One of the most attractive features of the free thought movement has always been its purported commitment to the truth. From the philosophical skepticism of the Enlightenment to the New Atheism of the early 2000s, atheists and agnostics have insisted that we ought to pursue the truth about reality without recourse to fairy tales, superstitions, or a divine Creator. Even if the idea of a meaningless, purposeless universe frightens and depresses us, we ought to face facts and accept reality as it is, not as we want it to be.
As I said, this uncompromising vision of the pursuit of truth at all costs may strike us as bracing and even heroic. But does it make sense if atheism is true? In other words, does atheism give us any reason to think that we ought to seek the truth instead of embracing comforting lies?
An illustration might help. My thirteen-year-old son loves chess and he’s rapidly surpassing me in terms of skill. However, I have just enough knowledge of the game that I could tell him “you ought to attack your opponent’s knight” or “you should sacrifice your bishop.” He might take my advice or he might decide against it, but both of us are working from the same underlying assumptions: we both accept the rules of chess and want him to win his game.
However, imagine that his younger sister is watching him play and says, “You ought to jump over your opponent’s king.” My son replies, “What are you talking about? That’s an illegal move and I’d be immediately put in check.”
They argue back and forth for a few minutes before he realizes that 1) his sister is following the rules of checkers, not chess and 2) she doesn’t want him to win, but merely wants to line up all the pieces in order from the smallest to the largest because it would “look cool.” In other words, they were working from completely different underlying assumptions about what “ought” means in the sentence: “You ought to jump over your opponent’s king.”
Potential Meanings of “Ought”
In the same way, when atheists say that we “ought” to seek the truth, we have to immediately ask what they think “ought” means. There are three main options.
First, the atheist might be using “ought” to express a subjective preference just as he might say, “You really ought to try that new Thai restaurant on Grove Street.” In that case, you can take his advice into consideration, but he is certainly not expressing a binding command.
Second, he might be expressing a conditional imperative that is only relevant in particular circumstances. For instance, if he says, “You ought to wear a tie to the job interview,” the unspoken, implicit condition is “. . . if you want to make a good impression.” However, it’s entirely possible that you do not want the job—in which case you should show up in a tank top and flip-flops to guarantee that you’re not hired.
Third, he might be expressing what he thinks is actually an objective moral obligation. For example, if someone says, “You ought not murder,” they are usually making the claim that it is objectively wrong to commit murder and that you should not murder regardless of your own personal goals and preferences.
So what kind of claim is the atheist making when he says that we “ought” to embrace the truth of atheism or that we “ought” to abandon religious dogma or that we “ought” to believe claims on the basis of reason and evidence?
As above, the first possibility is that he’s merely stating a personal preference when he says, “You ought to seek the truth.” What he means is something like: “Seeking the truth is my personal hobby and I commend it to you.”
The second possibility is that he’s making a conditional statement. He could be saying, “If you want to be considered a respectable intellectual, then you ought to seek the truth.” But if we don’t care about being a respectable intellectual, then we can ignore the truth and believe whatever we want.
In neither of these cases is the atheist expressing a binding command.
The fact that doubting Christians feel intuitively compelled to seek the truth is actually evidence that God exists and that he has written his law in our hearts.
However, when most atheists say that we ought to seek the truth, they are embracing the third option and are making a moral claim. They are saying that we have an obligation to seek the truth and that it is wrong to intentionally ignore reason and evidence in order to believe whatever makes us happy. Note in particular that this third sense of “oughtness” is the only one we can’t opt out of. We can’t merely say, “Thanks for your suggestion that I ought to seek the truth” any more than we can say, “Thanks for your suggestion that I ought not commit murder.” If we have an objective moral obligation to not murder, then this obligation exists whether or not we accept it.
But this is where things get interesting. How does an atheist ground the concept of moral obligation? As a Christian, I can insist that God’s commands constitute our moral obligations. God issues the command, “Thou shalt not murder,” and therefore we are obligated to not murder. Moreover, the God of the Bible has repeatedly commanded us to seek the truth especially as it pertains to his existence and his will for us. But if no such God exists, on what basis does the atheist say that we’re obligated to seek the truth?
Most atheists who believe that objective right and wrong exist believe that our ultimate moral obligation is to promote human flourishing. That is, what is right is what promotes human happiness and fulfillment, while what is wrong opposes human happiness and fulfillment. At least in principle, this framework explains why murder and theft are wrong. But can it explain why truth-seeking is right?
Unfortunately, no. There’s no guarantee that seeking the truth will always align with human happiness and flourishing, particularly if atheism is true. After all, it would be quite easy to concoct a ridiculous but harmless religion that makes people happy—or at least happier than they would be if they were atheists. Indeed, if human themselves are to be believed, many of us find religion deeply comforting. So does the atheist have the moral obligation to promote any and all harmless religious fairy tales provided they make people happier than atheism would? Is he morally obligated to lie through his teeth when the subject of religion comes up, since it would be immoral to share truths that diminish people’s flourishing?
To turn the problem around, if an atheist approached me and said, “You should reject Christianity and embrace the truth of atheism,” I would simply respond, “Why? If Christianity is true, then I’m certainly obligated to seek out the truth and to believe the truth because God commands it. But if atheism is true, why should I bother to find out? After all, I’m happy being a Christian. So why can’t I just shut my ears, close my eyes, and continue to believe?” The atheist doesn’t have a good answer.
Consequently, the atheist who urges Christians to “seek the truth” has sawed off the branch he’s sitting on. The free thought movement, which valorized the pursuit of truth, can’t explain why truth is intrinsically good or why we ought to seek it.
Finally, the fact that atheism undermines any obligation we have to seek the truth is helpful when speaking to doubting Christians. At some point in their lives, most Christians face seasons of doubt. They ask whether God really exists, whether the Bible is trustworthy, or whether there’s evidence for the Christian faith. Fundamentally, they find themselves asking whether Christianity is actually true.
Christians can and should provide people answers to these questions, but they should ask an even more important one: Why should you care? In other words, why should you seek the truth at all? If atheism were true, then you could ignore reason, evidence, and logic and embrace whatever beliefs you felt would make you happiest. The fact that doubting Christians feel intuitively compelled to seek the truth is actually evidence that God exists and that he has written his law in our hearts.
We intuit what the Bible explicitly commands: that we seek the truth and value it more highly than wealth and fame. Even the struggles of doubting Christians are evidence that a truth-loving God exists, One who commands us to seek the truth and One who is himself the way, the truth, and the life. Like everything in creation, our thirst for the truth testifies to the existence of our Creator and points us to him.
Neil Shenvi is the author of Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity.
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