Religion & Beliefs

Defining “God”

"Talking past each other" happens when two parties in a debate use the same term to mean different things. In the case of Prager vs. Harris, that term is "God." As someone who's been working with religion/atheism for a long … Read More

By / November 29, 2006

"Talking past each other" happens when two parties in a debate use the same term to mean different things. In the case of Prager vs. Harris, that term is "God."

As someone who's been working with religion/atheism for a long time, it was obvious that they needed to get their terms straight, and never did. Prager kept making arguments for a cosmological creator God, but never proved the Biblical one except through "it's so important so it must exist." Harris kept attacking the Biblical one but never really addressed a more sophisticated version.

Even if theologians tell us we can't know anything about God, you'd think that after two thousand years of arguing, we'd at least know what the term means. But as shown by Dennis Prager and Sam Harris, the word 'God' can mean utterly different things — in the recent "atheism vs. religion" debate on Jewcy.com, it meant both the personal God of the Bible and a cosmic intelligence framing creation — two very different things. Harris likened belief in the former ("Yahweh") to belief in Zeus, or the demons of an imaginary religion, both ridiculous. Prager countered with the classic argument from design — that the world's beauty and intricacy attest to a Creator. But even if the argument from design works (and it doesn't — see Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker" for a thorough refutation), all it proves is some intelligence guiding the forces of creation, not the Biblical God that Prager says is responsible for all of Western Civilization's goodness (and apparently none of its badness). And Harris was certainly right to attack Prager for saying that the Biblical God is just so useful, that He must exist. Jewcy readers were left with an unrefuted cosmological force, and an unproven Biblical deity. Both sides lost.

Not just "God" — but "religion" also was a word used in diametrically opposed terms. Harris treated religion only as creed — something you believe. Prager, grounded as he is in Orthodox Judaism, treated it mostly as deed — something you do. Thus Prager defended religion's utility, while Harris attacked its foundations. The two even disagreed about what it means to "know" or "believe" something, Prager giving much more weight to the non-rational faculties than Harris. One wonders if Harris "believes" in love, or acts according to its irrational demands — or on what grounds Prager rejects some traditional Jewish beliefs (such as the world being created in seven literal days) but accepts others. Because contentious terms remained undefined, we didn't get to find out.