Today’s “Other People’s Worlds” is about the age-old question of belief versus atheism. It’s also a rather oddly cited quote, for which I apologize. It comes from the philosopher William James’s “The Will to Believe,” one of the most famous Christian apologetics. In it, James argues that belief (in God) is a choice that one must make, and by equating agnosticism with atheism, he says there are essentially two choices. As an apologist, James argued in favor of belief.
However, in this passage, James is quoting Fitz James Stephen who talks about the religious choices that underpin a person’s life. (I have taken some liberties with the formatting.)
I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him.
“What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them.
“…In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril.
“If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him.
“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one.
“What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”
4 responses to “OPW: The Dilemma of Belief”
William James is one of my all-time favorites. It was while I was reading him when I first discovered there was an actual difference between “religiosity” and “believing in God.” I grew up in the South, buckle of the Bible Belt, so I had never before made the divide in my mind, that God could be part of your beliefs (and be a big part) even if you totally didn’t agree with or participate in religion. Kind of changed my life.
Henry James, his brother, is my all-time favorite author. I wonder what dinners were like in their family!
“Each must act as he thinks best … ”
That is the sticking point. God gave us free will and good minds to chew this over. I feel lucky that I’ve been given the encouragement and space to think about religion, theology, and how best to follow my heart.
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