Why God Is a Moral Issue

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By Michael Ruse,

from The New York Times,

The New Atheists are not a comfortable group of people. They have scornful contempt for those with whom they differ — that includes religious believers, agnostics and other atheists who don’t share their vehement brand of nonbelief. They are self-confident to a degree that seems designed to irritate. And they have an ignorance of anything beyond their fields to an extent remarkable even in modern academia. They also have a moral passion unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament. For that, we can forgive much.

When asked in Ireland a few years ago about the abuse of children by priests, Richard Dawkins — who, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, is among the best known of the New Atheists — responded that he was more concerned about bringing a child up Catholic in the first place. You don’t say something like that seriously — and Dawkins is always serious — without a deep sense that something is dreadfully morally wrong. The whole system is rotten, this stance shouts, and corrupting to the core.

Now at one level you can understand the feelings.

The New Atheists are not the first to feel this way. One can go back to the Greeks (and especially to the dialogues of Plato) to find those who argued in a similar fashion. And certainly in the thought and writings of others throughout history.

What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods.

You might think there is something a little funny here. The basic question is not about religion in all its diversity and complexity. It’s about whether God exists.

This is a pretty remarkable state of affairs that we have here — planets, suns, organisms, humans and so forth. Why is there any of it? Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is not about the Big Bang or if anything went before. It is about the very fact of existence. One doesn’t expect something like this, with its astounding interdependency and innumerable complex parts functioning in service of the whole, to just happen.

The existence of consciousness, or sentience, can be seen in the same way. Brain science has thrown a lot of light on the way we think, but the very fact of thinking is a puzzle.

Can such a wonderful universe be entirely without point?

Is everything we humans do — heroic sacrifices like Sophie Scholl of the White Rose group going bravely to her death for distributing pamphlets against Hitler and the war or the marches on Selma — nothing but a cosmic game? But then you start to look at the other side.

According to many monotheistic religions, God is supposed to be both all loving and all powerful. If so, why does he/she allow human suffering?

There are other modes of objection: If the Christian God is absolute how could such an astonishing variety of alternative beliefs flourish? Why does the Pope believe one thing and the Dalai Lama believe something completely different?

This is only a small sample of what is going on in the minds of atheists. Yes, there are good reasons to think that there is more than meets the eye. But no, the Christian and other theistic solutions are simply not adequate. So, if there are so many problems with theistic belief, why do people continue to take it seriously?

The truth is that many don’t. In parts of the world where people are allowed and encouraged to take these things seriously and to think them through, people increasingly find that they can do without the God factor. It is in places where one is being indoctrinated from childhood and bullied in adulthood that people continue with God belief.

There is also a feeling that when people are given the chance to decide for themselves and still stay religious it is for the wrong reasons. The evidence is against it, so why do it? Because you are afraid of death or into wish fulfillment or some such thing. I suspect we can all speak to this to some extent.

When I was 13 and had just gone off to boarding school, my 33-year-old mother died suddenly. I have spent my whole life wanting just one last hour of conversation with her. But that is no good reason to believe in God and the afterlife. To behave this way is to be like someone who buys a lottery ticket with their last pennies and thinks they will win. This sort of irrational behavior is not worthy of a human being.

You might say that you still cannot deny that there might be something, of an order we cannot conceive. The biologist J. B. S. Haldane said: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Perhaps so and I would not be surprised if a lot of people go along with this. That, however, is no reason to believe in Christianity or Judaism or any of the other religions. Even more, it seems morally repugnant to accept — if not rejoice in — living in a world ruled by the God of religions.

This is what motivated nonbelievers down through the ages.

The moral repugnance is only increased when we see the self-deception and indoctrination that leads people to accept such astounding claims on such paltry evidence. Here it is worth recalling the Victorian philosopher and mathematician W. K. Clifford’s admonition: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” That universal claim may be too strong. But too often religious believers seem oblivious to Clifford’s admonition and accept things with way too little evidence.

That I must suspect is what motivates the New Atheists and in fact expresses the deepest and most powerful moral objection to theism.

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