O Me of Little Faith

A friend on Facebook sent me this passage recently. It’s by American philosopher and psychologist William James in his address/essay “The Will to Believe.”

To preach scepticism to us as a duty until “sufficient evidence” for
religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in
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. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only
intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what … is the
supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof
is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through

The essay is actually an address given to the Yale and Brown University philosophical clubs in 1896. You can read the full text here.

I’m curious what your take is on this idea — that scepticism may be less of an intellectual pursuit than it is a way of giving in to our fear of being wrong. James seems to be saying that agnosticism is a flawed, unsupportable position. That it would be better to believe out of hope than to challenge that belief because we’re afraid our “religious hypothesis” might be in error.

Or is this just another way of stating Pascal’s Wager — betting on the existence of God because of the potential payoff?

What do you think?


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