Esa, on religious skepticism

July 2, 2009

The following post is a philosophy paper I wrote in my freshmen year of college discussing possible arguments for and against the existence of God. I post it here now after an interesting discussion over on the SBM blog in hopes that the off-topic conversation over there may continue here. I know reasoning in this paper is not iron-clad by any means, and I do not necessarily believe absolutely everything I wrote any longer, so feel free to tear it apart… I may do so myself in a future post. Enjoy!


The discussion that takes place between Clifford’s Ethics of Belief and James’ The Will to Believe is, in essence, a question of faith. Can it ever be justified to truly believe in something without evidence supporting your beliefs? Is it possible to divide beliefs between those requiring proof and those that do not? The answer is no in both cases, as both are questions of integrity, the basis of all morality. If this is true, can faith ever be moral? Not blind faith.

In his essay, The Ethics of Belief, Clifford establishes it is never moral to believe something based on insufficient evidence, nor to stifle a doubt. He claims this is because no belief is ever insignificant. Interestingly enough, James later argues it is precisely the significant beliefs, what he calls “genuine options”, that can be held without proof. The discrepancy here is James does not make the distinction, as Clifford does, between holding a belief and acting on it. Clifford notes his argument appears flawed because many people would perceive the action, rather than the belief it follows from, as the source of immorality. He maintains, however, the immorality begins with the thought, whether or not it is acted upon, as one unstable belief will lead to another. This argument, too, has its flaws, as it contains the logical fallacy of being a slippery slope. It is unlikely, as Clifford projected, that a single imperfect belief will lead to the population becoming a den of thieves, although it will compromise that man’s integrity and so make him like a thief to himself.

Returning to James’ argument that believing in genuine options without sufficient evidence is moral, it would appear the definition of belief needs to be addressed. It does not follow that one should search all one’s life for proof of the truth of trivial matters (even though these beliefs are also significant, as they affect the man’s integrity) but accept the most important beliefs of his life on faith. If a man is a scientist in one aspect of his life, it is expected he will search for empirical data before forming beliefs in all others. However, there will be circumstances in which the data seems to contradict itself. In this case, it is wise to suspend belief until such a time when accurate data can be collected, although this may not be in the life span of the scientist. James would then ask what one would do in a situation where an important decision must be made quickly. Surely one cannot suspend belief in such an instance? On the contrary, one is simply required to act. Situations do exist in which it is moral to act in accordance with what is most likely to be true, even when it is not moral to accept your suspicions as a true belief. Therefore, while one cannot be justified in believing based on weak evidence, he may be justified in acting upon it.

In James’ essay, he discusses an argument for belief in God known as Pascal’s Wager – that a man should choose to believe in God because he will lose much by not believing if there is a god, but nothing by believing if there is not. James correctly argues this persuasion does not constitute a true belief. However, there is a greater question than the authenticity of the belief at stake here. Does it hold that the man who believes in God when no such entity exists loses nothing? Instead, will he not have spent his entire life adhering to a false belief? With his argument, James places no value on the sanctity of man’s integrity. If there is indeed no god, then the greatest thing in a man’s existence is himself. In this case, it would be right for him to follow the advice of Emerson and “make the most of [him]self, for that is all there is of [him].” The common view of God is of some benevolent and all-powerful being. Therefore, many men justify believing in Him blindly because, if He exists, allegiance to Him is a greater thing than allegiance to oneself if He does not. However, if one can maintain God created man and gave us our faculties of reason, it should follow He should use the same rules of logic. Such a god would not find fault with a man who refuses to base his beliefs on insufficient evidence, as this man was acting morally.

What, then, constitutes morality? A moral decision is one made for the good of all that one values, the most basic of these values being survival. Clifford argues a man should not believe based on insufficient evidence because beliefs are not private matters. However, consider an instance in which a man lives as a hermit. This man’s beliefs will have few or even no implications for his peers, but his beliefs are still morally bound. This man’s very survival has been based on the empirical evidence which has helped him find food and shelter. In the most basic sense, his life depends on the validity of his beliefs, and so, it would be immoral for him to base a belief on insufficient evidence.

James explains Clifford’s position as the thought process of a man who is afraid of being proven wrong; being a “dupe”, as James’ puts it. He states of men like Clifford: “He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys.” While it is true that doubt is an element of fear, we have proven above this fear is justified because our survival is dependent on it. On the other hand, Clifford states: “It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of believing and afraid of doubting.” Here it becomes obvious both men, and those who adhere to their principles, are afraid of something. However, neither fear truth in and of itself, nor claim it should not be sought.

Whether one finds a way to justify his belief in God, or in anything else, for that matter, it is clear, in our constant search for truth, there is a bit of what we want and expect God to be in each of us. Therefore, it is imperative that we do not compromise our integrity either by believing based on insufficient evidence or pushing decisions to the wayside.


One Response to “Esa, on religious skepticism”

  1. Kimball Atwood Says:


    Thank you for continuing the SBM thread here. I will probably not continue to post now, merely because I’m consumed by other issues–not because I’m not fascinated by the topic. It so happened that I had, earlier today, a bit of unforeseen time on my hands, which is why I was able to address the issue on SBM. I hope others will accept your invitation, however, and I like your undergraduate paper.


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