Philosophy actions damaging to others, but also

Philosophy of Religion

(Q.1) Consider the following argument:

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1.  Faith is belief not based on
sufficient evidence.

2.  It is wrong to have a belief not
based on sufficient evidence.

3.  Therefore, it is wrong to have

What is the strongest objection a
proponent of religious faith could make against this argument? How might a
defender of the argument respond to that objection? Is the argument ultimately


This argument against faith is known as the evidentialist
argument, the most famous proponent of which is William K. Clifford who stated

“it is
wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient


I will briefly consider Clifford’s argument before discussing a two-pronged
objection, contesting both the first and second premises. This objection will
focus on the differences between belief and faith and the evidence requirement
put forward in premise 2. I will then deal with a potential evidentialist
response to this objection. I believe that despite strong arguments against
this theory it remains both sound and convincing.

In The Ethics
of Belief (Clifford, 1877), Clifford uses
the shipowner analogy to illustrate not only that beliefs not based on
sufficient evidence may result in actions damaging to others, but also that
even if those consequences never come to pass, the action is still wrong.
Following on from this, Clifford points out that the real blame lies with the
belief that was acted on in the first place. Some may argue that once we do not
act on the belief then surely no harm can come of it but Clifford maintains
that even if we do not act upon our belief directly it,

us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and
weakens others.”

                                                                                                                               (Clifford, 1877)

to Clifford, our beliefs are not personal but have a significant influence over
humanity as a whole, “directing common action”. Therefore, he claims, we must
protect ourselves from beliefs not based on sufficient evidence in the same way
we would from a disease which may spread to other members of a community. Not
only are we protecting other people by following this principle but also
ourselves, in that holding such a belief weakens our own judgement and
self-control going forward. Clifford believes this principle extends to faith
and asserts that those who argue that they have no time to investigate and find
sufficient evidence to support their faith,

have no time to believe.”

(Clifford, 1877)


strongest objection to be made against the titular argument, I believe, is
necessarily twofold in its approach. The first aspect of this objection relates
to the first premise (P.1), “faith is belief not based on sufficient evidence.”
Here, faith is assumed to be synonymous or at least inextricably linked with
belief, but this is not inherently the case. As Robert Audi (1991)
alleges, it is necessary to distinguish between belief and faith as although it
is possible to have faith where one has belief, that faith does not necessitate
belief. Philosophers often overlook this, as is evident, for example, in the
work of St. Thomas of Aquinas who refers to faith and belief as if the former
brings about the latter. Herein lies the flaw of P.1.  It is worth noting that Audi specifies two
types of faith; attitudinal and propositional, neither of which require belief
of the proposition at hand. Propositional faith refers to ‘faith that’ statements which, despite
appearing to imply belief through incompatibility with disbelief, are neither
reducible to nor entail belief. Propositional belief is held to more rigorous standards
of rationality than propositional faith. Religious faith may be rational even
where religious beliefs with identical content may not. Non-doxastic faith is
easily compatible with a sort of trust in God (Audi, 1991)
and this fiduciary attitude may operate as an epistemic reason for faith in
God. Trust in God may be seen as a ground of faith as, even though it is itself
a non-epistemic state, it may provide epistemic reasons for faith. (Zagzebski, 2012) It is important
however, that this trust is justified, as any other psychic attitude, by,

of conscientious self-reflection.”

(Zagzebski, 2012)

This also
touches on the second aspect of my bipartite objection; the argument that evidence
is not required to justify faith. As we see here, trust may play a primary role
in faith justification.


I will
now move on to this second, but by no means secondary, element of my objection.
This element focuses on the flawed second premise (P.2), “It is wrong to have a
belief not based on sufficient evidence.” This premise is contradicted by
Buchak (2014) as she establishes
that if one already possesses sufficiently conclusive evidence then it is not
possible to have faith;

“a person
cannot have faith in propositions of which he is antecedently certain”

(Buchak, 2014)

faith necessitates going beyond the evidence and Buchak details this through
her description of degrees of faith. For instance, I may think that X is likely
to degree 1 but I could have faith in X to degree 2 or 3, etc. Kierkegaard was
also of the opinion that religious faith must go beyond the evidence and,
taking it a step further, may even go against the evidence. (Wainwright, 1999) He supported the idea that evidence
would eliminate the risk involved in having faith, the so-called ‘leap to faith’
and, in doing so, destroy faith itself. Kierkegaard’s views here fall under the
term, fideism. Fideists deny the role of evidence in faith, but they sometimes
vary in their reasoning. Blaise Pascal, for example, takes a more pragmatic approach
to fideism. (Wainwright, 1999) Pascal postulates
that having faith in God is practically rational. In what has become known as ‘Pascal’s
Wager’, he posits that choosing to have faith in God is “prudentially
reasonable,” (Wainwright, 1999) as we have little to
lose if we are wrong but we could gain infinitely (after this life) if we are
correct.  Pascal acknowledges that religious
faith should not ideally be an act of self-preservation but an expression of a
heart that loves God. However, he dismisses this problematic aspect of his approach
by saying that choosing to have faith in God (even if initially out of sheer self-interest)
may open the heart to religious influences and encourage sincere religious faith.
William James, an interlocutor of Clifford’s, also provided support for
anti-evidentialism. James theorised that people are justified in ‘beliefs
without sufficient evidence’ when the choice between ‘beliefs’ and their
alternatives are living, momentous and forced. (James, 1896)
It was clear to James that the choice between religious faith or lack thereof satisfied
these conditions. Therefore, we could be justified in being lead to a decision
by our will or passional nature rather than objective analysis of evidence. Despite
not falling within the fideist category, James’ appeal to the passional nature
draws comparisons with Kierkegaard’s appeal to the will and Pascal’s invocation
of the sense of the heart. (Wainwright, 1999)


faced with this exhaustive objection, a proponent of the evidentialist argument
may argue that the phrasing of their premises does not contradict the assertion
that faith and belief are separate. In fact, P.1 highlights one of the key
differences between faith and belief by illustrating a trait of belief that
faith explicitly does not possess. A more complex defence is required for the
latter portion of the objection. One may make attacks on each individual
theory; for instance; in claiming the choice of faith is forced, James fails to
account for agnosticism. Another example of a specific refutation could be
against Pascal’s Wager. Pascal fails to account for outcomes involving Gods
that we have discarded in our having faith in a particular God; who is to say
there is not a God who detests irrationality who will send to Hell those who
have faith in the absence of rational evidence? (Hájek, 2017) This issue of
various potential Gods leads me to my main point of refutation. There exists
numerous rival religious systems, many of which are mutually exclusive. Often,
the adherents of these various systems make claims of justification through passional
nature and the heart and so on, and it is this similarity of appeals on which they
are all based that indicates,

“it isn’t
clear that we can rationally retain our own beliefs unless we investigate the
alternatives and discover good reasons for discounting them.”

(Wainwright, 1999)

Russell put it plainly with his teapot analogy,

“If I
were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot…nobody
would be able to disprove my assertion.”

(Russell, 1952)

goes on to theorise that if this belief was enshrined in an ancient text and
taught to children and so on, parodying religion, it would be equally justified
in its claims as any other ‘religious faith’ not relying on evidence. These particular
leaps to faith seem harmless but there is equal potential for leaps to be made
about what God thinks or dictates. This can be dangerous as without an evidence
requirement in some form, faith can be used to oppress certain groups or even
permit discriminatory laws, as seen historically with homosexuals and the
Catholic Church in Ireland.


conclude, we rely on evidence to help us mediate between different beliefs or
faiths and determine what we value. When we discard evidence, all beliefs and
faiths become philosophically equal. Falling back on faith alone, we are left
with little to justify our religious arguments other than our own subjective
preferences. When this is the case, nobody has the right to claim that someone
else’s belief is unjustified or dangerous. Without that right we risk leaving ourselves
subject to oppression, tyranny, and any number of immoral practices merely
because they are ‘justified’ by someone’s faith.