If it is not the ultimate intent of Clifford to promote atheism, the inescapable reality is that, in his “Ethics of Belief” alone, he offers a powerful argument for it. More exactly, and through a trajectory of careful consideration of the various forces and circumstances that influence or create belief in anything, he constructs a foundation upon which the atheist may confidently stand. This is evident from the initial exploration of the duty of inquiry, which Clifford confidently – and correctly – holds to be a responsibility of all thinking persons. No matter the subject matter or perceived reality, investigation is necessary to validate the degree of belief in the thing; it is the inherent obligation, in fact, of all who are reasonable.
For the atheist, following Clifford’s pathways translates to nothing more than a need to substitute components for those employed by him in his cases. For example, Clifford’s illustration of the shipowner may be adapted in terms of religious faith. In the case presented, the owner is doubtful of the quality of his ship but he sends it out anyway, and it sinks and claims the lives of those on board. Clifford’s shipowner convinces himself that he did not act negligently, and that he had relied on a good history of the ship and likely probabilities of success. Clifford, however, reasons that his rationales regarding the safety of the ship are irrelevant, for his true responsibility was in noting only the evidence of the state of the vessel. Intent is relatively meaningless, as is the relative validity of the shipowner’s reasons for having faith in the ship as fit to sail. What matters is that he did not make sufficient inquiry, and the case applies to the atheist if the ship is transformed into a man’s belief. Namely: the man believes that there is God because, in his life thus far, believing in God has furthered his interests and those of his community. This is his conviction because he has attached belief to all his successes. A venture arises in which he may gain wealth, but there are risks. Having so long associated God with his prosperity, the man feels confident that the risks are then unimportant, and goes ahead with the venture. As with the ship, the failure or success of the venture is irrelevant to the fact that the man denied his responsibility in inquiring into the foundations of his own reasoning. More to the point, and as with the shipowner, the believer is trusting to something based, not on the evidence before them, but on assumption and association. The ship was not sound because it had operated soundly in the past, and God is not necessarily in the man’s life because he has had no reason previously to doubt it, or because he has been able to construct God’s presence by means of chains of circumstance.
It is important to note as well that this support of atheism is achieved through no disparaging of faith or belief in God. Clifford addresses these components, but obliquely, and in terms keeping them within the parameters of his investigation. The integrity of belief is not at issue; rather, it is that the integrity of anything must be known through inquiry because: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” (Clifford 4). Then, an irony exists with regard to the believer’s, or Christian’s, responsibility beyond their own being. More exactly, given the tenets of belief, it is all the more critical that investigation as to the basis of belief be conducted: “No one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone” (3). With the weight of this responsibility accepted, the atheist – or anyone – is then obligated to hold only to evidence, and Clifford is of assistance here because faith is, in simple terms, inherently removed from matters of evidence. It is, in fact, the “reasoning” that is defined by a distance from material reasoning. The atheist is then as empowered as they are obligated, because a divine basis of faith cannot be proven. The force of the responsibilities of inquiry then all the more reveals the absence of a basis for faith, in an exponential way. As imperative as it is that the belief be established as having a foundation allowing for itself, the nature of the thing itself is more blatantly exposed as unconcerned with evidence that creates foundations. Given each example presented by Clifford and following his line of logic, atheism then becomes the only “belief” humanity can hold to as valid.
Clifford, W. K. “The Ethics of Belief.” From The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1999. Print.