The Will Not to Believe


Is it permissible to believe that God does not exist if the evidence is inconclusive? In this paper, we give a new argument in support of atheistic belief modelled on William James’s The Will to Believe. According to James, if the evidence for a proposition, p, is ambiguous, and believing that p is a genuine option, then it can be permissible to let your passions decide. Typically, James’s argument has been used as a defence of passionally caused theistic belief. However, in the existing literature, little attention has been given to topic of passionally caused atheistic belief. Here, we give much needed attention to the issue of how areligious passions can justify atheistic belief. Following James, we argue that if atheism is a genuine option for an agent, it is permissible to believe that God does not exist based on her hopes, desires, wishes, or whatever passions incline her to disbelieve. After defending the coherence of passionally caused atheism, we go on to suggest why this position is a tenable one for the atheist to adopt.

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  1. 1.

    Adams and Robson (2016) have recently defended an account of areligious experience as a justification for atheistic belief. In a similar vein, we aim to give much needed attention to the area of areligious passions as a justification for atheistic belief.

  2. 2.

    James supposes that his audience are protestants, and that for these protestants (at least), Islam is a dead option. We endorse neither of these presuppositions.

  3. 3.

    As an anonymous referee helpfully points out, the argument for James’s thesis, as presented here, is enthymematic. As well as holding that (i) we must decide, and (ii) reason does not decide, we would also have to hold that (iii) only reason or passion can decide. James does not provide an argument for (iii), and we wont explore (iii) in detail here. Possibly, James takes it as a matter of psychological fact that only reason and passion lead us to belief. The thought is that we cannot voluntarily form beliefs, but we are, in the ordinary course of our epistemic lives, pushed to believe by our passions. We should bear in mind how broad James’ view of passions is.

  4. 4.

    More specifically, Bishop maintains that

    Where p is a faith-proposition of the kind exemplified in the context of theistic religious faith, it is morally permissible for people to take p to be true with full weight in their practical reasoning while correctly judging that it is not the case that p’s truth is adequately supported by their total available evidence if and only if:

    The question whether p presents itself to them as a genuine option; and

    The question whether p is essentially evidentially undecidable’ (2007, p. 147).

  5. 5.

    Maher (1990) defends van Fraassen’s (1980) thesis that we can accept a hypothesis without believing it. Relatedly, Holton (1994) explains how one can sometimes decide to trust someone, even if she does not believe that her trust will be vindicated.

  6. 6.

    With thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  7. 7.

    We cannot take it for granted that agnosticism and atheism amount to the same option; not, at least, when we consider how atheism and agnosticism are incorporated into one’s way of life. Trzebiatowska (2018) writes that, as opposed to theist women: ‘Atheist women do not follow a script because there is no script. They invent their own ways of being-in-the-world.’ (2018, p. 3). Note that the script, so to speak, is still available for agnostics: It is not known to be false, but unknowable.

  8. 8.

    Similarly, as le Poidevin (2016) suggests, whilst one could remain a religious fictionalist and engage in certain kinds of contemplative practice, practices such as petitionary prayer in which one expects or anticipates God to respond in some way, seem ruled out (2016, p. 186). He writes that, a religious fictionalist ‘cannot but be aware that no one is there to grant her requests, and the attempt to make such a request will surely strike her as a sham’ (2016, p. 186).

  9. 9.

    For a version of the kind of objection Adams and Robson are interested in refuting, see C. Stephen Evans’s book Natural Signs and Knowledge of God. Evans claims that

    to be a natural sign, an experience or feature of the world would have to be caused by the reality it signifies, and there must be a natural disposition to become aware of that reality and form a belief about it. If God does not exist, there could hardly be a causal relation between a non-existent being and the suffering and evil in the world; nor does it make sense to say that the intended function of suffering and evil is to produce unbelief. (2010, p. 93, quoted in Adams and Robson 2016, p. 62.)

  10. 10.

    As an anonymous referee points out to us, Nagel makes an inference from his passional commitment to autonomy, to the truth of atheism, by constructing his Cosmic Authority problem. To present Nagel’s example as a purely Jamesian case, we must imagine the dislike of God’s existence as the root cause of Nagel’s atheism, and not a secondary inference which might be made.

  11. 11.

    It might seem to some, that a desire for parsimony cannot be a passional cause. After all, Ockham’s razor and Quine’s preference for desert landscapes seem to be two sides of the same coin: The thought at the root of both is that on the balance of probabilities, parsimonious theories are more likely to be true, so we ought to have a preference for such theories. Nevertheless, this does not rule out the possibility of someone’s having a passion for parsimony that they neither explain, nor justify, with these epistemic considerations. Rather, it could be the case that a passion drives you to prefer parsimony. The notion that parsimony is valuable for more than its epistemic value is not unprecedented in analytic philosophy. Writing of Harry Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love (2004), Philip L. Quinn writes: ‘The book’s dust jacket claims that it is beautifully written. Its literary qualities seem to me to resemble the sharp lines and bright colors of a fine Mondrian or the austere elegance of good modernist architecture, not the rich chiaroscuro of a Titian or the exuberance of a baroque cathedral. Frankfurt’s prose will prove to be particularly attractive to those with the taste for desert landscapes whose cultivation is highly recommended in contemporary analytic philosophy.’ (2004).

  12. 12.

    Of course, it might be possible, as an anonymous referee points out, that perhaps we have not encountered a true believer in Russell’s teapot, who says that the absence of definitive sightings does not decide the case and is passionate about his or her belief.


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The authors would like to thank David Efird for his helpful comments and feedback, as well as audiences at The Eastern Regional Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Rutgers University, The University of York Postgraduate Work in Progress Seminar and the White Rose Philosophy Postgraduate Forum for their invaluable questions and comments.

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Correspondence to Joshua Cockayne.

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Cockayne, J., Warman, J. The Will Not to Believe. SOPHIA 58, 511–523 (2019).

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  • James
  • Fideism
  • Belief
  • Evidence
  • Atheism