Christian Equivocation About Faith

Christian Equivocation About Faith May 22, 2018

We’ve been talking lately about a Christian culture warrior, Stan Gudmundson, and his poorly-written letter to the editor (LTTE) about atheism (archived here). The central conceit of his LTTE revolves around his attempt to show credible supporting evidence for Christianity’s claims. We demolished his offerings last time. But he made these attempts because he knows that his enemies value evidence-sparked faith. Indeed, people use two very different definitions for the word faith. As you can guess, those meanings are very nearly opposites! And Christians happily slide between those two meanings all the time. I’ll blow the lid off this sketchiness and show you how it’s done.

equivocation: twisted filters
St. Peter’s Church, Norfolk, in infrared HDR. (David, CC.)

Every Wingnut Has a Story.

Everyone who believes something that isn’t true wants a good, credible-sounding reason to believe it.

Such a person might even need that reason more than someone who believes something that is completely based on true facts.

It doesn’t even matter what the beliefs are, especially when they’re based on false “facts.” Nor does it matter how much of a premium the belief system itself puts upon faith-for-no-good-reason. Those who buy into those beliefs still want to have a reason to be there. They want the faith that comes from encounters with credible supporting evidence.

Make no mistake: These two forms of faith stand in opposition to each other.

The problem is that a belief system that’s disconnected from reality doesn’t have those sorts of credible reasons. So people who believe something preposterous will need to warp existing facts or simply invent some. Or they’ll need to come up with thought stoppers that criminalize even mere requests for those sorts of facts. In a pinch they develop complex antiprocess tactics to allow believers to evade that one simple truth:

This belief system doesn’t have any credible reasons backing it that can provoke belief in and of themselves.

(Many atheists actively try to avoid using the word faith altogether nowadays because of how loaded Christians have made the term. I’m often one of them. I’d rather use another word that lacks those connotations.)

It’s Okay to Need Credible Reasons.

Christians are not wrong for wanting to have the sort of faith that is sparked and maintained by evidence.

When anyone says to believers, “Why do you believe this thing?” then they naturally want to have something credible, objective, and tangible in answer. It clearly does–and should–trouble them when they see one of their offered reasons collapse in examination, or when they realize they lack credible reasons at all.

The notion of faith-for-no-good-reason might be perfectly fine in terms of a response within the belief system itself, but it sounds awfully weak to anybody outside of it. This response also makes a piss-poor marketing tactic–especially when the salesperson is selling an entire ideology and group affiliation to prospective consumers in the religious marketplace.

But let’s be clear here. Christianity in particular makes a lot of demands upon its members (despite what they claim!), and those prospects will need a little more than I believe this for no reason at all that I can explain and no reason you’d ever find compelling–and you should totally buy into it with me anyway!

They might belong to a religion whose founder praised faith-for-no-good-reason. But they know in practical terms that that’s not enough. It’s not enough for them to remain part of the faith. And it’s not enough to sway prospective new recruits.

Equivocation: A Primer.

You might have noticed me using the term faith-for-no-good-reason up there. Unlike Christians, I like to define terms clearly! So here we go:

The word faith itself is one of Christians’ very favorite equivocations. They rely upon people not realizing that this word has different definitions–and on their prospects not seeing them moving between those definitions.

The fallacy of equivocation is a popular apologetics trick that lets Christians accomplish that goal. In it, the Christian salesperson uses a word in a really ambiguous way, changing its shades of meaning from one instance to the next. Sometimes you’ll see them use two different meanings for the same word within the same sentence.

Examples of equivocation include a number of Creationist chestnuts. Here are a couple of classics, courtesy of RationalWiki:

In this case, then, faith can mean two totally different things. It’s being used in two different ways, but that blurring of meaning isn’t declared.

is it even really our world at all
Like were not even in the same world. All Saints’ Church, Suffolk, IR HDR. (David, CC.)

Faith Created by Evidence…

In one sense, faith means that feeling of certainty derived from direct observation or experience.

If you have a very reliable car, then you have faith that it will start whenever you get into it and turn the key in its ignition switch. Several car manufacturers have cultivated that exact reputation as a way to persuade purchasers to buy their products. When a purchaser’s faith in that reputation is shaken, it can have lifelong repercussions.

This use of the word faith can also be an expression of trust that is derived from similar experience–someone might have faith that the person they love will be kind to them and honest in their promises. Losing that faith can destroy the entire relationship.

In these cases, faith is the product of knowledge. It is based upon encounters with credible evidence that supports the claims being made about it.

…Vs. Faith-For-No-Good-Reason.

Another meaning for the word faith runs along familiar Christian lines. In this sense of the word, as Hebrews 11:1 tells its readers, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Like a lot of other important concepts in Christianity, however, you’ll hunt high and low for an explanation of exactly what that verse looks like in lived reality. Even web pages titled “What Does It Mean To Have Faith?” will cite Hebrews 11:1 and then go on to totally not define at all what it actually means to have faith like that, how to get faith like that, or how to know when someone has it at all.

And that’s a serious problem for Christians. As some Christian rando notes on a blog post called “What Is Faith?” that similarly totally fails to define the term he’s using, faith is a requirement for avoiding Hell and getting into Heaven. A Christian can’t hope to escape eternal torture without faith. And yet none of them have the faintest idea how to achieve it or how to know when they have it. The best they can do is mangle talking points and Bible verses about it.

Faith-for-no-good-reason, like the faith that very young children often have in nonsense, tends to get all the praise from Christians. People who need evidence to believe, as the Apostle Thomas did, tend to be criticized. Evidence-based faith runs a very poor second to faith-for-no-good-reason.

And it runs a far second even if Christians can’t even define their preferred form of faith, much less describe how someone acquires and keeps it.

The Deal With Doubting Thomas.

Still, this second-best form of faith is perfectly valid.

In the story of “Doubting Thomas” near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus was making post-Resurrection appearances to his devastated followers. Thomas, who was one of the Twelve Apostles, hadn’t seen any of these appearances himself. Nor did he believe the stories the other followers were telling about having seen Jesus risen from the dead. He said he’d believe it when he was able to see Jesus’ nail marks with his own eyes, and put his own hand into the spear-wound in Jesus’ side.

So when Jesus came to him and let him do both of those things, Thomas finally believed that Jesus had, indeed, come back from death. In the story, Jesus tells him, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Typically speaking, Christians take this story to mean that Jesus prefers his followers to have faith-for-no-good-reason. That said, he accepts faith as the result of having encountered credible evidence.

(Also typically, Christians tend to ignore something of vital importance. This story is another great example of their god honoring requests for credible evidence for the religion’s claims. That Got Questions link insists that Christians today have PROOF YES PROOF that Thomas didn’t have: the Holy Spirit and the fully-edited Bible. I just have no words.)

Needing Reasons to Believe.

Christians know they must have belief. And they know that the very best form of belief comes from faith-for-no-good-reason. But then they also learn that it’s okay to need concrete evidence to believe. It might be second-best, but Jesus doesn’t reject people for needing it. And non-Christians must have a reason to believe anyway, so anyone wishing to sell the religion to others must, necessarily, come up with at least one that doesn’t sound ridiculous. (We’re coming back around to this idea in just a mo’ here.)

Right here, this is where we find the real fun in Christian apologetics. That’s when we get to see what piss-poor evidence they claim to have hung their eternal fates on. And, as “Street Epistemologist” Anthony Magnabosco often discovers, we find that the “evidence” that Christians present isn’t ever actually very good. They are happy to make claims about having evidence for their beliefs, yes. When we dive into those reasons, we come up short.

That’s where we find Stan Gudmundson–and millions of his fellow believers.

He’s got this belief system that he thinks is 100% true. Naturally, he thinks he has real-world tangible reasons to believe what he does.

In both of these, he is completely representative of a typical fundagelical.

And Now For A Plot Twist.

I’m going to shake things up now with a plot twist (that probably isn’t super-surprising): even faith-for-no-good-reason has reasons.

They’re the real reasons that Christians believe, for the most part. The problem is, Christians themselves are well aware of how poorly these reasons function as points of persuasion. Little wonder they aren’t wild about talking about these real reasons.

Indeed, Stan Gudmundson acts exactly like we see typical fundagelicals act after serious pushback: he retreats into his real reasons for belief. Ultimately, belief in his Creationist myths requires “an act of faith,” as he puts it. Christians “are certain” about their god’s existence, which appears to settle the matter as far as he cares. And he thinks his god keeps him from harm, even if them mean ole meaniepie atheists don’t believe his totally totes and for realsies anecdotes. He also hints that his terror of Hell and death keeps him in the traces.

NEXT UP: We’re heading into the faith pool to examine those real reasons for belief. I hope you’ll join me–see you next time!

equivocation is a twisted filter on reality
The Garden of the Gods, Colorado, HDR with an infrared filter. (David, CC.) (BTW, the link to David contains an essay about how he made these amazing photos!)

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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