Does Clifford offer a convincing view of religious faith?
In his article “The Ethics of Belief (Clifford, 1877) W.K. Clifford sought to argue that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (as cited on p190). The aim of this essay is to establish whether indeed this view offered by Clifford, when considering religious faith, is convincing. In order to do this I will consider the arguments that Clifford put forward, including that which to believe anything based upon insufficient evidence always does harm and so is wrong. Such a statement is in direct opposition to those religious believers who regard their blind faith as a virtue and for whom evidence is something that is unnecessary in order to believe. Along with discussing Clifford I will detail the responses given by James who disagreed with Clifford and in response attacked his views within his own paper “The Will to Believe”. James believed instead that it is more important to achieve truth than to avoid error. Both men, in my opinion, offer strong and persuasive arguments however I do not believe that either stands without criticism, therefore throughout I will offer my own views on the foundations of their arguments, which I hope will establish, that although many of Clifford’s points are valid in particular and specific circumstances they do not offer, as proposed, a convincing view of religious faith.
Clifford gives an example in support of his argument, this example is that of a ship-owner who was about to set his ship to sea on an emigrant voyage. The ship had sailed many times before and had often undergone repairs, due to the fact she was not overly well built in the first place. Suggestion of doubts regarding the safety of the ship had been made to him and he had thought that perhaps, even though it would be at great expense, he should have the ship overhauled before she set sail. However the ship-owner quashed these doubts and managed to convince himself that as the ship had undertaken many voyages previously and without incident, then there was no good reason to believe this voyage would result in anything different. He chose to put his trust in providence which in his opinion could hardly fail to protect the seafaring families and therefore believed the vessel was safe to travel. The ship subsequently sank mid ocean resulting in the death of all on board.
The point that Clifford makes here is that the ship-owner was ultimately responsible for the death of those on board. Even though his belief that the ship was safe was sincere, it was held on insufficient evidence and therefore morally wrong. Clifford considers that even if no harm had come to the ship and passengers the ship-owner would still have been morally wrong as it is not the subsequent action based on a belief that is wrong but the holding of the belief in the first place. The belief was being held even though the evidence before him was not sufficient in order to hold that belief, instead he merely managed to stifle his doubts.
In this instance Clifford’s view is validated, his decision not to fully investigate and substantiate his belief by obtaining concrete evidence had the consequence of affecting the lives of many other individuals and families and here there can be no argument that the ship owner was morally wrong. However Clifford holds the view that there is no belief held, however trivial, that does not have an effect on the fate of mankind and it is for this reason, the want of success and survival of community, that his views are based. Clifford considers that what hurts society is by mankind being credulous and that the main danger to society is that man’s credulity should lead him to stop testing and inquiring into things for to believe without evidence would sink our society back into savagery. It is not the actions or the consequence of the belief that Clifford puts importance on, rather it is holding...
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