Faith and Belief: Is Evidence Necessary?


By Ian G Graham.

It’s not hard to create a battle when insults are hurled from the trenches of modernity – a battle for belief in God, gods as opposed to non-belief. It’s a battle for the mind – one’s view of the cosmos. It’s a battle about if you’re happy, moral and ethically fair-minded, deluded, a Freudian tragic, have a cosis or ism kind of mental issue, live a rational, considered life in the light of scientific reason, or whether you’re a true-born-again from the cradle of the Enlightenment.

Battalions of non-belief warriors wait to wage secular war should any unsuspecting web- user type the G-word into their browser. Baring their teeth in defence of ungodliness they proudly wear the badge of free-thought, that’s free-thought from religious entrapment. Counter- attacking, the religious bring out the full arsenal – divine revelations weaved into centuries of cultural development – art, debate, imagery, ritual, practice and the offer of salvation, release, non-attachment and eternal life… whatever.

It may sound as you read this, I wouldn’t back secularism (the relatively new kid on the block) in comparison to religion as the mother of happiness. Putting my money on faith in a Divine entity may seem more the way to go, because it cements my birthright to stability and happiness, but is this necessarily the case? In my opinion, backing the latter over the former would be naïve. There are devotees who walk on all religious paths, who believe in God or gods all their life, yet they are no happier for their experience than non-believers. The joy and happiness on the faces of many of my atheist friends are proof of that.

But what about faith and belief in something can we live without it?  Many atheists claim beliefs without evidence are limiting and lead to superstition which is how humans got caught-up in the falsifying grasp of religion in the first place. Falsifying, even dangerous some proclaim, but is that right? Is believing in God within a religious system the most dangerous and damaging option for us? Is religion as misleading as the prophets of secularism keep telling us? I say no, not entirely, and I would go further by saying it can have incredible benefits for some people… and… it will always be with us – to be religious and believe in God or gods is as much a part of our existence as breathing (see my post on Emile Durkheim). I’m also convinced that humans adopt a position of religiousness even if they don’t subscribe to traditional organized religion and I contend that everyone believes in something.

1891fff3294fbed6ec99bf189421028d  In his classic book The Will to Believe William James (1842-1910) the notable American scholar argues that evidence (something espoused as a lack thereof, to attack theists) is not necessary and to believe and have faith is healthy and permissible. James digs further along this line of argument by stating that belief without evidence is in fact, highly beneficial. To adopt belief or have faith says James, actually aids one through the trials and hardships of life, therefore, it has to have its advantages.

d72521b3303cf25ec3a5a063a3605390 The opposition argument to James’ claim was put by W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) in Ethics of Belief. For Clifford, belief without evidence is immoral and he attempts to illustrate this by telling the story of an irresponsible boat owner.

Here’s a brief summary…

The owner of a boat ignores the state of the vessel’s condition – ripped sails and cracks in the hull making it highly prone to sinking with disastrous consequences should anyone decide to take it offshore into deep waters. What’s worse, is the boat owner BELIEVES his boat is safe and seaworthy and asks his friends to take a journey with him out to sea. Despite his faith in the boat the predictable happens and it sinks drowning all his friends. Clifford asks: “Wouldn’t he be guilty as charged for causing their deaths?”

Clifford applies this unfortunate episode to confirm his claim that anyone who believes in anything without proper evidence (God included) is as guilty as the boat owner.

James responded to this by arguing that if one eliminates belief and faith from their life, one becomes loaded with over cautionary measures and never takes a risk.

Here’s an example of what James’ means by risk and why faith is important…

Imagine going into surgery and not having faith in the anaesthetist to accurately monitor your vital signs while you’re under her care. Or, what if you were at an intersection with 3 other vehicles at different points? Someone has to believe the traffic rules will be observed and precede across the intersection, otherwise they’d sit there until pigs fly to the moon backwards.

Let me give you an example closer to home. When my son was 14 years old he competed for a place in his school’s first eight rowing team. I felt his chances were strong to win in, but he was riddled with fear and doubt about whether he was up to the mark. After spending some time with him though, I managed to convince him to put more belief in his ability to gain selection. He actually surprised me with how much he took on my suggestion to renew his self-belief and on the nominated day for the trials he succeeded in gaining a place in the crew with flying colours. So was evidence needed to get him there? Was it important? And did his turning from doubt and caution to a belief have any benefits, even though it was based on an assumption? Absolutely.

In my opinion, James makes good his argument for one to adopt faith and belief. For those who dare to step into the eye of the storm sometimes there are benefits.