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Non-belief as a moral obligation

By Michael Ruse

In 1981, a professor from a small university in Canada, I found myself headed south to the state of Arkansas, to appear as an expert witness for the American Civil Liberties Union, in its attack on a new law that mandated the “balanced treatment” of the teaching of evolution and something known as “Creation Science” (aka Genesis read literally) in the science classrooms of that state. I was to testify as a philosopher that evolution is science and Creation Science is not, that it is in fact religion, and hence that its presence in the curriculum would violate the First Amendment separation of Church and State. I am glad to say that we won and the law was declared unconstitutional.

I don’t know how much my testimony helped to decide things, but I am still proud of a joke I cracked during my cross-examination. On being pressed as to my own religious beliefs I finally snapped: “I am sorry Mr. Williams [the assistant state attorney] but surely you can see that I am not an expert witness on my own religious convictions.” Except it wasn’t really a joke and it still holds. Raised a Quaker, I lost my faith around the age of twenty and am still in a state of non-belief. But where exactly I place myself in that state has long been a mystery to me. I am pretty atheistic about Christianity and other world religions, but whether I think that there is nothing at all, no ultimate meaning to life, is up for grabs. I don’t know what to think.

As always, when I am puzzled about things I like to share my doubts and inadequacies with others. One thing I have come to realize is the extent to which atheism is not just a matter of belief — true or false — but also of morality. Ought one believe in the existence of God? Perhaps expectedly, Richard Dawkins feels so strongly on this matter that he has said that raising a child Catholic is a form of child abuse. Prima facie this seems a bit odd. Surely God exists or not. We don’t say that you ought or ought not believe in the existence of the Eiffel Tower. Go to Paris and open your eyes. The God question is different, obviously, because it is not as easy to answer the question. If you go to Paris, you are not likely to bump into Him at the Louvre, or the Folies Bergère for that matter. It’s not that He doesn’t like art or pretty girls. He is just not that kind of being, and His existence is consequently somewhat clouded in mystery.


The nineteenth-century, English philosopher William Kingdom Clifford spoke in these kinds of cases of the “ethics of belief.” He argued that morally you should not believe in something unless you have good evidence. But what is “good evidence” for God? I don’t think I am speaking out of turn when I say that my good friend Keith Ward, former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, is a deeply committed Christian because at one point of his life he had a personal encounter with Christ. For him, that is evidence enough and more. I have never had such an encounter; I respect the encounters of others but find it easy (too easy?) to give naturalistic explanations. Frankly I am inclined to agree with Karl Barth that natural theology — proofs for the existence of God — are not only inadequate but in some sense a barrier between the human and the divine. Why prize faith if you can have proof?

For all of my cockiness about non-belief when I was young, I had a sneaking suspicion that as I grew older and the prospect of Crossing the Rainbow Bridge grew ever closer, I would start moving back to belief. Better take out an insurance ticket just in case God exists, although if He exists and turns out to be a Jehovah’s Witness then all bets are off. At least I will have the compensation of seeing the Pope trying to dig himself out of an even deeper hole than mine. The funny thing, however, is that as I grow older (I am now in my seventies), if anything my feeling that non-belief is right for me grows ever stronger. I am sure that at least in part it is psychological. Having had one headmaster in this life, I don’t want another one in the next. But I think my feeling is also bound up with what my work on the books on atheism have taught me, together with the insights of Clifford about the morality of belief. I truly don’t know if there is anything more, but that is okay. What would not be okay, morally, would be pretending that there was something more even though I didn’t really think there was adequate evidence, or conversely pretending that there is nothing more, perhaps rather pathetically trying to win the approval of today’s very public atheists.

I suppose if everyone set about solving their problems by editing or writing books, librarians would be whining even more than they already do about the lack of storage space. But it worked for me, and at the risk of bringing down on my head the whole wrath of the Press, even if neither of my books finds a buyer at all, I will feel that it was worth producing them.

Bullivant and RuseMichael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University. He is co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism with Stephen Bullivant. He currently writing another Oxford book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism is available in print and online as part of Oxford Handbooks Online.

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Image credit: Balance. A construction from a pebble. It is isolated on a white background. © galdzer via iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Marilyn LaCourt

    So tired…so tired of debates over who’s religion in the one true religion, arguements between religious people and atheists.
    These arguments are distractions from the REAL issue. They keep us from confronting the real issues.
    Should governments support (and give tax breaks) to any specific religion?
    Get with it folks. Let’s confront the REAL issues.

  2. Patrick Gormley

    God by definition is impossible and its immoral to care what he wants. Should we help a sick baby because God asks us to or should we just do it for we want to help the baby? Religion says goodness is a personal being – God. So we are to do it callously for God. We are evil if we do it to help the baby and not because God wants it. Goodness is not a person. Even if God did not exist, goodness would still exist. It would be good that there are no people to suffer. God does not make goodness. The standard is there whether he accepts it or not. You do not need God to be good. God is not even a help. Religion dilutes a lot of the nastiness but that does not make religion good but makes it charmingly disingenuous.

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