OPW: The Ethics of Belief

Since I’ve been writing about ignorance, I thought a quote on a similar topic was in order. This quotation is from W. K. Clifford, an atheist philosopher and mathematician, who argued that faith is both irrational and immoral. You can read the (almost) full text of “The Ethics of Belief” online, if you’re interested. It was Clifford’s work that spurred William James to write “The Will to Believe,” which was previously on “Other People’s Words.” Though I now find Clifford’s strident tone off-putting, there was a time this quote was very important to me.

No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the duty of questioning all that we believe.

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier and secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. …we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with–if indeed anything can be learned about it. It is the sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of belief and afraid of doubting.

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubt which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.


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