O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Scepticism from Fear, or Hope from Belief?

posted by Jason Boyett

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
fear?

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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C. Michael Pilato

posted November 22, 2010 at 11:08 am


I noticed[1] some time ago that Hebrews 11:6 (NIV) says:
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Did you catch that last phrase there? Perhaps loosely interpreted, the author of Hebrews seems to allow for the possibility that God might *not* be in favor of folks seeking him. Maybe that comes at the end of a long line of what-ifs: what if the Gospel record is wrong; what if Jesus wasn’t really who he said he was; what if the Old Testament exaggerates a bit about who God is; maybe… up to maybe God doesn’t want our affection, and then beyond that even to maybe there is no God at all. At every step, faith must be applied to “get past” the possibility of error. But at any rate, it seems to me that the famous Wager was debunked, oh, about 1600 years before Blaise Pascal even formulated it.
So what to do about all this apparently requisite faith? For my part, I’m with William James on this. In my life, I’ve found that Hope is an enabler — a source of energy and motivation, and an agent of outward focus. By contrast, Fear has always served as a crippling agent in my life, sending me into a self-focused state of defensiveness. Given the choice, I’m going with Hope.
[1] http://cmpilato.blogspot.com/2008/10/pascals-wager-found-useless-news-at.html



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Joshua

posted November 22, 2010 at 11:50 am


Agnosticism has always been a flawed position ;)
God certainly does want you to seek after Him though, no question about it. I’d go so far as to say that’s His greatest desire concerning us humans.



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Charlie Chang

posted November 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm


Good pull with referencing Pascal’s Wager because that’s what this sounds like. Of course having said that, it’s kind of like intellectual and spiritual laziness to just say, “Well, I have questions, but I may as well believe in God so I don’t go to hell.” And at the same time, I want to have that child like faith.



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nnmns

posted November 22, 2010 at 2:12 pm


This tired old conversation might conceivably make some sense if there were only the two possibilities:
1.) a well-defined god
2.) that god does not exist
But in fact there are endless possibilities because there endless possible (and extreeemely unlikely) gods. As well, of course, as the more probable case of no god.
So being skeptical of any one religion or of any one type of religion is the sensible course. For, e.g. Christianity in any of its various forms to be correct it would have to be the case that there is a god, only one god, and in fact that god would have to be one of the Christian versions. If you think how many people on earth are worshiping other gods (over half of all humans) and how many have worshiped other gods and how many may in the future, the odds of a Christian god existing are quite small.
So we see the odds of some god or gods existing seem a little larger, but still there’s no convincing evidence for any god(s), and of course the various potential gods want different things from us. Some, for instance, no doubt treat worshiping a false god worse than not worshiping any god.
In conclusion, skepticism is the logical course to take, unless you want to give your money and perhaps political influence to someone who’s been misleading you for years and years.



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Joshua

posted November 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm


@nnmns
This is somehting from a message board I’m part of that’s discussing this very subject of the credibility of a Christian God amid so many other gods.
“The God of the Hebrews, writes Etienne Gilson, was “Not a God imagined by poets or discovered by any thinker as an ultimate answer to his metaphysical problems, but one who had revealed Himself to the Jews, told them His name, and explained to them His nature, in so far at least as His nature can be understood by men” (Gilson, Etienne, God and Philosophy (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1962). Plato had concluded the ultimate philosophical explanation for all which exists should rest “not within those elements of reality that are always being generated… but with something which because it has no generation, truly is or exists…” This, Gilson observes, was almost exactly what the Christians affirmed, but with one critical difference: the difference of the article. “For Moses said: ‘He who is,’ and Plato: ‘That which is…’ If God is ‘He who is,’ He is also ‘that which is,’ because to be somebody is also to be something. Yet the converse is not true, for to be somebody is much more than to be something. We are here at the dividing line between Greek thought and Christian thought… Taken in itself, Christianity was not a philosophy. It was the essentially religious doctrine of the salvation of men through Christ. Christian philosophy arose at the juncture of Greek philosophy and Jewish-Christian religious revelation… Between ‘Him who is’ and ourselves, there is the infinite metaphysical chasm which separates the complete self-sufficiency of his own existence from the intrinsic lack of necessity of our own existence. Nothing can bridge such a chasm, save a free act of the divine will only. This is why, from the time of Saint Augustine up to our own days, human reason has been up against the tremendously difficult task of reaching a transcendent God whose pure act of existing is radically distinct from our own borrowed existence… Here again historians of philosophy find themselves confronted with this to them always unpalatable fact: a non-philosophical statement which has since become an epoch-making statement in the history of philosophy. The Jewish genius was not a philosophical genius; it was a religious one[/color]” (ibid, p. 42-43, 54).”
“We moderns tend to like to suppose, on analogy with conceptual development in the natural sciences, technology, the history of philosophy etc. that surely ALL the really great ideas in religion must have developed gradually too. Sometimes, actually very many times, we do see progressive historical trajectories, whether they are called development by some or progressive revelation by others. But looking historically what we actually find at many pivotal points, pivotal for not only the history of religion, but for mankind much more generally, are mysterious singularities whose origins are as surprising, sudden, unprecedented, and mysterious as they are pregnant with significance still found being worked out by great minds for many centuries, even millennia thereafter. As John Bright and Etienne Gilson affirmed above, the Hebrew God is one such singularity. A babe born in a stable, who Christians identified as the only Expected Man in history is another, as is the explosion of belief after multiple testimonies -not just to have believed- but to have seen their crucified teacher risen from the dead, even by that teacher’s own brother who according to a report by Josephus -in one passage universally regarded as reliable by critical historians- was martyred as the leader of the Christians (Josephus was 25 years old and living in the same city, Jerusalem, at the time of James’ martyrdom. The sudden, conceptually unprecedented appearance of the concept we know as agape, fully developed and never excelled, in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is another, as was the conversion of one of Christianity’s most feared persecutors and fiercest intellectual critics, the apostle Paul, to Christ after a few strange sightless days on a road to Damascus. Some of the richest elements of our faith really seem to have just popped into existence out of nothing, as our entire universe is believed by many to have done. God can do things like that. There is reasonable warrant to suppose that He has.”
Somethin for you to chew on ;)



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Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

posted November 22, 2010 at 3:34 pm


I definitely agree with this: “…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.” I believe in diving in and giving something your all, whether it’s a faith structure, a relationship or a vocational pursuit. We have to actively counter our fears, because they have to power to grow and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
But I also think there are moments and instances of true skepticism—the type that comes from just not being able to sort out our thoughts enough to come to any logical, solid conclusion. But if we’re willing to read and think and discuss, and to remain open to the unexpected, then I think that true skepticism can only persist for a while before it becomes simply the product of fear.



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nnmns

posted November 22, 2010 at 4:09 pm


Joshua, use all the words you want but it doesn’t make one religion among many religions special except for those who are desperate for it to be special.
As for skepticism being due to fear, that’s a slander. Far more often belief is due to fear, as Christianity, e.g. is designed to engender. Skepticism is very often the cool result of weighing the evidence and realizing it doesn’t support the conclusion in question.



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Joshua

posted November 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm


Those weren’t my words, however, I do think they have some bearing on the argument. I’d argue that Christianity is indeed the MOST special religion, for many ways. Certainly it has been used as a tool for those who wish to control, but at it’s core thats not Christianity at all. I’m having a hard time seeing how you get to the conclusion that Christianity is designed to elicit fear when in fact it’s quite the opposite.



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nnmns

posted November 22, 2010 at 5:40 pm


Believe or go to Hell. That argument has persisted for most of the history of Christianity, and it’s still quite common. E.g. on B’net.
And the Hebrew god you extolled isn’t the Christian god. The Christian god sent his “son” to “redeem” us, the Hebrew god never did. The one started as the other but it became different.



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Tess Mallory

posted November 22, 2010 at 6:13 pm


Without getting into a big debate, the God of the Hebrews spoke throughout the Old Testament to his prophets and the kings and shepherds, and others, about the coming of the Messiah, his Son, who would be the redeemer of all mankind. The sheer amount of symbolism between the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament and the sacrifice of Christ fills many, many books of theology I’m sure, but there are many other examples throughout the OT of God revealing that it would be his son who would die as a man and redeemer, and then rise from the grave, proving his Godhood.
The fear nnmns talks about is largely a product of the late 18th century and early nineteenth century revival movement in which preachers focused on the dangers of “hellfire and brimstone”. Personally, I’m against ever trying to “scare” someone into the kingdom of God. Telling someone about Jesus should be an act of the deepest kind of love, revealing His love to them.
And as always, if we take the time to go back and simply read what Jesus said, we will get to the heart of the matter. He said, “Fear not, for I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” And while he gave us admonishments and teachings on the right way to live, He didn’t ever say, “Believe in me or I will fry you in hell.” He simply said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” And also, “You believe in my Father, believe also in me.” No fear. No threats. No bribes. Just the facts, ma’am. Just Him.
Good conversation, Jason. :)



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nnmns

posted November 22, 2010 at 7:30 pm


Tess it’s not at all surprising that when the early Christians wrote their stories they made them to fit into the Hebrew stories. But those who worship the Hebrew god seem adamant that no Messiah having arrived. Hence, clearly a different god.
And the argument from fear of Hell may originate from the 18′th century but it’s still in wide use. I hope that when you see someone on B’net use it, you’ll castigate them.



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Steve Douglas

posted November 22, 2010 at 9:36 pm


Eric Reitan has a thorough analysis up that critiques and essentially defends this quote. I think it’s definitely worth the read. http://thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com/2010/11/jostling-for-moral-high-ground-courage.html



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Joshua

posted November 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm


Well, “believe or go to hell,” certainly isn’t the core Christian doctrine and I’ve yet to hear a genuine follower of Christ ever use the fear tactic to win someone over. I certainly haven’t and never will. That’s not Christianity.
Tess pretty much nailed it up there with regard to the Hebrew and God and Messiah. Not to mention, they are the same person, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, co-eternal and completely equal for eternity, hence the mystery of the trinity. I can’t comment on the state of Jews who deny the Messiah, but I do know there’s just as many who do believe Jesus fulfilled the law. Don’t be so quick to use different beliefs as an excuse for invalidating the core belief ;)



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nnmns

posted November 22, 2010 at 10:38 pm


Your core belief, not mine or the majority of people in the world’s.



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Joshua

posted November 22, 2010 at 10:50 pm


Well, Christianity is the largest religion n the world, and I’ve been privileged enough to see believers all over the world and the States, and I can safely say that majority would be the correct way to describe it;) There are far fewer fire-and-brimstone preachers than one might suppose, my good sir. It may be cliche, but don’t let the few bad apples spoil the whole bunch for you.
I do recommend doing at least some research into what true Christianity is before lambasting it in such a manner; I’ve no problem with someone who disagrees even vehemently with the Faith provided they have decent grounds to plant their flag.



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nnmns

posted November 23, 2010 at 9:57 am


Christians vote in large numbers for terrible politicians (GWB is but one example), way too many try to destroy real science education because it shows what a fraud their beliefs are, they try to prevent real sex education, availability of abortion and marriage for homosexuals. They think of themselves as moral but for so many morality stops at opposition to abortion and homosexuals. And of course they train their children to believe avidly in things for which there is no proof.
I could go on, but that’s a good start on my gripes with Christianity. You really need to get your fundamentalists in hand, but you don’t.ans



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Michael

posted November 23, 2010 at 10:50 am


nnmns,
You’ve mentioned in a couple of your posts about a lack of proof and your latest post mentioned “real” science education. I’m just throwing this out there, but I think that if you really looked into the evidence from a science standpoint you’ll find there is more evidence than you realize. I’m not here to start a science debate, but I just want to challenge you to look at the evidence and honestly ask yourself questions about what you read. We’re all looking at the same information and data, it’s just how we interpret the information and data that leads us to our beliefs. I’ve struggled with doubt for a little while now, and science is honestly one of the things that strengthens my faith in God. Some websites that have challenged me are http://www.icr.org and creation.com. Check it out with an open mind. I’ve personally found that if I’m honest with myself, there is more evidence for God than for no God. Take a look if you get some time. Have a good day.



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MH

posted November 23, 2010 at 11:05 am


The number of people who believe something isn’t relevant to it being true of false. For example the geocentric universe was well accepted and also false. IT is the evidence which supports the claim that is relevant.
I’ll second nnmns that the “believe of burn” is a common among Christians. I was exposed to it growing up, and recently Rick Warren
said that while it is not PC, it is true that non Christians go to hell. Here’s a CBS news story about it:
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/08/15/opinion/main4353149.shtml



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Joshua

posted November 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm


@ nnmns
In all my years of being a believer and fellowshipping with other believers, I’ve personally never met any that conduct themselves like you describe. They’re out there, I know, trust me. Being involved in the underground metal scene and a believer means I take quite a bit of flack from those same fundamentalists;) But perhaps you should look to your own advice and take the less extreme examples of Christianity as your case study.
And I definitely have my problems with GWB, but that’s another discussion entirely ;)



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nnmns

posted November 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm


It’s not the moderates I’m worried about, it’s the extremes who want to take over our government and write our laws their way.



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Gregg

posted November 24, 2010 at 7:44 pm


I’ve always wondered if religion dares athiests to believe in anything beyond what they themselves can control.
Some take the dare, some don’t.



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nnmns

posted November 24, 2010 at 7:51 pm


Oh, we believe in gravity and many of us believe the global warming is caused or accelerated by human actions and is a threat to us all. And I believe Fox “News” is a threat to a lot of people’s decision processes. And I can’t control any of those things.
I don’t believe in invisible friends or needing to be saved and that gives me even more things to be thankful for tomorrow.



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MH

posted November 24, 2010 at 8:12 pm


Gregg, I’d turn that around and say that religion provides the sense of control (through prayer), or at least the feeling that misfortunes happen for a reason. As Victor Frankel pointed out, people tolerate suffering better when they think it is for a reason.
But if you believe only impersonal forces rule the universe, then such things are completely out of your control. This means the misfortunes that happen are essentially meaningless.



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nnmns

posted November 25, 2010 at 11:04 am


If you don’t believe in supernatural powers controlling the universe you don’t feel misfortunes are aimed at you, or due to some mystical failing of yours. On the other hand you are more able to examine your actions for real failings that brought on or made you more vulnerable to seemingly random events.



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