Agnosticism can be personal and confessional, as when a person shrugs his shoulders and says, “I have no firm belief about God.” But this is unphilosophical, noncommittal agnosticism; it is the kind of agnosticism that makes no argument.

By contrast, philosophical agnosticism makes a stronger, more general claim. This claim is that no one ought to make a positive belief for or against the divine existence. This stronger claim invites a counterargument, whereas the first personal revelation does not.

Scientist W.K. Clifford made a strong case for agnosticism. Clifford’s assertion, made vivid in his pungent essay “The Ethics of Belief” (1877), claims that, “The existence of a belief not founded on fair enquiry unfits a man for the performance of his necessary duty.” Later he puts the matter more strongly: “It is always wrong for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. Stated without the negations, agents have a duty to examine all beliefs and strive to accept only true ones.”

But is the unjustified belief excused if it provides some comfort to the believer? Not according to Clifford. “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved or unquestioned statements,” Clifford asserts. He goes on to claim that we have a universal duty of “questioning all that we believe.” Clifford illustrates his meaning with the story of a ship owner who sends his well-worn ship out to sea.

Though he knows the ship could benefit from an inspection, he stifles all doubts and suspicions about the vessel’s seaworthiness. He achieves a kind of blissful self-deception about the ship. The ship sinks in mid-ocean, the owner “got his insurance money” and “told no tales,” for he had “acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy.” To what degree does the owner’s untested belief make him morally culpable? His greed spurred him to circumvent the duty to raise questions. He thereby worked himself into a credulous state of mind that was morally reprehensible.

In no uncertain terms, Clifford maintains that the owner was “verily guilty of the death of those men.” It is not just the consequences of lost lives that make his belief immoral, it is that the belief was ill-gotten, “because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.” For it is clear that, “He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” And if by chance the ship had reached port safely? This changes nothing: the owner’s unearned optimism was still reprehensible.

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