This is not to be a tu quoque session. That is: I shall not reproach
the unbeliever for having faith as a way of trying to justify religious
FAITH here is understood, not as a profession of something you do not
believe, but as belief, trust, reliance upon something. You believe in A,
or that P, if and to the degree that you are ready to act with reliance
upon A or as if P were the case. We always "live up
to" (or "down to": really, right at) our beliefs.
UNBELIEF in the context of the present discussion is not simply a lack
of belief, in the sense that I now have no beliefs at all about most
individual things that exist, for example. Rather, "unbelief" here
will refer to what is more properly called disbelief: a readiness to
act as if certain things were not so. Thus unbelief is a species of belief
More precisely still, by unbelief in the present context we are referring
to belief that a certain set of claims made by traditional
Christianity--roughly, what C. S. Lewis referred to as "Mere
Christianity," are false. We are thinking of the person who is set to act
as if they were false, and this personality set is what we mean here as
speaking of the faith of unbelief.
The idea that there is an ethics of belief and
unbelief is founded on the subassumptions that:
1. We ought to do what is beneficial for human life.
2. Our beliefs can cause great good or harm, especially with regard to
their truth or falsity, and truth may be regarded as good in itself,
regardless of consequences.
3. We have, indirectly, some degree of control over the beliefs that we
have, and hence some responsibility to see to it that they are true or at
W. K. Clifford claimed that it is always wrong to believe anything on
insufficient evidence. (In his essay on "The Ethics of Belief.")
William James effectively replied (in his "The Will to Believe") that
this claim is too stringent. There are many issues that cannot be decided on
the basis of 'sufficient' evidence, where much of value is at stake, where we must
decide (to take the plane or not, for example, or to believe in God or not)
and we have a preference. Here James says "Our passional nature not only
lawfully may, but must, decide,....for to say, under such circumstances, 'do
not decide, but leave the question open,' is itself a passional decision--just
like deciding yes or no--and is attended with the same risks of losing
truth." James saw that you could "lose the truth" by not
believing as well as by believing, and that it is irrational to think it is
better not to believe than to believe, given only that you lack sufficient
evidence on the positive side.
Clifford actually expresses the contemporary prejudice that the one who
doubts is automatically smarter.
James saw that one has to earn the right to disbelieve as much as the
right to believe. Basically: disbelief is a form of belief.
Pascal made essentially the same point much earlier with his famous
"Wager." (See his Pensees, subsections 233-241)
Let us give this much to Clifford: that we should make a sincere effort to
ensure that our beliefs are true, that we are morally obliged to do so,
and that to do anything less, to be careless about the truth of significant
beliefs, is to be legitimately subject to moral censure. The believer
or disbeliever who is careless about truth and evidence is less than they
should be, for they are careless of human good.
Since truth is not always manifestly attainable, we do not have an
obligation to have true beliefs. BUT WE ALWAYS HAVE A MORAL
OBLIGATION TO DO WHAT IS POSSIBLE TO ENSURE THAT OUR BELIEFS ARE TRUE. That
is, to be irrational is to be morally irresponsible, and to be morally
admirable we must be rational. Because of the fundamental importance of true
beliefs to human welfare.
But who is the rational person? Persons are reasonable in the
degree to which they conform their thinking, talk and action to the order of
truth and understanding or are effectively committed to doing that so
far as is possible. They will characteristically endeavour to reason
soundly (validly, from true premises), and be open-minded and inquiring
about the issues which require a response from them. They will seek the
best concepts, classifications and theories, testing those concepts,
classifications and theories by relating them to each other and to the world
given by their experience and the experience of others. They will respect
facts more than theories, and take pains to determine the facts relevant to
their beliefs. (This is only an attempt to characterize the rational person,
not to given necessary and sufficient conditions of being a rational
By contrast, the unreasonable person characteristically: does not
thoroughly inquire into the basis for his beliefs, contradicts himself,
rejects known means to his chosen goals or ends, demands the impossible,
refuses to test or consider criticisms of his beliefs, and fails to seek
better means of ascertaining the truth.
NOW TURNING BACK TO THE 'FAITH OF UNBELIEF' AS
Currently, 'unbelief' rarely holds itself responsible
to be rational as described above.
About the nature of ultimate reality or about which reality is
ultimate. Specifically, the Christian view that reality is ultimately
personal and subject to personal will that is intelligent and loving.
By contrast, a rather typical statement: "Christianity lost its
credibility by and large in the course of the eighteenth century.... Such
Christianity as did survive was no longer secure even within the Christian
churches.... The leading thinkers and artists of Christendom were virtually
all de-Christianized even before Darwin in 1859 provided a credible
alternative to Creation." (pp. 9-10 of After Chrisitianity, by
Rudolph Binion, Logbridege-Rhodes, 1986) Darwin provided what?
About the historical claims of the 'biblical'
tradition. E.g. that there was a person whom we call Jesus Christ.
That he was human and more. That he was killed and continued to exist,
resuming personal contacts--though admittedly of a rather unusual
character--with those who knew him before his death.
About the current experience of human beings in
the life of belief. For example, 'miracles' of various kinds, as acts
of God in response to prayer or action. You rarely ever find anyone who
rejects such `miracles' who has made a point of examining a single one
that thoughtful Christain reflection has marked as such. As the bishop
said to Galileo, "I don't need to look. I already know."
About the ethical superiority of Christ's
teachings and of life conforming thereto. Generally speaking it is
assumed that you can safely omit serious thought about this matter and
stick to John St. Mill or John Rawls. Jesus is at best an irrelevant
idealist. At worst the sponsor of the ethical disaster (sc.) that
is Western Civilization.
There really is no reason in the general nature of reality why "Mere
Christianity" or any other view should or should not be true. This
constitutes what older thinkers used to refer to as the "antecedent
credibility" of Christianity (or other views).
Thesis: Most of 'the faith of unbelief' that exists today in the concrete
form of individual personalities is morally irresponsible--because not
rationally sustained--and would be recognized as the superstition it most
often is, but for the fact that it is vaguely endorsed by the socially
system. One might be rational, as above defined, and not believe, in
my opinion. But I think this is highly unlikely, and am sure it rarely ever
actually occurs. (This opens up another set of issues about belief in
relation to evidence.)
If, now, one says that current belief is just as morally irresponsible as
current unbelief, or even more so, we can only ask: "And how does that
help?" Do we not, whoever we are, owe it to ourselves and those around
us to be serious about questions of major importance to human well-being?