I well remember that sunny morning a few years ago when Jonathan Miller came to my apartment in New York to discuss the non-existence of God. We had been friends for a number of years, and had discussed a great many topics, but we had never, except glancingly, ever spoken about religion. We knew about our shared atheism, but the subject didn’t seem to warrant much attention; in the Miller-McGinn world it was a non-existent topic. So our conversation that morning, which went on for a good two hours, was fresh material. It was a smooth and easy conversation, with much humor and mutual understanding. And yet we were attacking the foundations of what billions of people find essential to living happily (or that’s what they think). In earlier centuries, or in other places, we would have been gruesomely executed for having such a congenial chat.
It is often forgotten that atheism of the kind shared by Jonathan and me (and Dawkins and Hitchens et al) has an ethical motive. Or rather two ethical motives: one is ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history; the other concerns the ethics of rational belief—how we are obliged to form our beliefs about the world. The first motive is familiar and needs no commentary from me. The second is less widely appreciated, but for some of us it is crucial to the whole discussion. We believe, as an ethical principle, that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs. To believe “on faith” is to believe that the world is a certain way (contains a god etc) without the support of either empirical or logical justification. This violates the ethics of belief—how you ought to arrive at your convictions. That, for us, is the original sin of theism; and from this sin the other sorts of sin arise—religious intolerance, persecution, violence.
In the Atheism Tapes you will see this ethical perspective amply displayed. Atheists through the ages have been moved by a moral imperative: to uphold the rationality of belief. Wishes can never replace justification as a ground of conviction. Contrary to the popular myth, atheists are not people who have abandoned the idea of the moral good; they are people with a particularly clear sense of what moral goodness requires. From our point of view, the typical theist has already done something morally wrong simply in being a theist.