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Defeating religious doubt

| Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Doubt is nothing new for humanity. Neither doubt of faith nor doubt of God has burst forth from nowhere. The difference nowadays is how pervasive the doubt is and, moreover, how much it is taken for granted. This is the problem — the demand that we must doubt until we have “sufficient evidence.”

The 19th-century psychologist and philosopher William James did not understand religion to be rationally self-evident. For James, as much as for St. Augustine, Jesus and just about every saint and scholar in the history of the Catholic Church (not to mention the great thinkers of other faith traditions, from Siddhartha to Muhammed), religion was primarily about faith.

James made this point clear in a lecture he gave at Harvard, later published in the 1897 collection, “The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.” If only it was still a popular read today.

In the first few sentences, James describes his own lecture as “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James sets out to explain why it makes sense and why it is justified, to believe religiously.

First, James discusses the options we have in our lives: “to believe or not to believe.” He categorizes the options in these opposing pairs: living or dead (i.e. relevant or irrelevant), forced or avoidable (whether it is a situation in which we are forced to choose either one thing or another, or if it is a situation in which we can choose to make no choice) and momentous or trivial.

As James goes on, he says the decision either to accept God or to go on without God is a living, forced and momentous option. Such an option is, as James classifies it, a genuine one.

However, James says we encounter a common problem when attempting to engage with this genuine option. Many people think that any religious belief — belief that doesn’t have “sufficient evidence” — is a belief we should avoid at all costs.

Putting aside the question of what would constitute “sufficient evidence,” James observes plainly that very little of what we actually do is motivated by the purely logical side of our thinking, asserting, “Our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. … The state of things is evidently far from simple, and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.”

James goes on to explain humans are absolutist by instinct, individuals who “dogmatize like infallible popes.” We always think we’re right. In spite of this, James urges us to allow our beliefs to be flexible, for “there is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.” This is the foundational truth that the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes expressed in the Latin phrase, “Cogito ergo sum,” meaning, “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”

But beyond this axiom, we must have faith of some variety. There is no other belief out there that is so certain.

Amidst this uncertainty, James concludes we have to allow ourselves to believe religiously, that is, without “sufficient evidence,” because gauging what “sufficient evidence” actually is requires some sort of “sufficient evidence” in and of itself. There is no bell that goes off in our heads when we know we’ve broken through that precious space between evidence that is sufficient and inadequate. James writes:

“To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. … This command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. … If we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.”

To believe religiously in something, in anything, is an option thrust at us in the trials and uncertainties of life. It is a genuine choice we cannot walk away from because walking away is itself a choice when the option is presented to us as: “Believe religiously or go on without it.” But this isn’t just philosophical trickery. Our lives demand it. James ends his speech with a quotation from Fitz-James Stephen’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,”  which I also would like to end on:

“In all important transactions in life, we must take a deep leap into the dark.”

Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of Hemingway (English) and Hegel (German). For the next academic year, he is residing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Oxford, U.K. He welcomes your words. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Charlie

Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of Shakespeare (English) and Wittgenstein (German). For the next academic year, he is residing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Oxford, UK. He welcomes your words.

Contact Charlie