thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Is religion immoral?

with 4 comments

William Clifford (1845-1879)

William Clifford (1845-1879)

…it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

[William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877]

Is religious belief immoral? I don’t want just to declare that it is, but for a long time I’ve had the suspicion it might be.

William Clifford seemed to think so in 1877, and he’s quite convincing. William James found the idea preposterous – but to be honest I find his counter-attack The will to believe long on rhetoric and surprisingly short on analysis. A bit of a rehash of Pascal’s wager?

Clifford’s principle is fascinating, as it adds a new frisson to the religion/atheism debate. There’s that residual suspicion that even though one may be convinced there isn’t a god, and that all religious experience is a psychological phenomenon of some kind or other; in spite of all that – perhaps it is better if people do subscribe to a religion and allow their religion to support and validate their communities?

Or even just on a personal level: is it possible that for some people at least their religion makes it easier for them to be good than if they had to manage without?

I certainly wouldn’t suggest, even if it were true that religious belief was somehow unethical, that that would automatically make believers unethical.

It won’t be easy to prove one way or another. But it looks like being a great debate to explore.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


Written by Chris Lawrence

7 September 2008 at 4:26 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks Will for taking the time to comment, and for providing the links to your own posts. I agree 100% with what you say.

    I recommend the Clifford essay. It’s short & a good read. The debate between Clifford and William James exposes some really interesting issues, which I’m trying to do justice to in The ethics of belief.

    Thanks again,

    Chris Lawrence

    4 April 2009 at 8:57 pm

  2. I haven’t read Clifford, but it looks like I’ll have to check it out.

    I believe that religion makes it easier for us to act immorally because we use it to justify ourselves. I’ve posted a few things on it on my own blog.


    It’s a topic I keep coming back to. Really it’s my main beef with religion, and I think faith is the core of the problem. As Voltaire said, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. But it goes beyond that even, down to our nature as humans. Our brains are wired to make decisions first and rationalize them later. Religion just provides us another means to rationalize.


    4 April 2009 at 6:46 pm

  3. Thanks for reading my blog & taking the time to comment. I’ll certainly try & get my hands on the book you mention.


    Chris Lawrence

    16 February 2009 at 12:45 am

  4. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by McKinsey, Prometheus, 1995, has numerous references to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic god doing/being evil.
    Perhaps religion should not be taught in school on grounds of its immorality.

    Robert W. Jones

    12 February 2009 at 6:20 pm

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