‘The Hand of God,’ circa 1123.Credit Fine Art Images/Heritage Images, via Getty Images
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. Religious belief and disputes have certainly propelled amoral behavior — in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, for example, or on 9/11, or more recently in the horrific murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris. It is hard not to see the hand of religion in things like this and to regret that people can be thus motivated to be so cruel to their fellow human beings. The sadism of shooting someone in the back so they will never walk again because they are a Catholic not a Protestant — or any such variation — is nauseating.
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 —Diderot in the 18th century, or Robert Ingersoll in the 19th, or Bertrand Russell in the 20th — we find the same sort of moral passion.
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. Either God (let us stay for convenience with one God, the God of theism) exists or God does not exist. Belief in God, seen this way, is not a moral matter. Whether two plus two equals four is not a moral question: It does. You should believe it. End of argument. Same with God.
The trouble is that the God question is not so easily solved as the mathematical one — and this, as we’ll see, is what leads to moral issues. There are arguments going both ways. Take one positive case for a moment, the “argument from design.”
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. And the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress forward. We know a lot about how conscious states are correlated with brain states, but this tells us nothing about how consciousness as we experience it could be a brain state.
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? For war, starvation or painful diseases to exist? And more to the point, perhaps, why does he allow the abuse of children by members of the clergy of his/her own religion, whether they be Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Muslim clerics or Protestant pastors?
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? Not just a bit different — like the variations in belief between Jews and Catholics — but completely different. Calvinists say that we have a “sensus divinitatis” — a kind of direct Skype to God — that needs no justification but that lets us know without argument that God exists and is good. But why then doesn’t the Dalai Lama know this? The Calvinist might answer that his sense is clouded by original sin. But does one really think that the Dalai Lama is befogged by original sin in a way that a televangelist in Florida is not? Surely no one could be quite this insensitive.
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.
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. It is what motivated John Stuart Mill to say, when he rejected the Christian doctrine of a good God: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”
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 much suspect is what motivates the New Atheists and in fact expresses the deepest and most powerful moral objection to theism.
The Stone, appearing in the NYTimes, is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author “Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know.”