Justifying Faith

Justifying Faith is a brief essay from a collection titled The Religion of Disbelief, written by Elmore Kelvin Glib (1989-    ). The Religion of Disbelief is a scathing review of atheism–not for the ideology but rather for the hypocrisy. Within the collection, Glib castigates modern atheists for their attempt to “spread atheism” as though it were a religion. He calls this “evangelical atheism.” Glib describes himself as a novice philosopher; thus, his collection was never intended for publication. The excerpt here is shared with his reluctant permission.

In the article The Ethics of Belief[1], W. K. Clifford[2] argues vehemently that a person should never believe anything without sufficient evidence—that it is immoral to do so. Clifford predicts his opponents may differentiate between what he calls “trifling” beliefs and “larger” beliefs: some beliefs are inconsequential and should therefore not be held to the same scrutiny as consequential beliefs. However, Clifford maintains that no belief is trifling because our larger beliefs are derived from and influenced by what might be considered trifling beliefs. I will argue alongside Clifford’s main opponent, William James[3], who states that all our beliefs are not subject to rational intellect alone. For some things, facts cannot be compiled.

            Let us apply Clifford’s main claim to that of the existence of God. Assume Clifford is asked to decide whether or not he believes in God. He feels he does not have “sufficient evidence” to satisfy a belief in God; therefore, he states disbelief in God. One should agree that stating “I don’t believe in God” is one and the same as stating “I believe that God doesn’t exist.” Insufficient evidence for one belief, however, does not guarantee sufficient evidence for its alternative(s). Therefore, contrary to his own argument, Clifford may believe something for which he has insufficient evidence. Plainly put:

  1. Sometimes, non-belief in one thing leads to automatic belief in another.
  2. However, insufficient evidence of one belief does not guarantee sufficient evidence in the other.

  1. Therefore, man is sometimes forced to believe in things for which he may not have sufficient evidence.

            I can think of three possible objections to my argument. The first objection may be that there are countless examples of things for which disbelief in one does not guarantee belief in another. He may say, for example, that just because he does not believe the next car that drives down his road will be blue does not guarantee that he believes it will be red—that it could just as easily be green or silver or yellow. A second objection may be that in some instances where disbelief in one thing guarantees belief in its opposite, the insufficient evidence that led to disbelief guarantees sufficient evidence for the opposite belief. For this claim, I can think of no example but am willing to admit it could be true. The third objection may be that a person need not believe one thing or another. In other words, he may reserve opinion until more data is collected.

            I lend credence to the first objection. If one doesn’t believe the next car that drives down his road will be blue, it doesn’t mean that next car will be red. It could be green or silver or blue. Nonetheless, it does guarantee that he believes that the next car will be non-blue. Regarding the second objection: even if one can imagine a few instances where disbelief in one thing guarantees belief in its opposite and the insufficient evidence that led to disbelief guarantees sufficient evidence for the opposite belief, Clifford vehemently states one should never believe anything without sufficient evidence. To the third objection, I conjure William James. As William James puts it, there are concepts that, by definition, cannot necessarily be proven true. He gives democracy as an example, but the idea of truth itself is such a concept. For such things, James contends, man relies not only on facts (if at all) but rather on his passional instincts. He asks if the name “logician” can be given to those who would rule out the willing nature of man because even the logician’s belief is based on his will.   In other words, to decide not to decide is itself a passional decision.

            So, in a sense, were man never to believe without sufficient evidence, there would be instances where he would be in a static state, unable to move forward, stuck in an impossible attempt to justify. I would argue that this state is irrational so faith, I would say, is justified.


 

[1]The Ethics of Belief was originally published in Contemporary Review in 1877.

[2] William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) was and remains a vanguard of atheist philosophy; likewise, his essays were and remain a signpost for the movement. He’s nonetheless more widely remembered for his accomplishments as a mathematician.

[3] William James (1842-1910) was best known for his work in the field of psychology. He was the first to offer and teach a course in the study. He was secondarily a philosopher, remembered for his Will to Believe Doctrine. Some might also find it interesting that he was brother to Turn of the Screw novelist, Henry James.

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