The ethics of belief

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by Neil Godfrey

Notes from Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (pp. 114-119)

What are we to think, ethically, of someone who bases his or her life on unquestioning faith, of someone for whom religious belief is “an unquestioned foundation that will not shift”?

The difference between science and dogma:

A scientific theory must always be open to falsification, on the basis of evidence (Karl Popper). Many (not all) believers seem almost to boast that their view of the truth is not open to falsification on the basis of evidence.

The case of the shipowner who acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation but by stifling his doubts:

A case proposed by a nineteenth century English mathematician and philosopher, William Clifford:

A nineteenth century shipowner was about to send off to sea a ship full of emigrants. He knew the ship was old and needed repairs. He wondered if he should go to the expense of having it thoroughly overhauled and refitted. But he also had faith that Providence would protect the many families seeking a better life abroad, and on the basis of this faith he let the ship sail. The ship sank with great loss of life and the insurance company covered the shipowner’s loss.

But even if the ship had proved to be sound enough to arrive safely, he would have still been wrong to let the lives of his passengers hang on his faith rather than on sound evidence of the condition of the ship.

Building one’s life on ‘a foundation that will not shift’:

Conversion stories are told of people who humbly accept and positively respond to what they are told about God sending his son to die for sinners like themselves. Some who have the opportunity to visit Israel may be deeply moved to find themselves being told they are standing on the very spot where Jesus delivered “the most famous speech in history”, the Sermon on the Mount. Such converts “know” faith changes lives because “faith changed theirs.” This faith enables the convert to build his life on “a foundation that will not shift”.

(Learning that God sent his son to die for sinners is like learning a fact such as George Washington was the first president of the United States. That there ever was a Sermon on the Mount or that the gospels are anything but totally reliable is never in doubt despite one of the gospels saying that it was delivered on a plain.)

The most striking feature of this common story is the image of a person who accepts what he is told without asking himself any critical questions about it. Yet many seem to think unquestioning belief to be a virtue rather than a cause for unease.

Reflective people who are used to questioning what they are told:

  • will struggle over the Christian claim that the world is made to a divine plan
  • will notice that the chief determinant to belief in Christianity is being brought up a Christian (ditto for those brought up in Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist homes)
  • will be sceptical about a faith that is so immune to any objective evidence or argument that it depends mostly on what one’s family and society believes

But if everything depends on faith . . . . :

Those responsible for the terror attack of 9/11 were people of deep religious faith. They prayed often and before they died committed their souls to God.

Many Americans responded to this act of fanatical faith with more than usual public displays of their own religious belief.

Religious leaders proclaimed that the problem was not any particular religious faith, but the misinterpretation of a religious faith.

But if everything depends on faith, then why should terrorists not have faith that their particular version of Islam is right? If Christians can “learn” from leading evangelists what is God’s will for them, why should terrorists not “learn” from an eminent religious teacher that God wants them to destroy the greatest power standing against an Islamic way of life?

Faith versus faith:

Of course there is a moral difference between a faith that tells devotees to kill and a faith that commands respect for human life. But that moral difference is not something that we can get from faith.

The 9/11 terrorist is as much a person of faith as the Christian who pickets an abortion clinic.

Faith cannot tell us who is right and who is wrong. Each will simply assert that their particular faith is the true one. One cannot hope to succeed in telling someone to change faiths, without persuading them to be reflective and critically questioning about their faith.

The ethical alternative:

“Much better, therefore, to insist that there is an ethical obligation to base one’s views about life on evidence and sound reasoning.”


The harm done by credulity (William Clifford):People speak the truth to each other when each respects the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind. But how shall a friend respect the truth in my own mind if I am careless about it, if I believe because I want to believe or find the belief comforting and pleasant? In other words: The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.

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Neil Godfrey

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