I recently wrote about the contradictory definitions of faith here. For this post, I’ll use this definition: faith is belief held not primarily because of evidence and little shaken in the face of contrary evidence; that is, belief neither supported nor undercut by evidence. (See that earlier post to explore those two definitions and see why I think this one is widely accepted within Christianity.)
Faith as a belief that doesn’t demand evidence is getting close to the philosophy of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Can even religion ennoble this approach? Let’s critique this popular definition of faith.
Why have faith?
Faith is permission to believe something without a good reason. Believing because it is reasonable and rational requires no faith at all. Trying to believe is like trying to fall asleep—it’s not something that benefits from intellectual effort. As an exercise, try to believe in unicorns or leprechauns—you can’t will yourself to believe.
Here’s the value in faith. Suppose you face a Chasm of Unknown. Maybe the question is, Is there an afterlife? or What explains the suffering in the world? If you could cross that chasm, you could hold the belief that there is an afterlife. Or maybe it’s a Chasm of Longing—the loss of a loved one has taken all the joy from life or agonizing problems make one feel helpless. There may be no science or reason that can cross such a chasm, but no chasm is so broad that faith can’t carry you across.
If someone’s life has taken a desperate turn, I won’t criticize whatever they need to believe to get through a difficult period. But for the rest of us, why would you want to cross such a chasm this way? Why ignore the tools you use in every other part of life for judging sense from nonsense?
Part of the answer is Shermer’s Law, which states that we use our intellect to justify beliefs arrived at for non-intellectual reasons. If you believe something important (like the tenets of a religion) for no better reason than that you were raised that way, you likely won’t admit that, even to yourself. You’re going to use your intellect to assemble rationalizations for the belief even though those reasons weren’t what led you to that belief in the first place.
Martin Luther King said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” But why? Why take any steps in faith except to get you across a chasm that reason and evidence are unable to? And once across that chasm, is there anything substantial upholding your new belief, anything that you’d happily admit to an observer?
If there’s no good evidence to cross the chasm, just don’t cross. Admit the truth and say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough evidence.”
Do you “take a step of faith” in any other discipline? Certainly not in science. There are guesses, of course, but the goal in science is always to replace guesses with facts and follow the evidence where it leads. Trust (belief based on evidence) is used in science, and there are no “leaps of trust.”
Faith often doesn’t mean answers but merely an end to questions.
A critique of faith
Faith is the worst decision-making technique available. Crossing a busy street, evaluating a dangerous mistake your child made, getting treatment after you’ve broken a bone—faith is never the tool to use. Faith is usually kept on a leash and used only when (1) you want to believe something that’s contradicted by (or unsupported by) the facts and (2) there are no big consequences for doing so. The few exceptions where there are consequences become either objects of shock (children who died because their parents insisted on prayer rather than medicine) or public ridicule (people who sold their possessions to make themselves right with God before the end of the world or the woman who closed her eyes to pray while driving). “Jesus, take the wheel” is something you might say but certainly not something you’d really do.
Even a guess is better than a decision by faith because, with a guess, you’re willing to consider evidence that you made a mistake.
Faith is celebrated only when there’s nothing else, and Christian apologists prefer evidence. Want to know how I know? Because when they have evidence, they always push it! No apologist says, “Well, we do have extrabiblical evidence for Jesus, but frankly I never put that forward as an argument. I find belief by faith to be much more compelling.”
And that’s a clue. Supporters of a claim well supported by evidence wouldn’t bother appealing to faith, but faith would be the fallback if the claims were false. Faith doesn’t prove that the Christian claims are false, but that’s where the evidence points.
Let’s consider again: what good is faith? Paul the apostle didn’t have faith. He didn’t need it, if he indeed received the gospel from a vision of Jesus. The same is true for the disciples. According to the gospels, they heard Jesus’s message in person. I don’t have faith that my car is yellow since that’s a fact that I’ve experienced. Why can’t we also have direct evidence of Jesus rather than relying on faith? Faith is required now because it’s part of God’s plan … or maybe because the whole thing is legendary, and Christian leaders today are just passing along a tradition.
If faith were a useful tool, it would have a method for distinguishing between true and false faith claims, but there is no way to judge if any particular proposition held by faith is true or not. Indeed, there may be nothing that’s impossible to believe on faith, and many of those propositions must be false, at least in the real world. Christianity itself shows the problem since Christians have disagreed on important propositions since the earliest days (the losing propositions are called “heresies” by the winners). The church has permanently split over such issues. Christian factions have fought wars over such issues.
This contrast between how religion decides questions and how science does is illustrated in the map of world religions. It’s inconceivable that a map of science would show one view of the solar system dominant in this part of the world and another in that part, one model of the atom here and another there, and yet that’s how it works with religion. In science, ideas are evaluated in the same objective way, and a new idea peacefully sweeps the scientific world within years. In religion, ideas aren’t evaluated based on evidence, and division remains static for centuries.
Scientists don’t gather periodically to sing, and no one writes articles telling them how to prop up their faith in science. There is no equivalent within science of faith statements, a mental straitjacket dictating correct and incorrect statements. Faith statements create in Christian institutions a dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four environment, where certain subjects become thoughtcrime. Consider what happened to Mike Licona when he crossed the line.
One popular Christian response is something like, “But you believe in science on faith!” I don’t—I trust in science, and that trust is nicely supported by evidence—but let’s go there. They seem to be saying with that, “Well, you’re just as much an idiot as I am, since you believe stuff on faith, too!” Isn’t faith a good thing from a Christian viewpoint? Wouldn’t “You believe by faith, too” be a compliment? And if science and religion both use the same approach (“faith,” or whatever you want to call it), then why is it only science with the track record of curing disease, increasing crop yields, and landing people on the moon? (h/t Eliezer Yudkowsky)
Let’s consider the trust I have in science. I’m an outsider, but it’s easy to stay abreast of science’s claims to evaluate its track record. I use cell phones, computers, and cars, and science delivers. But in principle I could become an insider. I could get a doctorate in evolutionary biology or cosmology or quantum physics and I would be able to test the claims for myself. Is there any equivalent within Christianity? Scholars with doctorates in theology are still burdened with the map-of-world-religions problem. In science, my doctorate would let me thoroughly understand the consensus view, but within religion there is no consensus!
That reminds me of a story. It’s said that Winston Churchill would occasionally drink too much. On one of these occasions, a woman said to him, “Winston, you are drunk!”
Churchill replied, “Indeed, Madam, and you are ugly—but tomorrow I’ll be sober.”
The analogous interaction for our purposes would be a believer who says, “You take science on faith.”
The atheist replies, “Let’s suppose I do, and you take God’s existence on faith—but I could get a doctorate in any science and lose that need for faith. Could you do the equivalent?”
Christians say that truth is their goal, and the even capitalize Truth to assure us (or themselves?) that they’ve really found it, but methinks they doth protest too much. They’re not welcome at the adult table until they use tools that actually work at finding the truth.
Faith recoils from reason like Superman recoils from kryptonite. Reason unravels the happy lies that faith wants to believe.
Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said;
“One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the [White] Queen.
“When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as
six impossible things before breakfast.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Image credit: Ashley Coates, flickr, CC
This article is featured as part of a symposium on “GENIUS.” Tune into the premiere of “GENIUS” on National Geographic April 25.