William James wrote a very interesting essay in the late nineteenth century called “The Will to Believe,” in which he dealt with some of these thorny issues surrounding the question of belief. In looking at how we come to belief, James set up a series of dichotomies:
living vs dead
forced vs avoidable
momentous vs trivial
and he argued that an option was only really genuine it was living, forced, and momentous. He, of course, placed belief in that category, but i think he had not really come to terms with the fact that, for increasing numbers of people in the late nineteenth century, belief was more and more a dead option. And while he was rather dismissive of the “language of the gaming table” that he saw in Pascal’s Wager, he nonetheless still has a rather odd confidence that we can will ourselves to believe under the right circumstances.
Anyway, the essay is very interesting, and written with James’ usual panache. I teach it to my American Intellectual History students, and i recommend it if you’re interested in this sort of thing.
William James, “The Will to Believe”