The dispute between Clifford and James is largely on what grounds do we have to believe something and what is the function of belief. Clifford takes the hard stance and says that reason alone should justify our beliefs. Clifford sees belief as being intimately connected to representing the truth of reality. Therefore, it’s important to have good reasons for believing something. If we don’t have a good reason for believing something, then we shouldn’t believe it. Clifford feels that unexamined and unreflective beliefs, especially those that are harmful, are sins against humanity. He thinks there is an immense amount of duty and responsibility to be careful what you believe and to be very particular and clear in your beliefs. James in contrast, doesn’t see belief that way. He doesn’t see it so strictly as an attempt to reflect and represent reality. He doesn’t see the connection as being as strong.
James doesn’t look at the belief as whether it is reflecting truth, but more so what is it doing for the person. He has objectified and privatized truth and made its importance more related to a personal function. In a lot of ways, belief is a matter of convenience for James. He sees this as legitimate because a belief’s main function isn’t an attempt to capture the truth or falsehood of reality, but rather to satisfy some personal need. In the process of believing something, James thinks our will and passion close the gaps that reason leaves open.
With these two different perspectives on the justification of a belief and the function of beliefs, Blackburn suggests this leaves us with some deeper implications. Blackburn thinks the deeper problem is how are we to interpret religious activities. If beliefs can either be an attempt to represent truth, or a device used to satisfy personal needs, what do we make of religious beliefs and actions? We are left asking whether religion is trying to describe some portion of reality, or if religion is just being used as one way of understanding the world, one way of making sense of everything. If religion is trying to describe reality, then the rituals and worship and prayers are all things that should be participated in by everyone. If religion is just one way of making sense of the world and understanding life, then rituals and worship and prayers are to be seen as a matter of practicality and are only to be participated in if they work for you. Also, depending on the function of beliefs, it changes our ability to call something a true belief or not. If it’s a matter of convenience, then calling something a true belief or not seems trivial, but if it’s an attempt to represent truth or not, then calling it a true or false belief has a bit more substance.
This is important because the function of truth determines the motivation for believing something, the nature of the belief itself, and also the ramifications of the belief. If your motivation for believing something is because of a search for truth, then the nature of your belief will be based on what you see to be a fact of reality, and will affect the way you live out this belief that you believe to be a fact of reality. Whereas, if belief is mainly a personal function and a means of satisfying some need, then you may be motivated to believe something because of a personal need and the risks of believing or not believing something. This makes the belief more of a private issue, and will result with a much different sort of response to this belief than if you think your belief is a fact about the nature of reality.