This is the fifth installment of my meandering review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part four click here.
In this section I’m going to move on through chapter 2 which, as I noted, is concerned with various topics relating to faith and reason.
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Anybody who has read widely in contemporary philosophy of religion anthologies is likely aware that it has become de rigueur to juxtapose W.K. Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief,” with William James’ famous response-essay, “The Will to Believe.” So it is no surprise that Loftus immediately offers a rebuttal to James to go with his endorsement of Clifford (I critiqued Clifford’s argument in part four of this review.)
In his response, James argues that a person can adopt a belief in the absence of evidence if it is live, forced and momentous. He gives an example that has been every bit as influential as Clifford’s ship owner, which comes in a quote from Fitz James Stephen. It is with this quote that James ends his essay. Here’s the quote:
“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 how 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.”
This is a great piece of advice and it has had a deep impact on my own intellectual formation. Readers of my book The Swedish Atheist may recognize something of this argument in chapter 31, “Feel Free to Sit on the Fence, but Don’t Get Caught in the Lava Flow” where I talk about the fact that nobody can escape epistemic risk and everyone must take a risk at some point, whether that risk is to leap or to linger. My book You’re not as Crazy as I Think also reflects this viewpoint as I argue that we can’t guarantee we shall ever gain truth, but we can seek to inculcate truth-directed epistemic virtues.
Consequently, in contrast to Clifford and Loftus with their delusional sense that they can survey the landscape of belief from a magisterial viewpoint whilst providing sufficient evidence to justify every doxastic commitment, James (and Stephen) provide us with a heady dose of epistemic realism: life is about risk. So do your best, assess the evidence available to you, and leap or linger as seems right to you.
What does Loftus find to be so problematic about James’ advice? One can guess the main problem is that James’ analysis allows the possibility that some folks will take an epistemic risk in favor of a particular religious belief. And Loftus, ideologue that he is, cannot tolerate this. In his world the only fully reasonable position is his (a hallmark, as I have noted, of fundamentalist thought patterns).
Loftus’ actual response to James consists of a series of under-developed thoughts in one paragraph on page 42. However, I see nothing in Loftus’ comments to lead us to conclude that James is wrong in his point that human finitude, fallibility and the inescapability of commitment means everyone must risk, and that epistemic risk can include belief in certain religious doctrines as well as belief against those religious doctrines.
Let’s consider two of Loftus’ half-baked responses. In the first Loftus opines, “Which god hypothesis does James want us to meet halfway? There are many gods.” (42) A comment like this suggests to me that Loftus hasn’t even taken the time to understand James’ essay. On the previous page, Loftus wrote that according to James any decision worth considering must be a live one: that is, it can’t seem obviously absurd or implausible to us. And so, the answer to Loftus’ abortive question is found relative to each individual and their particular plausibility framework from which they make provisional decisions as to what is likely to be true.
In his next “critique” Loftus quotes Nicholas Everitt who offers a response to the role James attributes to our passional nature in belief formation: “if the theist can appeal to his passional nature to justify his acceptance of theism, it seems that the atheist can appeal to his passional nature to justify his acceptance of atheism.” (Cited in 42) Um, yeah. That’s the point Loftus: every person must begin with the live options available to them, including atheists, and then reason based on those starting points whilst recognizing the inherent risk involved.
Unfortunately, it seems that Loftus is so ideologically driven in his one-sided case-building efforts that he can’t even take the time to understand what James is saying before he starts offering his rebuttals. Loftus is like a soldier who is so anxious to fight that he can’t even be bothered to figure out from which direction the enemy is advancing before he starts firing off his mortar shells.