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Faith, the Other F-Word?

Faith, the Other F-Word? December 4, 2020

What is faith? Is it belief in accord with the evidence? Is it belief regardless of the evidence? Something else? Faith is frustratingly defined in different ways. Let’s try to untangle the confusion, some of which I suspect is deliberate.

Faith and Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa’s troubled relationship with faith is well known. She was celebrated by society but ignored by God. About her prayer life, she wrote of “silence and emptiness.” She described her own life as “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “torture” and compared it to hell. An editor at a Jesuit magazine said, “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented.”

And yet one biographer said about this dysfunctional life, “Her church regarded her perseverance in the absence of a sense of divine response as perhaps her most heroic act of faith.”

Heroic? When God doesn’t answer, is he inscrutable or just not there? Was Teresa displaying admirable perseverance or foolish futility? This persistence is laudable only in a world where religion celebrates faith over evidence.

For being so widely used, the definition of “faith” can be slippery. Let’s consider the two popular definitions, each staking out a different relationship with evidence.

Faith definition 1

Everyone wants good reasons supporting their beliefs—or at least to appear that way. Many Christians use the following definition for “faith.”

Faith definition 1: evidence-based belief; that is, belief that follows from the evidence. For example, you might have faith in your car’s reliability because it’s done a great job so far, but that faith will fade if it begins to act up. I would call this “trust,” and many Christians are fine with that—they just say that “faith” and “trust” are synonyms.

The Bible has plenty of examples where evidence backs up belief.

  • Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a bake-off where the first one to get his sacrifice lit by heavenly fire gets to execute the others (1 Kings 18).
  • An angry crowd came to Gideon’s house after he destroyed an altar to Baal. Gideon’s father told them, “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar” (Judges 6:31).
  • “After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to [the apostles] and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3).
  • Jesus did his miracles in part to prove his divinity. “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11).

This conflating of faith with trust is popular among modern apologists as well.

  • Mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox said, “Faith is not a leap in the dark; it’s the exact opposite. It’s a commitment based on evidence.”
  • Christian podcaster Jim Wallace said that faith is “trusting the best inference from the evidence.”
  • Presbyterian leader A. A. Hodge said, “Faith must have adequate evidence, else it is mere superstition.”

Norm Geisler and Frank Turek in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist said that evidence backs up Christian claims:

[For many nonbelievers] it’s not that they don’t have evidence to believe, it’s that they don’t want to believe. (p. 30)

God has provided enough evidence in this life to convince anyone willing to believe, yet he has also left some ambiguity so as not to compel the unwilling. (p. 31)

(My post responding to Geisler and Turek is here.)

But there’s another definition of faith, which also finds support in the Bible, the works of the early church fathers, and modern Christians. That’s discussed in part 2.

Faith is the excuse people give
when they don’t have a good reason.
— Matt Dillahunty, Atheist Experience

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/13/16.)
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