion and the Foundations of Morality

What’s this thing called civilization? Not enough Americans today have the first clue. From Kenneth W. Kemp at the Witherspoon Institute:

We don’t need to know that God exists to know good from bad. It is enough to know human nature—what kind of being we are and what kind of actions will bring us to fullness of being.Twice this fall, Dennis Prager has argued in National Review Online that religion is a necessary foundation for morality. I appreciate the effort he has put into challenging the antireligious polemic of writers such as Richard Dawkins. I agree with him that religion helps us to be good. On one important point, however, I believe that he is mistaken.

Because that point seems to be a view widespread among some Christians (though not, I think, one solidly grounded in traditional Christianity), I think that it is worth taking a closer look at Prager’s views.

Prager first makes his point abstractly:

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.

He then gives a concrete example:

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.

Let’s begin with the abstract version. And let’s begin not with good character but with good health. On what basis do we judge high blood pressure, say, to be bad health? We don’t need to bring God into the picture. Human reason can tell us that high blood pressure is unhealthy. We don’t need to bring our own subjective preferences into the picture to see this. High blood pressure is bad health even for the suicidal.

In the same way that reason is sufficient to distinguish good from bad health, it is sufficient to distinguish good from bad character.

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