The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

No, Faith is Not Belief Without Evidence!

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As Christians, we are called to faith. But what does “faith” mean? Atheists often tell Christians (i.e., you know, people of faith) something like the following:

Mark Twain: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”[1]

Peter Boghossian: “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence.”[2]

Richard Dawkins once said “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”[3]

 

For many atheists, all that one has to do is get Christians to admit that they believe Christianity on the basis of faith and this is sufficient to refute the view. After all, how could you win a rational debate if you admit to pretending to know something you don’t know?! To concede this seems to be to surrender before the war even starts.

The only problem here is that there is no thoughtful Christian I know would say this is what they mean by faith. Maybe Christians should get to say what they mean by faith?! This would likely help the dialogue, or so it seems to me.

So, at best, these are mere caricatures of faith. I will suggest that faith is best understood as ventured trust. I will also argue that everyone has faith and that faith is in no way contrary to reason.

What then is faith? As a first pass, we should understand faith as simple trust. When we trust, there is always some thing (or person) that we trust. This is to say that faith always has an object. That is, one cannot have faith in some nebulous way. There must be some thing or person one has faith in. So this could be a chair one is considering sitting in. Or one could trust an airplane one is waiting to board. Or one may place one’s trust in a person to whom one is about to say “I do” in a wedding ceremony. The object of one’s faith would be the chair or the airplane or the soon-to-be-if-all-goes-well spouse.

Notice that, on this understanding of faith, faith is not, by itself, a set of beliefs, or a proposition, or even a claim. So an immediate problem with the above caricatures of faith is that they do not place faith in the right sort category. Faith cannot be “belief without evidence” since it is not a belief to begin with. It is a state that may involve beliefs or may be caused by beliefs, although it is not itself a belief. Rather, it is a state of trust.

But we don’t have faith in something from a distance. Faith seems to connote the idea that we trust in action. When we genuinely place our faith in an object, we always venture something. If we trust the safety of the airplane, but we never get on board, then we haven’t really placed our faith in the airplane.

Faith requires not trust from a distance but an entrusting ourselves where we venture or risk ourselves and our wellbeing to some thing or person. To truly place our faith in a chair, we must sit down and risk the chair’s collapsing. Or a much better illustration is the risk one takes when one gets married. A healthy marriage requires us to entrust virtually every area of our lives to our spouse and this opens us up to the deepest hurt when there is betrayal. A toxic marriage is of course one in which there is deep distrust and suspicion. But the marriage will also suffer if one merely trusts from a distance. A healthy marriage requires us to jump in with deep and mutual ventured trust.

Faith requires not trust from a distance but an entrusting ourselves where we venture or risk ourselves and our wellbeing to some thing or person.

 

Everyone has faith, in this sense, insofar as they entrust themselves to someone or something. Again, when we get married, we entrust our feelings, wellbeing, livelihood, possessions, etc., to our spouses. When we fly on an air plane, we entrust ourselves to the aircraft, the pilots, the mechanics who serviced the plane, etc. When we do science, we entrust ourselves to certain methodologies, prior theories and data, and our empirical and mental faculties. There is nothing unique about Christian faith other than the object of that faith.

What is the object of Christian faith? Christian faith is entrusting ourselves to Christ and venturing on the truth and reality of the gospel. We place our faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. It is not merely the truth of the gospel and it is not merely the evidence and reasons constitutive of the knowledge of the gospel, but we are literally entrusting ourselves to Christ and His gospel.

 Faith and Reason

What is the relationship between faith and reason? Unfortunately, there have been Christians (not typically very thoughtful) who have conceded something like the above caricatures of faith.

The notion that faith and reason stand in some degree of tension is a view called fideism. On the one hand, the fideist might say reason plays a role, but only carries us so far. That is, we might know some truths of Christianity by reason and evidence but, at a certain point, reason and evidence run out and faith, in a way, takes over or fills the gap.

Or the more radical fideist might say that you have your rational pursuits on one hand (science, political platforms, automobile repair, etc.) and your faith pursuits on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Evidence literally has nothing to do with and might even be detrimental to what one believes on the basis of faith. When it comes to challenges to the faith, the fideist can always shut down a challenge by appealing to that old canard “we just got to have faith.”

Though it is not uncommon for Christians to make this appeal when their Christian beliefs get pressed, fideism has always been a minority view. Most Christians think that reason and evidence are very important for faith. They don’t believe things they know ain’t so and they certainly don’t merely pretend like they are true. They have faith in Christ precisely because they have become convinced by the preaching of the gospel, the testimony of the Spirit, the richness of Scripture, a work the Lord has done in their own lives, answers to prayer, a world that appears designed and finely tuned, needing an explanation for value, purpose and hope, science, philosophy, logic itself, etc. In fact, I don’t know of anyone for whom reason has played no role whatsoever in coming to faith.

As long as we don’t narrowly restrict the notion of reason (as discussed above), we should see that faith and reason are perfectly compatible and, indeed, are importantly related. Reason, on my view, is a tool for coming to know what sort of object upon which we should venture our trust. Reason helps us to know what objects are trustworthy–or what we may call faithworthy.

Reason helps us to know what objects are trustworthy–or what we may call faithworthy.

 

We will often have competing reasons when we consider where to place our faith, and we often times venture trust with less than ideal reasoning. This fact requires that we engage the life of the mind and carefully consider and weigh out our reasons as we grow in faith.

 

[1] Mark Twain, Following the Equator (New York: Dover, 1989), 132.

[2] Peter Boghossian,  A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013), 23–24.

[3] A lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted from The Nullifidian (Dec 94), http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/Articles/1994-12religion.shtml.

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2 Replies

  1. Well done. If our atheist brothers get to define faith for us as “belief without evidence or beyond the level of evidence” then we get to, in return, define science for them as “non-falsifiable philosophical materialism”. Both of these straw men are non-starters.

    1. tdickinson@swbts.edu

      Agreed. Both non-starters, for sure! Thanks Keith.