In a recent New York Times op-ed piece titled “Why God is a Moral Issue”, Michael Ruse asks why so many of the New Atheists find religion to be a moral issue rather than just a cognitive one. He points to Richard Dawkins saying “that he was more concerned about bringing a child up Catholic” than about the abuse of children by priests as evidence of this sort of thinking. As Ruse puts it, “You don’t say something like that seriously – and Dawkins is always serious – without a deep sense that something is dreadfully morally wrong.” He goes on to briefly describe some of the primary arguments for and against belief in God/gods before concluding with an explanation for his own atheism that is based upon his belief that it simply doesn’t make sense to be a theist.
That said, he freely admits that there are some potentially compelling arguments for the existence of God and he isn’t trying to say that atheism is undoubtedly the right position. Rather, he simply seems to conclude that atheism is more logical than the alternative. Moreover, he believes that most theists are theists for the wrong reasons, namely some form of wish fulfillment or because they have been indoctrinated in the belief rather than made the choice for themselves.
All of the above comprises his argument for atheism but his defense of the issue as a moral one is centered primarily in the “self-deception and indoctrination that leads people to accept such astounding claims on such paltry evidence.” He then cites mathematician W.K. Clifford’s statement that it is “wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” To his credit, he follows that quote by acknowledging that Clifford’s statement was probably too strong but still believes that the basic point stands.
Of course, Clifford’s statement is not only too strong but would potentially make atheism immoral as well. The argument that it is morally wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence necessitates that each person decide for themselves when they have enough evidence to believe. Atheists cannot offer sufficient evidence to definitively state that there is no God/gods any more than theists can offer sufficient evidence to definitively state that there is. In the end, it’s up to each individual to decide what they are ready to believe.
Consequently, what right does Ruse or any other atheist have to say that there is not sufficient evidence for me to believe in God? The answer is none. They can say that they think I am wrong to believe as I do. They can even say that there is more evidence against God’s existence than for it, though such a claim would be tenuous at best. However they cannot say that I have no right to believe, much less that it is morally wrong to do so, any more than I can say the same things about atheism.
But the central problem with Ruse’s argument is that he misunderstands religion, at least when it comes to Christianity. Anyone waiting until God’s existence is definitively proven before they will believe will never do so. The reason is that God desires the kind of relationship that cannot be proven until it’s experienced and that experience first requires a step of faith. You can argue that such a step would be far easier if we could know for sure that God does exist, and honestly that’s a question I hope to ask God one day (1 Corinthians 13:12), but it doesn’t change the fact that God has decided that faith is necessary.
Lastly, it can be helpful to remember that few people are atheists on purely intellectual grounds. For most, there is a deeper, more emotionally driven reason for their unbelief. Many don’t want to believe that God exists or look at the world around them and conclude that he can’t. Such an opinion is often propped up with well-reasoned and scholarly sounding arguments for why it is correct but, at the end of the day, the fundamental issue most often lies in the heart rather than the head. While intellectual debates can help, the other person is unlikely to believe until that core issue is resolved.
One step that can be helpful in identifying that core issue is to ask “if I answer this question, will you believe?” If the answer is no, then any debate is unlikely to yield much fruit. That doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful or isn’t worth your time, but it’s important to keep such conversations in perspective. And remember, ultimately all God asks you to do is faithfully plant the seeds according to his will. The growth is his department (1 Cor. 3:6). So always be ready to give a reason for the hope that you have in the Lord (1 Pet. 3:15) and never doubt that your faith is justified. A day will come when everyone will realize that (Romans 14:11), but until then, pray that God will use you to help guide others to a saving relationship with him and know that you can trust “the way, the truth and the life” even when others tell you otherwise (John 14:6).