Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Atheism: Above all a moral issue

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.”

"Four Horsemen" by DIREKTOR - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
(Clockwise from top left} Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. “Four Horsemen” by DIREKTOR. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Ipson Stoneworth

    The notion that “faith” might be considered a form of evidence is startlingly absurd, and also one that I am entirely confident Ruse would not apply to either Santa Claus or, more menacingly and also with more historical urgency, whether or not one’s neighbor was a witch.

    That along with the by now standard and evidence-free slurs against Dawkins et al, are the best evidence of Ruse’s intellectual acuity and character.

  2. Vir Narain

    “Believers think they have found the truth and the way. Non-believers are a lot less sure.” This does not seem to Be true. There is dogmatic certainty of both sides. Perhaps agnosticism is the answer.

  3. Chris Weiss

    As an atheist, I had to read this article a few times to see what was bothering me. Finally, I have narrowed down what I believe is wrong. The author introduces a false dichotomy with an implicit separation between liberal atheists and conservative believers. While it might be reasonable to talk about trends or clusters, the stands on moral issues are far from universal on either side. I have read atheist wax on about being rationally pro-life while I have read and heard liberal Christians arguing for pro-choice positions. In fact, it would be hard to find any universality on these issues among Christians or atheists.

    I know I am projecting from an anecdote, but my own atheism emerged simply from an inability to accept religious faith or dogma. I couldn’t bring myself to believe in god. It wasn’t driven by any moral issue for which I was in conflict with the church.

    I find it ironic that the author attacked the new atheists for their poor use of logic only to mount an equally “breathtaking” fallacious argument based on over-generalizations that are almost immediately disproven by simple examples.

    There are extreme differences between liberal atheists and conservative Christians, but within each group it is easy to find individuals along the entire spectrum on any given moral issue. The difference would only be the justification for a particular position.

  4. Valery

    Dear Michael! Did you really think that our morality doesn’t have perfectly objective biological roots and can be derived purely from an ideology? This is the impresstion I got from your article.

  5. Alan Clark

    I have never had any need for religion, which has absolutely no purpose, and there is absolutely no evidence for any of the thousands of gods that people have believed in, so why don’t people just give it a rest?

  6. Bernard Curtin

    To imply Richard Dawkins 99.99% comment as a moral coin flip is intellectually dishonest. As ever evolving humans most atheist rigorously defend their right to alter their beliefs in the face of new and incontrovertible evidence.

  7. baikal

    This is equivalent to yelling Fire! in a theater. Yet, I support your right to fling such feces.

  8. Himangsu Sekhar Pal

    Something from nothing?

    When scientists say that the universe can simply come out of nothing without any divine intervention, they think of the universe in terms of its energy content only. In the book ‘The Grand Design’, page 281, scientist Stephen Hawking has written that bodies like stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing, but a whole universe can. The message is very clear from this: The total energy of a whole universe is zero and that is why it can come out of nothing; but stars or black holes will fail to do so, because their total energy is not zero. But universe means not only its energy; universe means its space-time as well. So if we now apply the same logic to space-time as well, then we can say that the total space-time of a whole universe must also always have to be zero, because in that case only a whole universe can appear out of nothing. Here my question is: How does the total space-time of an ever-expanding universe always remain zero?
    As the universe appeared out of nothing, so initially there was no space, no time, no matter and no energy. Scientists have successfully shown how the total matter-energy content of the universe has always remained zero. But we are not satisfied with that explanation, we want something more. We also want to know how the total space-time content of the universe has always remained zero. And it should always remain zero if the universe has actually appeared out of nothing. Otherwise scientists will have to explain as to whence appeared the extra residual space-time that was not already there at the beginning.
    If stars or black holes cannot appear out of nothing simply because their total energy is not zero, then can a whole universe appear out of nothing if its total space-time is not zero?
    The last question above will further boil down to this one: Do the physicists think that energy cannot just appear out of nothing, but space-time can, supposing that the total space-time of the present universe is not zero?
    Or, do they think that like life, mind and consciousness, space and time are also emergent entities only, and therefore, not directly coming from big bang nothing?

    Addendum: Something can appear out of nothing provided that the totality of that something always remains zero. Actually anything can come out of nothing if this condition is fulfilled. This is the principle which some scientists have relied upon when they have proposed that our universe could have arisen out of nothing due to a quantum energy fluctuation in a void. They have found that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero. The total energy being zero, the total matter will also be zero due to matter-energy equivalence. If the total matter as well as the total energy of the universe is zero, then why should they have to come from anything at all? They could have come from nothing as well. So these scientists have proposed that our universe has simply appeared out of nothing. But when they have proposed this theory, they remained totally oblivious of the fact that universe means not only its matter and energy, universe means its space-time as well. So, if the universe has actually appeared out of nothing, then just like matter and energy, space-time also has appeared out of that primordial nothing. So like matter and energy, the total space-time also should always remain zero.
    However, if it is the case that space-time has not directly appeared out of nothing, then the total space-time need not have to be zero. No sane person on this earth will ever say that the total number of human beings in this universe must always have to be zero, because no sane person believes that human beings have directly appeared out of nothing. However if ‘x’ has directly appeared out of nothing, then logic and common sense dictates that the totality of that ‘x’ must always have to be zero.
    Here it may be objected that there is a law of conservation of matter and energy in science, but that there is no such conservation law for space-time. So there is no violation of conservation law if nothing generates so much of space-time. Even if it is conceded that this is a valid objection – here I must say that I do not think so – it can still be pointed out that there is one more reason that can be given as to why the total space-time of the universe should always remain zero. This reason we find in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. As per GTR space, time and matter are so interlinked that there cannot be any space-time without matter. Similarly there cannot be any matter without space-time. There is also a famous quote of Einstein on this: “When forced to summarize the general theory of relativity in one sentence: Time and space and gravitation have no separate existence from matter.” If time and space cannot have any separate existence from matter, then the total matter of the universe being zero, the total space-time of the universe should also always be zero. So we can say that GTR alone gives us sufficient reason to conclude that if total matter of the universe always remains zero, then the total space-time of the universe should also always remain zero.
    So from GTR we come to know that the total space-time of an ever-expanding universe should always remain zero, but we do not know yet how it does actually remain zero.
    If science cannot give any satisfactory answer to this question, then the atheistic, non-religious world-view of modern science will break down then and there.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *