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Is God or No God a Moral Question? By Asif Zaidi

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Neo atheists, a la Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are characterized by disdainful derision of anyone who differs with them. Their contempt is not limited to religious people but also does not spare agnostics and other atheists who do not partake of their evangelical fervour.

They seem arrogant, imbued with a zeal for proselytizing that is unheard of beyond the followers of Holy Scriptures. Richard Dawkins, for instance, asserts that bringing children up Catholic is a bigger tragedy than their abuse by some priests. This moral certitude reeks of dogma thus far associated only with religious extremists. They also ignore that God has a powerful constructive role to play in life in poor and underdeveloped societies where people look up to religion to seek the satisfaction of their emotional needs as well as a psychological anchor in a troubled life.  There is little doubt that religious beliefs and differences have often driven violence. Even today one can easily perceive the helping hand religion lends to violent outfits like the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram in rousing them to be so violent against their fellow human beings and even coreligionists. The heartlessness in shooting or beheading someone innocent merely because of a difference in inherited beliefs is revolting.

 

However, neo atheists are neither alone nor the first in feeling this revulsion. This moral passion is as old as the recorded human history. That Greeks harboured it can be seen in Plato’s dialogues, and its experience by Europeans across centuries is articulated by the likes of Diderot, Ingersoll, and Russell. Other societies have also been continually racked by the pangs of moral passion throughout their existence. The problem with neo atheists is not that they think that believing in God is illogical; the problem is that they argue that it is a moral flaw to believe in an Almighty. The main issue is not religion in all its multiplicity and intricacy; it is whether or not there exists a God. To many, belief in God is an issue of morality.

The problem is that the God puzzle cannot be solved with certainty of an algebraic solution. There are arguments for both - for and against. For example, one of the innumerable lines of arguments for God goes something like this. “Why do we have universe, galaxies, planets and life? Big Bang or what preceded it does not answer the fact of existence in the first place. What explains the mind boggling interdependence of innumerable parts in service of the whole? It cannot just happen. Brain sciences can explain how we think but not why we think in the first place. Can such an amazing cosmos be without a point, a purpose? Is the existence of prophets and seers nothing but a charade? Are remarkable human sacrifices like Karbala nothing but a manifestation of human spirit? It makes no sense that there should be no reckoning for the ills perpetrated and suffered in this worldly life. While man may control the forms of matter, he has no control on the overall sum of matter that exists in the cosmos. Also time remains totally beyond man’s control as we can neither subtract nor add one nanosecond to it.” On the other end one of the many lines of reasoning against God states somewhat as follows. “If God is supposed to be so loving and benevolent how can He allow so much human suffering? If only one or a few religions represent the true path leading unto God’s blessing then how is He fair to myriad generations being born in remote parts and cultures without ever being properly exposed to the beliefs purported to be the truth? If He wants all humanity to adhere to some particular beliefs or even more generally to Monotheism, why does He allow such an astounding variety of alternative beliefs to thrive? What purpose does the human life extinguished in its infancy serve?”

It shows that while there are a number of question marks around theistic beliefs, many people continue to take their religious beliefs seriously. In the societies that encourage free thinking and questioning, people feel empowered to harbour and voice doubts about God or religion. However, in parts of the world where they are being indoctrinated from childhood and are not welcomed to express doubts in adulthood, people continue with unquestioning allegiance to their religious beliefs. Many people who live in societies that allow the freedom to think, express, and decide for themselves are afraid of death or what happens after it and thus hedge their bets by staying religious. I think many of the readers here can identify with this to some extent. When my mother died at 44 years of age just before my wedding that she had so fondly planned it gave me a good reason, for a long time to come, to believe in God and thus afterlife, where I would see her again. Irrational? Perhaps, but not unlike the kind of reasoning that motivates many to believe but does not incite to fight for one religion over all others. The people around me shared those beliefs and were generally kind, just, and well-intentioned human beings. What often miffed me, though, was the claim that we are right and everybody else is wrong. When I considered the range of my religion/sect against population and history of the world I realized that the possibility of this being true was negligible. Humans can often need a belief of one kind or other just to get through their days and there is nothing morally wrong with that unless we insist that one’s belief is the sole truth and underpins the very existence of the universe. Constantly increasing knowledge of the world means that we are being left with fewer and fewer gaps in which to hide our dogmas.

Having said that, benign belief can often be ominous. It may be fine to espouse a myth to explain a phenomenon that would otherwise require a lot of hard work and investigation, but it is not acceptable to use it to justify hate when societies use their time and energy passing blasphemy laws or beheading infidels. This creates an ecology that breeds religious zealots and intolerance. When people are willing to kill and maim in the name of religion that, indeed, is morally repulsive. This is the kind of irrational behaviour that makes it morally repugnant for nonbelievers to live in a world ruled by God of such beliefs. The moral revulsion is only increased when one sees self-deception inducing people to accept religious claims without thinking and on paltry evidence. This is probably what prompts neo atheists to see theism as a moral matter. The argument they proffer is that beliefs influence conduct and believing certain religious doctrines leads to certain behaviours. When people are prone to judging you as being evil for being unimpressed by their doctrines, that indeed is morally repugnant.  They also say that whether it entails paradise or reincarnation a belief in afterlife makes us willing to accept the injustices of man, consoling ourselves with ideas of better to come, whereas atheism offers a more responsible but arduous path, requiring us to evaluate all our prejudices on our own. Their morality lies in the belief that our one opportunity at sentience brings an obligation to be as good, fair, and kind a person as we can be in this lifetime.

As a rational being I am open to the arguments of both sides. They make me think and drive me to investigate more. I also do not have an issue with the fact that neo atheists are motivated more by moral than by merely factual concerns. But, just as I abhor religious self-righteousness, I am not taken by the contentions of evangelical neo atheists that are not different from any religion in that we are right and everybody else is wrong. That reeks of an intuitive disdain that was hitherto reserved for religious and racial dogma.  I do not care what you believe. Just do not try to palm it off on me. And get over yourself for crying it out loud. That there is a God or there is no God is not a mathematical question that can be scientifically proven. It is more a question of ‘should’ than ‘is’. Those who believe in God are convinced that they should believe in God because that is the right course of action. The atheists are equally driven that one should not believe in God. Both consider those who differ either ignorant or nutty. For me this is no longer an intellectually stimulating debate, instead I find it an annoying and exhausting web of diatribes that do little to bring us enlightenment or reciprocal benevolence. I think, the more important questions include how to live symbiotically in a diverse world, how to lead a good life with a purpose, and how to make peace with death’s inevitability. For some like me their own humanity is their moral compass, but for many others their faith is their compass. As long as the needle on our compass points the same moral direction, I do not care. Rather than spending my energy attacking others needlessly I would stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who is humble about their own humanity and is willing to focus their energy on things that can have a tangible impact on human life and its future. To me the intellectual drawback of unsupported belief in anything is that it inculcates a lack of reasoning, making one amenable to entertaining unsupported belief in other areas of thought as well. This is probably why we often see credulous millions subscribing to illogical and unfounded theories that are not necessarily religious in nature. Hence, in the matters more philosophical, I find my scepticism a fine refuge from the certitude of both religious and irreligious extremists.

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