What is Faith?
In my discussions with Christians, I have found that the average Christian will, when pressed, make an appeal to faith. To the Christian, faith seems like the ultimate Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. Whenever they run up against a wall, whenever they notice the failure of their reasons for belief, they fall into this mindset—that it is noble for them to continue believing that their religion is true in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
But what is faith? Should the connotation of the word faith even be a positive one? Do we all have faith? Should we really make a virtue out of this characteristic? In this post, I hope to answer these questions
Well, first let us define faith. There are several available definitions, but the one I am referring to when I talk about appeals to faith is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition:
3. A belief in a proposition or claim without proof, a belief that is not based on evidence.
On a side note--it makes me positively gleeful to observe that the term faith is used to refer both to beliefs that are not based on evidence and religion. As Martin Luther famously said, “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.” I wonder if he was referring to faith as in belief without proof or faith as a synonym for religion. Either way, this statement is very telling.
Now, before I continue let me clarify a point here. I am not arguing in this post that religion is not supported by evidence. That is my position, but I am not defending that position here. If you believe that the evidence supports the existence of a god, then this post is not for you. This post is addressing the idea that is commonly held amongst the religious that one is admirable for continuing to believe something even if the evidence does not support that belief. This is a hideous little meme and I hope to do my best to dispel it here.
Why Faith is Bad
This should be fairly obvious. If one wants to discover the truth, then one should examine all available evidence and use good logic to come to the most likely conclusion. If new evidence comes to light that shifts the balance of evidence into another direction, then one should be willing to adjust ones beliefs accordingly. This is called open-mindedness.
Faith is the opposite of this. Faith involves choosing a belief for whatever reason (perhaps you feel at the time the evidence does support that belief, perhaps your parents held it, perhaps it comforts you in a time of distress) and then deciding to hold onto that belief no matter what. If new evidence comes to light that casts doubt on the belief, you either ignore that evidence or ad hoc your way out of adjusting your belief. You gather together with people who share your belief to provide confirmation to one another. Essentially, you are shutting off your critical thinking process. You are hitting the off-switch for your brain. This is called closed-mindedness.
Faith involves acting as if you have more certainty than you do. If our goal was to understand reality, we would in fact act as if we have less certainty than we do. It is one of the great hallmarks of science that scientists are always willing to throw out their old assumptions to accommodate new evidence. It is one of the great hallmarks of religion that churches are always willing to throw out new evidence to accommodate their old assumptions.
We All Have Faith In Something . I Have Faith In Christ, You Have Faith In Science
I think that all atheists will agree, this is probably the most annoying thing we hear from Christians. And we hear it so much! Every believer who uses this line thinks they are being clever or original, but it is the most tired platitude the religious have.
In one of my conversations with a believer, an elder at a fundamentalist evangelical church in my area, he asked me why I would trust science over Christianity when the two came into conflict. Christianity, after all, had been saying the same thing consistently for 2000 years, but science is constantly changing what it says. I first asked him if his church preached the need to burn witches and, when he said no, I pointed out to him that Christianity had therefore not been saying the same thing for 2000 years, as not burning witches (or heretics, necromancers, homosexuals, and others) was a big change from what Christians used to do. After my facetious statement, I went on to tell him a story that Richard Dawkins recounts in his book, The God Delusion (mandatory reading for anyone interested in the topic of religion).
Dawkins tells us of a professor he had in his college days who had spent his career arguing against the existence of a cell wall in plant cells. One day, one of that professor’s former students came in and gave a lecture on how he had demonstrated conclusively that the cell wall does in fact exist. The professor stood up and walked to the front of the room, shaking his former students hand vigorously and sincerely declaring, “Thank you, my dear boy, I have been wrong these fifteen years.” Dawkins and his classmates stood up and clapped their hands red.
This is what the scientific method looks like at its best. Does every individual scientist work with this mentality? No, some get attached to their ideas and ignore the evidence against them. But what happened with Dawkins’ professor is what science admires. It is what science aspires to.
What does Christianity aspire to? Well, imagine that someone were able to put together a philosophical and scientific case that completely disproved the existence of god. Every argument that supports the existence of a god is dispelled by this case and the evidence against the existence of a god is so compelling as to leave no question as to its truth.
Imagine the person who compiled this case going to the Vatican and presenting it to the pope. Could anyone honestly imagine the pope throwing down his pointy crown and shaking the presenters’ hand, thanking him for showing him the error of his ways? You are probably laughing at the very idea, which proves my point. Religion aspires to the exact opposite of what science aspires to—religion demands acceptance of the conclusion, regardless of the evidence, science demands acceptance of the evidence, regardless of the conclusion.
In another conversation with a different believer, a Baptist minister, I used a different allegory to illustrate my point. I was meeting the minister at a Starbucks for coffee and he told me that I exercised faith every day. I had faith, he said, that when I sat in my chair that the chair would not collapse underneath me. So why would I not have faith in god?
I responded that I actually didn’t exercise faith every day, and neither did he. We exercise the opposite of faith every day—reason. Reason is what we use when we sit in a chair without expecting it to collapse. It would be unreasonable to assume that that chair would collapse based upon the available evidence. The chair appeared sturdy. I have never had the experience of a chair breaking when I sit in it. All the other chairs in that Starbucks were capable of supporting the other patrons sitting in them. I did not expect the chair to collapse because the evidence told me it would not. Granted, this was mostly a subconscious analysis of the evidence, but it was an analysis nonetheless.
If, on the other hand, I had entered the Starbucks to the sight of several customers sitting with shocked faces on the floor, surrounded by the wooden shards of collapsed chairs and spilt coffee, then approached my friend the minister at the table where he sat to find the chair I was about to sit in held together loosely with masking tape, and yet still sat down heavily and confidently in that chair, then I would be exercising faith. I would be suspending my reasoning process and sitting in the chair despite an absence of evidence that the chair could support me. And I would be very foolish to do so. Likewise, I would be very foolish to suspend my reasoning process when examining other questions, particularly ones like “how did the universe get here?” and “does a god exist?”
Faith in a-Zeusism
One other annoying way that the religious phrase their platitude is to say that atheists have faith there is no god. The especially irritating former-hapless-journalist-turned-wealthy-best-selling-creationist Lee Strobel has a characteristically irritating bromide that he “does not have enough faith to be an atheist.” Strobel and those like him often say that it takes faith to believe that the universe and everything in it came from nothing.
Well, this is just inanity, pure and simple. It does not take a suspension of reasoning faculties to dismiss a claim on the grounds that poor evidence exists to support it. Furthermore, Christians willingly admit to taking a leap of faith when it comes to believing their own god exists, but rarely will you hear a Christian admit to taking a leap of faith when it comes to rejecting the existence of a rival god, like Zeus for instance. No Christian will ever say that they have to take it on faith that Zeus does not exist. Nor would they accept that not believing in Zeus would be silly because then we would have to believe that lightning just happens randomly as a result of a random configuration of molecules. How ridiculous does the claim that denying the existence of a god requires faith sound when phrased like that!
Ultimately, Christianity is faith-based and atheism is not. Atheism is simply the rational response to an irrational claim. While some Christians may attempt to rationalize their belief by providing reason for it (reasons that fall apart when analyzed), if you press the average Christian, they will almost always make an appeal to faith. This is because the Christian world view is so incoherent, so inconsistent with reality, so blatantly ludicrous that it can only be justified by a suspension of rational thinking. That is what faith is. The antithesis of contemplation. Without making a virtue of faith, Christianity would not be able to survive.