The New Atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens – are not particularly comfortable people. The fallacies in their arguments beg to be used in classes on informal reasoning. The narrowness of their perspectives are remarkable even by the standards of modern academia. The prejudices against those of other cultures would be breathtaking even in the era when Britannia ruled the waves. But there is a moral fervor unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament. And for this, we can forgive much.
Atheism is not just a matter of the facts – does God exist or not? It is as much, if not more, a moral matter. Does one have the right to believe in the existence of God? If one does, what does this mean morally and socially? If one does not, what does this mean morally and socially?
Now you might say that there has to be something wrong here. Does one have the right to believe that 2+2=4? Does one have the right to believe that the moon is made of green cheese? Does one have the right to believe that theft is always wrong? Belief or non-belief in matters such as these is not a moral issue. Even though it may be that how you decide is a moral issue or something with moral implications. How should one discriminate between a mother stealing for her children and a professional burglar after diamonds that he will at once pass on to a fence?
But the God question is rather different, because, say what you like, it is nigh impossible to be absolutely certain one way or the other. Even Richard Dawkins admits that although he is ninety-nine point many nines certain that there is no god, to quote one of the best lines of that I-hope-not-entirely-forgotten review, Beyond the Fringe, there is always that little bit in the bottom that you cannot get out. There could be some kind of deity of a totally unimaginable kind. As the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane used to say: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
So in some ultimate sense the God question is up for grabs, and how you decide is a moral issue. As the nineteenth-century English philosopher, William Kingdom Clifford, used to say, you should not believe anything except on good evidence. But the problem here is precisely what is good evidence – faith, empirical facts, arguments, or what? Decent, thoughtful people differ over these and before long it is no longer a simple matter of true or false, but of what you believe and why; whether you should or should not believe on this basis; and what are going to be the implications of your beliefs, not only on your own life and behavior but also on the lives and behaviors of other people.
If you go back to Ancient Greece, you find that above all it is the moral and social implications of non-belief that worried people like Plato. In the Laws, indeed, he prescribed truly horrendous restrictions on those who failed to fall in line – and this from a man who himself had very iffy views about the traditional Greek views on the gods and their shenanigans. You are going to be locked up for the rest of your life and receive your food only at the hands of slaves and when you die you are going to be chucked out, unburied, beyond the boundaries of the state.
Not that this stopped people from bringing up a host of arguments against God and gods, whether or not they thought that there truly is nothing beyond this world. Folk felt it their duty to show the implausibility of god-belief, however uncomfortable the consequences. And this moral fervor, either in favor or against the existence of a god or gods, continues right down through the ages to the present. Before Dawkins, in England in the twentieth century the most famous atheist was the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His moral indignation against Christianity in particular – How dare a bunch of old men in skirts dictate the lives of the rest of us? — shines out from every page. And so it is to the present. No doubt, as he intended, many were shocked when, on being asked in Ireland about sexual abuse by priests, Richard Dawkins said that he thought an even greater abuse was bringing a child up Catholic in the first place. He is far from the first to think in this particular way.
Believers think they have found the truth and the way. Non-believers are a lot less sure. What joins even – especially – the most ardent of partisans is the belief that this is not simply a matter of true and false. It is a matter of right and wrong. Abortion, gay marriage, civil rights – all of these thorny issues and more are moral and social issues at the heart of our lives and what you believe about God is going to influence how you decide. Atheism, for or against, matters morally.
Featured image credit: “Sky clouds” by 12345danNL. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.