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On Faith, Part 2: The Right To Believe

by Bill Meacham on January 17th, 2011

A comment on my previous post about Faith asks me to consider religious faith, particularly that which arises from a conversion experience. The faith of the convert comes from overwhelming personal experience, the experience of truth revealed, of obstacles overcome, by the help of a power beyond ourselves. Isn’t this a special kind of faith?

Many of us have had such experiences, and many others haven’t. Perhaps some of those who haven’t wish wistfully for the kind of certainty that the religious faithful have, and of course many view such certainty with disdain. I have already noted that as philosophers, lovers of wisdom, we must not take such peak experiences uncritically. We must think about them, see whether their conceptual content makes sense, and observe and evaluate the effects they have on our lives. So how can we determine whether it makes sense to base important decisions on such experiences? If you have had such an experience, what authorizes you, from a logical, philosophical perspective, to believe that it is veridical, that it tells you something genuine about reality?

First of all, what does it tell you? In broad terms it tells you that a Higher Power exists, manifests itself in a person-like way, and has some benevolent interest in you. Or at least that it is possible for you to relate to that Higher Power in such a way as to be beneficial to yourself. (I am deliberately being a bit vague in my use of the term “Higher Power” here, as the term “God” has too many meanings and too much conceptual baggage to be useful. I want to include the Buddhist Void, the Taoist Way and the Gnostic All, as well as such rather more obvious candidates as the Christian, Jewish and Islamic God, the Wiccan Goddess and those known throughout history by names such as Thor, Zeus, Ishtara, Vishnu, Prajapati, Kali and many others.) What would count as evidence for or against the assertion that such a Higher Power exists?

Notoriously, science fails. There are no public, replicable experiments that can prove – or disprove – the existence of a Higher Power. From the objective, scientific point of view the concept of the existence of a Higher Power is either meaningless (because not disprovable) or an unneeded hypothesis (because all the physical facts can be accounted for without it).

But not all evidence is public, and not all facts are physical. Evidence can be private, or subjective, and facts can be mental. One can perceive the effects of something one may call a Higher Power in one’s own life, and indeed humans seem to be prone to do so. Here are some examples:

  • You may perceive portents and signs, patterns of synchronicity that seem to have greater significance than mere randomness.
  • You may experience the presence of a Higher Power as a result of practices that alter experience such as meditation, chanting, fasting, ceremony and ritual, ingestion of certain substances, etc.
  • You may experience responses to prayer and hence have a sense of a personal relationship with a Higher Power.

This last is most important. If you adopt a stance of relating to your idea of a Higher Power as if it exists and is person-like, and you can plausibly interpret events as embodying the actions of that person-like being responding to you, and particularly if those actions are to your benefit, then you really do have compelling evidence.

William James, the famous American psychologist and philosopher, is instructive here. In his essay “The Will to Believe”(1), he observes that sometimes we are faced with decisions that really matter to us, that we cannot just ignore, that are of momentous significance, and that cannot be decided on the basis of logic or public evidence alone. In such situations it is more important to find truth than to avoid error. Our “passional nature,” as he puts it, is persuaded by such subjective evidence; and it is not only acceptable but advantageous and appropriate to allow that passional nature to prevail.

Atheists, particularly the New Atheists who so vociferously advocate their atheism, would have us deny that there is a Higher Power because we lack scientific certainty of its existence. To this James replies:

… if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.(2)

Science never claims to have the final truth. There is always the possibility of finding conflicting evidence for one’s hypothesis. That’s what he means by saying that no bell tolls within us. All we know is how well the hypothesis works out in our experience. None of the types of evidence I list above prove the existence of a Higher Power publicly, but in the absence of scientific proof you may choose to believe on the basis of subjective evidence. If the effects of such belief are beneficial – if, for instance, you are happier and function better as a result of such belief than without it – then you are justified having faith in a Higher Power.

You are not justified, however, in imposing your faith on others. Your evidence is not objectively authoritative; it is valid only for you and others who have had similar experiences. It is certainly good to associate with those others voluntarily, but don’t be so quick to preach to the unconverted. Instead live by example. The Sufi mystic says that your truth can’t be taught, it can only be caught.

And if you have not had such evidence, if you are not one of the faithful, don’t be so quick to disparage those who are. Judge them not by the standards of scientific evidence but by the quality of their lives. If they are shrill, judgmental and inflexible – and particularly if their actions bely what they profess – then you’d best avoid them. But if they are loving and kind and helpful, if they not only aspire but in some measure succeed in promoting love, harmony and beauty, then find out what has led them to live such a life. In either case there is one bit of advice from a religious tradition that is applicable: By their fruits ye shall know them.(3)


(1) William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will To Believe And Other Essays On Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), pp. 1-31. Available online at as of 7 January 2011, and archived at

(2) Ibid, p. 30.

(3) Christian Bible, American Standard Version, Matthew 7:16.

From → Philosophy

  1. Stephen Fretwell permalink

    You shine much needed light on two very interesting questions, the role of external government on beliefs, and the role of scientific studies. The government of some successful countries, like Finland, have forced tithing to some church through taxation. Seems to work for them, in terms of an improved national climate.

    Then we have studies such as Torah Codes. (

    which, along with the theological claim (Malachi 3:10) that God can be proven, perhaps for national purposes.(Zechariah 2:11), implies that there might be reasonable limits to faith choices within any given community. First, if there is a God, His say in the matter might justly be the last word. But, the task of knowing what that is remains. Also, there is the real possibility that faith choices of person X influence the life quality of person Y. There is the historical claim that publically ignored or approved sexual immorality, often involving a faith choice, results in political collapse.

    So, the debate is needed. Your post contributes.

  2. LeeAnn permalink

    I have been enjoying your blog.

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