Is It Wrong to Believe Without Evidence?
By Paul Copan
The late Christopher Hitchens — one of the infamous “new atheists” — made this claim: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” If you have had conversations with atheists about belief in God, this view — known as “strong evidentialism” — probably sounds familiar. In fact, if you hang around skeptics and freethinkers long enough, chances are you will hear about William K. Clifford’s essay, “The Ethics of Belief.” In it, he claims: “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”1
Clifford gives the example of a shipowner who contemplates whether his rickety ship is sufficiently seaworthy to transport passengers across the ocean. He does not want to pay the cost of repairs or delay the voyage. So the owner suppresses these concerns and works up a “sincere and comfortable conviction” that the ship would arrive safely at its destination. He sells tickets to the passengers and bids them bon voyage. The ship tragically sinks, sending all those on board to their watery grave — and the shipowner quietly collects the insurance money, because a ship going down in mid-ocean has no tales
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to tell. Clifford (who himself had experienced a shipwreck) asserts that the shipowner has the passengers’ blood on his hands because of his negligence. He failed to investigate the evidence for the vessel’s seaworthiness and could have averted this disaster by delaying the journey to make the necessary repairs. The lesson? All such decisions based on insufficient evidence are wrong — “always, everywhere, and for anyone.”
What supporting reasons does Clifford give for his claim? Well, for starters, if we do not follow his advice, we will be easily duped— like those who check the dictionary after someone tells him that the word gullible is not in it. Another reason he gives is that society will sink back into savagery because people are blindly following superstitions and traditions instead of reason and evidence.
How should we respond to Clifford and Hitchens? I will look first at some problems with their demand for evidence at every turn. Then I will try to put the legitimate concern for evidence into proper perspective…
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