thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Does faith make us better?

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There are times when the atheist and the believer are poles apart. But other times – perhaps even when they are at their most serious and most sincere – if you half close your eyes you could mistake one for the other.

It’s not that I want to reconcile the atheist and the believer. Long may the struggle continue, as it is one of the key debates in the world of ideas.

But while I have this nagging suspicion, deep down, that believing in supernatural things like gods is not only unnecessary but also in some way ethically suspect, I have another nagging suspicion that the seriousness and sincerity on both sides can sometimes appear strangely similar and, on both sides, strangely close to purity.

Which is why I started this series of articles entitled The ethics of belief.

Eventually I want to get onto big questions like ‘religious evil’ (Crusades; Spanish Inquisition; Indian Partition massacres) versus ‘atheist evil’ (Stalinist genocide; Nazi holocaust; Khmer Rouge killing fields).

William Clifford (1845-1879)But I have begun with a rather more genteel 19th-Century debate which started when William Clifford declared that it was (morally)

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

The rather more famous William James thought the idea preposterous, particularly when applied to what might have been its principal target, religious belief:

a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.

James throws Pascal’s Wager at it, as well as what would later be known as the power of positive thinking. Bertrand Russell‘s celestial teapot can fly back in reply from the atheist corner, illustrating Richard Dawkins‘ point that the burden of proof is on the believer.

But James’s fundamental argument is about ethics. Religious faith makes us better than we would otherwise be. If this were not so, then

religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away…

If James is right, then although Clifford’s principle may apply in general, sincere and serious religious faith is worth the risk for the sake of a greater good.

As things stand right now, I still don’t think I agree with James. But it’s a big and deep domain, and so far I’ve only scratched the surface. It could be where the great debate starts to get really interesting.

© Chris Lawrence 2008

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Written by Chris Lawrence

11 October 2008 at 2:47 pm

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