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The Will to Believe

The absolute bare minimum amount of confidence

needed to remain a Christian

Voting in Election

Psychologist and philosopher, William James wrote one of the all-time most influential works on the rationality of religious belief. It's titled, The Will to Believe. James was motivated to write the book in response to a philosopher by the name of W.K. Clifford who wrote an influential work of his own. Clifford's book was titled, The Ethics of Belief. In it, he argued it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Consequently, it is irrational or unreasonable to believe in God without sufficient evidence or argument to support belief in God. If this is true, in the absence of evidence, agnosticism would be the only legitimately reasonable position to take on the existence of God.


William James strongly disagreed. 

In The Will to Believe he constructs an argument that belief in God is rational despite the lack of evidence that Clifford demands. He maintains that if a decision has certain criteria then it is acceptable to make what he calls a passional choice.

What is a passional choice? A passional choice is one not made by the intellect based on the evidence but by the will based on the consequences of making the choice. 

At first, it might seem that James is saying the truth of a view is irrelevant and all that matters is what one wants, but that's not the case. There are very specific criteria that must be met before making a choice based on one's desires is rational to do.


The Criteria

1. An individual is rational in believing what they want only when a choice is a genuine option that can’t be determined on intellectual grounds.

What this means is that on the belief scale below, one would land at the "No opinion of whether it's true or false" level. 

  • Certain it's true

  • Confident it's true

  • Persuaded its true

  • Of the opinion it's true

  • Inclined to think it's true

  • No opinion of whether it's true or false

  • Disinclined to think it's true

  • Of the opinion it is false

  • Persuaded it is false

  • Confident it is false

  • Certain it is false

However, If the evidence points in favor of a claim or against a claim then one must follow the evidence. James is not saying that one can choose to believe whatever they like irrespective of the evidence. Only when the evidence leaves one in intellectual limbo are they justified in choosing to believe a claim based on their desire.  

William James thinks that a good example of an issue that cannot be determined - at least for him - on the evidence is the existence of God. In his estimation, the proofs for and the disproofs against the existence of God cancel each other out in terms of which one has the most evidence. Therefore he finds himself having no opinion on the matter.


But just because he has no opinion on a matter isn't enough to make a passional choice a rational choice. There needs to be more. The choice one is faced with must be forced. 

2. A forced choice is one that a person can't avoid making. For example, I might tell you that you must choose to either read the rest of this article or not read the rest of this article and you will be forced with a choice. There is no middle ground. You either choose to read it or you choose not to read it. It is a choice that has been forced upon you. The question of belief in God is similar. You are faced with a choice to either believe in God or not believe in God. Again, there isn't a third option. Not making a choice in this case is making a choice not to believe. 

But just because one doesn't have an option and the choice is a forced one is still not enough to justify a passional choice as a rational choice. There needs to b more. The choice must have significant consequences. 

3. The claim, "God exists" is one such claim. If God exists, then what one believes about God's existence will have massive consequences. As such, a person ought to make a decision about what they believe about the matter. But based on what? James replies, on the basis of the consequences of the decision. 

If a person is faced with a forced, momentous choice - one with significant consequences - but the evidence leaves them without an opinion on the matter, they're rational in making a decision by evaluating the consequences of the decision. 

In relation to belief in God, if after evaluating the evidence a person is of no opinion whether or not God exists, but they do believe that if God exists and they do not believe in him they will suffer negative consequences, they would be justified in choosing to believe in God in light of those consequences.  


Admittedly, there are few situations in life when the evidence is 50/50 and we find ourselves having no opinion one way or another on a matter of great importance. But it is possible. And if we find ourselves in that position we are rational in choosing to believe and thus commit to the claim that will have the best outcome for us.  ​

Therefore, even if a person isn't inclined to think that Christianity is true based on the evidence, they can still rationally choose to commit to it based on their own self-interest. If Christianity is true it has very significant consequences for those who adopt it and those who reject it. Therefore, if an individual finds the evidence doesn't form in them an opinion on the matter, they are rational in choosing to commit to it in light of the positive consequences of doing so. 

Finally, at the end of the day, it needs to be pointed out that unless God exists, there is no obligation to choose to believe what is true over what makes your life better.


To see why, click here.

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