21 Questions Ben Shapiro Can’t Answer: A Response to The Right Side of History
Shapiro hasn’t wrestled with the most difficult questions about his worldview
In his recent book, The Right Side of History, Ben Shapiro argues that Western civilization is the best civilization that has ever existed on Earth. We’re the best, Shapiro’s reasoning goes, because we’ve embraced Judeo-Christian values from the Bible along with natural law from the ancient Greeks. To the extent we continue to embrace these traditions, Shapiro says, we’ll continue to enjoy material prosperity, freedom, and happiness. To the extent we reject these traditions, we’re toast.
Since the undercurrent here is that Western civilization is better than Eastern civilization, you’d think that somewhere along the way Shapiro would define what he means by the East. But he doesn’t. Is he thumbing his nose at Japan? South Korea? Thailand? It’s not clear.
Of course, given that Shapiro has written hateful generalizations about Palestinian Arabs such as “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” and are a “population rotten to the core,” it’s likely that Shapiro has them in mind when he thinks about the East. Also, this seems like a good time to mention that a major theme of The Right Side of History is that America should return to decency and kindness.
Altogether, the book feels like a lot of pandering to an audience who’s already persuaded by Shapiro’s conclusions. That’s fine if Shapiro is just looking to make an easy buck. But if Shapiro wants to portray an accurate view of the world, he leaves too many difficult questions unanswered.
Take Shapiro’s complaints against secular-leaning philosophers, for instance. Shapiro rails against Benedict Spinoza because, of all things, Spinoza says Moses didn’t write the Torah. But did Moses write the Torah as we have it today? Shapiro doesn’t say, but modern researchers give sound evidence he didn’t.
Shapiro scoffs at David Hume because Hume didn’t believe in miracles. But is Hume wrong? Should we believe in miracles? If so, which ones? Again, Shapiro doesn’t say, but I’m guessing that, as an orthodox Jew, Shapiro dismisses Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and even Christian miracles. So why the sleight of hand here?
Shapiro says Immanuel Kant’s view of ethics is limited because it relies too much on the head and the heart instead of on God. This is where questions abound. Which God? El? Yahweh? Allah? The God of the Nicene Creed? Shapiro says belief in God is the foundation of morality in the West, but he never defines what he means by God, so it becomes impossible to know what he’s talking about. We can assume (given Shapiro’s irrational hatred of Arabs) that he doesn’t include Allah when he refers to God. But why conflate Yahweh and the Nicene Creed — two disparate versions of God — in subtle opposition to Allah? Why are the Jewish and Christian versions of God good while the Muslim version of God is bad?
Here’s the problem: Shapiro runs right past the difficult questions that have led the philosophers he maligns to arrive at their conclusions. Put simply, his belief is untested.
What’s more, Shapiro is bull-headed in his untested belief. He says that his worldview, which he equates to the worldview of America’s founders, is “the best that men have done, and the best that men will do in setting a philosophic framework for human happiness.”
Think about that. Shapiro’s worldview is the best that men (and women, I presume) will do? Shapiro imagines that in the year 3212 humans will be saying, “You know who had it right after all? Ben Shapiro. As hard as we’ve tried all these years and with our vastly increased awareness of the universe, we simply couldn’t come up with a view that was better for human happiness than the view Ben Shapiro landed on in 2019.” Come on.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Shapiro is completely wrong. He’s right, for instance, in saying we should value the writings of the Jewish, Christian, and Greek traditions. The Jewish scriptures contain hundreds of beautiful passages (passages Shapiro ignores!) where Hebrew prophets cry out against oppression. The Christian scriptures contain brilliant parables that encourage genuine goodness today. And Greek philosophy informs much of our view of truth and rationality. Each of these traditions are worthy of deep exploration, and to the extent they promote truth, beauty, and goodness, they each deserve our admiration and reverence. Shapiro is right when he warns against cutting ourselves from these ancient writings.
Where The Right Side of History goes wrong, however, is that it’s just another “chosen people” narrative. Shapiro expands the chosen people from a tribe in ancient Israel to Western Civilization, but he’s still thinking too small. If human beings are created in the image of God, as Shapiro repeats dozens of times in his book, then that means all of us are created in the image of God — east and west, north and south, transgender and cisgender, gay and straight, men and women. It means that God is bigger and more mysterious than ancient tribes made God out to be.
The only way forward, then, is to embrace whatever is true, beautiful, and good in all traditions — Jewish and Islamic, Christian and Buddhist, religious and secular — and drop what isn’t. We can’t keep sprinting past the most difficult questions asked about our own traditions while maligning the traditions of others.
We have to be honest about what is true and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t, and what is good and what isn’t, whether it matches the narrative we were born into or not.
That’s the best way forward. That’s the way to find yourself on the right side of history.
Here are the questions Ben can’t answer:
- Why have so many countries in the East — Japan, Mongolia, China, India, Iran, Turkey — flourished relative to other nations at various times throughout history?
- Why did so many Islamic countries flourish for so long (at least twice as long as the United States has existed) during the Islamic Golden Age?
- If we need Greek natural law and the Bible to flourish, why didn’t Yahweh reveal Greek natural law?
- If we need the Bible to flourish, why have so many places in the West — including Athens and Rome — flourished without the Bible?
- If we need the Bible to flourish, why did the Roman Empire languish for centuries after establishing Christianity as their official religion?
- Why was the Renaissance largely about rediscovering the beauty of non-biblical civilizations?
- Why, to get specific, does Michelangelo’s Moses look so much like a Greek or Roman god?
- Why do so many secular-leaning countries today (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Canada) rank among the highest in measures of well-being?
- What is the definition of God?
- How did the ancient Israelites define God when they were polytheists?
- How did the ancient Israelites first define Yahweh?
- How did Christians define God after the Nicene Creed?
- Do Jews and Christians share the same definition of God?
- If Jews and Christians don’t share the same definition of God, why are their disparate definitions of God considered good (i.e., the West) and the Islamic definition considered bad (i.e., the East)?
- Why, in almost every instance, do people say the version of God they grew up with is the correct version and the version they didn’t grow up with is the incorrect version?
- Why do people of one religion so often outrightly dismiss the miracles of all other religions?
- From slavery (Leviticus 25:44–46) to cannibalism (Leviticus 26:27–29) to child slaughter (Psalms 137:7–9, Isaiah 13:9–16) to misogyny (Exodus 21:7–11) — why are so many passages in the Bible morally reprehensible?
- Why should we follow Yahweh when he is said to have killed roughly 3 million people?
- Shouldn’t we reject whatever isn’t true, beautiful, and good — including morally reprehensible passages in the Bible?
- Shouldn’t we pursue whatever is true, beautiful, and good wherever it is found across the globe?
- Shouldn’t we hope that as we do this, we will develop better ideas — ideas that bring a greater portion of happiness to all people and all living things?