What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two)

What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two) January 14, 2014

indiana-jonesThis morning a student asked me if she could leave the classroom to get a drink of water from the water fountain across the hall. Since it’s not ten feet from my door, I said “okay,” but I also kept an eye on her because she regularly disappears down the hallway when I let her do this. Sure enough, she disappeared again today. I knew better than to trust her and my suspicions were correct. Before she could make it all the way down the hall I was standing in the hallway, calling her back to class. Few things upset administrators at an inner city school more than letting students roam the halls unsupervised. She came back, but acted insulted that I felt the need to monitor her so closely. “You don’t trust me, Coach Carter? Why you don’t trust me?” This is a running joke, of course, because everyone in the class (including her) knows good and well that she can’t be trusted. She pulls this all the time. My expectation that she would bolt was based on a fairly consistent track record, and at some point my letting her leave the room under this pretense becomes a fallacy of slothful induction. Unless I have some experimental, empirical reason to change my expectations, I’d be a fool to keep trusting her to go where she says she’s going.

You could say I didn’t have “faith” in her. You could. But why choose a word so heavy-laden with religious connotations when it would fit the situation much better to say, “I don’t trust her?” It’s a quirk of language that we use the same word in different ways at different times, and this works fine for us in normal, everyday interactions. I can say “I love my children” in one breath and in the next say “I love 80’s movies” and no one would jump to the conclusion that my feelings for both are equally strong. That’s because words have usage more than they have meaning, so context can dramatically alter what you mean when you use a word. People know this, but they conveniently forget at the most inopportune times. If my student had asked me to “have faith” in her, there’s a sense in which that would have been more appropriate than asking me to trust her. Both faith and trust mean similar things, but I would argue that one of them points heavily toward past experience while another points away from it. Maybe you’ll see what I mean by the end of this post.

In my last post I explained one of the ways that too many atheists misunderstand and misrepresent Christians, and this story introduces another. Because language is a fluid thing, the words we use can pivot and turn without warning so that we end up misunderstanding each other, often ending the conversation in frustration. If we’re going to talk about something as fraught with intense emotion as religion, we’re going to have to work at being a little more precise and more consistent than usual about the words we use (at least during these discussions if nowhere else). Toward that end I’d like to tease out what people mean when they use words like “faith” and “evidence.” But first, let me begin by making sure my fellow atheists consider a second thing about Christians which I don’t think they always get:

2) When we say that “faith” means “believing without evidence,” we are misrepresenting what they usually mean when they use the word.

Now, I would qualify this by saying there’s some truth to the notion that faith, both in the Bible and in common parlance today, implies some measure of overlooking things which contradict (or at least appear to contradict) what we are being told to believe. It might be more accurate to say that faith is believing irrespective of the evidence because that means something slightly different. It’s not accurate to say there is no evidence. From their perspective, there is evidence, it just happens to be the kind of evidence which atheists don’t find particularly convincing. We can always discuss what is and isn’t persuasive evidence for the kinds of claims we’re evaluating
(and I will in a minute, so keep your shirt on). But first for the sake of promoting mutually beneficial conversation I think we should note that this phrase “without evidence” fails to acknowledge that most Christians feel they have a good many reasons to believe what they believe. I know I did when I was a Christian. In his response to Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists, Phil Vischer says:

Now, to be fair, the evidence presented in the New Testament typically isn’t the kind of evidence modern scientists [or atheists] favor – meaning, it isn’t evidence that can be repeated in laboratory experiments, published in papers and peer-reviewed. It tends to be evidence of a historical and/or testimonial nature. Some folks are so scientifically wired they carry strong biases against historical or testimonial evidence. And that’s fine. Rejecting the evidence for the claims of Jesus is perfectly reasonable. Claiming there is no evidence is much less reasonable.

If I were still a Christian, I imagine I also would have taken offense at being told I was “pretending to know things I don’t really know.” To be fair, again I confess that I have yet to read how Boghossian unpacks and applies this definition. Perhaps he addresses my concerns and covers those objections which I know any sincere believer would have to this choice of words. But in the meantime, it strikes me as understandably offensive wording, even if I get where he is headed. It seems to me that a phrase chosen more for its provocativeness than for its precision is great for generating buzz, but it isn’t so great for fostering sympathetic conversation. Perhaps I will change my mind about that after reading the book. But I can see why this phrasing would ruffle a few feathers.

What Kind of Evidence?

Looking back over my days as a Christian, I would say there were two general categories of evidence which satisfied me at the time. The first I would generally label personal experience. So many things fall into this category: Powerful emotional experiences, unexplained occurrences, seemingly improbable coincidences, answers to prayer (mainly noting when things went as desired, of course), and even a regular perception of being “in relationship” with someone whose communication with me required specially-trained sensibilities to detect that “still small voice” in my own head/heart (Christians are big on distinguishing between those two things). With enough years of practice, you can cultivate this “inner awareness” into a semblance of a living personality with whom you can interact and communicate. You might even learn to “hear” from him/her/it when you need most to hear something comforting, encouraging, or even exhortational.

What I’m trying to say is that there’s little point in telling a devout believer that God isn’t real because, for them, God does exist. If my irreverent theory is correct, and they themselves actively create and maintain this person in their own minds as I believe I once did, it wouldn’t do much good to try and tell them that no such person exists. It certainly will fall on deaf ears to suggest that they have “no evidence” or that they are just “pretending.” I often think of the protagonist’s lifelong friends in the movie A Beautiful Mind. No one but he could put an end to their intrusive presence in his own mental world. Nobody else could do it for him.

The second category of evidence comes from the Bible itself. Vischer puts it this way:

In 1st century Israel, a guy from Nazareth named Jesus made claims about his place and role in Jewish history, and asked 1st century Jews to put confidence in those claims..Quite a few 1st century Jews put confidence in his claims, and even more didn’t. Some disliked his claims so much they wanted him dead. But those that did put confidence in Jesus didn’t do so in the absence of evidence. They did so BECAUSE of evidence.

I know that for me, the Bible itself was for many years Exhibit A for the believability of the claims of Christianity. This is how as an Evangelical I was taught to think. At the time I wasn’t able to squarely face the fact that the Bible itself is one of the claims. Do you see the problem there? It seems to most Christians that Jesus doing such-and-such and Paul saying this-and-that would constitute evidence to support the claims of Christianity. But the stories themselves are part of the claim. Telling me what the Bible says about what Jesus did (or what others witnessed) isn’t for me today “evidence,” but rather more claims needing evidence of their own. You can’t use the claim to support the claim, not without being hopelessly circular.

When I ask my friends now why I should believe the stories about Jesus and not the stories about Muhammad or Joseph Smith, they tell me that 500 witnesses testified to the resurrection of Jesus. But we don’t have 500 testimonies, we have one: the Bible. We don’t have 500 letters from different people saying they saw these things, we have in fact one passage—one passage—written by someone who wasn’t even there, telling us third-hand about a multitude of witnesses to this appearance. That’s not five hundred points for Jesus, that’s just one. And for what it’s worth, Muhammad and Joseph Smith each had multiple witnesses to their claims as well, according to each of their respective holy books. If those aren’t convincing “evidence” for those religions, then why is this one any different? Clearly there is some kind of favoritism going on here. This, for the Christian, is reliable evidence for the claims of Christianity. It’s not that there isn’t any evidence, it’s just that what passes for evidence doesn’t live up to the standards which most atheists demand before they’re willing to buy into the claims of this (or any) religion. They would say that they’re simply applying the same skepticism towards the Christian faith which Christians already display toward all other religions besides their own.

What Exactly is “Faith?”

Because of the fluidity of language, there can be an awful lot of slippery semantics when it comes to discussing faith. Ordinarily we know good and well that we use words in different ways at different times, but when it comes to discussing philosophy and religion, people tend to talk as if our words must mean the same thing everywhere, all the time. As with the word “love,” the word “faith” can signify many different things. For example, it can indicate an entire system of religious beliefs (as in “the Christian faith”), which to my mind would include the epistemology (“the way of knowing”) championed within that system. At first, Vischer sets aside this usage of the word, saying it “isn’t relevant here.” But then later on he has to acknowledge that many Christians do in fact include certain epistemic assumptions in their usage of the word faith, and that for them, some kind of a disregarding (or even dismissing) of evidence goes along with that. Vischer is uncomfortable with this usage of “faith,” but he admits:

…though I believe Dawkins, Boghossian and others are misdefining faith, I believe some Christians may be guilty of the same mistake

So one problem we have here is that even the practitioners of “the Christian faith” don’t agree with each other about what this word means. No wonder we don’t always seem to be speaking the same language! Perhaps we’re not, in a way.

Seeking to emphasize a definition of faith which doesn’t imply turning a blind eye to evidence, Vischer uses the popular illustration of a chair.

A chair is asking us to put confidence in its claims. “Sit on me. No really. I mean it. I’ll hold you up.” And we have to make a decision.

“Do I trust the claims of this chair?”

If I trust the chair, I sit. If I don’t trust the chair, I stand. I vote with my hindquarters. It’s just that simple. And that is faith.

Is that really faith, though? Is that even a responsible use of the word? Is that consistent with how the Bible uses the word? After spending some time interacting with his critics, Vischer vowed to revise his vocabulary a bit:

One atheist responder made the point that if we mean “trust,” (which is a synonym in the Bible for “faith”), why don’t we just say trust? Faith must mean something different if we only use it when we talk about religious stuff and then switch to “trust” when we’re talking about other things…Which is a fair point. So, personally, I’m not going to use the word “faith” when I mean “to put trust or confidence in.” I’m going to use “trust” or “confidence.”

Indeed I agree that faith seems like the wrong word for this…but why? What is it about the word “faith” that makes it such an ill fit for this illustration? The answer is that no matter in what context we use this word, it points to a tentative relationship toward the most probable outcomes. Faith implies some kind of expectation which is far from a given, otherwise the situation would merit a different word. After 99% of all chairs I sit in hold me up, if I decide to trust most chairs, I wouldn’t call that faith. What would make it faith is if more and more chairs started collapsing under me. That would change my relationship to chairs! Before I replace the word “trust” with “faith,” there would need to be a noticeable decrease in either the probability of a favorable outcome or at least a decrease in available information. This, I think, gets us closer to a more honest representation of how the Bible itself uses the word.

I have written before that the Bible often speaks of faith and sight as if they are inversely proportionate to each other. In the Bible, a man’s faith is said to be “great” in direct proportion to how much contrary evidence he must overlook. Consider the stories mentioned in Hebrews 11. Abraham was so old! If he had been 30 and had already been the father of six, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal to announce he’s gonna be a daddy. Sarah was infertile, too, as the story goes. Believing in the face of those circumstances is what earned their confidence in those extraordinary claims the right to be called “faith.” The same goes for the rest of the people mentioned in Hebrews and throughout the rest of the Bible. They are praised according to the extent to which they believed claims which contradicted their circumstances. Noah had so much to do! And it had never rained like he was told it would rain. And Goliath was so big! How is a little rock going to take him down? And Gideon was such a nobody! And then he whittles his army down to 300 guys? On and on it goes. These people were praised because they believed before they could see the evidence which would validate their beliefs (not after).

Vischer supposes that each of them must have had prior evidences of God’s faithfulness to draw on or else they never would have expected their respective miracles to occur. Once again this supports the notion that “without evidence” wouldn’t a be fair thing to say.

In some manner (we aren’t told exactly how), God communicated to Abraham that IF he left Ur and followed God, God would bless him in certain specific ways. In whatever form it was that God showed up, it was enough to convince Abraham that A) this was a supernatural entity talking to him, and that B) this supernatural entity had the ability and the intent to bless him if he left Ur. So Abraham put confidence in the claims of God.

Of course none of this really changes things if the prior “evidences” which initially inspired the faith of people like Abraham turned out to be figures of their own imaginations. We’re still talking about Bible stories, after all, and for people like me that carries little weight to begin with. But to be fair we should note that people who believe things usually have reasons to believe those things, even if we aren’t particularly impressed with those reasons ourselves. So it’s not entirely accurate to say they are “believing without evidence.” In fact, looking at people who have reasons (good or bad) for believing what they believe and then telling them they don’t have any reasons just makes you look like you’re the one “pretending to know something you don’t really know” about them. A little bit of charity can go a long way in these discussions.

Faith Comes by Hearing

Having said all of that, I’m now going to turn around and make an assertion which sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but bear with me for a minute. When you say that faith is “believing without evidence,” you misrepresent how Christians themselves view their faith. However, there’s an element of truth in what these critics are trying to say which needs to be pointed out. It’s not entirely invalid for people to suggest that, at least as it’s conceived in the Bible, the Christian concept of faith demands acceptance of its claims without regard for evidence beyond the authority of the message itself. In other words, if you believe that the message itself is self-authenticating, you can then admit the stories themselves as evidence (as Vischer does above). Paul declared in Romans 10:17:

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

In theory this would trump even the absence of the first kind of “evidence” I mentioned above: Personal experience. When Thomas demanded tangible evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, the story says that he got it. That validates the skeptic’s desire for evidence, right? “Not so fast!” my Evangelical friends tell me. The story of Thomas doesn’t seem to have made it into the gospel to exonerate those of us who want more than just the word of people long since dead. In fact, in the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas, he makes a point of saying “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed!” So even this story is there to suggest that it’s somehow better to believe without requiring the evidence which Thomas required. Most likely this is what Jesus meant when he said that you must become as a little child. Children believe things very easily. They are not naturally skeptical; they are innately trusting. That’s the kind of follower Jesus liked the best.

There is a principle throughout the Bible which asserts that the speaking of the message itself carries a kind of power and authority all its own. If you’ll forgive the expression, it’s like magic. That’s why so many Christians believe that the best way to answer a difficult question is to quote a Bible verse. They are taught to believe that the words themselves contain a kind of power which works on the listener whenever they are spoken. They are taught that reading it regularly will change them in a way which reading other books will not. Paul asserted that the Christian message is itself “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The catch there is that it has no such power for someone who doesn’t believe, although this seldom stops believers from trying it on us anyway! I’ve said before that quoting the Bible doesn’t work like a Jedi mind trick on us. But many seem to think it should. That’s because they were taught that the message itself contains a power to persuade, making it somehow “self-authenticating” (a phrase they taught me in seminary—I’m not making it up).

To people like me, nothing is self-authenticating, not even empirical observation or personal experience. People like me have come to distrust ourselves and our own powers of perception to the point that we are willing to doubt and question everything we think and see and experience. Even science can be wrong, yes, we agree. But it’s always improved upon by better science, not by reverting to authoritative pronouncements which are somehow supposed to be self-validating. This notion is at least partially responsible for the perception which many have that faith is “believing without evidence.” It may not be how most Christians would want to put it. But maybe if you can imagine how it looks from the outside looking in, you’ll understand why so many atheists keep disagreeing with what you are trying to say about faith.

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