Faith: Believing Without (Enough) Evidence

blessedNobody likes having their intelligence insulted, so it’s not hard to see why Christians push back when they are told that faith means “believing without evidence.” On the contrary, Christians very much believe they have evidence for the things they believe in (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus), although what they consider “evidence” may look quite different from what skeptics want when they use the word.

A while back I had a prolonged (and I might add enjoyable) discussion about this very thing with Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales and also the voice of Bob the Tomato. At the time he took issue with Peter Boghossian‘s characterization of faith as “pretending to know things you don’t really know.” Vischer contended that faith isn’t primarily a question of epistemology but a matter of relationship…of trust. I’ll have to revisit that question another time when I finally get around to reviewing Peter’s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists.

Leaving aside the slippery semantics of the word “faith” for a moment, I’d like to address this issue of believing without evidence. I’ve argued elsewhere that the kinds of evidence which the Christian faith envisions should satisfy us fall into two basic categories: the Bible and personal experience.

What Kind of Evidence?

First and foremost, we are told again and again that the testimony of the writers of the Bible should be enough for us. Presumably that’s because the writers themselves were supposed to have been eyewitnesses to the events they detail therein. That is far from a settled matter, I’m afraid, as the New Testament writings with the most clearly discernible authorship come from a man who never even met Jesus in the first place.

Consider for example how we are supposed to be impressed when Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that at one time there were 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. But that’s second-hand or even third-hand information, as he wouldn’t have even been among those people himself two decades earlier, not to mention the fact he didn’t even give the names of any of them so that anyone could go interview them for themselves. Given that it would have taken weeks for that letter’s recipients to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem, it wouldn’t have been a practical possibility, anyway.

The whole Bible keeps going this way once you really dig into what we know that we can know about the reliability of this religious text. All things considered, ancient writings leave an awful lot to be desired where external validation is concerned (cue the apologist’s itchy fingers).

Second, we are told that the resurrected Jesus can be known directly through personal experience, and I will have to confess that for many years I believed I was experiencing a relationship with him myself. To make a long story short, I now believe I was responsible for conjuring that experience myself through my own creative imagination. I would submit the same is true for everyone else who believes they are experiencing a relationship with an invisible person who somehow lives inside of them, but I’m not going to spend very much time trying to convince them that’s the case because, quite frankly, some people need Jesus in their lives. Who am I to take him away from them?

Related: “God Does Exist

But they won’t afford me the same courtesy. They will not—they cannot—simply let me get on with my life without trying to convince me that I am missing out on a life far better than the kind I could ever live without knowing this person who lives inside their heads. So from time to time I have to stop and point out a couple of things that they keep forgetting.

The Christian faith demands we believe things without sufficient evidence to believe them.

It’s not that we’re supposed to believe them without evidence of any kind, it’s just that the kinds of evidence we’re supposed to accept isn’t really enough, nor should it be for anyone possessing the most basic critical thinking skills. We are often told that all truth is God’s truth, and that he made us to be thinking creatures, so we shouldn’t have to check our brains at the door of the church.

But then we are told we must become as little children, which means among other things that we should trust the word of those who tell us that Jesus really is (or was) who he says he is (or was). We are to put aside our demand for evidence and believe that whatever the Bible says without further ado.

And yes, I know…I can hear the butts shifting in their seats, fingers poised and ready to type out a rebuttal to what I just said, but allow me to remind you how the story of Doubting Thomas goes, in case you forgot.

Thomas: Patron Saint of Skepticism

At first glance, the story of Thomas doubting the resurrection appears to teach us that asking for evidence is okay. Thomas had to see for himself that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and he wouldn’t be satisfied until he could touch the places on Jesus’s hands (I assume he meant wrists) where the nails used to be.

At last, a person in the Bible with whom the modern skeptic can relate! This story would seem to relay that it’s okay for us to be the way we are, demanding the evidence we need, in order to accept a claim that strains credibility to say the least. People just don’t come back from the dead (have you ever seen it happen?), even though I must add that it wouldn’t have been so difficult for Thomas to accept if the city of Jerusalem only a few hours earlier had been inundated with people long dead but recently emerged out of their graves.

Read: “The Greatest Story Never Told” (a.k.a The Zombie Apocalypse or The Thriller in the Levant)

But that’s not how the story ends. Whoever wrote this gospel couldn’t help but take a parting shot at the very critical thinking skills we are told God gave us in order to use for everything else except for examining the claims of the Bible.

“You believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.”

Well, it was nice while it lasted. For a second there, it almost seemed as if the Bible were going to affirm critical thinking skills and acknowledge the validity of asking for evidence before one believes. But it was too good to be true. In the end, we are told, the greatest virtue lies with those who believe what they are told without demanding further evidence.

Credulity, it would seem, is a cardinal virtue for the Christian faith. In fact, if there were enough evidence to simply know something were true, it wouldn’t be called “faith” at all, would it? Believing just a little bit further beyond the point at which empirical evidence trails off is precisely what faith is about. That’s why we have a different word from it in the first place.

And that right there is why so many of us eventually decided this wasn’t the place for us. Our Christian friends and family mean well, and they genuinely believe we are missing out on something wonderful if we choose to live our lives as if the claims of their religion were too much to believe. But we really do mean it when we say we don’t believe, and we don’t particularly appreciate being told that our need for evidence is something we’re supposed to set aside, and we certainly don’t appreciate anyone denying that this is precisely what the Bible demands that we do.

 

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.