I never had “faith”

I just read a post discussing the definition of “faith” at Camels with Hammers, and I realized something. By his definition, I don’t think I ever really had “faith.” Or if I did, not very much of it. Let me explain. Dictionary.com defines faith as “belief that is not based on proof.” Dan adds more detail, defining faith as follows:

Faith is deliberately believing a proposition more strongly than evidence warrants (either when you think that the proposition is not strongly supported by evidence or is even undermined by the best evidence). Faith is the willful treatment of one’s most cherished notions as though they were impervious to evidence. Faith is hostility to genuine, open-ended doubting.

The thing is, I held the tenets of evangelical belief because I believed they were backed up with real, tangible evidence. Scholar Karen Armstrong has argued that religious fundamentalists apply apply “logos” (reason) to “mythos” (faith) rather than seeing the two as separate and distinct ways of finding truth. While I obviously don’t agree with everything Armstrong says, I think she does have a point. If religion were something that fundamentalists and evangelicals were content to hold to based on “faith” (i.e., there isn’t proof for this but you just have to believe), why would we have books like The Case for Christ or Evidence that Demands a Verdict?

Instead, I was raised to be an evidentialist. I was taught to follow the evidence, to pursue truth wherever it led. I was taught to never be afraid of questions, to never fear truth. Of course, I was taught all this with the assumption that all evidence and all questions lead to evangelical Christianity, but I was taught it nonetheless. As a consequence, I didn’t believe anything “just because.”

I believed in the Bible because I believed that the Bible contained no contradictions or errors, contained numerous fulfilled prophesies, and had been shown to be reliable by all historical and archaeological evidence available. I believed I could trust the Bible based on evidence, not on faith.

I believed in Young Earth Creationism because I believed that all the scientific evidence pointed to it. I read and read the resources offered by Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. I read about the huge flaws in evolution and the evidence for creation and a global flood. I believed it because I had evidence, not on faith.

I believed prayer worked because we heard and read so many stories of prayer working. My own family occasionally saw answered prayers, sometimes in dramatic ways. I believed in prayer not simply on faith, but because I had seen it work, and heard stories of it working, and had read books about it working.

I believed in Jesus not simply because I had a personal relationship with him but also because I believed that historical evidence pointed conclusively not only to his existence but also to his resurrection from the dead. In fact, Christ’s resurrection was one of the things I considered irrefutable proof of Christianity. Proof – evidence – not simply faith.

I never believed anything I didn’t think there was evidence for. Technically, I suppose this means I didn’t have “faith.”

And so, when I got outside of the bubble in which I was raised and started reading things outside of evangelical Christianity, I did so with an open mind. I was not afraid of evidence. I was not afraid of questions. I’d been taught not to be.

And then I found that the Bible does contain contradictions and errors; that scientific evidence actually overwhelmingly supports evolution and contradicts Young Earth Creationism; that prayer was actually way more subjective than I’d thought; and that there is actually no historical evidence for the resurrection or even for much of Jesus’ life. I was flabbergasted.

If I’d believed only based on “faith,” perhaps this wouldn’t have bothered me. I suppose technically speaking faith armors religion against evidence. I tried turning away from my evidence-based approach to religion to a more faith-based approach during my years as a progressive Christian. I got to the point where I was willing to admit that there was no proof for my beliefs, but that I held them anyway. However, I simply couldn’t do it. Evidence, reason, and facts mattered too much to me, and I simply couldn’t abandon my evidentialist approach.

And so I wonder. Do evangelicals in general hold their beliefs based on perceived evidence (and in their evangelical bubble where Ken Ham and Lee Strobel are respected and trusted as authorities, this is totally possible), or was I an aberration? Similarly, do progressive Christians generally believe based on “faith,” or does some contingent of them also hold their beliefs based on perceived evidence? In sum, to what extent to religious individuals of all stripes genuinely believed based on “faith,” i.e. believing with no evidence, and to what extend to they actually believed based on the perception that real, tangible evidence supports their beliefs?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    I do not think it is even *possible* for a person to have faith, to believe that something is true without having any of what they consider to be a good reason to believe it is true. What we do have instead, in abundant supply, are biases that steer how we think about certain issues. Most people are just massively unaware of their own psychological biases, and they mistakenly confuse and mislabel their thoughts, and think what they have is “faith” instead. It really is a lot more complicated than that though.

    A little more explanation below:



  • boopsey

    I think the fact that for people like you (and me!) Dan’s definition of faith is not applicable to our former religious beliefs indicate that his definition is lacking. I certainly felt that way upon reading it. Some good points have been raised in the comments of that thread, but he hasn’t responded to them.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I don’t think you’re an aberration at all. While our religious backgrounds are fairly different, since mine was more moderate and laid back even though it was still under the general evangelical bubble, I still was mostly taught that faith was basically trust and that faith in Jesus wasn’t fundamentally different in kind from faith that one’s car will start when one turns the key. It was certainly commonplace, for example, to believe that Jesus’ resurrection held up historically if one was not irrationally biased against miracles, and that the attempts to explain it away naturalistically were clumsy and ad hoc. The idea of accepting faith as an arational leap seems to be more commonplace in liberal branches of Christianity.

  • Rachel

    What Libby speaks to, was present in myself as well. I was told everything was backed up with historical evidence (much of it willful misinterpretation). I broke with Judaism in my teenaged years, because I realized that everything we were doing — praying every morning, dressing modestly, unswervingly supporting the candidate who was better for the Jews — was all for the benefit of us here on Earth. There was nothing beyond it: all we were doing was for here. And the contradictions between fact in science and history and facts in religion broke me.

    And then I came back. (caveat: naturally, I don’t think everyone should follow this path, this is only what happened for me.) And I came back because of literature showing me different paths, that I didn’t have to only believe one way. That I could break from the fold and still be a member of the tribe. I realized that even though I had no concrete reason to turn to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god — and certainly didn’t believe anything interfered on a day to day basis — I still believed. And it operated on an entirely different track than my reason. And that’s when I realized I had faith: because it was something separate. Conflating the two made me rigid and brittle: science would always win in the end that way, and then I felt guilt for not adhering completely. Allowing myself to have two tracks, for myself, freed me to realize there really wasn’t a conflict: things happen according to science, but people act because of faith in whatever they have.

  • amavra

    I was similar. I often say that I never really tried to save my faith, or work through my crisis of faith. Once I saw another way, a way that made more sense and made me happier, I took it. On the downside I never experienced Christianity as an adult and when Christians say I was never a real Christian I don’t really argue the point. Fine with me.

  • Ticktockman

    Dan’s definition of faith seems to be based on the fallback position of many Christians when confronted with contrary evidence they cannot easily deny. “You just have to have faith” and “I can’t argue with you, but you’re only strengthening my faith” are fairly common responses that bolster this definition, but most Christians I’ve dealt with believe that Reason and evidence ultimately support their viewpoint. Faith just happens to trump reason when the two are in apparent conflict, and to them it is “reasonable” that it does so.


  • anna

    Might I ask what you (Libby Anne) are getting your PhD in? It seems like History might be up your alley (she said, not at all biased by her own degree in it.)

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    Not that I’m not arguably an aberration myself in a lot of ways ;-), but I followed the same general path you did: Evangelical+evidentialist, followed liberalism+pure fideist. And of course, eventually atheist. At heart, I just am an evidentialist, a skeptic. And atheism is where you have to arrive if you follow that to its logical conclusion.

    (I did manage to avoid the folly of creationism, though)

  • Andrea

    I wonder if this is simply something that is true for all Christians who become atheists? That we have always emphasized evidence over faith, but we thought that the evidence supported our beliefs. I know this certainly holds true for me. I was homeschooled, and raised in a very conservative religious household. I believed in creationism and god and all the other things because I thought the evidence was there to support it. When I went to college and was exposed to other ideas and actual evidence, I knew I could either refuse to listen and blindly believe, or, I could follow the evidence. Faith never really had much of a chance. I’ve often wondered if that would have been different if I had been raised in a more liberally religious household.

    Libby Anne, as a recent discoverer of your blog, I just want to say how much I appreciate everything you’ve written. My family never went all out with the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy stuff, but we toyed with it a bit, and I know a great many people involved with those movements. So, thank you for writing.

  • http://potatoesarenotvegetables.blogspot.com Ashton

    I never had any faith at all of the kind that you had or the kind that Dan describes despite growing up steeped in religion. I just felt completely incapable of accepting that there could be such a thing as the supernatural. I, unlike you, gre up very afraid of the evidence. I’m not sure if this was something that I picked up from my family, church, and church school or if it came from within myself due to my own fears about not believing and that the evidence would sway me away from the church. I think I picked up some of that fear from around me. Evolution was only ever presented in order to ridicule it and I know that I had some feeling that they (they being teachers and pastors) were hiding things from us. I did at times wonder what they were afraid of. Now I know. They were afraid of the evidence. Even while I was in high school I could tell that while they told stories that were supposed to give evidence for God (like someone being miraculously healed) they were ignoring the things that didn’t fit their biases. I can’t have been the only one who felt lied to. So, I think that my background was different from yours in that people didn’t talk as much about the evidence and instead talked more about faith. When pressed, they might try to provide evidence, but it was rare.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    Like many of your commenters, I too can so well identify with what you have written here. When I walked away from fundamentalism at 24, my whole belief system came tumbling down. I read Lee Strobel’s book because it was so highly recommended, and I was struggling to hang on to a shred of…something. I found it most unconvincing.

    In the process I suddenly realized that I had never given much thought about faith–which, according to the Bible’s definition is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Suddenly the very concept of faith sounded more like cognitive dissonance or intentional delusion than anything else. How much more cultish can you get?

    I haven’t resolved this yet–now more than a decade later. The description that best fits me is “I’m a practicing Christian, sometimes a believing one.” It’s more about a cultural identification with Christianity than anything else. Maybe someday I’ll figure this out and be brave enough to face where this path is really headed.

  • Nutmeg

    I was involved in evangelical culture in my teens, and my experience was similar to yours. I believed because I thought the “proof” I had was reliable.

    When I got to my late teens, I started to develop better critical thinking skills, and I realized that a lot of the subjective experiences people took as proof were pretty unreliable. This coincided with greater exposure to science, which quickly destroyed my belief in young earth creationism. I also started to examine the Bible more critically, and I realized that I couldn’t explain away all the errors and contradictions.

    I think the experience of “proof, therefore belief” was ultimately what allowed me to let go of faith when it stopped making sense. I’m glad it worked out that way.

  • scotlyn

    I think my experience was also similar to yours, when it came to my “knowledge” base. That is to say my memory is of always being encouraged to question and to follow the evidence, and that, in my youth, I did believe the evidence supported evangelical beliefs.

    Where I think faith came into it, was when questioning why bad things happened to good people. The answer was always some version of “keep the faith – God’s ways are mysterious – we’ll find out why someday.”

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    It seems to me fundamentalists have an ambivalent — and ultimately, hypocritical — relationship to evidence. They drag out all the standard creation-science arguments (at least the ones that go in for that level of literalism), and the historical-Jesus apologetics, and recycled Aquinas and what-not, but in the end it’s all a rationalization of the “fact” that the Bible is true, by definition, and you have to start with that as axiomatic.

  • http://polyskeptic.com Ginny

    When I was a Christian, I founded my ideas on both faith and reason/evidence. I even wrote a (very bad) poem about the relationship to the two, in my first year of college after a homeschooled childhood. It was very important to me that my beliefs be intellectually defensible, and I would never have said that I was denying evidence or reason because “faith” was more important. What I would have said was that faith caused me to push past initial appearances and search for the truth (which I assumed would be compatible with my already-existing beliefs.) Instead of taking things at face value I worked until I dug up more knowledge, or found a new interpretation, that meshed with my beliefs. Of course, it never worked the other way around: when I saw something that meshed with my beliefs, I didn’t usually push past it to find a possible different interpretation.

    So faith, for me, was less about unquestioning acceptance than about permitting an exceedingly sloppy methodology as I went in search of truth. It basically amounted to a very strong bias in favor of faith-supporting conclusions (which in the end wasn’t strong enough!)

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    @Libby Anne: How did they explain the concept of faith to you?

    I grew up evangelical (Foursquare) and we definitely had the idea of evidence pushed constantly. We got sermons about how science validated stuff in the Bible, a Hugh Ross lecture series and even a sermon titled “There is more evidence Jesus Christ died and rose form the dead than that Napoleon Bonaparte ever lived.” As you might guess, the title overstated things. Miracles were also evidence as were the gifts of the spirit.

    Faith was promoted, but generally not defined the way Dan uses it. Faith was compared to having faith your parents love you. It’s an abstract quality and not something you can prove, but it’s based on evidence.

  • kevinalexander

    When I was a kid I had a very, very vivid imagination. I didn’t know the word hallucination until I was older but much of what I experienced just wasn’t there. I became a scientist at a very early age because I realized that my feelings were useless as a guide to seeing reality.
    At school we were taught that faith was something that we didn’t just have, it was a gift from god. I waited and prayed and waited for my gift but it didn’t arrive.
    I also didn’t get the bike that I wanted so I gave up on Santa as well.

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    “Similarly, do progressive Christians generally believe based on “faith,” or does some contingent of them also hold their beliefs based on perceived evidence? ”

    Speaking as a progressive (I consider myself liberal) Christian, I rely on perceived evidence when perceived evidence exists. I don’t like to use the word “beliefs” when it comes to science. Science is a method of understanding and making predictions based on an understanding of the known facts that is always and ever subject to change as hypotheses are refined and new theories take form. I consider the method and the well-established results reliable, but I don’t “believe in” it the way I “believe in” something religious. I don’t really think of the Bible to contain divinely narrated fact claims about the history of the world or science, but to contain human myths, legends, poem, prophecies, and other literature illustrating past human interaction with the divine as a guide and illumination to the spiritual path I follow. When I say I “have faith in” or “believe in” Jesus and God, I mean that I am loyal (faith-ful) to those concepts of the divine and the underlying teachings to the best of my understanding, and that I trust (have faith) that God plays his/her/its part as well. I do personally believe that God exists but I am aware that on the scientific/factual level I don’t think their existence can be proved without doubt and that my perceptions are subjective. As a liberal Christian in a post-modern world, I separate out the story/myth aspects of religion with the factual/historical aspects. This is not a separation that was present before modern times, and the split itself has 2 sides, one fundamentalist (which continues to refuse to separate them) and the liberal (which does separate them).

    I could never be a fundamentalist and remain Christian. The cognitive dissonance would kill me. This is why fundamentalist faith tends to be very brittle when its followers (who are primed to seek for truth) examine the evidence from all sources. Most of those who stay only examine evidence from authorities they trust, or don’t examine at all.

  • http://whoireallyaminside.blog.com/ Jenn

    Libby Anne, I think I had the same evidence-based upbringing as you and a similar evangelical background. I was very sheltered and was taught to question, but never given the means to question effectively I went to Christian schools until 10th grade and everything in science and history classes always backed up the Bible.

    I remember having some trouble believing that the Bible was the undisputed Word of God because it was written as so in the Bible. I think that my first real problem came when I realized the Bible wasn’t handed down from God like the Ten Commandments, but created by committee (or at least that’s how I came to think of it).

    Then came real science classes in college, studies of other ancient religions (comparative and early Mediterranean religious courses) and everything I believed was thrown into question. How could I believe when there was no evidence to support an infallible source?

    • http://whoireallyaminside.blog.com/ Jenn

      Oops, I also meant to add a little bit about questioning.

      I never questioned beyond as an adolescent because I was too afraid of opening myself to a bad influence and demon possession. I wouldn’t even let anyone talk to me about evolution in grade school. Perhaps that’s how the questioning is stifled even though having an open mind is encouraged?

  • Sal Bro

    In my evangelical upbringing, I was taught that doubting was a sign of Satan’s influence. If I pushed to the point where I had doubt, I had pushed to the edge of Satan’s influence and needed to stop asking questions. However, lines of questioning that did not raise doubt were tolerated and, in some “safe” environments (like Sunday school), encouraged.