This is not just another debate about atheism versus religion or vice versa. It is actually about ethics – about the ethics of belief in general & of religious belief in particular. I want to look at reasons for believing something – including the question of sufficient or insufficient evidence – and the ethical implications of whether or not beliefs are justified. Ethics has a lot to do with real-world consequences, so it is not only the ethics of belief (or believing) per se that matters but, perhaps more importantly, the ethics of acting on a particular belief or set of beliefs.
Although the argument will range further than religious belief, this will mainly be to cast light on religious belief. Which brings me to my reason for writing this. It is not to knock religion or religious believers. But I have long suspected that faith is ethically inferior to doubt. (I’ll explain why in a moment.) If this suspicion could be substantiated, it could be significant for the standing of religion & religions, and perhaps even for the principle of religious tolerance. But equally this suspicion could itself be just another dogma. So I want to subject it to the coldest & most objective scrutiny I can, to see if it holds water.
Whatever the answer (and there may not be an answer) the question at least is important. Particularly in today’s world, where the price of falsity seems to be escalating out of control.
As in all debates, we must define our terms. For example we must clarify whether or not ‘belief’ & ‘faith’ are the same. If not, do they overlap at all? For now I shall use ‘belief’ & ‘faith’ interchangeably.
We should also make at least some attempt to clarify what we mean by ‘truth’, scary though this prospect is. After all, is it not true that to believe something is to believe that thing is true? Think of a list like this:
Does ‘truth’ mean the same thing in all of these?
Before digging further into whether faith is ethically inferior to doubt, or vice versa, it is worth remembering that this is only one dimension of the relationship between the two.
For example there is the broader question about whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing on the whole. This is linked to the possible view that, whether or not it is literally true that one or more gods exist, the world is a better place on balance with people believing in a god than without.
A familiar starting point is the old chestnut about totalitarian evil versus religious evil. Attacks on religion often cite atrocities arising from &/or committed in the name of religions: 9/11; the Muslim/Hindu carnage following Indian independence; the Spanish Inquisition; the Crusades; – to name the most obvious. The defence then responds with an equivalent list of atrocities arising from &/or committed in the name of ‘atheism': Stalinist genocide; Nazi holocaust; the Khmer Rouge killing fields; & so on.
The defence would perhaps sum up something like this: The atheist position is no guarantee of ethical purity. Although we must admit the empirical evidence of evil arising from religion, goodness can also be a religious product. But it is not so evident that good can arise from atheism. One can be an evil believer or an evil atheist. The evil believer could be evil because the god and/or the belief guarantee that what the believer does is right, however evil it is. I could be evil because of my atheism: there is no god watching what I do or telling me what I can do so I can do what I want. One can be a good believer or a good atheist. In the case of the good believer, the belief can be the direct cause of the goodness – for example because of the essence of goodness which the god represents to the believer and therefore inspires in the believer. But what about the last combination: can the goodness of a good atheist be the result of atheism? How can atheism, which is by definition a negative, inspire anything like goodness?
This is just the kind of question I want to explore.
Debates weighing totalitarian evil against religious evil often turn on questions like whether or not Hitler was a Christian, or whether communism can be seen as a ‘religion’ even though it is explicitly atheist. Questions like these seem pertinent, but they also seem to miss the point.
It occurred to me that perhaps there is a fundamental perspective which isn’t about gods and religion at all, but about believing things which are insufficiently justified, and acting on those beliefs. In the case of the two principal 20th Century totalitarianisms those would include beliefs about, say, racial supremacy and the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat. Principles claiming to be grounded in logic or justified by evidence support oppressive political regimes, regimes only kept in place by forceful suppression of contrary opinion and objective investigation.
So I moved from wondering whether communism or fascism qualified as religions, to wondering what religions and ideologies had in common. And one thing they might have in common is, quite simply, that they might be based on beliefs which are insufficiently justified.
Look at the question from the opposite point of view. If you believe something which is actually true – and although for some reason you may not be absolutely certain that your belief is true, you know that your belief is sufficiently justified – can it ever be wrong to believe it, and to act on that belief?
It is time to put some cards on the table. Yes I am a non-believer: atheist, agnostic or whatever. (I hope to explain later why I say ‘atheist, agnostic or whatever’.) I am a non-believer for two principal reasons. One is cosmological and as such is probably shared by many non-believers. I find the hypothesis of a supernatural and/or metaphysical and/or transcendental deity unnecessary to explain why things are the way they are. Not that I think there are completely sound and adequate explanations on offer already – far from it – but that the god hypothesis is nowhere near the most convincing: it does not seem to add anything to our understanding of the universe; and any explanatory power it might have is more apparent than real.
The other reason is my main subject: the suspicion that doubt is ethically superior to faith. There will no doubt be some qualifications to that, but as a generalisation I think it is sound. But I want to substantiate it.
To summarise these two reasons: I think that, in general, religious belief is both unnecessary and unethical.
But I am aware that there are many reasons – some very cogent – in favour of religious belief, and I want to examine them seriously. In a way I want to know if it’s possible to resolve a dilemma like this:
(1) You must believe in a god, because otherwise A, B and C; and
(2) You must not believe in a god, because otherwise X, Y and Z; where
(3) A, B, C, X, Y and Z are all morally undesirable outcomes
This seems like important stuff to me. Why is it that some people care and some do not? I do not know. I think though that these pages are primarily addressed both to believers who care and to non-believers who care.
You may have noticed by now that I am using the word ‘god’ uncapitalised. This is not from deliberate disrespect to any monotheistic faith. It is more that to use the expression ‘God’ as a capitalised proper noun would be too close to assuming what for the purpose of this discussion I cannot assume – that there is a ‘God’, that it is the only one of its kind, that it is the same entity as the one referred to by at least one of the communities of monotheistic believers who (when talking in English) customarily capitalise the name of their deity when they do not customarily capitalise nouns in general (as in German for example). For similar reasons I shall normally use the personal pronoun ‘it’ when referring to a god. This is to avoid prejudging the god’s gender, or whether or not it is the sort of thing that could have one.
So, without further ado, let’s make a start.
© Chris Lawrence 2008