Anonymous Catholics: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, quia seorsum a Christum nulla salus.

What follows is a (very) casual reflection on my view, as a Catholic, of the appropriate ecumenical apologetic Catholics should offer to evangelicals/protestants when asked what we believe about whether they can be saved despite rejecting the Catholic Church’s teachings.

I was recently asked by some very sharp non-Catholic colleagues and friends what Catholics make of the situation in which evangelicals find themselves with respect to salvation. It is well known, of course, that the Catholic Church affirms that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, (i.e., beyond/outside the Church there is no salvation), but it is also well known that Catholics generally take a more optimistic attitude towards evangelicals and the project of ecumenism. I spouted off the usual apologetic mantra; evangelicals who are baptized are already Catholic, technically (and, perhaps, ‘ontologically’) speaking, even if they aren’t coming to Mass (because they are unaware of any obligation to do so) and that most evangelicals who reject the Catholic Church are actually rejecting a mere caricature of her. When pressed, I detailed the conditions under which an evangelical’s rejection of the Catholic Church would be taken as a bona fide example of rejection, and what that kind of rejection would mean for a person’s salvation from a Catholic point of view. I answered roughly along the following lines: that if one genuinely rejects the Catholic Church then they have, in so doing, rejected Christ himself, for the Catholic Church is his mystical body, her teachings his, her authority inherited or extended from him. If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, there can no more be salvation outside of her than there can be salvation apart from Christ, for those two things are one and the same.

I was quick to add some necessary caveats, including that a damning rejection of the Catholic Church would have to involve, at least, an intimate knowledge of what the Church actually teaches and why. Some present seemed concerned that in rejecting the teachings of the Catholic Church, to the extent that they were familiar with them, they were putting themselves in the near occasion of damnation from a Catholic perspective. I tried to insist that it would be better to frame such a rejection in terms of sin, rather than in terms of justification/damnation. It was only afterwards, in retrospect, that I felt I could have given a more satisfying response, and I regretted not doing so. Since this issue is of general interest, and since (evidently) even the most intelligent of evangelicals are often unclear what Catholics like me make of their ‘soteriological situation,’ I thought perhaps I’d try my hand offering a brief reflection on it here.

Is there salvation beyond the Catholic Church? The Catechism has a wonderful passage dealing with this question:

“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

(CCC 845-847)[1]

To my way of thinking, there is a theologically perfect analogy between the questions “is there salvation outside the Catholic Church” and “is there salvation apart from Christ” in that, for both questions, the answer will be a (similarly) qualified ‘no.’ Clearly, there can be no salvation apart from Christ (on this, evangelicals will generally agree with Catholics). However, it is not out of the question to think that Christ, by unknown and ‘extra-ordinary’ means, saves those who, through no fault of their own, remain invincibly ignorant of him, but who seek God sincerely and, through grace, have been drawn to God by Christ himself. Karl Rahner S.J., introduced the idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ (i.e., people who were unconsciously Christian) into Catholic theology in the early 1960’s.[2] The same idea was echoed at a much more popular level by C.S. Lewis, who wrote:

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him…”[3]

These ideas are substantially the same, and they have always seemed right-headed to me, especially given passages such as John 15:22, Acts 10:34-35, Acts 14:17, John 9:41, Numbers 22:9-38, et cetera. The motivations for believing that those who never accept the Gospel through some inability might still be saved are many. One might wonder, for instance, what to make of the mentally disabled who are cognitively unable to accept any theological propositions, or the person who has never been reached with the Gospel, or even the person who has only ever encountered some parody of the real Gospel. Surely a person can only be morally responsible for accepting, failing to accept, rejecting, or failing to reject something if they were acquainted with it, or could easily have been were it not for some fault of their own.

In articulating my view, which takes its cue from Rahner and Lewis (though, I think that you can find early intimations of it in the Ante-Nicene fathers as well), I have made a habit of falling back on one particularly good example from early Church history. Consider Marcus Aurelius, whose virtue and intelligence are virtually unquestioned by Christian historians, but who, in the face of Christianity, not only remained devoutly pagan but made himself a violent enemy of the early Church. Many Christians look back on Marcus Aurelius with a surprisingly warm affection and admiration for him. In the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Marcus Aurelius we read:

“Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen antiquity. Apropos of the Antonines the judicious Montesquieu says that, if we set aside for a moment the contemplation of the Christian verities, we can not read the life of this emperor without a softening feeling of emotion. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time, and M. Martha, the historian of the Roman moralists, says that in Marcus Aurelius “the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God.””[4]

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that this fondness is not mutual.

“In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians was that outlined in Trajan’s rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. [For the much-disputed rescript “Ad conventum Asiae” (Eusebius, Church History IV.13), see ANTONINUS PIUS]. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eusebius, Church History V.1.45). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents (Allard, op. cit. infra. pp. 375, 376, 388, 389). In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived.”[5]

Is it to be concluded, therefore, that Marcus Aurelius rejected Christ, and so was damned? It isn’t clear that that’s a foregone conclusion. Catholics, in general, do well to heed the example of the Catholic Church, which at no time has proclaimed anyone definitively reprobate. For a Catholic to claim that anyone in particular is damned is for them to go far beyond anything the Catholic Church teaches, and that presumption seems in equal parts unwholesome and inappropriate for any faithful Catholic. Beyond prudential reasons for being slow to pass judgment as though In Persona Dei, there may be reason to believe that figures like Marcus Aurelius, in rejecting Christianity, rejected a mere caricature of the faith, while simultaneously drawing nearer to the unknown God (Acts 17:23).

Consider what we read of a presumably popular objection to Christianity, roughly contemporaneous[6] with Marcus Aurelius, in a provocative passage from Minucius Felix’ Octavius:

“And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes. Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion,–a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the virilia of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve. Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds.

Thirstily–O horror!–they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence. Such sacred rites as these are more foul than any sacrileges. And of their banqueting it is well known all men speak of it everywhere; even the speech of our Cirtensian testifies to it. On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervour of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound, to rush and spring; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate. Although not all in fact, yet in consciousness all are alike incestuous, since by the desire of all of them everything is sought for which can happen in the act of each individual.”[7]

Unfortunately, this passage displays misunderstandings of Christianity which were basically representative of widely circulated misapprehensions at the time. Although riddled with obvious and colossal misrepresentations of Christian liturgy (it sounds almost as though infant baptism and the doctrine of the Eucharist have been conflated, resulting in a confusion which would have been laughable had it not been so serious), there’s no reason to think these were peculiar for the time.

Is it possible that Marcus Aurelius’ understanding of Christianity was filtered through these (or similar) unfair popular characterizations in his day? That is certainly not unlikely. What, then, can we make of his response to Christianity? Had he understood by Christianity something as perverse as what we read above, who could possibly blame him for reacting the way he did? Had he accepted Christianity under this appearance, he would have been thereby rejecting the essence of true Christianity. His attacks on Christianity, on this assumption, are the product not of vice, but of outstanding pagan virtue (indeed, proto-Christian virtue). If this truly was the case, then his apparent rejection of ‘Christianity’ was not a genuine rejection of Christianity at all. For all we know, Marcus Aurelius was unconsciously Christian; an anonymous Christian who, having been led into confusion about the Christian cult, acted against the Church out of love for the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, out of love for God (the summum bonum), and even for Christ as λόγος, for, as the Shakespearean adage goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Marcus Aurelius persecuted the Church, but I think his actions were not motivated by an obstinate rejection of the person of Christ; rather, they were motivated by a rejection of a deplorable caricature which any sufficiently good pagan would surely have been inclined to snuff out for the good of the people. In a sense, his apparent rejection of Christianity may have been no more authentic than the atheism of a man who thought that God was supposed to be a big bearded tyrant walking on the clouds, or a flying spaghetti monster. Depending on what atheists understand to be signified by the term ‘God,’ and depending, more profoundly, upon their unarticulated attitude towards God, they may also qualify, in reality, as anonymous Christians in Rahner’s sense. For all we know, they are – at least, for all we know, they are.

The example of Marcus Aurelius (at least, as I have imagined it) helps to illustrate an important point; namely, that the apparent rejection of Christ is not always a genuine rejection of Christ. I want to suggest that the same holds true with respect to rejecting the Catholic faith. For all we know, the evangelical who rejects the Catholic Church rejects but a caricature of her and may remain, in some deep way, invincibly ignorant of what they appear to reject (presumably they remain ignorant, at least, that the Catholic Church is the true mystical body of Jesus Christ). What I think Catholics like me should say, therefore, is that those who reject the Catholic Church genuinely, and not merely in appearance, are surely rejecting Christ himself, and apart from Christ there is no salvation. However, we find ourselves in precisely the same epistemic quandary when attempting to make a judgment about either whether a person has genuinely rejected Christ, or whether a person has genuinely rejected the Catholic Church. The charitable presumption that Catholics should make in both instances, in my submission, is that people may reject Christ or the Church in appearance only, while being, in reality, anonymous Catholics, unconscious of their being united to the whole communion of saints through incorporation into the mystical body of Christ.



[2] Karl Rahner, S.J., “Membership of the Church According to the Teaching of Pius XII’s Encyclical “Mystici Corporis Christi”,” Theological Investigations 2 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1963): 1-88.
see also: Karl Rahner, S.J., “Salvation,” Sacramentum Mundu, V (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970): 405-409.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014), 38.

[4] Patrick Healy, “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), accessed July 23, 2018.

[5] Patrick Healy, “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), accessed July 23, 2018.

[6] Marcus Aurelius’ dates are c. 161-180 A.D., but the dates for Minucius Felix are uncertain, ranging from any times between c. 160-300 A.D.; still, the misunderstandings of Christianity evident in the dialogue published by Minucius Felix may have been in circulation in Marcus Aurelius’ time, and there may have been equally pernicious misunderstandings in circulation in Aurelius’ time regardless.

[7] Minucius Felix, Octavian, Ch. IX,

Easing your way into a Worldview

I want to offer a brief reflection on a phenomenon I see often which strikes me as curious; namely, the phenomenon of easing your way into a worldview by piecemeal steps.

In certain religious traditions (most commonly in those traditions typically referred to derogatorily as ‘cults’), there is a proselytic strategy of conveying certain articles of the faith (which may seem intuitive, wholesome, or otherwise welcome) but keeping information about other articles of faith hidden or secret except to the appropriately initiated. Underlying this practice is this unarticulated recognition that several of that religion’s teachings are so outlandish and counterintuitive that to even admit them in public (or in the presence of the uninitiated) would do damage to the cause of winning people over to their faith. As slimy as I’m inclined to think this practice is, there is perhaps something shrewd about it in light of the way most of us form our worldview-sized beliefs. In fact, it may be the case that for most major worldviews (worldviews which, in the free marketplace of ideas, do exceptionally well at winning over a great portion of the human race) people naturally ease their way into them by finding good reasons to affirm them and then making counter-intuitive adjustments along the way to accommodate them. We can illustrate this, in my submission, even by taking a critical look at metaphysical naturalism.

Take naturalism to be, approximately, the belief that (i) ‘God exists’ is not true, (ii) there exist at least some of the theoretical entities postulated by our best science, and (iii) that there exist only entities belief in which can be motivated in principle by a scientific view of the world. Perhaps naturalism sounds prima facie plausible to many people; the tremendous success of the scientific project of making sense of the world, the apparent superiority of scientific explanations over pre-scientific explanations, the relative implausibility of worldviews competing with naturalism given our new scientifically updated background knowledge about the world, all seem to lend some credence to metaphysical naturalism. One might be led, for these reasons, to adopt a naturalistic worldview and then slowly adjust their auxiliary beliefs accordingly one at a time. First, they may give up robust (or at least traditional) moral realism. Second, they may give up on affirming that there are objectively true (in the correspondence sense) mathematical propositions, or even analytic ones.1 Next they may give up correspondence theory, and then finally they end up denying things like qualia and conscious states.2 Before too long the naturalist will go from sounding soberingly sane to talking about “the illusion that thought is about stuff,”3 and insisting that there are no true sentences (including this one). The conclusions to which one arrives end up being so obnoxious to common sense, so ludicrous to the man on the street, that no sane person could ever agree to them without being eased into accepting them one small step at a time. Just as the frog who remains in slowly warming water until it boils her alive, so too the stubborn naturalist complacently gives in, incrementally, to ostensible insanity; the more comprehensive the atheist’s guide to reality gets, the more it looks like a guide to the surreal.

The very same happens with (some popular versions of) fundamentalism; one begins by finding the Christian worldview plausible for a variety of reasons ranging, perhaps, from natural theology to historical biblical scholarship, from cute arguments (like C.S. Lewis’ trilemma)4 to (Josh McDowell’s)5 systematic apologetics. However, before long one is arguing that the light of supernovae, which has taken millions of years to reach us, was created by God merely a few thousand years ago in order to create the appearance of now-dead stars, or that cancer exists because a talking snake fooled our most primitive human ancestor, or that carbon-dating is so inaccurate that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that dinosaurs were roughly contemporaneous with mankind. In this manner one slides from apparently reasonable starting points to what may as well be Alice’s wonderland.

A similar pattern holds true for lone-wolf thinkers whose worldviews end up being hodge-podge syntheses which hardly anyone else will ever find plausible or intellectually satisfying. Original thinkers from Zeno to Berkeley, from Diogenes to David Lewis put forward philosophies regarded by most to be laughable grandiloquent fictions. It is not surprising, then, that so many should regard the history of philosophy as a museum of the absurd. Even the man who abandons philosophical inquiry altogether creates for himself a view of the world riddled with inconsistencies and idiocies to which he remains blind thanks only to his refusal to reflect critically upon them.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to ask: is there any stopping the flood of myriad derisory beliefs? The question of how plausible a worldview is seems irrelevant to the assessment of its truth unless the presumption that reality is not too counterintuitive turns out to be correct. If reality turns out to be massively counter-intuitive, then plausibility provides no guide to truth. However, if plausibility is the primary litmus test for believability (after logical coherence, etc.), then we are proverbially up the faecal creek without a paddle.

My reaction to this line of thought is as follows; just as parsimony should be regarded as a signpost of truth in the sense that between any two views, ceteris paribus, the more parsimonious is more likely to be true, so closer alignment with common sense makes a view, ceteris paribus, more likely to be correct. What qualifies as common sense may not be so easily answered, but something like nearly universally shared intuitions about plausibility will qualify (we can leave the details to be worked out elsewhere). Obviously most people are prejudiced, to some degree, in advance of the following exercise, but I think one of the most valuable procedures when it comes to worldview-selection is to take inventory of a (prima facie sufficiently plausible) worldview’s most counter-intuitive consequences and compare them to the most counter-intuitive consequences of competing worldviews. This exercise won’t provide us the means for any definitive doxastic adjudication, but I think it remains one of the best approaches we have to comparing competing worldviews.

The alternative, realistically, is for us to unreflectively slide comfortably into a worldview by taking incremental steps towards the absurd, readjusting our plausibility assignments slowly and surely, and ending up with beliefs we would never have consented to accept had we seen clearly precisely to what it was we were inevitably committing ourselves when we adopted the overarching paradigm in question.

1 See: W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (2000): 189-210.

2 See: William Ramsey, “Eliminative Materialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2016), accessed March 27, 2017.

3 Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. (WW Norton & Company, 2011), 95.

4 See: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014): 29-32.

5 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume to Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21 st Century, (Thomas Nelson, 1999).

The Ethics of (Dis)Belief

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
~ William Clifford, The Ethics of Belief

Years ago, in my first philosophy of religion class, as a fresh-off-the-boat undergraduate in my first semester of university, I was exposed to, and fascinated by, William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief, where he argued forcefully and persuasively that believing in anything upon insufficient evidence was morally criminal. Since that time I have always retained the conviction that deciding what one believes is a matter of serious moral gravity. This is, in fact, what I take to be Clifford’s key insight into the ethics of belief; namely, that no act of choosing to believe or disbelieve anything is truly a private matter. Human beings, by virtue of the human situation, are such inextricably communal beings that nothing we say, do, or believe, in public or in private, is really a matter of no public consequence. To draw any sharp line between the public and private lives of citizens seems to me to reflect an anthropological naïveté. Unless the distinction is meant to be a purely political or legal one, it seems flatly wrong; clearly, there can be no such moral line drawn up between public and private affairs.

C.S. Lewis put this point beautifully, as he often does, in Mere Christianity where he writes:

There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual—when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another. You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions. Or, if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others. But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.
Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.[1]

The second element of the science of morals is, according to Lewis, directly concerned with apparently private affairs, and this is precisely because these private affairs are a matter of public consequence. William Clifford, who also adopts imagery involving a ship, illustrates his point with the following Gedankenexperiment (as the Germans say):

A SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.[2]

Clifford goes on to argue, convincingly, that one will not be able to evade this critique by arguing that this or that particular private belief is of no such consequence, for “no real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.”[3] He is, in fact, more elaborate than this, saying:

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it… If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole.[4]

Therefore, “no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone.”[5] As a Catholic, I find myself in profound agreement with this point. In fact, turning to the Catholic Church’s belief in indulgences, we find Pope Paul VI outlining one of the basic suppositions underlying the doctrine as follows:

There reigns among men, by the hidden and benign mystery of the divine will, a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one also benefits the others. Thus the Christian faithful give each other mutual aid to attain their supernatural aim… This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of the Saints, whereby the life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed.[6]

The whole universe, as pictured by the Catholic faith, is infused at every turn with moral significance. This belief isn’t as difficult to make good sense of as it may at first appear. Consider, for example, that I choose today to sin in some apparently private expression of my freedom to do so; will it not be the case that I could have spent that same time praying for others and/or myself, which would have redounded to the salvation/sanctification of all men? My very failure to act well is a sin of omission. However, there is an even deeper sense in which my private sin obviously hurts mankind more directly. Consider that every sin I commit personally is an act by which I distance myself from God. However, sanctity is the most beautiful thing in the world, and people are moved more by beauty than by anything else (they are moved by truth or goodness only insofar as they perceived it so to be and, in addition, perceive its beauty). Beautiful things are, of course, called ‘beautiful’ precisely because they look like God; that is to say, something is beautiful just to the extent that it intimates the divine nature. Something is perceived to be beautiful just to that extent to which it is perceived (however confusedly) to intimate the divine nature. All this is simply to say that to the extent that I distance myself from God by sinning, I put others in the near occasion of damnation by failing to be holy, (i.e., by failing to be truly beautiful).

Many critiques of Clifford’s essay have already been offered in the philosophical literature. However, I will here give a summary outline of my objections or responses to Clifford’s provocative argument: i) first, his argument presumes doxastic voluntarism, and this seems difficult to reconcile with views like Naturalism, thus his argument can only be erected on some intellectual framework which allows for doxastic voluntarism, and this seems to undercut the family of views he means to invite us to; ii) his view is broadly consequentialist and, I think, Utilitarian, but even construed as Utilitarian there may be some cases where belief upon insufficient evidence is, on Naturalism, morally obligatory; iii) having ‘reasons’ may not qualify as sufficient evidence, and this could undercut all beliefs established by philosophical arguments (which, in turn, would undercut Clifford’s philosophical argument about the ethics of belief); iv) not all beliefs are inferred from evidence, and some beliefs, perhaps even some of the beliefs Clifford means to target, may be justified in a properly basic way; v) if every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe anything at all, including that there are any ethics of belief.

Clifford notes that ‘Belief’ is “that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, [and] is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.”[7] This rational faculty, however, is difficult to account for naturalistically, especially if it is deliberative in any libertarian sense.

As Richard Taylor has done well to note;

I cannot deliberate about what to do, even though I may not know what I am going to do, unless I believe that it is up to me what I am going to do. If I am within the power of another person, or at the mercy of circumstances over which I have no control, then, although I may have no ideal what I am going to do, I cannot deliberate about it. I can only wait and see.[8]

To say that it is, in a given instance, up to me what I do, is to say that I am in that instance free with respect to what I then do.[9]

I deliberate in order to decide what to do, not to discover what it is that I am going to do.[10]

However, physicalism (a popular form of naturalism) makes very difficult the belief in free will, or doxastic voluntarism (i.e., free will applied to the deliberative faculty of belief). The idea that we have the ability to freely choose what to believe assumes, in the first place, that we have free will at all, and in the second place, that we have the ability to will to believe anything in particular (i.e., that this faculty of free will can be applied doxastically). Let us assume that if we have free will at all it isn’t implausible to think we can apply it to what we will to believe or disbelieve. Nevertheless, if we accept anything like physicalism, which is the view that everything which exists (including us) admits in principle of (exhaustive) physicalistic description, then there is no metaphysical space left to insert ‘persons’ (as libertarians conceive of them) into our world.

I could go further in this direction, but before I do perhaps I should stop right here and note that Clifford could legitimately respond ‘to heck with physicalism then,’ and there would be nothing wrong with this response in principle. Clifford’s ethic need not vindicate physicalism in order for there to be something right about it, and Clifford’s being a physicalist has nothing significant to do with his argument here. All I mean to show is that the view to which Clifford presumably means to invite us (i.e., Naturalism) is notoriously difficult to combine with any account of freedom sufficient for the kind of moral indictments he means to issue. His injunctions and censures are either mere expressions of taste, like the propagandistic emoting that A.J. Ayer advocated in moral discourse, or else at least they are groundless unless rooted in a view very remote from his own (and, ironically, perhaps much closer to the religious views he means to disabuse us of).

Moving to my second objection to Clifford’s view, I should note that while his view is broadly consequentialist, and consequentialism isn’t always utilitarian, utilitarianism is by far the most popular version of consequentialism. Briefly, utilitarianism is the view that in any circumstance C, an action A is morally right if and only if it results in an equal or greater-than ratio of pleasure to pain than any other action B in C would have brought about. This definition may seem somewhat crude and unfair, as there are versions of utilitarianism which replace ‘pleasure’ with some more dignified account of happiness (sometimes even ‘eudaimonistic’ Aristotelian accounts). However, in general it is just the view that an action is right to the extent that it results in more well-being than otherwise would have resulted, and this seems to me to be the underlying motivation for Clifford’s argument.

However, because moral reasoning often happens under conditions with time constraints, and these time constraints often don’t allow us to act with any reasonable confidence that what we do will lead to greater happiness overall, philosophers have defended utilitarianism by introducing a distinction between ‘Act’ and ‘Rule’ utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism: def. An Act is right if and only if it results in at least as much happiness on the whole as the alternatives.

Rule Utilitarianism: def. An act is right if and only if it conforms to a rule-set whose universal acceptance and application would result in the greatest happiness on the whole.

I introduce this distinction simply by way of clarification; I interpret Clifford’s argument to be cast in terms of Rule-Utilitarianism. The ship-owner did something wrong not necessarily because his action led to less happiness or well-being in fact, but because it failed to follow an epistemic rule which, if universally applied, would result in the greatest happiness on the whole. The ship-owner acted in contravention of the rule.

However, even on Rule-Utilitarianism (and Naturalism) there may be some cases where it is morally obligatory to believe upon insufficient evidence. I recall an example which, as far as I know, originally came from Sam Harris (though when I went digging for it I couldn’t seem to find the reference in his books). He asks us to imagine that we were being tortured by religious radicals who were attempting to either convert us or eventually kill us. Eventually they tell us, and we have reason to believe, that unless we bring ourselves to genuinely believe in their religion they intend to set off a nuclear bomb in our home country (wherever that is), killing hundreds of thousands, or perhaps tens of millions. Now it seems that, under these circumstances, we would be morally obliged to do everything within our power to make ourselves believe in their religion. We allow ourselves to be brainwashed, and force ourselves to accept indoctrination, or else we will have acted in such a way that we bring about a much greater amount of suffering and evil in the world. If we don’t at least try to accept their religion, under those circumstances, then we are acting in a manner which is antithetical to the utilitarian imperative. Therefore, we can imagine a situation where, on Naturalism & Utilitarianism, a person would not only have the right, but in fact the duty, to believe something upon insufficient evidence. This critique of Clifford of course presumes some things, such as that he would be happy with my interpretation of him as a rule-utilitarian, and that may be up for debate, but at least if he is a rule-utilitarian (and clearly a naturalist) then my critique here should be considered on-point.

Moving to my third objection I would like to ask, what, exactly, is ‘sufficient’ evidence? What epistemic standard do we adopt, and what norm do we follow? For any such epistemology, is there ‘sufficient’ evidence for it? Is there sufficient evidence for coherentism, or for classical foundationalism, or for reformed epistemology? What exactly is ‘sufficient’ evidence? If, on the one hand, ‘sufficient’ evidence means simply ‘on the balance of reasons’ then how can Clifford indict anyone of ‘balancing wrongly’ when it seems that there is no way to even prescribe a norm (i.e., an epistemology) ‘on the balance of reasons.’ In effect, what Clifford has done is smuggled in an epistemic norm without giving us any epistemology – and what epistemology could he give us if he couldn’t afford belief in it without sufficient evidence? If having some ‘reasons’ is sufficient to warrant belief, then nearly everything will be epistemically legal. Why imply that the Christian who believes in her faith on the basis of everything she knows, in addition to her experience of the Holy Spirit, is doing anything less prudential than the Naturalist who believes in Naturalism on the basis of everything he knows, in addition to his lack of any compelling religious or spiritual experiences?

If sufficient evidence means proof in the strongest sense, then not only do we need proof that such a thing as ‘proof’ exists (otherwise we have not the sufficient reason for believing there are any proofs out there), but we need also take inventory of just how great a cost adopting such a high standard would be. We would not only have no time to believe in the majority of philosophical positions, but we will have no time to have scientific beliefs either (for science adopts methodological presumptions which it is the province of philosophy to justify, like the reality of the external world, or the validity of inductive reasoning), not to mention common sense beliefs (such as in the reality of the past). We would, it turns out, not have the time to believe in the deliverances of science, which base themselves (as always) on secure but unproven (and often unprovable) assumptions. We will not have time enough to believe that planes will continue to fly, or that the sun will continue to rise in the morning. However, surely Clifford doesn’t want us to abandon all of these beliefs!

What kinds of reasons are sufficient to grant us the license to believe? If the evidences must be indubitable and/or incorrigible then almost all scientific and philosophical ‘evidence’ is inadequate. If, on the other hand, sufficient evidence means anything less than proof then we are left with an indissoluble quandary – what amount of evidence qualifies as sufficient? Are arguments from authority good enough? If even arguments from authority (i.e., based on trusted testimony) are inadequate, then most of us can’t afford to believe most of what we believe, even (and especially) about science and history. However, it now becomes clear that for any reasonable standard of ‘sufficient evidence’ religion will pass the test, and I’ll flesh this out in my following (fourth) criticism.

Bearing in mind the point I just made about some beliefs being unprovable, it seems clear that at least some of our most deeply entrenched beliefs are not inferred on the basis of evidence or believed on the basis or arguments. This last point segues into my fourth criticism, which is that the right ‘epistemology’ is something like Plantinga’s reformed epistemology[11] (which is a non-classical species of ‘foundationalism’). On this view a belief may be justified apart from arguments or inferential evidence on the grounds that it is what philosophers call a properly basic belief.

A belief which is properly basic is one which we are within our rational rights to believe even in the absence of any arguments or evidence, and which it would be irrational to disbelieve in the absence of any (strong) arguments and/or evidence against. Our belief in other minds, the reality of the external world, or our belief in the reality of the past are run-of-the-mill examples of ‘properly basic’ beliefs. We can’t prove either that the past is real (i.e., that the world didn’t come into existence moments ago with the appearances or ‘accidents’ of age, from the fossils in the ground from dinosaurs which were never here, to the memories in your head of the things you never did), or that the world is populated by other minds like ours (we apprehend ourselves immediately, so we cannot doubt that we exist as persons, but for all we know the rest of the world could be comprised of automatons who seem so personable that we confuse them for persons), let alone proving the existence of an external world at all. Yet, we believe these things naturally and strongly. Either we are justified in doing so, or we are all committing epistemic sins by believing in these sorts of things (assuming we do). However, the most plausible account of these beliefs being justified is reformed epistemology.

Here’s the rub; if this epistemology is at least approximately correct (i.e., it’s ‘on the right track’), then what counts as sufficient evidence may be satisfied in the case of the Christian religion. As Plantinga himself, along with other reformed epistemologists, has argued, belief in God, and even in Christianity, may be for some people a properly basic belief.

There is a wide variety of beliefs which fall under this same basic category – we all naturally believe them and don’t feel any need to give any arguments or evidence for them. We believe them not on the basis of a rational inference given some clever argument or some body of evidence, but rather we believe them because our experience of the world naturally forms in us a basic belief which we have no reason to doubt. Plantinga thinks that belief in God is like this, and although that claim usually raises a few eyebrows, I think he’s right. At least if God does exist, we would expect that a person’s cognitive faculties, if they are operating correctly, will recognize this fact. Aquinas recognized this point when he talked about the sensus dei, and Calvin did as well, calling it the sensus divinitatis. The claim thus amounts to saying that if somebody doesn’t recognize that God exists, their cognitive faculties have malfunctioned. This sounds somewhat pejorative, but it isn’t intended to be an indictment, it is simply a consequence of accepting this kind of epistemology along with accepting very plausible theistic assumptions. The atheist can, of course, accept the epistemology while remaining skeptical of Theism (as Tyler Wunder has done),[12] but they won’t be able to go as far as to claim that the theist is committing any epistemic sin when she believes in God.

Moreover, beyond the claim of Theism being properly basic, I think we can argue with success that Christianity may itself be maintained in a properly basic way. For instance, epistemologists (even including Wunder) who accept this general approach have argued that beliefs based on the testimony of others are also properly basic; in the absence of a defeater, you have every reason to believe my name is ‘Tyler’ if I tell you so, and you have no justification for disbelieving it after I’ve told you that is my name unless you have some very good reason to disbelieve it (what epistemologists refer to as a ‘defeater’). So it is with the witness of the Holy Spirit, whose testimony within us confirms that Christianity is true. In the absence of some defeater – some reason to suspect that testimony is false – we can maintain our commitment to the truth of Christianity in a properly basic way. The philosopher William Lane Craig has made this point elsewhere, and I’m really just repeating after him.[13] So, not only are some beliefs maintained in a justified way apart from arguments or inferential evidence, but some of the very beliefs Clifford means to attack are among the best candidates for beliefs of this kind.

Finally, the pièce de résistance, the definitive difficulty with Clifford’s ethics of belief is that it is self-defeating. If every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe in Clifford’s ‘ethics of belief.’ Unless Clifford provides us with some reasonable standard for ‘sufficient evidence’ which won’t cost us beliefs like the belief in the past or the belief that there are objective ethical values (concerning either belief or actions), he cannot hope to provide us with sufficient evidence for his own view about the ethics of belief.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 71-72.

[2] William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, fourth edition, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 99-100.

[3] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[4] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[5] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Indulgentarium Doctrina, Apostolic Constitution Whereby the Revision of Sacred Indulgences is Promulgated, Vatican Web site, July 29, 2014,

[7] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[8] Richard Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” in Reality in Focus: Contemporary Readings on Metaphysics, ed. Paul K. Moser (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 271.

[9] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 273.

[10] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 278.

[11] See: Alvin Plantinga, “Reformed epistemology,” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition (2010): 674-680.

[12] See this interview:

[13] William Land Craig, interview with Kevin Harris, Reasonable Faith, Podcast Audio, July 29, 2014,