I'm an atheist, so how did I end up such a committed Quaker?
Christian parents teach their children to believe in God, atheists teach them not to. Who is doing the right thing?
‘For what we are about to receive’. Children saying Grace, London, 1940s. Photo Hulton/Getty
Michael Ruse is director of history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. He is writing Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Ever since I read Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006), one thing has stayed with me above all the fiery polemics. It is an answer that Dawkins gave in the book to a question about priestly abuse of children: ‘I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.’ In the five or six years since I read this, it has disturbed me, put me off balance, to an extent that I would not have expected.
I was raised a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and lost my faith around the age of 20. I am as much a non-believer as Dawkins is, yet I look back on my religious training positively. We young Quakers were encouraged to think for ourselves and this was the foundation of my lifetime commitment to philosophy. The moral and social concerns of Quakers have been guides to my life as a teacher. In an entirely secular way, I see the inner light – what Quakers call ‘that of God in everyone’ – in each of my students. So I cannot see religious training as abuse. Nor is this simply because Quakers are a special case. There are Catholic beliefs, such as transubstantiation, that I could never accept, nor do I approve of every aspect of a Catholic education. But, intellectually, I am pretty small beer compared to thinkers such as John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian. Socially and morally, I could never measure up to people such as Vincent de Paul or Dorothy Day, whose actions were inspired by their religious beliefs.
Dawkins’s comment has led me to think seriously about the choices we make in being atheists, or theists, for that matter. Atheism, or its opposite, is not just about epistemology, that is, a question of whether or not it is true that there is no god or (Christian) God. It is also a matter of morality, of ethics: should one believe in a god or specifically in God, or should one shun such a belief? And if I believe in a god, am I abusing my children if I bring them up to believe in this same god?
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, provides the contrast here with Dawkins. Plantinga, a Calvinist, thinks that God has given us a direct way of insight to Him. As John Calvin wrote in 1536: ‘There exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead.’ Plantinga would say that those who deny the existence of God do so only because their thinking is corrupted by original sin.
These questions of whether one has a moral obligation to believe – or not – in God seem a bit strange. If I were to ask ‘Is there an Eiffel Tower or not?’ it seems clear that the answer is not really a matter of morality, but of epistemology, a question of knowledge. It doesn’t make sense to ask ‘Should you believe in the Eiffel Tower?’ or ‘Should you tell your kids about the Eiffel Tower?’ But the God question – to restrict ourselves now to the Christian deity – is obviously different. By and large, one doesn’t bump into God at the supermarket or see Him on the skyline in Paris. Even if He speaks to you – as apparently He did to Joan of Arc – He does not necessarily speak to me. As Joan’s interlocutors made clear, it is not proven that we should believe that He was speaking to her, or you for that matter. You might be making it up or be delusional. While we can have a consensus about whether or not the Eiffel Tower exists, you can see that there is a dimension of freedom around the God business that does demand judgment and commitment.
Here the moral dimension comes flooding in, in two distinct but related ways. First, are you morally obligated to believe in God, or to not believe in God? Second, what are the consequences of God-belief? Ought you to promote a God-view for society, and teach your children about God?
Morally speaking, ought you to believe in God or not? The 19th-century English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford spoke of the ‘ethics of belief’: you ought to believe only that for which you have good grounds. If you have a nasty lump and, after tests, your doctor says you have cancer, and you have just had a confirming second opinion, I’m afraid you should accept the conclusion. If you are hard up and spend your last pennies on a lottery ticket, it might give you comfort to think that you will win, but you have no right to believe that. It is not just that you shouldn’t have a big spend in anticipation – that is wrong anyway because you don’t have the money. Clifford would say that you should not kid yourself in the first place. It would be wrong – morally wrong – to deceive yourself.
Now what about the God question? Here people divide. Some, like Dawkins and me, think He doesn’t exist. Others, such as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, think that He does. People differ, but you can still come down hard on one side or the other. In my neck of the woods (Florida), most people don’t believe in evolution. I think they are wrong and that it’s not a matter for debate: they are truly, absolutely, utterly and completely wrong. Some feel that believing in God is just as clear-cut: on both sides are individuals who think the other point of view is truly, absolutely, utterly and completely wrong. I suppose if you feel this strongly, one way or the other, you know your moral duty, as Clifford would have it.
I cannot reconcile the existence of God with evil. For me, God died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen
What about someone like me? Can I be so certain the other side is wrong? Like most reasonably sophisticated Christians, I take the Bible as a story of how a nomadic people came to recognise and refine their notions of their Creator. One can take the Old Testament in particular as an account of growth, from infancy through childhood to adulthood, until one has the loving God of the gospels: there are problems moving from the literal and the metaphorical and so on, but they can be worked out. On the other hand, I think certain things make the existence of God simply untenable. The very notion itself is confused – the God of the Christians is an uneasy amalgam of a Greek notion of the Divine, eternal and unchanging, and the Jewish God, personal and part of daily existence. What is more, I cannot reconcile the existence of God with evil. For me, God died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen. Finally, I think all the stuff about faith is simply self-deception.
On the other hand, I can see why some choose to believe. Why is there something rather than nothing? I am content to say I don’t know, but others are not, and when they say there must be a reason, I think they have a fair point. Equally, I am happy to accept that consciousness, sentience just happens, even though I cannot explain it – how can a computer made of meat think? But if the believer can make sense of consciousness only by invoking a deity, I cannot stop them from doing so, nor do I very much want to. And if someone says, sincerely, that the only way they can make sense of great evil is via religion, I don’t dismiss them as stupid or insincere. A process theologian, following Alfred North Whitehead, might argue that God has emptied Himself of His power – ‘kenosis’ – so He can suffer with us. Only by seeing a grieving God at the side of Anne Frank as she lay dying can we live and make sense of this life. This explanation might be incorrect – I think it is – but I am not going to say that someone who believes it is morally wrong.
To be perfectly candid, I am groping my way forward here. But for me, belief in God would be immoral. In Clifford’s terms, I should not believe because I do not have the grounds to do so. But this does not imply that all who believe in God are immoral in their belief: quite the opposite. I am talking about people who sincerely wrestle with these issues and decide that God exists. For them it would be immoral to do otherwise. Am I being paradoxical or outright contradictory? I don’t think so. Such issues are vexed. At some level, you have to respect the integrity of those who disagree with you on the God question, when they have good grounds for their own beliefs. Of course, when it comes to the consequences of those beliefs, we might have to take a harder line, as we would if the grounds for those beliefs proved entirely unreasonable.
It would be wrong for me or another atheist such as Dawkins to indoctrinate our children with belief. I have followed this maxim myself: although I have a deep affection for the Quakerism of my childhood, I have been meticulous not to impose any of this on my five children. Equally, I think sincere Christians have a moral obligation to bring up their own children as Christians.
Here’s the rub, of course. If it were just a matter of bringing up your children as fans of Arsenal or Manchester United – or in my pathetic case, Wolverhampton Wanderers, reflecting my Midlands childhood – then no one would care much. However, when it comes to religion, it never is that simple. People want to run their own lives and those of others according to their religious or non-religious beliefs. In my society, there are major battles over gay rights, capital punishment, state welfare, the place of women in society and, above all, abortion. Everybody wants to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do, in the name of the Lord or otherwise. What people believe as a matter of their religion can impinge on society – can impinge on what I can do and believe.
We start to see that the moral dimension of belief it is not quite as simple as I have suggested. Suppose someone is a sincere Nazi, believing Jews to be evil and all of that. I obviously don’t want any children brought up that way. But does my argument commit me to defending the moral integrity of the Nazi? I don’t think so. I am prepared to accept the integrity of a Christian believer but only because I see them as taking a stand on what I judge reasonable grounds, even if those grounds do not persuade me. Anyone who is a Nazi today rejects the indubitable findings of modern genetics for a start, and so, whatever else, it is just not a reasonable position to hold. It is immoral to be a Nazi and it is immoral to bring up children as Nazis.
If Christianity means being something like a Quaker or a liberal Anglican or a Unitarian, then I for one am not too bothered by people holding those beliefs. However, let us suppose that part of your Christian belief is that gays are in some sense deviant. In the case of Catholics, their Catechism ‘reaffirms that every such inclination, whether innate or pathological, incurable or curable, permanent or transitory, is an objective disorder, an intrinsically disordered inclination’. But psychology and biology have taught us enough about the nature and origins of sexual orientation that to make this kind of claim is simply false. Let us say what seems to be reasonable, that about five per cent of people are gay. Apart from anything else, evolutionary biology says you don’t get those kinds of numbers without some good biological cause, being maintained by natural selection. So clearly and morally, I don’t think you should hold these beliefs – and I don’t think you should teach any children, including your own, these beliefs. They fail Clifford’s criteria of having good grounds.
I don’t like Catholics – or Protestants – teaching their children that gay people are ‘intrinsically disordered’ because such teaching leads to unhappiness and regressive social policies
Although I think Catholics should shun views about ‘intrinsic disorders’, I don’t see this as an essential element of their faith. Catholic thinking about sexuality is based on natural-law theory, articulated by Aquinas and going back to Aristotle, arguing that morality should conform to what is natural. Modern science makes us rethink the naturalness of non-heterosexual inclinations and behaviours and, taken in this context, it can be agreed that being gay is not only not ‘intrinsically disordered’ but quite possibly very intrinsically ordered. A gay person should love a gay person and not be caught in mauvoise foi (bad faith) pretending to be straight.
Lack of truth value is only one reason to reject religious teachings on homosexuality. I don’t like Catholics – or Protestants – teaching their children that gay people are ‘intrinsically disordered’ because such teaching leads to unhappiness and regressive social policies. Two of my students are heterosexual and are getting married: as a newly qualified notary public, I am doing the honours. Two of my students are gay: too bad if they want to do the same – gay marriage is banned in my state of Florida.
At the same time, I am wary of the state moving in on families to monitor what people tell their children. A case can be made for saying greater social evil might ensue from enforced conformity than from allowing false or even hurtful views to be propagated at home. But not everyone would agree with me. Plato, for instance, was prepared to force people to believe even false things for the sake of societal harmony. In the Republic, it is clear that Plato did believe in a god, although he was probably iffy about the Mount Olympus gods. But he thought god-belief necessary to keep order in the ideal society he was sketching. In the Laws Plato suggested that non-believers should be imprisoned, subjected to extreme thought control, served only by slaves and, when dead, buried anonymously. I think the dreadful regimes of the 20th century – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – have shown pretty clearly that forcing uniform beliefs on everyone causes great harm. It’s not at all clear that either uniform positive belief in God or uniform non-belief in God is necessarily good for society, regardless of whether God exists or not – or whether a belief in the existence of God is reasonable or not.
The social scientists don’t offer much definitive help. There are surveys, perhaps not surprisingly often backed by religious organisations, suggesting that religion does help in the quest for morality and keeping society humming along smoothly. One of my favourite findings (by the Barna Group in 2008) is that religious people are less given to gossiping than atheists. A little more seriously, in the US there is evidence – gleaned from tax returns – that people from states with higher levels of religiosity are more prone to give to charitable organisations, although often these are, in fact, their own churches. On the other hand, many European countries have less religiosity and greater state-supported social networks and consequent higher levels of health, longevity and the like. In other words, a state (eg New York) that endorses and enacts Obamacare might have higher wellbeing than a state that does not (eg Mississippi), even though Mississippi has both higher religiosity and charitable giving. A non-believer might be just as morally good as the believer, but prefer to contribute through taxes than through voluntary donations. One interesting finding, judged from internet downloads, is that US porn consumption is highest in Mormon-saturated Utah.
Whatever the side effects, then, it’s not clear whether we’d be better off if we were all made to believe in God, or if we were made not to believe in God. There is no simple answer, and we have to let people make choices, however much tension this might cause. Thus, I am brought back to Dawkins and to his provocative claim about teaching religion being a form of child abuse. At one level, I think he is wrong. If you have weighed the evidence and come out believing, then I would say that, morally, you should believe. But weighing the evidence means taking science and other empirical endeavours much more seriously than many religious believers are prepared to do. I’d say you have an obligation to teach your children your beliefs, thus purified, so to speak. However, if people hold religious beliefs that I consider false on grounds that should be accepted by all (like the findings of modern science), then I’d argue it’s wrong to teach those beliefs to children, and the rest of us have an obligation to speak out against what is happening.
I have spent a lot of my life on the podium, in court and in print arguing that crude biblical literalism is false and morally pernicious. Children should be taught about evolution. But this is not a call for enforced uniformity of belief. Of course, if parents are teaching their children views that could be harmful – say, that women are naturally suited to be multiple wives in a polygamous marriage – intervention might be called for. But generally one has to weigh the issues and decide. I am not about to send the thought police down to the local Baptist Church to check out their Sunday school teaching. You might decide that my thinking is flabbier than that of Richard Dawkins. Perhaps so. Or it could just be that matters are a lot more complex than he thinks and, while I might not have things quite right, I don’t have them quite wrong either.
Published on 3 February 2014