I distinctly remember watching four years ago that documentary, or should I call it propaganda, by that most famous atheist Richard Dawkins called 'The Root of All Evil.' At the time I was struck by the disparity between the Christianity I knew and the religion he denounced.
One such disparity was his definition of faith, which I believe he still offers today and has gone essentially main stream. Faith is the greatest of all cop outs. Faith is pretending to believe something you don't know without any evidence, or even in spite of the evidence as some sort of wilful ignorance.
Last month I published a dialogue with a friend of mine, Johan, who is an agnostic at the moment, and whist we agreed on many things when it came down to what faith is there was a definite difference in our two views. This was especially jarring as a part of that dialogue was all about having common and agreed terms between non believers and believers.
It was then that I realised "what faith is" actually needs to be addressed because of this chasm of meaning between the two camps. So I caught up with Johan again, and this is the discussion about faith that took place between us across a park bench.
PETER: Last month we talked about definitions and the common ground that should form the basis of discussion between believers and unbelievers, and we also covered briefly faith, you talked about the importance of having common definitions between the two camps. I wanted to address faith, because it seems like something that should have a common definition, but has wildly different definitions, especially between Christians and fervent atheists.
Firstly I want to mention a poll I viewed the other day which is relevant. There was a debate on the UK radio show Unbelievable? And they polled Christians and non Christians about the definition of faith. And the question asked was, do you believe faith means 'believing something even though it is not supported by evidence.'
This was a common definition based upon what the atheist in the debate offered, he believed this was a common definition of faith. Other similar definitions I've seen atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, giving for faith include belief in something in the absence of evidence, and belief in something that is contrary to the evidence. Would you agree with that as a definition of faith?
JOHAN: Well, I think when most people use the word they don't really mean it in quite that sense, they use it in a sloppy way. Like, I believe it even though there is no evidence regardless or something like that. Faith is more used as an excuse rather than a solid term. People don't really seem to think about what faith means, they use it as an excuse, as a full stop to end the conversation. For instance I could ask someone 'Why do you believe in God' and they will just say 'Well I have faith' and that's the end of the conversation for that person. Whereas I don't think that should be the case.
PETER: In this poll they ran for Unbelievable? they asked people, do you think this is what faith is? And over 90% of Christians participating in the poll said this isn't what they think faith is. On the flip side they asked non believers do you believe this is what faith is? And I think it was around 70% said this is what they believed faith is. So obviously there is a big definitional gap here because Christians and the non religious don't believe faith is the same thing.
JOHAN: They're talking past each other
PETER: They're totally talking past each other. And I was thinking about why about 9% of religious people polled would agree with this definition of faith, and I think the reason why is because in common conception some Christians can use this in the same way as well. Like as we were talking about last time some Christians make statements such as 'Believing in evolution requires a lot of faith.' Or, there's a book I have on the bookshelf called 'Why I don't have enough faith to be an atheist' which uses in the same negative sense that atheists often use. But to clarify what faith actually is I think it's useful to start off with a definition.
I looked up two important definitions of faith, firstly what the Oxford English Dictionary calls faith, but more importantly, I think, what faith actually means for Christian usage in the original New Testament Greek. There were some Old Testament definitions but I've gone to the New Testament ones.
There are two primary Greek words used for the word translated into English as faith, they are Pisteuo and Pistos. Pisteuo is used 243 times and means, to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in. Additionally a conviction and trust by which man is impelled by a certain inner prerogative and law of the soul, also, to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or doing something. Pistos is used 67 times and could refer to someone who shows themselves faithful in the transaction of business. Worthy of trust, can be relied upon, believing, trusting, confiding.
And then if we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary this interestingly illustrates the divide almost perfectly because you have 'complete trust or confidence in something' as the first primary definition of faith, being confidence, trust, and the example given is 'this restores ones faith in politicians' but then the secondary alternative definition is the one that is used by atheists normally which is 'strong belief in the doctrines of religion based upon spiritual conviction rather than proof.'
So we obviously have two definitions of faith at work here, one is to do with having trust or confidence in something, which also has some suggestion behind it that someone is convinced because of some sort of evidence. And then you have this popular conception atheists and occasionally Christians use of believing something religious without any proof. The glaring divide is quite interesting.
JOHAN: I'm happy to admit there is some sort of slipperiness of language here. It seems reasonable to say if I have complete trust in someone then I have faith in them as well. But I think this seems quite a different use of the term than if I was making a faith claim. If I trust you to turn up in the café on time I have good reason to trust you will turn up to the café on time, because you've done it in the past, and I have various evidences and so forth. And then I could have faith instead which might be less evidenced.
PETER: There are two senses in which I've heard faith justified by analogy. In the radio discussion I mentioned earlier Tim McGrew talked about faith in this way, he'd say faith is like when you have a parachute and you have to jump out of a plane, you're 99% sure the parachute will work and you'll land safely but there is still a small chance that parachutes fail, and you could fall to your death. You have faith and trust in the person who packed the parachute that the parachute will be in working order and will be effective for what you're doing, but you still have to have a level of trust because you don't have complete certainly, and he would compare that to being like faith.
The other analogy he also used was, say you're climbing a mountain and there's an experienced climber with you. And you slip off and you're hanging but there's snow and mist everywhere and you can't see very far below you or above you. And he yells to you 'Cut your rope!' But you have to trust if you obey him you won't fall to your death. You have to take that leap and cut the rope, and you find yourself falling down eight meters into a snow drift.
Used correctly I think the way Christians use it would be, your not 100% sure so there is still a risk you have to take. So those are two analogies. I don't know what you think about that sort of evidential based analogy. Do you think they don't have that validity, because perhaps you don't see where that validity, the 99% say, comes from?
JOHAN: Those instances don't strike me as a pure definition of faith I wouldn't think.
PETER: Is that because you don't see the evidential basis behind it? I think for someone like Tim McGrew he's very much into Bayesian probability, he's very evidential and has a lot of good arguments. He would believe that there is very good evidence for the resurrection, and that the New Testament is historically well grounded, amongst other beliefs.
The Theologian Wayne Grudem makes a related point in his book Systematic Theology. He says if we don't know much about the New Testament we still have faith in it. But he thinks if you know more about the historical aspects of Christianity you'll actually have a stronger faith because you'll have more conviction that what you believe is right, and that will increase your faith, rather than the less evidence you have the more faith will increase to make up for the evidence. He actually thinks the more evidence you have the more faith you'll have. It's essentially conviction. You'll have more conviction with more knowledge and evidence to support your belief.
JOHAN: Those two examples seem to be a strong conviction or trust in the face of uncertainty. And that I think is a poor definition of faith because it needs some other conditions or two. Because faith is something qualitatively different from just trust. Because for me faith is a subset of trust it's not just trust. I guess I reject the evidential part because faith I think is something like belief where there could be no evidence I would think. There is a personal conviction aspect, because there is a person conviction aspect, a trust aspect, and a lack of evidence aspect but you believe it anyway.
PETER: One main difference is Christians believe they have a basis for why they believe and have faith, and this comes back to the evidential question again, atheists and agnostics are right to ask for evidence. However they don't accept the evidence Christians have, and these analogies I used have a strong element of certainly with a small element of doubt. It is because there is an uncertain element we can't really use the word 'proof.'
So one reason there is this divide is because many Christians believe there is quite a lot of evidence but atheists and agnostics don't. So by virtue of that as soon as they come to the question they automatically say well faith is obviously they believe that (say God), I don't believe there is evidence that grounds that, so therefore faith must be that you believe in that without the evidence. But the thing is epistemologically many religious people do believe they have evidence for it and do not blindly believe it. To be charitable I think the people who make the definition of faith should be those who hold faith.
JOHAN: That seems controversial.
PETER: If you're going to critique a religion you need to understand what a religion means by its terms.
JOHAN: I agree that there is no point in the new atheism not adopting a language of Theology. You may as well accept the terms and how they're defined and then differentiate if you want. I can agree the two sides are talking past each other because they have completely different definitions that don't mean the same thing. So they're having conversation unto themselves.
Trust and Faith
JOHAN: I think you and I both think there is a difference between trust and faith at some stage. That they are connected ideas but they are no the exact same thing. There have to be different conditions attached to faith than to trust at some stage. Exactly what those conditions are is kind of mysterious to us at this point. As against new atheism there is a difference between faith and blind faith. They're not the same thing. So when you have faith it might not be blind faith, it can be grounded in some kind of evidence but it's still faith rather than trust. Does that make sense?
PETER: With faith evidence comes in but in normal everyday life we never just make decisions with complete proof. So in the case of faith we have a certain amount of evidence that comes in then we have to make a decision whether to believe or not believe something. We sometimes have to put faith in the object we're exploring in a personal sense and take that existential leap a la Kierkegaard. A lot of decisions in life don't always fit into a narrow evidential model.
If you're lead into accepting a secondary definition of faith that not many people believe then I would suggest that's a problem with the evidential aspect of the philosophy because it doesn't take full account of human experience.
JOHAN: I'm not trying to dictate to people what faith should be like but I'm just trying to clear up the language. When I use faith I use it in this term and these things seem distinct at some point. I'm not sure if my account of faith is adequate at all. For me how you've presented it just seems like belief in conditions of uncertainly. Which could encompass all the mundane beliefs we have already.
PETER: Maybe that is the difference between faith and trust? Because you can have trust in something without any personable aspect but faith as it's object always has to do with something personal, normally God, occasionally people.
JOHAN: What we could think is it's not a difference between degree but in kind. Trust could be clinical. Like you turning up to the café could be a very clinical, well I had various reasons to believe that. When talking about faith you can't have faith that the sun is going rise tomorrow that seems more like trust.
PETER: So maybe that's why it seems wrong to me when people use faith in a certain context, like faith in evolution, which I just think of as a scientific process. Hmmm
JOHAN: So that still leaves us the problem right of where an evidential aspect comes in at all. Because you could still have faith in spite of or contrary to evidence. If that makes sense.
PETER: So you're implying you could have personal faith without any evidence? I think you could definitely have a hazardous version of faith in God that is not grounded. You'll have a weaker form of faith using the definition discussed earlier by Grudem. I'm not going to dispute you can have some form of faith with little evidence but I really don't think with a lot of people you can have it in spite of the evidence. For a lot of people that seems almost impossible. Like, I personally could not have faith in God if I had contrary evidence. But at the same time I think you're right to bring up in last months dialogue that many Christians seem to have faith without any evidence behind what they believe, and some seem to see that as some sort of virtue.
JOHAN: I don't think this applies to most Christians, at least the ones that think about it.
PETER: A lot of the time people may have personal and vague reasons for faith. Even amongst the non religious they don't always have all their ducks in a line. That's normal for people.
In the Christian tradition from a Theological perspective you have Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience, those four factors form the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which is a good measure for a balanced faith. And at an academic level faith and good Theology should encompass all those levels. I think the critique your making is of a sort of faith that is all experiential, maybe a little scriptural as well because people find some comfort in scripture. But faith shouldn't just be all experiential.
Johan and I leave the bench we have been perched on, and stroll away down the path. I'm pleased that at least we have come to some sort of discovery about the difference between trust and faith. Something we further clarify as we walk. So what is this evidence that supposedly underlies faith? A topic for some other time perhaps.
First published May 1, 2014
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html