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Part III. Ethics and Belief

Chapter XI: The Ethics of Belief

1 In the first eight chapters of this study we were concerned with traditional Christian beliefs, Catholic and Protestant, and regarding many of these beliefs we expressed doubts and reservations. In the two chapters just concluded we have been concerned with Christian ethics. But one important question about Christian ethics we did not press. Would it, or could it, approve the sort of treatment, full of doubts, reservations, and criticisms, that we have accorded to Christian beliefs? Is belief, in this region, a duty, whether the evidence justifies it or not? Or is it our duty rather to proportion belief to evidence as nicely as we can? Is there one ethics of belief for science and another for religion, or is there a single ethics of belief that holds alike in every field? These are the questions to which we must now turn.

To some persons the very idea of an ethics of belief will appear bizarre. Morality they regard as concerned exclusively with practice. If a man neglects to pay his rent, or borrows books and keeps them, or helps himself to so much as a collar-button at a department store counter, he is looked upon, and with justice, as behaving immorally. In matters of taste he is comparatively free from such restrictions. If he prefers a banjo to the best of string quartets, or the comic strips to T. S. Eliot, his choice may cause some raising of eyebrows, but hardly the suggestion of a defect in his morals. Similarly in matters of belief. The man who believes that Shakespeare was Bacon or that the woods are haunted by leprechauns may provoke slights to his intelligence, but to infer that his character is in any way questionable would seem to most people mere confusion.

This attitude is held with a curious inconsistency. There is one field, namely religion, where people do very commonly take belief to be a matter of moral concern. They would regard with equanimity the belief on the part of a son or brother that Shakespeare was Bacon, and with a somewhat puzzled amusement his belief in leprechauns. But if they were Catholics whose belief he has exchanged for Methodism, or Methodists whose belief he had abandoned for atheism, they would very probably regard the change as involving a moral lapse.

2 This looks like inconsistency, and I think it is. But the line I am inclined to take about it will be as unpopular, I fear, with the critics of this common position as with its holders. The critics will probably say that belief is a morally neutral affair and should remain as neutral in religion as in the secular field. On the contrary, I think it is neutral in neither field, that everywhere and always belief has an ethical aspect. There is such a thing as a general ethics of the intellect. The main principle of that ethics I hold to be the same inside and outside religion. This principle is simple and sweeping: Equate your assent to the evidence.

To think is to seek to know. In seeking knowledge, we assume that it is something worth having, something intrinsically good, that to miss it through ignorance or error is an evil, and that the more of it we have, the better. To court falsity is wrong, and that is what we do when we allow belief to outrun the evidence. To forgo truth needlessly is also wrong, and that is what we do when, with sufficient evidence before us, we decline to believe. Strangely enough, the rule that we should equate our belief with the evidence seems to have no exceptions. Most maxims of conduct, of course, do have exceptions. The rule that we should keep a promise must at times be broken for the sake of the over-riding good of saving a life. The rule that life should be saved must at times be broken in the interest of the overriding good of a nation. But it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which it would be right, if we could avoid it, to believe either more or less than the evidence before us warrants.

This is a large claim, and in making it we must guard against other statements that might be confused with it. We are not saying, for example, that the search for truth is one's only, or chief, obligation. Truth is a great good, but it is obviously not the only one, and sometimes it may be our duty to abandon its pursuit in order to fulfil competing obligations of a different kind, for instance, to abandon one's research at the call of national service. Again, in insisting on fidelity to truth, we are not insisting on fidelity to truthfulness. A detective may find that the only way in which he can hope to apprehend a dangerous criminal is to deceive people about his own identity and what he is doing. We are not maintaining that it is never wrong to deceive others, but that it is always wrong to deceive oneself.

When the rule is put in this form, few perhaps will deny it, or even suppose that it conflicts with their own practice. Still, the fact remains that it is not only denied at times by all of us in assuming that belief is not an affair of right and wrong at all; it has also been denied, in one form or another, by some of the most influential writers in history, by Augustine, for example, and St Thomas, and Calvin, and Luther, and Pascal, and Newman, and Kierkegaard, and William James.


3 It has been held on two grounds that belief and disbelief are not of moral concern at all. One of these is that believing and disbelieving are beyond our control, and that only what is within our control is ever a duty. The other is that only such actions as affect others for better or worse are matters of obligation, and that the conduct of our own thought is not conduct of this kind.

As for the first of these grounds, we must agree that if a kind of behaviour is beyond the control of our wills, it is idle to approve or blame us for doing it. If a man suffers from an involuntary tic, such as a twitching face, we do not condemn him for it. But another example will show that this is not the end of the story. Suppose a man comes to work some morning with a violent cold, which expresses itself in a running nose and uncontrollable sneezes and coughs. We hardly blame him for what his body is so unpleasantly doing; it would be brutal to blame him for what he cannot help; we condole with him and move away. But then suppose we find that he acquired his cold by going to an ice-show the previous evening in summer clothes; is our attitude toward him unchanged? No, it is not; we then tend to lose patience with him, and to say that if he had taken the slightest trouble, he could have avoided being the nuisance he now is to himself and others. He is not directly responsible for his sneezes and coughs, for, given his state of body, he cannot prevent them. But he is indirectly responsible, nevertheless, for with due precaution he would not have been cursed with this state of body at all.

4 Now, beliefs are rather like tics and sneezes. In some cases they are completely uncontrollable, and then to talk of duty in connection with them is absurd. If a man were offered a million dollars to believe at this moment that three and four made eleven, or that the chair on which he seemed to be sitting was the only living unicorn, he would lose the money. When a proposition is self-evident, or the evidence for it is plain, familiar, and overwhelming, belief is as automatic and inevitable in a normal man as a patellar reflex. To praise or blame anyone for belief of this kind would be silly. But a great many of our beliefs are not of this kind. They are beliefs that must be made out, if at all, by evidence beyond themselves, evidence that is in many cases extensive, conflicting, and difficult to secure. When such beliefs are proposed to us, our acceptance, doubt, or denial, will spring as inevitably out of our state of mind as do the sneezes and coughs from the state of body of the man with a cold. But we may be as truly responsible for this state of mind as he was for his state of body. Though not directly responsible for these beliefs, we may be responsible for them indirectly.

We may exert this indirect control in many ways. We may determine whether in a certain field we shall have any beliefs at all by deciding whether or not to secure the information needed for such belief. Most persons have no convictions, one way or the other, about the economic interpretation of history, or Hinayana Buddhism, or the semantic theory of truth, or the nebular hypothesis, because they have no notion what these things mean. If beliefs of any kind are to be entertained about them, the first step is to inform oneself about their meaning, and that is fortunately within our power. Of course, knowledge is not understanding, and it is understanding that is the ideal of reason. But knowledge is the condition of understanding. Much of the intellectual poverty of the world is due, not to lack of ability or to lack of potential interest, but to the mere ignorance in which minds go to sleep for lack of material to work on and incitements to work on it.

Granting, however, that a man knows enough of a subject to have opinions about it, what determines those opinions? The conviction that leaps into his mind at a given moment is a function not only of the evidence before him but also of a set of habits acquired by past acts of will and therefore modifiable by further acts. He has formed the habit, perhaps, of suspended judgement, of turning over the evidence till his mind is clear before committing himself to a decision, or on the contrary of leaping to a decision impulsively; Descartes suggested that all error sprang from the latter source and hence was in some measure culpable. A reasonable standard of what in practice shall be allowed to pass as clear is itself a slowly won achievement which one may promote, as Mill reports that he did, by deliberate application to logic. Again, opinions are so subject to influence by likes and dislikes that unless one has considered how these affect belief and made some effort to counter them, one's beliefs may be ridden with prejudices. A host of other more or less controllable factors enter in. Can one hold a suggestion quietly in mind while it sprouts its implications? Is one's real interest, when one thinks on a certain subject, the interest in seeing it as it is, or in showing one's independence of common opinion or perhaps in scoring off an opponent? Is one given to analysis and argument, or does one detest such activities? Is one habitually loose in putting thoughts into words? Of course we do not think of these factors when a decision or belief is called for; we simply respond as our state of mind at the moment dictates; our opinion no doubt seems like a simple function of the evidence before us, and therefore the sort of automatic response that has no moral complexion whatever. It does have such a complexion nevertheless. Its clearness, its definiteness, its promptness, its cogency, its fairness, not improbably its very existence, are dependent on processes that spring from our wills.

A man who is disposed to believe in the animal origin of man but would rather not believe in it because he thinks it degrading may show surprising resources in circumventing the evidence. He can fix his mind on the degrading aspects of the belief; he can concentrate on the evidence against it and ignore the evidence for it; he can attend to the frailties and vulgarities of those who have advocated it and the nobility of those who have opposed it, until the mass of factors tending to disbelief outweighs those on the other side and he finds that his automatic response has changed from positive to negative. So far as this is possible, his belief is under the control of his will, not directly indeed, but indirectly.

The first objection, then, to an ethics of belief, namely that belief is involuntary, is not very compelling. It does obviously hold of certain classes of belief. It holds of perceptual beliefs such as that this is a table and that is a tree. It holds again of self-evident beliefs such as that a straight line is the shortest one between two points, or perhaps that proposition q follows from proposition p. When such beliefs are proposed to us, acceptance is so automatic that belief and evidence seem to be one. But the farther the belief is removed from the evidence, and the more complicated and divided that evidence becomes, the more fully is the belief determined by habits that are under our control. And the beliefs that fix our positions on major issues are of the latter class—our beliefs about politics, morals, education, economics, religion. To say that we hold no responsibility for our beliefs on these things because they are involuntary is clearly untrue.


5 What about the second objection? This was that, since the beliefs we form in the privacy of our own minds make no difference to others either for help or for harm, they are no one's concern but our own, and we may indulge in them or not as we please. There are two distinct questions here, the question of our duty and the question of society's right.

Are our beliefs of enough social importance to make our habits in regard to them a matter of moral concern? If a choice or belief makes no difference to anyone in the way of good or evil, it does not seem to be of moral moment. If there are two paths to one's office of a morning, and the consequences of taking them are exactly the same, no moral choice is involved. Is it not similarly true of beliefs that they tip no balances of good or evil and hence are without moral complexion?

No, it is not. To be sure, when we call to mind some routine act of assent, particularly if it is in agreement with what everyone believes, we may be unable to see that it has made any difference anywhere, and probably it has in fact made little. But one must be wary here. Though the difference made by a belief is often of an impalpable kind, consisting in the confirmation or weakening of general habits of belief, still the fabric of belief in which we live is sustained or dissolved by such acts of acceptance or dissent. This fabric, as a whole, is of vast importance; it determines the cultural level of the community. Every community has a Weltanschauung, a system of beliefs which cover all the main problems of life, and constitute the common sense of that community. Many of these beliefs are universal and incorrigible, since experience forces them on all alike—beliefs about the value of food and drink and the care of children, beliefs about the number and the round of the seasons, about the uses of fire and water. But when communities go beyond these elementary beliefs, they tend to fabricate worlds of their own. Socially, the Indian Brahmin lives in a different world from that of the Nebraska farmer; religiously, the Burmese Buddhist lives in a different world from that of the Mussulman in Bagdad or the Catholic in Madrid. Scientifically, an Eskimo village lives in a different world from that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To each of these parties, their own world seems the only real one, to which any fundamental challenge seems merely absurd. Most men live like raisins in what Bagehot called a cake of custom.

Now, some of these intellectual worlds are far more advanced, and more rapidly advancing, than others. It is perhaps dangerous, if there are anthropologists about, to assert that anything is really better than anything else, but they might do well to investigate whether this doubt or denial is not part of their own cake of custom. At any rate, I shall be so rash as to suggest that the intellectual world of, say, the London Athenaeum is a better world than that of a headhunting council in Borneo, in the sense that it is richer in scope and more accurate in its reflection of fact.

How has it come to be so? Part of the answer, certainly, is that whereas among backward people the fabric of belief and custom tends to be so rigid as to keep the individual mind fixed like a fly in amber, in a group that is progressive the medium is kept from solidifying by the constant beating of small individual wings. Indeed, in some remarkable societies, like that of fourth—century Athens or of eighteenth—century Edinburgh, the free and critical exercise of mind has itself almost become one of the mores of the tribe. In such a society every man, as regards some part of his belief, is a member of ‘his majesty's loyal opposition’ and is not ostracised but respected for his dissent. Not, to be sure, that there is anything creditable in dissent as such. If that is not something to be condemned in itself, as it was among those ancient Locrians who, when a man proposed a change of laws in their assembly, kept a rope round his neck to swing him by if his proposal was rejected, neither is it a virtue, as it is for so many village atheists and for orators in Hyde Park. What is creditable and socially valuable is not the mere belief in this or that but the having arrived at it by a process which, had the evidence been different, would have carried one with equal readiness to a contrary belief.

Now, such a habit of mind is bound to come sooner or later into conflict with communal orthodoxy. Why so bound? Because, unhappily, much of the fabric of belief in which we live is almost certainly false. How do we know this? By reflecting that the intellectual worlds that modern communities live in are inconsistent with each other, and that where there is such disharmony there must be error on one side or the other. Whether the error lies with us, only reflection can reveal. Whether this reflection will go on freely and with common encouragement, or furtively and sluggishly, depends on whether the intellectual climate favours the critical use of one's mind. And in the end that climate depends on the multitude of little people like ourselves.

6 We all count in our various degrees. Some ‘quarto and folio editions of mankind’ have counted enormously; one need only refer to what Copernicus did to the older astronomy, what Darwin did to the older belief about human origins, or what Gandhi did to untouchability. In these cases, where a conspicuous lead was given, many promptly followed. But many did not, and it is instructive to consider why. The reason was not that the new belief was so difficult to understand, nor merely that vested interests were piled high on the other side; many who failed to follow would have profited by doing so. The root difficulty is the sheer inertia of human thought. It sometimes seems as if the pragmatists were right that men never reflect until there arises some block to their activity which forces them to it. In fact this is not true, for men do think at times from the sheer interest in knowing. Nevertheless, denken ist schwer; conformity is easy; even reformers with a clear case and the greatest courage commonly get their case accepted only when they themselves are memories. Beliefs that, attended to in detachment, are obvious, still have to fight their way against mountainous sluggishness, as we may see in the slow recognition of the rights of women and of the cultural irrelevance of one's colour.

Unhappily one cannot, by choosing, be a Darwin or a Gandhi. But one can at least resolve that one will not form part of the automatic resistance movement when some Darwin or Gandhi does appear. If people generally did that, if they reached the point where it was as much a matter of self-respect for them to have reasons for the faith that was in them and to be ashamed of being unreasonable and gullible as it now is to wear clothes that are in fashion and to have acceptable manners, civilisation would be transformed. What we believe is less important than its source in intellectual habit. Edward Caird used to say to his students that it was important that a belief should be true, and important that it should be reasoned, but it was more important that it be reasoned than that it be true. Beliefs that spring from reflection, even when false, have behind them the means of their own amendment.


7 Granting now that my beliefs are of importance to society, does that imply that society has the right to step in and tell me what to believe? Here the answer must be a firm No. On this answer the socialist politics of the Hegelians and the individualist politics of Mill would unite, though for different reasons. Green and Bosanquet, admitting that the character of one's thought did make a difference to others, still held that society should keep its hands off, on the ground that only if we were allowed liberty to make our own mistakes should we ever become responsible minds. This seems to me the sound view. Mill would agree, but he sometimes based his claims to freedom on another ground. Society was justified in interfering with our conduct, he said, when that conduct affected society, but not when it affected only oneself. And our own beliefs and tastes did not, he suggested, affect others in any important way, as our actions did. Hence they were not society's concern, but solely our own. This is dangerous doctrine. It implies that, if the beliefs of the individual can be shown to make an important difference to society, society has the right to step in and attempt their regulation. I do not think this follows. We may owe a duty to another which he would be most imprudent to try to extort from us by compulsion, and for society to attempt compulsion upon our beliefs would be doubly mistaken. (1) It would be imposing a requirement it could not properly enforce, since it cannot invade a mind and extirpate its beliefs; and (2) by trying it would probably kill the goose that lays its most precious eggs. What we owe to society and society may rightly ask of us is not passive acceptance but active reflection, the thought that brings intellectual advance; and this is destroyed if the right to free questioning is denied.


8 The two main objections to taking belief as a matter of morals, namely that it is involuntary and that it affects ourselves alone, appear to be unsound. But to some the conclusion may still seem paradoxical. ‘People surely are not to be lauded or condemned for their beliefs,’ it will be said. ‘We may call their actions wrong because they produce evil effects or because they spring from evil motives. But a belief is not an action. One cannot say that it is duty to believe or disbelieve, or that a certain belief is one that a man has no moral right to entertain.’

But is this strictly true? Take a famous case. Many years ago in Spain there was a brilliant but modest and devout young man who, though the son of a distinguished house, gave up his worldly prospects to live a life of austere service in a Dominican convent. Being of great ability and earnestness, he was given increasingly large responsibilities, till at sixty—three he was made inquisitor—general for Spain and all her possessions. In the remaining years of his life this earnest and devoted man, whose name was Thomas Torquemada, put to death by fire some two thousand persons who could not believe as he did, many of them after prolonged torture. Was this wrong? Most of us would say that it was hideously and atrociously wrong.

But why precisely? When an act is set down as wrong, it is usually because of bad consequences or a bad motive. Suppose that in this case you fix upon the consequences, which included the excruciating suffering in mind and body of many good men and women. Torquemada would have admitted the suffering. But he would have pointed out that in his view the consequences included very much more; they included the cleansing from Spain of human plague—spots from which a pestilence was spreading, a pestilence that threatened to carry large numbers of persons to perdition and was averted cheaply by this relatively small number of deaths. So far as consequences were concerned, the balance was therefore good. As for motive, the highest of all motives is the sense of duty, and this Torquemada felt strongly. One may say that a human being should have some humanity as well as a sense of duty. He would probably reply, following Augustine, that he was doing a genuine kindness to the people he sent to the stake. If they continued heretics, they would suffer agonisingly and eternally in hell; so far they had resisted everything that might, by inducing them to recant, have prevented their going there; there was some chance that, if put on the pyre and burnt by a slow fire, as they not infrequently were to give more time to repent,1 they would renounce their errors; and was not an hour or so of fire in this life a low price at which to purchase exemption from an eternity of fire hereafter?

This is a very strong case. Grant Torquemada his premises, and the conclusion follows irresistibly that torturing and burning people may be a duty and a kindness. You can hardly say he was a wicked man for living up more courageously than others to what he and they believed in common, or for acting sincerely in what he believed to be the interest of his victims. We cling, nevertheless, to our conviction that he did wrong, and atrocious wrong. And the question presses more urgently than before, where does the wrongness lie?

9 I see no escape from the answer that he had no right to believe what he did. That his action would cause excruciating suffering and death to many was certain; the belief on the strength of which he caused it no responsible mind has any right to call certain. We commonly say that if a man sincerely believes something he ought to live up to it, and we are following a false scent if we condemn him for loyalty to his convictions. But we may justly insist that if what he believes calls for torture and slaughter he should have excluded all possibility that he might be mistaken before applying the rack and the torch. We may concede that there is small harm in some beliefs, in the belief of a friend of mine, for example, that a minute shoe he once picked up in Ireland was a fairy's shoe. There may be no great harm even in believing, as another and kindly friend of mine did during the war, that all Germans should be exterminated, if the belief is held in the half—whimsical way which makes it inconceivable that it should ever be acted on. But as the evil entailed by holding a belief grows greater, so does the responsibility of holding it, and when that evil is overwhelming and unquestionable, the belief too must be unquestionable or the act is fiendish. ‘After all,’ as Montaigne said, ‘it is rating one's conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them’.

It is not good enough to plead that one is sincere in one's belief; there are some wrongs to mankind for which mere sincerity is a totally inadequate excuse. Torquemada was very probably sincere in his belief that heretics should be exterminated, just as Hitler may have been sincere in believing that Jews should be exterminated. But that does not make their beliefs the less mistaken or their victims the less dead. Sincerity and dutifulness only make wrong more inevitable when they are the tools of fanaticism; as Grattan said of intolerance, ‘conscience, which restrains every other vice, becomes the prompter here’.

No doubt such fanaticism as this is more than merely intellectual error; one would probably find in such natures dark strains of hatred and sadism which predisposed them to their beliefs; and it may be said that their beliefs are the symptoms and rationalisation of evil tendencies which themselves are what we condemn. I am sure there is much truth in this. But there are many persons, after all, who feel such hatreds without acting on them; it was the belief that in these cases raised the floodgates, whereas a contrary belief would have kept the flood in. I am not questioning that the distortion of beliefs from some impulses is worse than from others; I am saying that where great human goods and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral the greater the stakes.

10 We have probably said enough to make clear that belief and disbelief are matters of moral concern. We now turn to the more controverted question: Granting that they are so, what is the rule that should guide us? It may seem at first glance that there is no problem here at all. ‘Surely the only possible rule’, one may say, ‘is to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false’. And of course that would be the rule if we were in a position to know what was true and what false. But the whole difficulty arises from the fact that we do not and often cannot. What is to guide us then? Sometimes what seems to us true conflicts with what authority says is true; sometimes what the evidence suggests as true is something that will make ourselves and others very unhappy; sometimes on pressing issues the evidence is conflicting. In such cases what are we to believe?


11 What makes this issue a live one for many persons is that two of the great disciplines of our Western culture, science and theology, have tended to give opposing answers to it. The answer of science is the simpler. It was formulated by T. H. Huxley as follows: ‘it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.’2 It has been put by Bertrand Russell in the form: ‘Give to any hypothesis which is worth your while to consider just that degree of credence which the evidence warrants.’3 It was put even more uncompromisingly by another eminent scientist, W. K. Clifford: ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.’4

The scientist is trained to scepticism. In his own province, he ties his self-respect to his power to tell the difference between an unfounded conjecture, a reasonable hypothesis, an accepted theory, and an established fact, and to give to each the credence that it merits. A young scientist is secretly rather pleased if he is regarded as so hard—headed that, like Charles Lamb in one of his whimsical moods, he would refuse to admit that two and two were four until he knew what use you proposed to put it to. If he is a sociologist, and you remark that the American police and priesthood are recruited chiefly from the Irish, he wants to know whether any statistical studies cover this point, and, if so, what proportions of these two classes are in fact drawn from this national group. If he is a biologist, and you remark that American intelligence has risen as a result of general education, he will point out that, so far as intelligence is an innate character, there is no good evidence that education can improve it as it passes from generation to generation; and if you cite the opposite conclusions of Professor Kammerer, he will not improbably illustrate the present point in two ways at once, by pointing out that Kammerer had been too uncritical in his procedure and that when it was brought home to him that he had allowed one of his students to deceive him systematically, the unfortunate man, unable to face the blast of ridicule, took his own life.

Indeed, as is suggested by this case, the scientist's pride in refusing to go beyond the evidence may easily be carried too far. Sometimes it is carried so far that he falls over backward, and either concludes before examining the evidence that it can prove nothing—a popular attitude of American psychologists toward psychical research—or disqualifies it by preconceived notions of what evidence should be, as witness those positivists who declared it unscientific to believe in other minds. But I think that such extremes would be conceded by most scientists to be inconsistent with the scientific ideal. That ideal is to believe no more, but also no less, than what the evidence warrants.


12 When we compare this attitude of antiseptic caution with the attitude approved and indeed exacted by the religious teaching of the West, we find a startling difference. Professor D. M. Baillie has pointed out that faith, comprising a double attitude of belief and trust, occupies a place in the Hebrew—Christian tradition that is unique among the religions of the world.5 What is insisted on is not the withholding of belief till the evidence warrants but, on the contrary, the embracing of belief, whether intelligence is satisfied or not. In the eighth century BC we find Isaiah saying to King Ahaz when Judah was threatened with destruction by the Assyrians, ‘If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established’.6 This particular note, sounded then for the first time in the Biblical word, was struck thereafter loudly and insistently; indeed if the fortunes of the people went awry, it was commonly laid to their want of belief; ‘they believed not his word, but murmured in their tents…’; ‘they believed not in God and trusted not in his salvation’.7 The two attitudes mentioned here, of belief and trust, were not usually distinguished; thinking, as a purely theoretical activity with ends and standards of its own, had none of the attraction for the Jews that it had for the Greeks; what was demanded was the complex attitude later described as faith, in which intellectual assent was blended with other attitudes, notably the trust a child feels in a father, a spirit of obedience, and the courage and hopefulness that come with unquestioning trust.


13 The duty of such unquestioning acceptance is stressed even more strongly in the New Testament. The teaching of Jesus himself on this head is less than certain. To be sure, some very unqualified statements about it are attributed to him. ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’8 Again, when Thomas doubted and asked for palpable evidence that it was his Master who was before him, he was rebuked for his unbelief and told, ‘Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed’. But it has been pointed out that neither of these passages is certainly authentic. The first occurs in a section at the end of Mark which is plainly an addition from another hand, and the second occurs only in the latest of the accounts, and the least reliable historically, the gospel of John. There is no doubt, however, that Jesus stressed the importance of belief. He healed the centurion's servant, saying ‘as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee’;9 to a man who brought a son troubled with a demon he said, ‘If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth,’ and when the father replied, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief,’ he cast the demon out.10 Repeatedly he said to those whom he healed, ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole’.11 It seems clear that in such passages Jesus was not referring to mere intellectual assent; he was thinking of faith and belief much as the prophets did, as something exercised by the whole man, in which the belief accorded by intellect, the trust accorded by feeling, and the obedience accorded by will were not distinguished. We can only believe that Jesus was not greatly concerned with, or interested in, those processes of observation, analysis, and inference that now pass under the names of science and philosophy, a fact that is the more noteworthy because the Greek language, presumably carrying with it intimations of the theoretical interest so characteristic of the Greeks, must have flowed round him rather freely. How much we should give for some recorded conversation between him and a Greek like Socrates! To be sure, there is something incongruous in picturing him as engaged in dialectical passages—at—arms with speculative opponents; his emphasis on childlike trust suggests rather the prophet and poet than the argumentative rationalist. Still, what he would have said about the intellectual pursuits of an Einstein or a Frazer, or the intellectual scruples of a Huxley or a Clifford, we do not know.


14 But we do know pretty clearly the attitude of St Paul, and in this particular province it was the teaching of Paul rather than that of Christ himself that proved decisive in the thought of the West. There are two distinct strains of doctrine running through Christian history, one coming from the synoptic gospels and stressing salvation by goodness, the other coming from Paul and stressing salvation by faith. Neither emphasis means to be exclusive, though their difference is important. Paul was a man of some learning who, though a Jew, wrote in Greek and probably read his Old Testament in Greek. His city, Tarsus, had a university in which Hellenistic philosophy flourished. He knew the Greek passion for speculation and argument. And knowing it as few others of the early Christians did, he explicitly repudiated it. The wisdom he stressed was sharply contrasted with ‘the wisdom of this world’. ‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.’12

‘For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?’13 ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’14

The road to belief for Paul lay not through the thickets of theological disputation but around them, by a path open to ‘babes and sucklings’. Indeed if this path had not been open, we should all have met disaster, for it is by such faith only that we are ‘justified’ and ‘saved from wrath’. Paul's emphasis on faith was not universally accepted in the early church. As Westermarck points out, the epistle of James ‘looks like a definite polemic against Paul's teaching of justification by faith only…’;15 ‘faith without works is dead’, it says; ‘the devils also believe, and tremble’.16 But the Pauline emphasis is seen again in the classic, though somewhat cryptic, account of faith in the epistle to the Hebrews as

‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God… without faith it is impossible to please him.’17 ‘For whatsoever is not faith is sin.’18

15 Little by little, in the hands of imperfectly enlightened writers, this doctrine was developed into a hard requirement that no matter what the evidence one might suppose one had, assent must be given to certain tenets of the creed as a condition of salvation. ‘To no other has Christian orthodoxy owed so much’ as to Tertullian, ‘a lawyer by profession and temperament [who] renounced the liberty of Christ for a tradition in doctrine and morals more rigid than Pharisaism,’ ‘a Puritan, whose decent instincts were repressed and heavily charged with Sadism.…’19 He seems to have exulted in believing things that his reason outlawed; credo quia impossibile est. Lactantius took a similar view. ‘If anyone out of Noah's ark could escape the deluge,’ said Cyprian, ‘he who is out of the Church may also escape’. Fulgentius held that ‘without a shadow of doubt all Jews, heretics, and schismatics will go to eternal fire’. ‘In the third century’, says Canon Raven, ‘truth was something to be sought; in the fourth something to be understood; in the fifth something to be accepted’.20 Augustine described heresy as not only blasphemy but murder, the murder of souls, and therefore deserving of the death penalty. ‘What is more deadly to the soul’, he asked, ‘than the liberty of error?’ To such minds, ‘Scepticism,’ as Santayana says, ‘instead of seeming, what it naturally is, a moral force, a tendency to sincerity, economy, and fine adjustment of life and mind to experience—scepticism seemed a temptation and a danger’.21

Unfortunately Augustine's view of what Christianity asks of the intellect became, under his vast influence, the official view of the Catholic church, and it remains so. Pope Gregory XVI, repeating in a bull of 1832 the words of Augustine we have just quoted about heresy as the murder of souls, took occasion to denounce what he described as a ‘most pestilential error,’ ‘that absurd and erroneous opinion, or rather that form of madness, which declares that liberty of conscience should be asserted and maintained for every one’.22 Protestantism has granted a greater latitude to thought and conscience than Catholicism, as one would expect of a movement that made so much of private judgement, but its record is most inconsistent. The early reformers were anything but tolerant. ‘If, outside of Christ, you wish by your own thoughts to know your relation to God,’ said Luther, ‘you will break your neck. Thunder strikes him who examines.’ When Calvin sent Servetus to the stake for his wrong views about the Trinity, he had the cordial approval of Melanchthon and most other Protestant leaders; and John Knox argued that those who allowed active disbelievers to remain alive were themselves incurring the divine wrath. ‘In the seventeenth century the Scotch clergy taught that food or shelter must on no occasion be given to a starving man unless his opinions were orthodox.’23

It is needless for our purpose to go into historical detail; what we are interested in is the view of the ethics of religious belief that has prevailed in the West during the greater part of its history. Regarding this we cannot do better than to quote the sentences in which Lecky, in his great work on the rise of rationalism, summarises a long discussion:

‘Until the seventeenth century, every mental disposition which philosophy pronounces to be essential to a legitimate research was almost uniformly branded as a sin, and a large proportion of the most deadly intellectual vices were deliberately inculcated as virtues. It was a sin to doubt the opinions that had been instilled in childhood before they had been examined. It was a virtue to hold them with unwavering, unreasoning credulity. It was a sin to notice and develope to its full consequences every objection to those opinions, it was a virtue to stifle every objection as a suggestion of the devil. It was sinful to study with equal attention and with an indifferent mind the writings on both sides, sinful to resolve to follow the light of evidence wherever it might lead, sinful to remain poised in doubt between conflicting opinions, sinful to give only a qualified assent to indecisive arguments, sinful even to recognise the moral or intellectual excellence of opponents. In a word, there is scarcely a disposition that marks the love of abstract truth, and scarcely a rule which reason teaches as essential for its attainment, that theologians did not for centuries stigmatise as offensive to the Almighty.’24


16 What broke the hold of this system was the birth of a conviction that there was such a thing as an ethics of the intellect, and that those who followed it should be encouraged, not chastised. This was implicit in the arguments of the reformers, however reluctant they were to recognise it; for unless a man was justified in following such inward light as he had, Protestantism had no ground to stand on. Little by little, and with painful struggle, the principle won its way that when one's own considered insight conflicted with the authority of a great institution or of common belief, one had a right and even a duty to respect that insight. Modern thought began with an insistence on this principle by Descartes, who in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind laid down as the justification of belief not authority but one's own ‘clear and distinct perception’. Descartes was a Catholic, and tried to remain in the good graces of the church, but his works were put on the Index; M. Maritain regards him as the chief architect of intellectual disaster.25

Descartes’ independence was re—enacted by two great Englishmen, an earlier and a later contemporary of his own. For Bacon, who was even more suspicious than Descartes of older traditions, ‘the very contemplation of things as they are, without superstition or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself more worthy than all the produce of discoveries’. And the plodding, honest John Locke gave it as his opinion that ‘to love truth for truth's sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed—plot of all other virtues’. These writers also have found their place on the Index. The eminent Papal apologist De Maistre described Bacon's thought as ‘false and dangerous’ and wrote that ‘in the study of philosophy, the contempt of Locke is the beginning of wisdom’.26 One may scorn Locke's conclusions if one wishes, but one scorns his spirit at one's peril. His great book is not only a classic of philosophy; it is in a sense a moral classic, by reason of the transparent disinterestedness of his sober and honest mind. It captivated Voltaire, and through his demonic energy helped the French revolutionists to pry up the lid of Pandora's box. Many repellent forms fluttered out of that box. But it was found when they had settled that the hold of authority was conclusively broken.


17 As one looks back over this long struggle of intelligence for freedom, it is hard to deny that there has been a real conflict of principle, that while the scientific mind has on the whole, though with many lapses, held it wrong to exceed the evidence before it, the religious mind has held that there is one great exception, and that in this exceptional case it is not only a right but a duty to give one's belief a freer rein. Indeed Dean Sperry has said that ‘nine persons out of ten who profess and call themselves Christians… still hold that if some newly discovered or formulated truth is incompatible with statements embedded in religious tradition, it is incumbent upon them to ignore the truth and hold the faith.’27

Many defences have been made of this conception of faith. Faith, it is said, is a different state from ordinary belief; it contains its own kind of self-justifying insight; it carries an assurance not based on reasoning nor open to its criticism. This has been a repeated contention of ‘existentialist’ theologians, and we have examined several forms of it in the theologies of Luther, Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Barth. In none of these forms was a credible account provided of the relations between the insight of faith and the insight achieved by natural faculties. Sometimes the apologetic becomes a defence of mysticism. But mysticism is open, I think, to a similar kind of criticism; a brief indication of my own attitude toward it will appear later in this volume. Sometimes, again, the techniques of current linguistic philosophy are invoked. The language of the religious man is declared to be a natural and legitimate language because it refers to authentic experiences of reverence, prayer, and exaltation, and when he uses such language he is as little open to rational criticism as when he talks of tables and chairs. This sort of apologetics is singularly unconvincing. No one doubts that religious language refers to experiences that actually exist. The question of importance is whether these experiences show the further existence of the Deity which they presuppose. To suggest that the answer to the former question is also an answer to the second is a logical howler.

Whether there is some other way in which the faith experience can attest the reality of its putative object we cannot here inquire. The question that concerns us is that of the right intellectual ethics for those who cannot claim such special illumination. Ought they to believe where they do not see? Many of those who would answer Yes would add that their answer is the one required by Christianity. Since this answer is clearly in conflict with the rule of science, let us ask how those who accept it would justify it. There have been various ways, and it would be idle to try to look at them all. So let us take for closer scrutiny the view of a distinguished thinker who felt with equal force the claims of science and religion, and tried hard to do justice to them both, William James.


18 James was a scientist himself; he knew the rules laid down by Huxley and Clifford to guide the belief of scientists, and he deliberately rejected them. This was partly because, in the light of what he knew of psychology, which was certainly considerable, he thought their rules naive. They assumed that beliefs were far more largely a matter of reason and far less a function of wish, will, impulse, hope, and fear than they are or can be. Though this theme of James had already been developed by Lord Balfour in his Foundations of Belief it still had at the turn of the century an air of novelty that it would not carry today. In recent years we have perhaps had a surfeit of this doctrine, and the readiness with which some amateur psychoanalysts would now reduce all speculative beliefs to rationalisations would not improbably horrify James.28 However that may be, he thought the high talk of the intellectualists about the sin of allowing one's belief to be affected by one's desires was unconscious cant. Such talk itself, he thought, was an example of the very thing it protested against. If we look behind ‘the snarling logicality’ of such men as ‘that delicious enfant terrible, Clifford,’ and his insistence, ‘with somewhat too much of robustious pathos in the voice,’ that we commit ourselves to no belief of any sort that the universe does not extort from us by irresistible evidence, do we really find the delicate balance of judicial impartiality? Do rationalists hold the beliefs they do about religion because an impartial standard requires them, or are they insisting on a certain standard because that would justify their beliefs? James thought it was the latter. ‘When the Cliffords tell us how sinful it is to be Christians on such “insufficient evidence”, insufficiency is really the last thing they have in mind. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other way.’29

This approach is not wholly convincing. It is true that many of our beliefs are determined by causes rather than by reasons, but to show that they are so determined is not to show that they ought to be, unless indeed we cannot help ourselves and all our beliefs are puppets pulled about by wires of prejudice. Of course, if that is true, to ask that anyone be reasonable is absurd. But James does not hold that view. He holds that within limits it is possible to be reasonable, to suspend one's belief till one has evidence and then to adjust it to the evidence. And if such rational beliefs are possible, James would have been more generous, and perhaps more fair, to his rationalist opponents if he had admitted that their belief and their ethics of belief might fall among these. I see no good ground for thinking that the negative conclusions of such men as Clifford, Huxley, and Russell are examples of the will not to believe rather than to follow the evidence, and it would be hard to prove it if they were. The same holds of their belief about the ethics of belief. To be sure, James seems to think he is scoring at the expense of ‘intellectuals’ if he shows that the interest in precise and grounded knowledge is itself an emotion or passion, for then the intellectual must admit after all that passion is leading him about by the nose. But this is a hollow sort of victory. The love of truth is no doubt an emotion, but it is the one emotion that takes one toward truth as toward a magnet. And even of this emotion the rationalist would point out that it has no part in justifying or establishing belief; it sustains the search for knowledge, but whether a belief should be accepted or not depends entirely on whether it passes intellectual tests.


19 This James denies. That is the point of his famous essay on The Will to Believe; evidence is not the only thing that justifies belief. Regarding most problems he would agree that we should suspend belief till the evidence comes in, and in many cases we could quite well suspend it permanently. There would be no sense in labouring for a decision as between sub-and supra-lapsarianism, because neither position is today a live or plausible hypothesis; nor would there be any sense in entertaining a conviction about the number of hairs on one's head, for that is not worth finding out; nor would there be any point in rushing to an opinion about the nebular hypothesis; that can wait.

All this is obvious enough. But now suppose you are confronting an option that unlike the first is a live option, unlike the second is momentous, and unlike the third is forced. Suppose, to take James's example, you are confronted with the option whether to believe in God or not. Then what should you do? People around you draw you both ways; the issue is clearly a live one. It is momentous because, at the least, it means much to your happiness. And it is forced, for you can hardly dodge it; you have to take some attitude; you have to act either as if God existed or he did not; even to decline the choice is to commit yourself, since it is in effect to act as if he did not. What are you to do? You try to look at the evidence, with the result that your head begins to go round; you were not born to be a philosopher. You read a bit of C. S. Lewis and a bit of Bertrand Russell, and find that arguments which to the first are demonstrative are to the second preposterous. Your thought is confused; the evidence conflicts; the doctors disagree. If, in this predicament, you went to James for advice, it is pretty clear what he would do. In his enthusiastic, generous, affectionate way, he would put his hand on your shoulder and say, ‘My dear fellow, forget your scruples. Life is more important than certainty, and action than knowledge. Don't be a lily-livered intellectual. Go ahead and believe.’

He would support this advice as follows. If you insist on not exceeding the evidence, you will avoid being taken in, and that, to be sure, is something; but by such a policy you make your life cautious, unadventurous, negative, and thin. On the other hand, if you commit yourself, you do run the risk of error, but you gain all the advantages—the assurance, the hopefulness, the serenity, the indomitableness, the fundamental freedom from care—of the man who is convinced that ‘God's in his heaven and all's right with the world’. James felt that the advantage of the man with such a belief is enormous, and for my part I should agree. His point is that to govern your belief in an issue like this by considerations of evidence is to fail to see the problem in perspective; it is to make too much of truth in comparison with the other values of life; it is to fail to see that such a choice of belief is really an investment in which we should be governed by the largest prospective return.

20 There is something extraordinarily persuasive about this view, particularly as urged with James's infectious warmth. And yet even before we have examined it we may feel in it too much of the siren's song. To put it baldly, is not James telling us that we should believe something, that is, accept it as true, on the totally irrelevant ground that it will be to our advantage to do so? And is not that telling us that self-deception is at times a right and a duty? For surely we should be deceiving ourselves if we believed on that ground, as is plain in coarser cases. If a man justified his belief that he had an IQ of 160, or that his motor car was the fastest in the country, on the ground that it gave him the greatest satisfaction to think so, we should suspect a twist in his mind. These beliefs might be true, but we should regard it as fantastic self-deception to believe them for the reasons given. The personal advantage or disadvantage of believing something, we say, has simply nothing to do with its truth. And when we are told to act as if it had, we inevitably shrink back.30

James might ask, ‘Just why should you shrink back? To be deceived is bad; admitted. But in the first place, there is a chance that you may not be deceived; you do not know that your belief is false, and it may turn out true. And in the second place, the personal gains, whether it is true or not, are so enormous as to outweigh the evil of any possible error.’ Neither point leaves one content. Even if the belief we accepted on these grounds did turn out to be true, we should still have deceived ourselves, for we told ourselves that we might justifiably take it as true, whereas on the evidence before us we could not.

No doubt James would here fall back on the second contention. The rationalist, he would say, is forgetting that reason is only one of life's activities, and its good only one among many goods. You cannot order the whole of life with reference to just one of its activities, and sacrifice the good of the whole man to the particular good of man as thinker. What you would be doing if you did that would be to make your special rule of intellectual ethics violate your rule for ethics generally; you would exalt a narrower and smaller good over a wider and larger good.

James is here on strong ground. It is right for the artist to pursue beauty; but the artist is also a man, and his duty as a man takes precedence over his duty as an artist; to purchase artistic distinction at the price of moral degeneracy, as Verlaine and Gauguin did, is not to make a good bargain. It is right to pursue truth, but we know that when duties to family or country conflict with it we should sometimes give up that pursuit. At times it would seem to be a duty to leave ignorance and error undisturbed. If an old man or woman is happy in a faith one thinks illusory, it is certainly the kinder and probably the better course to hold one's peace. Henry Sidgwick, when he was no longer able to accept Christian theology, used to withhold his negations from his students unless expressly asked about them, since he thought acceptance of it would probably contribute more to their happiness and indeed their goodness than such grey tidings as he had to tell. The values of the intellect, of understanding and reasonableness, are great goods, but it is possible to overrate them.


21 Granting this, I think that James was underrating them; and this for three reasons. (1) The first is that happiness bought at the price of illusion is ‘a goodly apple rotten at the heart’. That we set a higher value on truth than perhaps we know may be made clear in an imaginary case. Suppose we had to choose between two futures, in one of which we should be very happy, but our happiness, unknown to ourselves, was based on a set of false views about the nature of things; and suppose the alternative was a future in which we were somewhat less happy, but lived in a world of sober belief that we knew to be true. Which would we elect? I do not think it a forgone conclusion that people generally would choose the world of happiness and illusion. Many would say, I suspect, and perhaps to their own surprise, that happiness bought by delusion was not worth the price.31

22(2) James thinks we may legitimately be moved to believe by thought of the advantages of belief. But is this psychologically possible? Certainly a man cannot say to himself, ‘I know that the evidence for this belief is inadequate, and that it may therefore be false, but because the advantages of believing are so great, I hereby resolve to believe’; and when the course is thus baldly described, it is hard to suppose that James would think it either possible or desirable. Yet he is saying something painfully like it, and whatever precisely he meant, it will repay us to consider this view.

We have seen that it is possible to control belief in some measure if it is done indirectly and over a period of time. Many persons, when they have become aware that they were moving toward an abyss of scepticism, have met the danger not by going forward and exploring it but by retreating into a tent where the thought of it was taboo; and they have found that if they stayed long enough in that close atmosphere the stirrings of conscious questioning gradually ceased. It is dangerous to cite cases, because one is raising questions here of ultimate sincerity on which no one but the man himself, and probably not even he, can speak with certainty. But in reading Newman's account of his religious development, one can hardly miss his sense of how hard it is to achieve rational certainty of anything, how terrible it would be if his belief should crumble, how important it was to guard against influences that might undermine it. One feels the presence in him, as Mill did in F. D. Maurice, of ‘that timidity of conscience, combined with original sensitiveness of temperament, which has so often driven highly gifted men into Romanism from the need of a firmer support than they can find in the independent conclusions of their own judgment.’32 He seems to have acted in accordance with the advice that his friend John Keble gave to Thomas Arnold when Arnold was troubled with doubts about the Trinity, to ‘put down the objections by main force whenever they arise’. In a day when French and German scholars were transforming Christian history and criticism, Newman chose to remain in almost total ignorance of their work and to dwell instead on the controversies of Arius and Athanasius. And he apparently did succeed in putting his conscious doubts behind his back.

I recall a conversation with an able Catholic scientist who seemed to take a similar attitude. I asked him what he would do if he found that a Papal pronouncement, declaring itself authoritative, conflicted with something which, as a scientist, he knew to be fact. He said he could not accept this even as a possibility. If such a conflict seemed to occur, he would know beforehand either that what he took to be a fact was not a fact or that the terms of the pronouncement had been misunderstood, and if properly construed, would be found true. He was prepared to follow the evidence up to the point at which his leading principle was threatened, but if that principle itself was in question, discussion was clearly futile; his commitment to it seemed to be absolute. Science and official theology could not conflict, and evidence purporting to show that they did would be trimmed and pared to any extent necessary to keep that principle intact.

Recent studies have brought to light a somewhat similar position in the mind of Robert Browning. A dark discontent seems to have lain not far beneath the surface of that aggressively confident mind. He had one of the best intellects of his generation, which was in ceaseless buzz-saw activity, and if he had not kept it carefully in hand, it would have torn great pieces out of his creed. Instead he put guards around the creed and repeated firmly, ‘I believe, I believe, of course I believe’.

‘Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust

As wholly love allied to ignorance.’

23 Those, then, are right who say that a man, convinced that the consequences of a belief would be disastrous, may by skilful engineering, avert that belief. But can he do it without penalty? I cannot think so. Students of the mind now know far more about the subconscious than even James did; they know that the deliberate repression of some impulses, notoriously that of sex, is likely to produce internal strain and conflict, though the subject may have no inkling of the cause. And it is my own surmise that in the somewhat shrill and metallic ring of Browning's ‘I believe, I believe, of course I believe’, we can hear the overtones of a repression which is connected with that long winter of his discontent. An active and questioning mind can beat down its questionings, as Keble suggested, by main force, but that is not the end of them. Like sex, if they have never been frankly faced, they do not simply die; they maintain a furtive but tormenting existence underground, which shows itself by alternations of over-vehemence and anxiety.

As for Newman, the question of his ultimate sincerity, as we have owned, is beyond settlement. Of the kind of sincerity which consists in scrupulous fidelity of word to thought he was one of the world's great masters, and I confess that when I read him I feel inclined, as Lytton Strachey evidently did, to forgive him practically anything. But did that complex, uneasy, tormented mind, so fearful of unbelief, so anxious about the security of his own soul, show equally that other sincerity which consists in the fearless pursuit of truth, in never putting aside a question because its answer might be alarming, or a relevant inquiry because it might endanger a dear conviction? As to that, I am less sure; indeed I should not be greatly surprised if the unfortunate Kingsley, supposed for so long to have been routed utterly in the famous exchange, turned out to be substantially right. Newman's sudden unbaring of those merciless claws showed how tender a spot had been touched. Leslie Stephen, who as a cleric turned agnostic had a keen eye for intellectual distempers, thought that Newman was ‘simply a sceptic who had backed out of it’.33


24(3) There is a third comment that must be made about James's doctrine of the will to believe—which ought, as he recognised, to have been called the right to believe. It is an uneasy halting-place; one must withdraw from it or go beyond it. What James said in the famous essay was that consequences might be appealed to when logical evidence failed, on the ground that though one might thereby miss truth one would gain other and greater advantages; on the ground of these advantages we were justified in taking the belief as true. Now the only evidence that is relevant to the truth of a belief is evidence that is logically relevant, and critics were not slow in pointing out that the advantages of a belief, as opposed to its implications, were not logically relevant. James was thus left in the uneasy position of saying that we were justified morally in accepting what we were clearly not justified in accepting logically; I say uneasy because if we know that we are not logically justified, to say that we are morally justified is to warrant an attempt at self-deception. James could escape from this position either by retreating or by going forward. If he retreated, and held that we should equate our assent to the evidence, the point of his essay was lost. If he went on and held that the advantages of the belief were really relevant to its truth, he was embracing a full-fledged pragmatism. What he in fact did was to choose the latter course. The tension between logical and moral justification then ceased, for all the logical and practical consequences of a belief were thrown into one big basket and considered alike relevant. Philosophically, the result was disaster.34


25 James spoke from a Protestant tradition. A Catholic justification of exceeding the evidence, in principle similar to James's, was offered by that remarkable compound of intellect and passion, Pascal. He too held that we cannot evade religious belief, since we we must live either as if such belief were true or as if it were not; and yet neither its truth nor its untruth is capable of rational proof. This was a situation that aroused the interest of Pascal as a mathematician. Could it not be regarded as a matter of chances, as a sort of gambler's risk? Suppose that, on the basis of what you know, the chances are even that the God of Christianity exists and that he does not exist. And suppose, first, you vote No. In that case there are two possibilities. If you are right, and God does not exist, you have the advantage, such as it is, of being correct, though you will presumably never know it. If you are wrong and God does exist, you are open to all the punishments of those who disbelieve. Now suppose, on the other hand, that you vote Yes. Again there are two possibilities. If you are wrong and God does not exist, you have made a mistake, but you have lost virtually nothing. But what if you are right? Then there is all infinity to gain, immortal life and immortal bliss. In short, if you vote No, you have little or nothing to gain, whatever the truth may be, and much to lose, while if you vote Yes, you have an even chance of an infinite gain. Would a man not be a fool who threw such a chance away?

Pascal sees that not all men will find this argument convincing, but suggests that if so, the trouble must come from the non-rational part of their nature, since, simply as argument, the case is irresistible. They should, therefore, take steps to bring themselves round emotionally. ‘So you want to achieve belief, and don't know the way? Learn from those who have been bound like you, and who are now staking all they have.… Follow the path they started upon, that is, of acting in all things as if they believed, of taking holy water, having masses said, and the rest. That, by a quite natural process, will dull you and make you believe.’35

Professor Chevalier describes this ‘wager’ as ‘that famous argument around which modern thought ceaselessly flutters like a moth round a candle’, and it is true that we see revealed in it with pathetic clearness the struggle that goes on in the religious mind between the heart and the head, the feelings and desires on the one hand that reach out anxiously for security, and on the other the chill grey inhibiting intellect. Pascal, who on the intellectual side was a sceptic, thought he had found a way of checkmating his own doubt.

Yet most people, when presented with the famous argument, hardly take it seriously. Why? For one thing, because it raises again the questions of intellectual honesty that have been troubling us in James. The question whether we shall gain or lose by believing something is wholly different from the question whether or not it is true, and we cannot solve the second by means of an answer to the first. And if we deliberately decide a question on grounds we know to be irrelevant, we are clearly tampering with our honesty; indeed we are asking ourselves to do something that, if done with open eyes, we could not make ourselves do at all. Is there not a thoroughly cynical note about Pascal's final suggestion that if your mind holds out against the wager the issue can be settled by betaking yourself to masses and holy water, and dulling your wits till belief at last sets in? (His word is to make oneself stupid like a beast.)

26 But this is not all that is at fault in the argument. We feel that there is something very wrong with it on the religious side. It assumes that God is a Grand Inquisitor who hovers over us and demands threateningly that we believe in him even for reasons that are no reasons, and who will punish us relentlessly if we do not. Pascal was ready to believe such things; he was capable of believing that God consigned small children with no wills of their own to eternal damnation. Now if you start with this assumption that God, if he exists, is wicked, or at least what we should call wicked if we dared to, you are bound to take the wager seriously. Dishonesty of mind is of course an evil, but it is not the worst of all evils; an eternity of excruciating torment for oneself and perhaps one's family would presumably be worse. And who could blame a man if, convinced that the world is governed by remorseless cruelty, he tried to coerce himself into believing anything whatever that might win him exemption from such horrors? What is so revolting about the wager is not merely the spirit of cold calculation it urges upon us, but the apparently inevitable logic by which, from a conception of God that has been very commonly held, it deduces the duty of intellectual dishonesty.

There is some comfort, perhaps, in seeing that the logic is not so rigorous after all. If God's standards of good and evil are so profoundly different from our own, how do we know what attitude he would favour on our part, and what he would condemn? Is it not just as conceivable that he would prefer independence or a sturdy defiance to credulity? One cannot cogently start with the notion of God as a being who repudiates our standards of justice and goodness, and then argue to what he approves as if he did hold these standards. Thus there appears in this famous argument not only the evidence of a dark agnosticism, the attribution to God of shocking wickedness, and a recommendation of intellectual dishonesty, but also a radical incoherence of thought.


27 We have looked at only two proposals for justifying a belief that goes beyond the evidence, but I think we should find the others similarly wanting. The natural conclusion from this line of argument is that belief is the same thing everywhere, and does not have one set of conditions in physics and chemistry and a different set in religion, that the ethics of belief, the meaning of intellectual honesty, is everywhere the same. This, I suggest, is the unavoidable conclusion. Belief should follow the evidence, neither stubbornly denying what it establishes nor impulsively running ahead of it and embracing as true what it does not warrant. When put in this way, probably most religious persons would accept the conclusion. They would, at any rate, draw back from the suggestion that the religious conscience is a coarser and less scrupulous organ than the scientific.

Yet it must be admitted that in the practical difficulties that arise the two fields are hardly comparable. There is little talk in scientific circles of an ethics of belief. Most of the issues of science offer small temptation to our feelings to believe in one way rather than another. Of course when a man is offering a new theory to which he has tied his professional hopes, he is only too likely to overrate the evidence in hand and ignore what makes against his theory. It is said that Newton, as he approached the end of his calculations about gravitation and saw the great law coming nearer, could not trust himself in his excitement and turned over the final calculations to another hand. But here was a theory with tremendous implications, in which he as its discoverer had a personal stake. Most scientific problems might be settled in any one of many ways so far as most of us are concerned; we should find it difficult to work up any sort of passion for or against the binomial theorem or Ohm's law.

The situation as regards religion is different. Whether the world is governed or not by love and wisdom is an issue of large concern to us; whether we shall live again after death is an issue to which no one who loves life and cares for others can be indifferent. The achievement of a positive belief on these points alone may alter the complexion of our world and give us a fresh infusion of buoyancy and hope. It is entirely intelligible that persons who have such beliefs should look with something like moral loathing on those who would introduce into these all-important matters the detachment, the cool appraisal of evidence, the reservations and doubts and hesitancies, of the rationalistic mind.

Even for those with the talent and leisure for inquiry such objectivity is difficult. And for the rest of us, the reply will come, it is out of the question. You cannot ask the plain man to sickly his whole life over with the pale cast of thought. He has no time for these ultimate speculations; he must get on with his work; and what he needs from the philosophers and the theologians is an outlook that will enable him to do that work with a heart and a will. Refinements about going beyond the evidence are all very well for the philosopher who can afford such luxuries, but they are lost on men who barely know what evidence means. Professor Dorothy Emmet asks with point, ‘Whoever worshipped a tenable hypothesis or a balance of probabilities?’

28 Every person of common sense must feel the force of this. It seems to present us with an unwelcome dilemma: we must give up either serenity or intellectual honesty, either the peace that goes with confident beliefs on ultimate things or else that saving salt of scepticism that is needed for integrity of mind. Is there any way out?

We should be merely deceiving ourselves if we thought that there was any wholly satisfactory way out. Something valuable must go. St Francis was a great and happy man; so was Socrates; and in giving up the hope either of the childlike faith of St Francis or the questioning spirit of Socrates, we should be losing much. But it is idle to say that we can have them both. Plant Socrates’ mind in the soul of St Francis, and the pearly gates and jasper towers would come tumbling down in irreparable ruin. Plant the soul of St Francis in the mind of Socrates, and the world of essence and implication and logical distinction would seem insupportably grey and inhuman. A man may try to be either Francis or Socrates, but if he tries to be both he will assuredly be neither.

One cannot have the blessings at once of an uncritical faith and a critical intelligence. ‘But then,’ it may be said, ‘no one in these days wants an uncritical faith, and there is no reason whatever why if the dogmas of one's faith are true at all a critical intelligence should not disclose their truth and thus confirm one's faith. There is no necessary conflict between faith and reason.’ But we have seen in the first two parts of this book that between reason and the sort of faith that is found in two important forms of current religion there is a very extensive conflict. And remembering how much in the way both of peace of mind and of moral direction and sanction are bound up with religious belief, the impatient reader may well ask whether such doubt-provoking inquiries are worth the price.


29 In reply there is one thing that must be said unequivocally. To think is to try to get at the truth, and the person who professes to be doing that will be a dupe if he consciously allows any thought of his own or other people's advantage to affect his conclusions. He will be worse if he does this as a professional philosopher, a person maintained and paid to think as straight as he can on problems of difficulty and to make his conclusions known. Everyone has been repelled by the parlour atheist whose spirit of contradiction is obviously belted to a noisy little dynamo of self-importance within, or the lover of paradox who would rather coin a new epigram than see a new truth. ‘An ethical sympathy in an artist’, said Oscar Wilde, ‘is an unpardonable mannerism’. We are not convinced. Neither are we by those books on apologetics or Christian evidences in which the overwhelming importance of reaching the right and edifying conclusion held the writer's mind in a straitjacket. In my youth I thought Mark Hopkins’ Evidences of Christianity a great book. When I return to it now I see that Mark Hopkins was so good a man, if one may say so, that it is idle to go to him for the truth; when the ark of salvation was at stake, he could afford to treat the evidence cavalierly, because he knew beforehand what it proved and had to prove. I agree that a man is on a higher level if his intellectual compass habitually veers toward human good than if it veers to party or self-esteem. But as a thinker he has no business to let it veer toward any pole but one. Truth lost through noble motives is just as truly lost as if one were deceived by some malicious demon.


30 It may be said that this somewhat self-righteous line may do for a philosopher, but that before he sows his doubts abroad he may well think what they involve for the great majority of people who lack the way and the will to become philosophers. The whole-hearted acceptance of religious conclusions means much, both emotionally and morally, to numberless people; doubt of these conclusions, to say nothing of their rejection, robs them of their efficacy. ‘You destroy what these people find precious, and give them nothing in its place.’ There are philosophers today who look down on all such objections from a great height. I do not belong to their party. Agreeing that knowledge is a great good, I think that hope and peace and happiness are great goods also, and I can conceive a situation in which it would be better for mankind to remain in permanent error on some matter of belief if this were the price of happiness than to know the truth and be unhappy. Pedantic and cavilling intellectualists in these matters are, as James thought, bores. But several things need to be said.

First the notion that either men's morality or their happiness is bound up with any set of dogmas about ultimate things seems to me untrue. It is unquestionable that religious belief may affect their motives for right doing in various and potent ways, but to say that apart from such beliefs we should have no ground for discriminating good from evil, right from wrong, is irresponsible. Our knowledge that love is better than hatred, happiness than misery, enlightenment than ignorance, is not an inference from theological premises but an independent insight which may be had with equal clearness by Christian, Buddhist, and secularist. It may be replied that this may be correct in theory but that practical morality is so entwined with belief that the two stand or fall together. But practical morality does not rest on so tremulous a base that in order to keep it standing we must surround it with a veil of illusion as to what it really stands on. No doubt if people have supposed their morals to rest on their theology, they will go through a period of bewilderment if that theology totters. But if they are reflective, they will soon see that morality has a much firmer base than any of the speculative dogmas on which it is supposed to be built. If they are not reflective, they may fly about aimlessly, but thoughtful persons can hardly be asked to keep their candle under a bushel for fear that some human butterflies should singe their wings at it.

31 There is a somewhat similar connection between belief and happiness. Religious dogmas may contribute to happiness; indeed, as McTaggart said, they may ‘change the whole aspect of heaven and earth for those who believe in them’. Nevertheless they do not seem to be essential to happiness. People of all faiths have been happy; people of all faiths have been unhappy; it is probable that such things as health and temperament have more to do with happiness than any theological belief. The general presumption must surely be that one's happiness is more secure if it is accompanied by a true apprehension of the nature of things. These premises are perhaps enough for us to go on. If no dogma is essential to happiness, and happiness is more likely with the truth than without it, inquiry into truth need not be inhibited by worry about the consequences of what it may uncover.


32 It may be held, again, that if religious beliefs are regarded as justifiable only on evidence, we are asking plain men to settle for themselves questions which the experts have found baffling. This would certainly be unreasonable. Tired farmers and preoccupied business men cannot be saddled with the ultimate problems of the universe. But of course we would not urge that they should. When they are confronted with problems that are too hard for them in science or criticism or politics, they appeal to authority for guidance, and everyone agrees that this is a legitimate course. It is also legitimate in religion. The responsibility of the plain man will then be, not to settle ultimate problems by his own unpractised wit, but to appraise the relative weight of authorities. There is no escaping this responsibility in any field. In science it is carried easily enough, since the first scientist one goes to will probably speak for most or all of his colleagues. In politics it is far more onerous, since among experienced men in public life unanimity is so conspicuously lacking. Still, the acceptance of reponsibility for choosing one's leaders is the very heart of democracy, and unless men can do at least this with some discrimination, the democratic process may as well be abandoned. The acceptance of such responsibility in religion is the point of intersection between democracy and Protestantism. The democratic view in religion, as in politics, is that only if plain men are given the privilege of choosing their guides can they come to choose either their guides or their beliefs responsibly. They have made dreadful mistakes. They will no doubt continue to make them, since in religion as in politics the doctors so notoriously disagree. But freedom comes at no cheaper price.


33 Anyone who proposes the same test for religious as for other beliefs is bound to face a further difficulty. Such a test would reduce the status of many beliefs from certitude to probability at best, and must not a religious dogma be held as certain if held at all? Men will die for a dogma, Newman thought, but not for a conclusion, for any process of reasoning may conceivably be mistaken. The essential plea of such theologians is for a dissociation of certitude from certainty. Certainty is what attaches to clear and distinct insight; certitude is the emotion of conviction. It is possible to have full certainty with very little of the emotion of certitude, as in the insights of the mathematician. It is possible to have a high degree of certitude when certainty is wholly absent, as the passionate avowals of a cloudy creed by many a communist and fascist have made clear. But it seems to be true, and if true is very important, that what is efficacious in belief is certitude rather than certainty, for certitude is an emotion. Religious leaders, like political leaders, have therefore sought at times to preserve the efficacy of belief by saving its certitude, even when certainty is impossible. This has brought them painful comparisons and insinuations. If they were to accept our proposed principle of adjusting assent to the evidence, could they accept certitude as a substitute for certainty? No, they could not. Would they have to sacrifice in consequence the practical efficacy of belief? In part, yes. It is not only that certainty, as we have said, lacks the emotional power of certitude, but also that if belief is harnessed to evidence it is unlikely that even grey intellectual certainty will be left on any ultimate issue. And is this not equivalent to abandoning religious belief in its traditional sense altogether?

Again we must admit that in a sense it is. Religion in the West has often encouraged us to believe with a confidence that bore a direct ratio to the difficulty of the matters at issue. It did not greatly care what we believed about the efficacy of medals or holy water, which could in a measure be tested, but demanded unquestioning assent to dogmas of such metaphysical profundity that St Thomas and Leibniz themselves groped their way to them with difficulty. It seems clear that on the standard we are proposing even minds like these, to say nothing of our humble selves, would be vain if they professed certainty. We should of course like to know more; it is our duty to go on trying to know more. But if we know little, it can hardly be a duty to profess that we know much.

34 And is it quite clear that a religious dogma which is less than certain is of no value at all? If so, religious thought is very different from thought in other provinces. It was the sober Bishop Butler who said that probability is the guide of life. There is in fact astonishingly little of which we are certain, yet even so we manage to act. The explorations and adventures that have meant most to man were not made under a banner of certainty; it was hypothesis, consciously held as such, that sent Caesar across the Rubicon, Columbus across the Atlantic, and Churchill into the gathering storm. Action is no less courageous, indeed it is more courageous, if not done with the certainty that the powers ordering the universe are on our side. And there is an exhilaration in trying to find our place in the mysterious universe, in trying to throw back by a few feet or inches the mist that surrounds us on all sides, an exhilaration which in the view of many thoughtful men makes it better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Further, there are theologians who, starting from James's doctrine of the will to believe, have made a modification which in words amounts to little but which transforms the doctrine ethically. James had said that where an option is live, momentous, and forced, and decision on the evidence impossible, we may adopt the belief that promises best in practice. That means believing on irrelevant evidence, and we have protested. But in such a case to adopt the nobler hypothesis as a hypothesis which further living may confirm or disallow has nothing dishonest about it, nor necessarily any shadow of self-deception. If the doctrine that Deity was manifested in the mind and morality of Christ is not vetoed by such evidence as one has, there is nothing in our suggestion to discourage one's accepting it in the sense of adopting it as a major working hypothesis, keeping one's mind open as one uses it, to all that would support it or render it doubtful.

I realise how dreary and negative all this must sound to those whose belief is unquestioning, exuberant, and joyful. To go on questioning to the end! To live on hypotheses and probabilities! What sort of answers are these to people who want a creed to live by? Dusty answers, to be sure. And in cases of great suffering or great loss, they may seem dusty beyond all tolerance. To many, belief tied to evidence seems nothing but a fair-weather craft, and they look with an expectant curiosity to see what happens to it when storms blow up. Sometimes it sinks; ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’. But what exactly does this show? It shows that if sufficient pressure is applied some people will believe what they need to believe in order to gain comfort and assurance. It does not prove that these people are more sensitive than others, or nobler than others, or that the beliefs they have found so comforting are the more likely to be true.

One's respect indeed is greater for those who do not break, who appreciate to the end that fact does not order itself with reference to our desires, that recognition of it and resignation to it are the true part for a man. When T. H. Huxley lost his eldest son, he was numb with grief, and a friend whose faith was serene and confident wrote to him wondering how his ethics of belief was faring under the blow. He replied:

‘My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations. Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’36

A confident belief is a great good if one can come by it honourably. If not, so also is this sort of honesty and courage.

From the book: