Non belief as a moral obligation, Lectures de Philosophie. Ecole Catholique d'Arts & Metiers
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Non belief as a moral obligation, Lectures de Philosophie. Ecole Catholique d'Arts & Metiers

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Non-belief as a moral obligation

SHARE: Posted on Monday, December 16th, 2013 at 8:30 am

By Michael Ruse

In 1981, a professor from a small university in Canada, I found my self headed south to the state of Arkansas, to appear

as an expert witness for the American Civ il 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 v iolate 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 y ou 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 my self in that state has long been a my stery 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 alway s, 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 y ou ought or ought not believe in the existence of the Eiffel Tower. Go to Paris and open y our ey es. The

God question is different, obv iously , because it is not as easy to answer the question. If y ou go to Paris, y ou 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 my stery .

The nineteenth-century , English philosopher William Kingdom Clifford spoke in these kinds of cases of the “ethics of

belief.” He argued that morally y ou should not believe in something unless y ou have good ev idence. 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 Div inity 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 ev idence 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 div ine. Why prize faith if y ou can have proof?

For all of my cockiness about non-belief when I was y oung, 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 try ing 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 any thing my feeling that non-

belief is right for me grows ever stronger. I am sure that at least in part it is psy chological. 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 any thing 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 ev idence, or conversely pretending that there is

nothing more, perhaps rather pathetically try ing to win the approval of today ’s very public atheists.

I suppose if every one set about solv ing 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 buy er at all, I will feel that it was worth

producing them.

Michael 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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