Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dennis Prager and his 10 Men in an Alley: Missing the point again

Dennis Prager has always been a mystery to me. I was first introduced to him around 1993 by a colleague who found his arguments for the existence of God impressive and thought I might agree. I did not. I found him amateurish, and simply not interesting. All the arguments he presented were standard arguments much debunked (design in the universe, the moral code, etc.). The one thing this guy I had never heard of had was a fabulous voice, classic radio. He was certainly, if you could tune out the content, pleasant to listen to.

Over the years I've been amazed at his rise in the media, how shallow and poorly reasoned his arguments remain, and yes, still, how beautifully he speaks. Of course his fans would remind me that his stardom, as it were, could not be entirely due to his voice, since much of his opinion is shared in writing, where that fabulous baratone can't be heard. More's the pity.

With such solidly low expectations in place, I perused Prager's Townhall article titled "You're in a Bad Neighborhood and 10 Men Approach You . . ." Dennis did not dissappoint.

Apparently there is this question Dennis likes to ask atheists, which amounts to:

"You are in a strange city at night walking down a dark alley, and 10 men approach you. Would you feel safer, or less safe, if you were to learn that they were just coming from a Bible class?"

Prager apparently thinks this is going to reveal something profound, but why? Obviously the person's answer is going to indicate what they think of typical people who attend Bible classes, which in America means wimpy and harmless at the mean, and thus very little threat. We need a rhetorical question to learn this? Prager not only thinks so, but goes into a classic fundamentalist minutial rant over the fact that Christopher Hitchen's version of the story in Hitchens' book said "prayer class" rather than Bible class:

"I have always specified 'Bible class' because I assume that in America, anyone with common sense would in fact be very relieved if they knew that the 10 strangers, all men, approaching them in a dark alley were committed to either Judaism or Christianity and studying the Bible. I never stated 'prayer class' because, unlike a Bible class, which more or less confines us to normative Judeo-Christian religions, 'prayer meeting' can signify anyone in any religion or even in some dangerous cult. "

Well Dennis, anyone with common sense in America is going to understand that "prayer meeting" means, well, "bible class". Sure, it could mean a dangerous cult. It could also mean a group of klansmen, but I doubt our more melanin-laden brethren would feel safer knowing that.

The other glaring problem with this is the fact that its the "studying" and "class" parts that makes the difference here, not the "Bible" part. I'd be relieved to learn they were coming from pottery class too, or geology class, or astrology class, or a class to learn how to speak to the deaf. See, people who go to a voluntary class tend not to be into a lot of violence. It's bad enough people like Prager want to give religion credit for civilized societies morals, now they want to give religion credit for the peacefulness of studiousness? Please.

Prager goes on:

"Even atheists would have to admit that in America today, they would be very grateful to learn that those 10 men had just been studying Genesis or Isaiah. One does not hear of many Bible classes with students mugging passersby. "

All the more proof that Bible classes aren't really classes as we think of classes. At least not as far as expecting the students to actually be familiar with its contents and such. For we all are better off that Bible students don't follow the example of Numbers 15:32-37, where a poor passerby is "mugged" to death merely for collecting kindling on the wrong day of the week. One would wonder why we would presume a nonviolent demeanor of people who worship a book so full of violence.

Now Dennis pats himself on the back for his brilliant insights:

"I therefore pose this question to make the rather obvious point that nearly all of us instinctively assume some positive things about normative Judaism and Christianity in America. "

Rather indeed. So obvious that you needn't have wasted so much space and time to going over it. Better to just skip ahead to, you know, the issue at hand:

"This question evidently annoys many of those who argue that there is no relationship between personal decency and Judeo-Christian religiosity. "

As indeed it should, for several reasons:

1) The question brings in too many mitigating factors to support that claim, per my argument above.

2) The question addresses people's perception, not the reality. Dealing with the reality would require getting some, you know, actual data on the subject to see if one's hypothesis was correct. Here Prager employs a standard bit of laziness seen predominately (but not exclusively) among sloppy conservative thinkers: make a conjecture, and then support that conjecture with...more conjecture. Not good science.

3) The most basic reason - there is not evidence one that Prager's hypothesis is true. At best moral behavior is randomly distributed among the pious and atheistic alike. One certainly does not see a world where decency and religiousity are positively correlated. Quite the opposite. Where would you feel safest? Relatively atheistic Sweden or Germany? Or very religious Brazil and Iran?

Prager attempts to address my argument:

"...any of us would also be relieved if we learned that the 10 men walking toward us in a dark alley had just come from a secular humanism seminar or one on photosynthesis. I fully acknowledge that I would be relieved in such cases as well. The problem with this response, however, is that in the real world, in bad parts of our cities, 10 men are rather more likely to be studying the Bible than photosynthesis or secular humanism or any other subject that would bring us relief in that dark alley.

And this matters how exactly? Prager has a habit of claiming to acknowledge a point right before demonstrating he missed it entirely, and this is no exception. If he were arguing that wolves more dangerous than lions, and asked if we'd feel nervous seeing wolves in the alley, the counter to "but I'd be even more scared if I saw a lion" is certainly not "yes, I acknowledge that, but in the real world America, wolves are far more likely than lions".

If Prager concedes the level of relief he'd feel is the same for the secular humanists or the scientists, then he has conceded the point that what makes us safe with regard to the Bible studiers is NOT the content of their studies. He evades the issue, and then once again in the classic style of the zealot, projects this onto his interlocutors:

Every response I have seen to this question is an attempt to evade the only honest response. We would all be relieved because when push comes to shove -- when we have to make real-life decisions and not theoretical ones -- we know that at least in America, the dominant Judeo-Christian values and the religions that adhere to them have generally made better people.

We know no such thing, as the ever-filling jails filled with a disproportionate number of Christians, and the violence and indecency that seems to follow them all over the world, attests. I gave you the real honest answer Mr. Prager, and it matches the data a good shot better than yours does.

It means simply that if our lives were hanging in the balance, we would be inexpressively happy to know that 10 men we did not know, walking toward us in a bad neighborhood, had just come out of a Bible class.

Substitute "voluntary" for "bible" and the claim remains the same. Amazing, isn't it? Almost as amazing as people thinking Dennis Prager's pedestrian rhetoric is challenging to nonbelievers. I'm sure Hitchens had a good laugh over this too.

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