You are probably not familiar with the name William Kingdon Clifford. He was a philosopher who lived in England 150 years ago. He was not very well known because his life was cut short at age 33. However, an essay he wrote titled, “The Ethics of Belief” has been discovered and is receiving a great deal of attention.
In this essay written in 1877 Clifford says we have a moral obligation to believe responsibly. We must base our beliefs on sufficient evidence which we have diligently investigated. He believed this to be of such great importance because our beliefs influence our actions. They are foundational to life.
In commenting on this essay, journalist Francisco Mejia Uribe contends that Clifford is on to something because when we believe something, the stakes are high. Every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential, particularly if the belief is in error, and involves the most significant issues of life.
This is what Dr. Dallas Willard, former professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, believed was a major problem with individuals who considered themselves to be agnostic or atheist. Willard found that so many of the students and scholars he encountered on campus and in the world were guilty of what he called “irresponsible disbelief.” These bright men and women would often choose to disbelieve in something without any significant commitment to an investigation of that disbelief by way of sound reasoning and careful examination of the evidence.
Do we not care about what is true? Are we afraid to look reality in the eye because it may take us in a direction we don’t want to go? I believe this is one of the great flaws in our human character. We stubbornly hold on to our beliefs because they generally reflect how we want life to be rather than how life actually is. For this reason, the evidence does not seem to matter.
A great example of this is Dr. Francis Collins. Many consider Dr. Collins to be one of the most effective and ground-breaking scientists in the world. Collins graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Virginia. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry at Yale and then decided, for good measure, he would go to medical school at The University of North Carolina. From there he returned to teach at Yale and later at The University of Michigan. He is most noted for having been chosen to chair the Human Genome Project where, in 2003, he led an international collaboration of two thousand scientists in sequencing the human genome. More recently he was appointed by President Obama to be the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Clearly he is a prominent scientist, but what is perhaps even more interesting is his spiritual journey.
He began this journey as an atheist. In his third year of medical school, while he was working in the hospital, he was attending a woman who had exhausted her options for treatment. She suffered from a heart condition and was going to die soon. Collins was moved by this kind and faithful woman. She had a strong faith, and she shared it with him. She said, “You know, I’m ready to go. Don’t worry about me.”
And then she said, “Dr. Collins, you’ve been so kind to listen to me and care for me and listen to me share with you about my faith. Tell me about your faith. Tell me what you believe.”
Collins later wrote:
“Nobody had ever asked me that question before, not like that, not in such a simple, sincere way. I realized I didn’t know the answer. I felt uneasy. I could feel my face flushing. I wanted to get out of there. The ice was cracking under my feet. All of a sudden, by this simple question, everything was a muddle.”
Collins began to wonder if he was an atheist because he had chosen the position of reason or because it was the answer he wanted. Finally, he wrote, it came to him:
“As a scientist, I had always insisted on collecting rigorous data before drawing a conclusion. And yet, in matters of faith, I had never collected any data at all. I didn’t know what I had rejected. So I decided that I should be a little better grounded in my atheism. I better find out what this is all about. So I challenged a patient of mine who was a Methodist minister. And after listening to my questions and realizing that I was not dealing with a very full deck of information, he suggested that I read the Gospel of John, which I did…I found the scripture to be interesting, puzzling, and not at all what I had thought faith was about…then I began to read C. S. Lewis and realized there was a great depth of thinking and reasoning that could be applied to the question of God.”
Lewis convinced him that reason and faith go hand-in-hand, though faith has the added component of revelation – the Bible. Like C. S. Lewis, Collins had previously believed that Jesus and the stories of the Bible were nothing more than mere myths. Again, as he studied the historical evidence, he was stunned at how well-documented and how historically accurate the Bible was. He also saw a surprising fidelity of the transmission of the manuscripts that were passed down over the centuries. And over time, Francis Collins, based on the accumulation of the evidence that he observed, concluded that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the Bible is the means that God has used to reveal Himself to us. He also concluded that most of the religious skeptics that he knew and that he meets today are just like he was. That is to say, they didn’t want to think about these things and never looked at any evidence, never drawing conclusions from the real evidence that was available.
Dr. Francis Collins, who acknowledges that he was clearly guilty of irresponsible disbelief, became a seeker. But he will also tell you that he found the ultimate spiritual reality of life because he followed the dictum of Socrates: follow the truth wherever it leads. Collins found the truth, and the reason is because he was willing to honestly examine the evidence.