Is faith Immoral?


According to Clifford “… it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. Assess Clifford’s defense of this principle and William James’ critique, with special reference to religious faith.


W.K. Clifford was not the first to suggest that our beliefs be subject to evidentialist justifications. Long before the publication of his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, indeed, long before the existence of Clifford himself, John Locke declared unto mankind the obligation to proportion our assent to a proposition to the strength of the evidence for it. Half a century later, David Hume piped in with the claim that “A wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence.”[1] More than a century later still, Clifford emerged with the most extreme evidentialist contention, allegedly implicating ethics into epistemic justification. Unlike his predecessors, he was not himself bound by the ties of religious belief; consequently, his argument is not designed to preserve any personal convictions from its own onslaught of criticism. Clifford’s radical position leaves his argument open to a vast array of objections, notoriously those of William James in “The Will to Believe”. The majority of these views will receive due deliberation in what follows; specifically, Clifford’s argument and its significance for religious faith will be the focal point of this paper.

Clifford’s argument

Clifford’s argument is packed full of rhetoric, making it difficult to reduce to a set of premises and conclusions. The argument rests partially on the following hypothetical situation, and another too similar to merit mention: Clifford describes a shipowner who doubts the sea-worthiness of his ship; driven not by a pursuit of truth but by his own desires, he assents to a comforting false belief. This belief manifests itself in action: the man sends the ship to sea without inquiry into his doubts, for he has silenced them and no longer suspects that the ship needs fixing. The ship sinks, killing all those on board. Clifford declares that the shipowner is “verily guilty of the death of those men…inasmuch as he knowingly and willingly worked himself into [a misleading] frame of mind”[2] Moreover, had the ship been proved seaworthy the ship owner would have been just as liable, since “no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter”[3] the status of his decision; “the question of right and wrong has to do with the origin of belief…not whether it turned out to be true or false”[4]. Judgement of the origin of belief depends on whether one “had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him”[5] alone: such evidence is sufficient when it supports the belief and is the result of objective investigation. Beliefs thus justified yield better results because they often lead to well-educated decisions; they also have merit in themselves.

Clifford anticipates the reply that “in both of these supposed cases, it is not the belief which is judged to be wrong, but the action following upon it.”[6] The shipowner is thereby reprehensible insofar as he acts on his belief; the holding of a belief alone does not warrant any judgement. Clifford pre-empts this objection and acknowledges that whilst beliefs do not necessitate actions, they are likely to influence actions. The shipowner could have decided to check for signs of damage despite believing that she was safe; his ability to judge any relevant evidence would be greatly diminished by the fact that he already believed she was safe (i.e. confirmation bias) and the inspection unnecessary. Thus we see that “it is not possible so to sever the faith from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other.”[7]

Clifford proceeds to assert the vast implications all of our beliefs have on society, mankind, and the future generations that will inherit our ways of thinking; a belief “prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thought, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character forever.”[8] It seems that this passage would be more fitting in a mystery novel than a philosophical essay; indeed, there may well be more rhetoric in Clifford’s essay than substance. It would be terribly ironic if Clifford were purposefully using such language to encourage the reader to respond to his arguments emotionally, and thus assent to a position analogous to his own, since such emotion-driven, irrational assent is exactly what he is arguing against. But I digress; surely Clifford is merely being eloquent and passionate.

Since no belief “is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind, we have no choice but to extend our judgement to all cases of belief”[9].

Clifford’s strong rationalism rejects the reliance on anything but reason to gather and process evidence. He supports this requirement by noting that “no man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased.”[10] Thus, doubt is a requirement of objective investigation, and belief without sufficient inquiry impedes the possibility of impartial inquiry to ever justify said belief. From this, Clifford draws his conclusion (let us dub it Clifford’s Principle, CP for the sake of referencing) “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”[11], where “insufficient evidence” simply means prior to, or independently of, objective inquiry which supports the truth of the belief.

The remainder of the essay elaborates on Clifford’s notion of evidence. Evidence is empirical evidence (experience) and what is inferred from it “by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know.”[12]; it can also be “the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it.”[13]

Clifford does not rule out the possibility of religious belief being rational, when supported by evidence and reason. He does however condemn all faith, since faith is defined as involving unwarranted assent. It is obvious, though not made explicit, that Clifford’s eloquently phrased criticisms are directed primarily at religious faith; his disapproval is not so well disguised in his words. Belief is defiled “when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel of splendour to the plain, straight road of our life, and display a bright mirage beyond it.”[14] Clifford is alluding to an unjustified belief of life after death. Though his position on the evidence for God’s existence is not outlined, the above passage adequately portrays his implicit attitude towards religious beliefs.


Objection #1 : Ambiguity of Clifford’s use of “wrong”.

CP is often interpreted as a prescription of moral obligations for beliefs. Given the title of his essay, such an assumption is as understandable as it is unwarranted. Clifford is not necessarily advocating moral obligations; rather, his use of the word “wrong” in his paper is more likely to mean epistemically wrong or irrational. His essay is riddled with terminology which invokes the idea of morality, yet the word “moral” is altogether absent from the first chapter; nowhere in the essay is the term applied to any judgement of beliefs. To assert that Clifford could unwittingly avoid all mention of “moral responsibility” is to deny his obvious affinity for epic language; it follows then that the omission of morality is most likely intentional, and very cunning indeed.

Objection #2 : Clifford assumes that beliefs are under our voluntary control.

In part II of “The Will to Believe”, James raises the question of whether or not our will has any control over what we believe. His contemporaries have put forth compelling arguments for doubting Clifford’s alleged assumption that we can control our beliefs (a.k.a. Doxastic Voluntarism (DV)). Richard Feldman notes that voluntary action “is caused by an intention to perform that action…Intentions are essential to voluntary control”[15]; yet “we simply don’t, in the typical case, form a belief as a result of an intention to form that belief.”[16] The other trait attributed to voluntary action, which belief formation is accused of lacking, is the possibility of having chosen otherwise. “In light of the grounds we…have for and against a given belief, we cannot but adopt or reject it.”[17] Let us grant, then, that it is plausible that DV is completely indefensible and we have no control over our beliefs whatsoever. Could Clifford’s Argument still stand?

Surprisingly, yes. The question of whether “ought” necessarily implies “can” is so heavily debated that covering all relevant arguments is beyond the scope of this paper; suffice it to say that it is possible that we ought to adhere to CP even if doing so is beyond our capabilities. Furthermore, if obligations necessarily implied a capacity to perform said obligations, this would only render deontological discussions of belief nonsensical if we had no governance over our beliefs whatsoever.

Although it is obvious that we don’t have the same control over our beliefs as our actions, we may be able to exert an indirect influence over them. Our will cannot command an immediate change in our beliefs, nonetheless, we “can indirectly and over a period of time put [ourselves] in a position whereby [our] beliefs gradually change”[18]; incidentally, this is precisely how Clifford’s shipowner is able to discard his suspicions. One can resolve to focus only on evidence that supports a belief and disregard or shun all conflicting suggestions, thus nurturing and encouraging said belief. Such behaviour, whilst voluntary, is able to sway our beliefs; thus we can be held accountable for our beliefs, at the very least to the degree that we have such influence. Clifford himself only proposes such a degree of accountability, “he must be held responsible…inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind”[19]. If we cannot refrain from believing or disbelieving upon evidence Clifford would deem insufficient, we are simply incapable of calling our beliefs rational until we gather said evidence.

This objection fails on two accounts: firstly, Clifford’s argument could endure without the truth of DV, if we allow that intellectual obligations can stand despite our alleged inability to alter our beliefs; furthermore, we are definitely capable of indirect voluntary control over our beliefs and are responsible for them accordingly. According to James, one of the two fundamentals of religion is the promise of an improved existence if we believe[20]; this holds true for all religions. If DV is ever unequivocally refuted, the damage to religion would be far more problematic than any consequences for Clifford’s argument. Neither merit nor penalty can be warranted by an involuntary action; divorced from DV, religion becomes even more nonsensical.

Objection #3: Infinite regress argument: a problem with justification

The argument is aimed broadly the concept justification; when specifically attacking evidentialism it is formulated thus: “If I believe p on the basis of evidence for p alone, it is a question how I justify the belief that I have evidence for p,”[21] the evidence supporting this belief would then itself need justification, ad infinitum. There are several replies to this, most of which can accommodate evidentialism.

Foundationalists argue that if we are to believe anything at all there need to be basic beliefs, which are not justified on the basis of external beliefs. This is not to be confused with the view that there must be a set of necessarily unjustified beliefs. Foundationalists disagree on the requirements for basic beliefs and how other beliefs can be generated from these. The strongest formulation holds that only self-justifying, infallible beliefs can be basic, additionally, the strength of the inference between beliefs drawn from these must be infallible. Moderate views loosen these requirements: basic beliefs are those that are more probable, and inferences to other beliefs are not bulletproof. Foundationalism is the favoured response to the infinite regress argument, and it is compatible with evidentialism. Evidentialism does not specify that evidence must be external to a belief and foundationalism does not propose that the foundations are immune to justification, so co-existence is possible.

An alternative to this is severe scepticism, whereby there are no justified beliefs. Clifford’s argument can endure despite such a conclusion; in fact, he has been accused of necessitating such a conclusion and criticised for it. This will be discussed in more depth upon consideration of James’s argument.

The coherence theory of justification postulates a circular structure to of reasoning whereby a belief could constitute part of its own justification. When we follow a short string of justifications as in the infinite regress argument, the process appears linear, however, it doesn’t follow that the whole system is linear; this could be likened to the way the earth appears flat to us who experience such a small part of it. Evidentialism can survive

Objection #4 Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager, which declares that we ought to believe in God on the basis of a personal cost-benefit analysis of holding such a belief, has been associated with fideism. Pascal’s stance is that reason is incapable of either proving or disproving God’s existence and thus supplementary considerations are required to justify assent to either belief. Clifford would no doubt reply that we ought to remain agnostic in such a case; Pascal insists that agnosticism is impossible: “not choosing to believe is equivalent to choosing not to believe”[22] because it results in the same outcome upon death. God is  “infinitely incomprehensible”[23] and his existence cannot be rationalised; we can, nonetheless, rationalise the belief in him by considering the potential risks and benefits of theism and atheism.

Allowing the assertion that we must choose and are in fact capable of choosing, Pascal’s wager still fails to justify evidentially unjustified belief. Firstly, the false dichotomy of “belief or disbelief” is obvious from the vast array of postulated Gods. The wager supports the belief of all religions that promise eternal happiness equally, yet we cannot believe them all. Furthermore, he assumes that belief in God, if he were to exist, would grant the believer eternal happiness. Most religions assert this; it is nonetheless unsatisfactory to simply adopt religion’s claims about the requirements for eternal happiness and God’s character. There are many possible outcomes if God exists; “eternal salvation or eternal damnation” is another false dichotomy. Some argue that faith acquired out of self-interest would not be rewarded. The wager fails to justify holding a religious belief that is rationally unwarranted, thus failing to affect Clifford’s contention.

Objection #5: Contextualist theory of truth

Neo-Wittgensteinian contextualist Norman Malcolm insists on the necessity of unjustified and unjustifiable assumptions, which constitute the framework within which justification can occur. “Verification, justification, the search for evidence, occur within a system. The framework propositions of the system are not put to the test, not backed up by evidence.”[24] Just as Clifford accepts the uniformity of nature (“what we do not know is like what we know)”[25] to justify his trust in inference, “justification of religious claims is possible only on the basis of the groundless acceptance of some basic religious claims”[26](i.e. faith). Richard Rorty takes this view one step closer to cultural relativism with the claim “justification of belief is best understood in terms of “what our culture will let us get away with believing”…the meaning of “true” depends on the criteria of truth a particular community has established.”[27] This view has the potential to render Clifford’s position nonsensical (since we all necessarily believe on insufficient evidence) and provide faith with immunity to all rational arguments.

Such an account of truth reeks of framework relativism, renowned for being hoisted by its own petard. “To “defend” framework relativism relativistically (i.e. “according to my framework, framework relativism is true”) is to fail to defend it, since the non-relativist is appropriately unimpressed with such framework-bound claims. But to defend framework relativism non-relativistically is to give it up, since to defend it in this way is to acknowledge the legitimacy of framework-neutral criteria of the assessment of claims, which is precisely what the framework relativist must deny.”[28] Any relativist account of truth is self-refuting since it can never establish its own verity without reference to the objective truths it rejects. Contextualist theories provide an interesting account of semantics; however, when applied to the notion of truth and justification, they collapse into relativism.

Objection #6 Kierkegaard: “Truth is subjectivity”[29]

Kierkegaard’s fideism is in direct opposition to Clifford’s rationalist requirements of justification. Kierkegaard contends that the “objective reasoning” employed by philosophy and the sciences is not the only approach to understanding; the alternative, subjectivity, is the single means by which one can access religious truth. Religious truths are beyond objective reason and can only be understood after a “leap of faith” transcends the limits of objectivity. “Kierkegaard seems to say that faith is meritorious precisely to the degree that it spurns the help of reason and embraces a claim that is objectively absurd.”[30]

However, if everyone accepts the existence of “subjective truth” and begins leaping around in faith without any rational or objective requirements for the content of said faith, it is likely that they will end up with hugely different (and no doubt precarious) beliefs, all of which would be justified by Kierkegaard’s standards of subjectivity. “It would seem to follow that it does not ultimately matter what is the content of belief,” [31] and yet Kierkegaard insists on Christianity alone. “The religionist who advocates faith is, therefore, in a rather interesting position – he or she must also advocate rejecting faith”[32] in all other religions. Furthermore, religion cannot be severed from objective truths; existence is an objective quality and as such God’s existence is either true or false.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use. – Galileo Galilei

Objection #5 James: “Freedom to believe”

When the evidence is not conclusive either way and the option is genuine, James argues that it is our “passional nature”[33] which 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 risk of losing the truth.”[34] Thus, passional considerations are inevitable, and the believer is as justified in his faith as Clifford is in his demand for further evidence. James distinguishes “two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion…  We must know the truth; and we must avoid error”.[35] Clifford’s demand that we suspend judgement in such cases rests upon a value claim akin to “better risk loss of truth than chance of error.”[36] In contrast, the willing believer might “regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary.”[37] James contends that “these feelings… are in any case only expressions of our passional life”[38], as our minds are just “as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity”[39].

James does not intend to permit all beliefs – “the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve”.[40] In the vast majority of circumstances, James accepts Clifford’s ideal; however, in the case of a “genuine option”, he argues one may rationally believe upon insufficient evidence. “[A] genuine option…is of the [i]forced, [ii]living, and [iii]momentous kind.”[41] “A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live”[42]; where our willingness to act determines the liveness (or deadness) of a hypothesis. Thus they are “not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.” [43]An option is forced if it is unavoidable. Finally, an option is not momentous but “trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible.”[44]

Clifford’s preference for avoiding error above discovering truths is not a mere product of some passional “fear of error”[45]. Clifford notes that “no man holding a…belief on one side of the question…can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief, not founded on fair inquiry, unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.”[46] Schopenhauer similarly professed “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”[47] Thus, avoiding error should take precedence over discovering truth, as one’s beliefs are more likely to be true if one does not form judgement prior to inquiry.

James also argues that faith is a necessary component in the creation of particular truths, citing certain situations “where faith in a fact can help create the fact”[48].  James deems “personal relations, states of mind”[49] and notions of morality to be “cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.”[50]. James argues that a belief in faith upon insufficient evidence is rational in such cases, as it can lead to the occurrence of the fact and the truth of the belief. Upon closer examination it is clear that the proposed social situations do not require faith for co-operation; they require action. James does not need to “assume that [someone] must like [him]”[51] in order for him to show them the trust that leads to the liking; he only needs to act as if he trusts them.  He seems to think that action cannot be motivated without a firm, underlying belief; this is not so. Clifford realises that “there are many cases in which it is our duty to act upon probabilities, although the evidence is not such as to justify present belief…lest a habit of conscientious inquiry should paralyse the actions of our daily life.”[52] Moreover, if we already believe a “fact” (out of faith), we are likely to avoid the action that will bring about this fact! If I’m certain that I will succeed…why would I put in any effort at all to bring about my success, let alone any extra effort that may be required?

Even if one accepts James’ thesis, his criteria for when faith is permissible seem too relaxed. A.J. Burger provides a frightening illustration: a couple, believing their four-year-old daughter to be Lucifer, incinerate her. The option (to believe or disbelieve) was clearly live, forced, and momentous to the couple; given its supernatural nature, it could not be decided on intellectual grounds. Their belief was justified, by James’ standards; it could be argued that the action was not. However, given that they truly believed her to be Lucifer, the cause of all evil, it follows that “they would be doing the world a favour by killing him – and not if they let him get away.”[53] Their actions followed “naturally and reasonably from their beliefs;”[54] doubtless, anyone in a position to bring world peace would do so; the difference is that we don’t believe that the situation was an opportunity for world peace. They did.

Men will cease to commit atrocities only when they cease to believe absurdities. – Voltaire

“Living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider,”[55] James objects; but this is exactly the problem. James’ criteria allow any momentous and forced hypothesis we entertain to be believed, lest we forego believing truths for which there is insufficient evidence. His “freedom to believe” covers potentially infinite number of contrary hypotheses, though there can be only one objective truth. James’ thesis, whilst justifying a greater number of beliefs, (including beliefs in hypothesized truths for which there is insufficient evidence), also permits a plethora of false beliefs. Thus, his preference for believing truths paradoxically leads to a lesser ratio of true beliefs. His theory is therefore epistemically inferior to Clifford’s, which, though it may not sanction belief in all truths, endorses beliefs that are more likely to be true.

Having failed to show that faith can be epistemically justified, what remains of James’ argument is reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager – an argument for the pragmatic rationality of faith. According to James, “Religion says essentially two things.”[56] Let us say the first is X, and “the second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.”[57] If both affirmations are true but the evidence inconclusive, adherence to CP prohibits belief and the benefit it confers. Alternatively, if one adheres to James’ thesis and religion presents a live hypothesis, one can accept the truth on the basis of faith and enjoy the benefits; thus, faith is justified because it allows the acceptance of this supposed truth, and yields positive consequences. “A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth really were there, would be an irrational rule.[58] CP forbids acceptance of “truths” for which there is insufficient evidence whilst James’ thesis allows them; James concludes that CP is an irrational rule. However, James’ thesis “absolutely prevents [him] from acknowledging certain truths”[59] itself: “truths” that the evidence absolutely denies. CP forbids the acceptance of “truths” which are currently unverifiable; upon becoming acknowledged as truths, however, they are justifiably believed, for there is evidence for them.  It’s all well and good hypothesising the results for adhering to either theory given the actual truth or falsity of the proposition in question, but, as Clifford notes, beliefs are right or wrong at the time they are accepted, not in retrospect or from some hypothesised omniscient perspective whereby their truth or falsity is actually known. This is where James disagrees with Clifford, for he holds that “from whatever source a belief may come, reputable or disreputable, it is to be judged in terms of the actions which rise from it.”[60] A belief upon insufficient evidence can thereby remain pragmatically justified if it produces positive consequences; specifically “The Christian’s enthusiasm transforms passive acceptance of the universe into delight; it converts the heavy burden of righteousness into a pleasure”[61] even if it turns out to be false. Clifford’s lesser-known essay “the ethics of religion” provides extensive counterarguments for the notion that faith is in any way beneficial; Clifford’s argument also demonstrates that the personal benefits of faith are outweighed by the cost of “credulity”[62] to mankind. When belief is not based on objective evidence, rational discourse cannot align beliefs: subjectivity results in conflict. Thus, even if the notion of pragmatic rationality were allowed to rival epistemic rationality, pragmatically justified beliefs would parallel epistemically justified beliefs, insofar as beliefs based on truth yield positive consequences. The problems with allowing two accounts of rationality are far too intricate to be discussed here; at most, the damage to Clifford’s argument would be the replacement of the general term “irrational” with “epistemically irrational”, where “epistemic rationality consists in doing the right thing, everything considered, with respect to increasing…the ratio of our true beliefs over our false beliefs”[63].

Objection #4 “Epistemic considerations do not [always] trump all other considerations.” [64]

It has been suggested that even if CA successfully demonstrates our “epistemic obligation to suspend judgement about unverifiable propositions,”[65] there are non-epistemic considerations that can, at times, override this obligation. “Clifford’s principle conflates everything epistemically considered rational belief and everything doxastically considered rational belief,”[66] where “epistemic rationality consists in doing the right thing…with respect to increasing our epistemic ratio (that is, with respect to increasing over time the ratio of our true beliefs over our false beliefs)”[67]. In contrast, doxastic rationality is a more general concept involving “doing the right thing, everything considered, with respect to our believing;”[68] this incorporates, but is not limited to, epistemic rationality. Additionally, we may have moral and prudential obligations that could override epistemic obligations. Prudent beliefs are those that “maximize [our] well being or what [we] care about or what is important to [us]”[69] if we assent to them; “Pragmaticism is the hypothesis that believing in p can be justified by reference to the desirable consequences of belief in p”[70], i.e. that prudential consequences are the most relevant doxastic considerations. Famously, Pascal’s Wager provides a pragmatic argument for “rationally” believing in God despite absence of evidence. Epistemic obligations are concerned with the pursuit of truth. Feldman contends that “there is no meaningful question about whether epistemic oughts “trump” or are trumped by other oughts”[71]; “oughts” being the diplomatic equivalent of obligations. He thinks it a nonsensical notion “that there is some sort of generic ought that somehow encompasses moral considerations, epistemic considerations, and perhaps others, and then weighs them against one another to come up with an overall assessment…[a] just plain ought.”[72] Perhaps there is no overriding obligation or “ought” governing our actions; our beliefs, on the other hand, seem aimed at truth and thus dominated by epistemic obligations.

“There is no difference between believing a claim and believing it is true. When I believe p, what I believe is precisely that p is true.”[73] “There is a distinction…between a) reasons for the truth of p [(epistemic reasons)] and b) reasons for believing the truth of p ([pragmatic reasons])”[74]; only the former actually supports the truth of p. Only the former can lead to a rational belief in p; whilst the latter may make it (pragmatically) rational to induce a belief in p, “the practical rationality of the belief-inducing action does not affect the theoretical irrationality of the induced belief.[75]

Clifford’s argument does not conflate our obligations, but rather equates them – our doxastic obligations should be solely comprised our epistemic obligations. He considers the pragmatically pleasant consequences of holding epistemically unjustified beliefs and proceeds to slander them for all the damage they inflict owing to these deluded pleasures.

Aside from telepathic bandits, there have been no proposed examples where moral obligations conflict with epistemic obligations in regards to our belief.

It comes down to whether one values truth over happiness, socrates, blue pill red pill etc. Though Clifford does mention pragmatically pleasant consequences as a possibility, he, anyway, practical justifications are stupid and subjective and you don’t know the future nor can you force belief by reflecting on how beneficial it would be to hold it.

Clifford’s Argument: a more agreeable formulation

CP has been accused of being too restrictive and ambiguous; a more agreeable version of the argument can retain Clifford’s main ideas and allow for the objection of pragmatic justifications. The following 3 assertions (3A) provide a more apt, yet notably less epic, conclusion than CP:

  • No belief is immune to questioning and doubt.
  • Doubt must lead to a rational (ideally, unbiased) investigation of the evidence for and against the belief in question.
  • Following the understanding of the evidence, belief must be proportioned to the strength of the evidence supporting the truth of the belief at the time of assent, if it is to be deemed epistemically rational.

This proportionalist position allows for beliefs that are less than certain; it has also disambiguated the notion of “wrong” and “sufficient”.



Having dodged subjective and relativist theories of truth (which could have invalidated the very concept of rationality, had they been themselves coherent) and surviving as an ideal for our beliefs even though they are not under our direct voluntary control, CP emerges from the onslaught of objections largely unscathed. Widespread misinterpretation of CP necessitates the less ambiguous conclusion of 3A, equipped with a flexible proportionalist relationship between evidence and belief. Restricted to the domain of epistemic rationality, 3A also conveniently bypasses the complicated mess caused by supposed “pragmatic rationality” and emerges victorious as the theory more likely to yield true beliefs.

What remains to be said for religious belief? Inasmuch as the believer aims to correlate their religious beliefs with objective truth, their belief can be justified by rational assessment of the arguments for and against their beliefs, but only to the extent that the scales tip in favour of the truth of their religious hypothesis. The evidentialist argument put forth by Clifford and subsequently reformed in 3A does not rule out the possibility of such belief being epistemically rational; supplementary arguments for the lack of evidence for God are required to do so. One thing remains certain: faith, when defined as belief unsupported by the evidence, is always epistemically irrational.

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

– Freidrich Nietzsche


  1. Clifford, W K (1877a) “The Ethics of Belief” in Course Reader
  1. Clifford, W K (1877b), “II. The Weight of Authority” & “III. The Limits of Inference”,

The Ethics of Belief, <url=>

  1. James, William (1896) “The Will To Believe” in Course Reader
  1. Mitchell, Basil (1994) Faith and Criticism: The Sarum Lectures, Clarendon Press : Oxford
  1. Harvey, Van A. (1969) “Is There an Ethics of Belief?” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 41-58
  1. Gutting, Gary (1982) Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism, University of Notre Dame Press: London
  1. Nakhnikian, George (1996) “On Plantinga’s 1967 and 1983 Parity Defenses” in Faith, Reason and Rationality – Philosophy of Religion Today, 1996, eds. Jordan, Jeff & Howard, Daniel, Rowman & Littlefield : USA
  1. Brennan, Bernard P (1968) William James, Twayne : New York

9.      Burger, A J (1994) “An Examination of “The Will to Believe””,The Ethics of Belief,


  1. Feldman, Richard (2000) “The Ethics of Belief”, in Philosophy and phenomenological Research, Vol. 60, No. 3, May 2000, pp. 667-695
  1. Jäger, Christoph (2004) “Epistemic Deontology, Doxastic Voluntarism, and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities” in Knowledge and Belief, Proceedings of the 26th International Wittgenstein Symposium Kirchberg/Wechsel (2004) eds. Löffler, Winfried and Weingartner, Paul, Vienna
  1. Schick, Theodore Jr & Vaughn, Lewis (2002) “How to Think About Weird Things : Critical Thinking for a New Age” Third Edition, The Mcgraw-Hill Companies : USA
  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur (1850 [2004]) On the Suffering of the World, Penguin: London
  1. Siegel, Harvey (1987) Relativism Refuted, D. Reidel : Dordrecht, The Netherlands
  1. Steuer, Axel D. (1987) “The Epistemic Status of Theistic Belief” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp. 235-256
  1. Hume, David (1748), “Of Miracles”, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (online edition), <url=>

[1] Hume
[2] Clifford (1877a), p.456
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] ibid, p.457
[7] ibid, p.458
[8] ibid
[9] Clifford (1877a), p. 458
[10] ibid
[11] ibid, p.460
[12] Clifford (1877b)
[13] ibid
[14] Clifford (1877a) p.459
[15] Feldman, p. 673
[16] ibid
[17] Jäger, p. 5
[18] Harvey, p. 49
[19] Clifford (1877a) p. 456
[20] James, p. 470
[21] black: book 1 methinks
[23] fat reading, 442
[24] Gutting, p. 29
[25] Clifford (1877b)
[26] Gutting, p. 31
[27] Steuer, p. 242
[28] Siegel, pp. 43-44
[29] Kierkegaard, p. 442
[30] Mitchell, p. 35
[31] Ibid
[32] Burger
[33] James, p. 466
[34] Ibid
[35] James, p. 466
[36] Ibid, p. 470
[37] Ibid, p. 466
[38] Ibid
[39] Ibid
[40] Ibid, p. 472
[41] Ibid, p. 462
[42] Ibid
[43] Ibid, p. 461
[44] Ibid, p. 462
[45] Ibid, p. 466
[46] Clifford (1877a) p. 458
[47] Schopenhauer, p. 83
[48] James, p. 469
[49] Ibid
[50] Ibid
[51] Ibid
[52] Clifford (1877b)
[53] Burger
[54] ibid
[55] James, p. 472
[56] James, p. 470
[57] Ibid
[58] James, p. 471
[59] ibid
[60] Brennan, p. 88
[61] Brennan, p. 104
[62] Clifford (1877a) p. 460
[63] Nakhnikian, p. 212
[64] invagen book 5 212
[65] invagen book 5 212
[66] invagen book 5 pg 212
[67] same
[68] yep
[69] 7 feldman
[70] paper reading 1
[72] feldman again
[73] book 7 page 103
[74] 103
[75] 1st book reading

One Response to “Is faith Immoral?”

  1. 1 Is faith Immoral? » Surrealisations

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