Two Questions for Christian Readers

Two Questions for Christian Readers March 10, 2012

Remember you can vote once per day for the Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

Two atheist blogs in my RSS reader posted open questions for Christians, and since the the Christian commenters here play nice with others nearly all the time, I’d love to dispatch you to take a crack at them.

First up, John Loftus, a minister turned atheist and the author of Why I Became an Atheist and The End of Christianity.  Over at Debunking Christianity, he asks:

Christian theists make two claims about faith:

  1. That atheists define the concept of faith wrong, and
  2. That atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.

So here’s my challenge: Define faith in such a way that it fulfills both requirements!

I’d be interested to see the answers you guys give.  Is the faith that a Christian has supposed to be akin to my belief that I’m something more than a Boltzmann brain?  Is it like my belief that my mother loves me?  It seems like faith is more than the absence of radical skepticism, but I don’t know what definition you guys think is best.

And while you’re mulling that over, perhaps you’ve got something to say to the blogger at No Forbidden Questions, who has a question about 2 Thessalonians 2:7-14.  The verse (with NFQ’s bolding) is:

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You should read NFQ’s entire post, but the basic question is: why does this section not compel Christians to believe in some kind of Calvinist predestination?  After reading this selection, I’m mighty curious, too.  Feel free to answer with counter-texts or context or a broader explanation of how you resolve tensions in the Bible.

And remember, that although I’m interested in your answers, the bloggers who originally posted these questions are presumably even more curious, so cross-post your comments!

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  • First, concerning Faith.

    Faith is spoken of in two ways.

    First, there’s the proper sense of faith: faith is a supernaturally infused knowledge of things unreachable to humans through sense knowledge. In this sense St. Paul says that “we walk by faith, and not by sight”, since it is through faith that man comes to know the character of his supernatural destiny (namely, union with God), and enlightened by this knowledge he is capable of genuine prudence, by which he orders his life and his actions. Moreover, it is in this sense that the author of Hebrews calls faith “the evidence of things hoped for, and the substance of things unseen”. Faith is a genuine form of knowledge: in faith God presents to the believer a real understanding of the subjects (God, Christ, the Church, humanity, providence, etc.) which faith concerns. In fact, faith is more perfectly knowledge than ordinary empirical knowledge or most deductive knowledge. This is because the certainty of a thing is derived from its closeness to the principles on which it rests and the intrinsic certainty of that principle. Faith rests on God, who is himself truth, and is the prime principle of being, ipsum esse per se subsistens. It is not derived, though its implications can be clarified through discourse and prayer and theological reflection. So the knowledge of faith is superior to empirical knowledge first on account of its immediacy to the principle upon which it rests, and second because of the absolute perfection of that principle. Now, by the wonderful mystery of divine providence, faith is communicated to people by a twofold causation: the content of the faith is received through preachers who transmit divine truth, and the understanding is communicated by grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is possible for people to “be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4:12; Isaiah 6:9). This sort of faith is not given to atheists, and is, with hope and charity, the glory of the Christian and his chief preparation for eternal life.

    The second sense of the word “faith” is the more common one in our post-protestant culture. Here faith is understood to be a kind of blind submission of intellect to something unintelligible or perhaps even self-contradictory. Something utterly unknowable for which there is no evidence. Thus the common protestant translation of Hebrews 11:1 (which, if you know greek, is seen clearly to be a horrible perversion of the text) runs “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). It’s all about settling for some side in the matter and just feeling that you’ve got the right answer. When people used words correctly, this wasn’t called faith, but “opinion”. And obviously Atheists have opinions just like everyone else, and their assurance that God does not exist, because it clearly isn’t demonstrable, falls under the category of opinion.

  • Mike

    The second question is a little easier to answer than the first. If memory serves, Catholics have a doctrine called reprobation which fits quite well here. You’re probably more familiar with it than I am; I’m not a Catholic but I do think reprobation is sound theology. The classic example is Pharaoh’s encounters with Moses.

    As you know, Moses performed plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of slavery. Several times, Pharaoh relented but then changed his mind afterwards, with the Bible saing that his “heart was hard.”

    Well, that’s what the Bible says at first, anyway. It starts with Exodus 7:13, with similar phrases in 7:22, and the most explicit one in 8:15: “Pharoah hardened his heart.” Same in 8:19, 8:32, and 9:7.

    But when we get to the seventh plague, the Lord has lost patience with Pharaoh, and 9:12 explicitly states that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” 9:34 places the burden on Pharaoh again, but by 10:20 “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” — and again in 11:10.

    * * * *

    The Thessalonians passage strikes me as a pretty clear example not of predestination, but of reprobation: “They refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God send them a powerful delusion.”

    * * * *

    With that said, there are some passages that seem to talk about predestination — Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 come to mind — but they’re a little bit less clear about what exactly is happening.

    In any case, I think we have to remember how limited our concept of time is. We experience time linearly — unidirectional and constant — but there’s no reason why a deity would have to experience it the same way. This makes it really hard to talk about causation, because cause and time are intimately intertwined in our intuitions.

  • Meredith

    I agree with Elliot that the first question involves a shift in the meaning of “faith” that makes it difficult to deliver the requested definition. For the first statement, I don’t know enough about how atheists define faith to comment on whether or not they’ve got it wrong (though I honestly doubt there’s a monolithic definition). For the second, if we mean “faith” as “worldview” or “set of core premises,” then we might agree that atheists and theists both have “faith” in the same way. But as Elliot’s post points out, that assumes a fairly secular and oversimplified definition of faith from the get-go, one with which many Christians would disagree. Perhaps today’s culture defines faith as worldview, but I should think that Christians accepting this definition would be getting it wrong.

    I was taught that the two go-to chapters on faith are Acts 7 and Hebrews 11 (7-11 being easy to remember). The Hebrews passage has already been quoted in part, but I’ll add that after the “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (a potentially vague sentiment) comes specific content: a recounting of people who acted in faith from Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham to others who “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. . . . [T]hey were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

    Likewise, in the Acts 7 passage, Stephen gives a faithful-historical account before the Sanhedrin, ending in some rather scathing words: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” At this point, they’re furious, and when Stephen looks up and says, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” they stone him.

    This passage is a dramatic example that puts some real meat on the bare bones of a Christian conception of faith in “what we do not see.” Taken with the Hebrews passage, it points to an attitude of faith that reminds me of a sweet saying in my church: “Heaven’s my home, I’m just passin’ through.” While I don’t think it’s my place to outline those particular tenets a person must hold true to have Christian faith, I do think that the “substance” of things unseen in Christian faith is an understanding of life as meaningful in light of God’s promises in the Bible, centrally in the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    So, in short, I can give a lengthy and still-not-comprehensive definition of Christian faith that might go to claim 1 of the above, but in order to endorse claim 2 above, I would have to discard that Christian definition of faith for an idea of faith as “worldview” or “central premises” (which would be pretty ironic). This I’d rather not do, especially since – in my experience – both Christian theism and atheism tick people off at the point they start spouting dogmatic premises others must espouse to be accepted as baseline rational beings.

    Personally, I disagree with Mike and think the second question is more difficult. My natural response to the idea – call it predestination or reprobation or Calvanism or crazy – that God hardens hearts and chooses people to save for no inherent goodness of their own is: that’s unfair (or, more precisely, given that God is perfectly just: “that sucks”). However, this very human reaction – one that at least Job shared – does not make the fundamental accruative nature of faith untrue (neologism! do tell if you have an existing word for the idea I’m getting at). That is, it becomes easier to see or not to see God based on one’s foundation, and it is possible to build on a foundation of belief or unbelief. Jesus explained his speaking in parables saying, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

    Personally, sometimes I’d like to see divine sovereignty steamroll our petty wills into submission for what is best for us, but God just doesn’t work that way. Giving us freedom to choose what to believe and what to do with our lives, God scatters seeds of faith on all different types of spiritual ground, “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” To the extent predestination inspires Christians to seize on what they’ve been given as a point of pride or a sign of their righteousness vis-a-vis other fallen people, it’s misguided; however, I take a Calvanist view to mean we are all in God’s infinite debt for what light and blessings we’ve been given. Feel free to follow up with me on these or any points.

  • Sam Urfer

    Faith is knowing by testimony rather than by experience. I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, because the scientists tell me so, and I believe them. I can become an astronomer or an astronaut and find out more concretely, but I can also become a monk and find out the experience of divine revelation more directly.

  • deiseach

    Faith is something that makes a difference to, and in, your life.

    If I ‘believe’ in Bertrand Russell’s invisible teapot, but I carry on as though there were no invisible teapot, then I don’t have faith. Contrariwise, the Pastafarianwho applied for the right to wear a colander (as religious headwear) in his driving licence photo is demonstrating faith, even of a jokey kind.

    James 1:22 “22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
    James 2:14 “14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”

    Why aren’t we all Calvinists? Well, first, Christianity does in the main accept that faith is a gift of God. There are two kinds of predestination: predestination that God has chosen some to be saved, and double predestination, that not only has God chosen some to be saved, but has doomed some to be damned.

    Catholics can accept the first, classical Calvinism generally held to the second (though many of the Calvinists I read online are very much soft-pedalling that one and concentrating mainly or solely on ‘preach so that those to be saved may be saved, because you don’t know who is the elect, so preach to everyone’). Generally, Catholics don’t have the concept of “irresistable grace” (that is, if God decides to send you saving faith, you cannot refuse or lose it). We believe in free will, which means that yes, you can lose your salvation.

    Don’t know if that helps any; the more honest answer would probably be “Why am I not a Calvinist? Too much hard work!” 🙂

  • deiseach

    “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

    Thinking a little more about that one, how many times have you heard or read someone saying “If God is supposed to be X, Y or Z, then I can’t believe in that kind of god” or “If that’s what God is, then I would prefer to go to Hell rather than Heaven” or “I just can’t believe in a god who would do/would not do such-and-such”.

    Well, okay then. If you don’t want to believe in such a god, you don’t have to and God won’t make you. If you want a god with qualities that appeal to you, a god you can believe in, a god who shares your opinions on everything from the right way to make coffee to how the universe was created, then you can believe in such a god or non-god. Ask, and you shall receive. Because it doesn’t matter if you or I or he or she would prefer a god like Apollo or Thor or Yemanya, if bloodthirsty, vindictive Yahweh is true.

    So if you boast that you would rather go to Hell than bend your neck to this god, no-one is stopping you. You won’t be compelled to believe.

  • Jake

    I wrote the following awhile back in response the idea that “atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.” Note that my discussion was specific to faith and science as they relate to the strict historical interpretation of the Old Testament, but I think the argument applies more generally as well:

    Science does not operate on faith. It operates on theories. And the fundamental difference between theories and faith are that theories are discarded when either a) contradictory evidence or b) a better theory comes along. It is not necessary to invoke faith to believe something that we are unsure of, because belief is a probability distribution. What the Christian would call “faith”, the scientist would call “uncertainty”. This is important to note, because we cannot equate believing in a less mature scientific theory with believing in the supernatural- the scientific theory, if it is a valid one, has evidence behind it, while there is no *natrual* evidence that can sufficiently convince us of the claims of the *supernatrual*.

    That Christianity requires faith and science does not is not in and of itself a condemnation of Christianity. For as we have said before, Christianity is not scientific, and it does not purport itself to be. The evidence for Christianity is, and must be, experiential. It must be a conviction beyond denial. And this conviction, if strong enough, gives us rational license to take certain things on faith. The question becomes how MUCH license, and what things we should be taking on faith, and how we should deal with evidence that flies in the face of that faith.

    The scientist’s goal (as least his claimed goal) is to observe reality and form unbiased theories based on these observations. When a scientist forms a theory, he starts with the data and interpolates a model that explains the data. This is fundamentally different from what the Christian does. The Christian starts with a model (the historical account given in the old testament) and tries to explain why the data supports (or at least does not contradict) that model. It must be admitted, of course, that the advent of a new scientific model is in fact quite rare. Most of science deals with verifying the congruence of new data with existing models, and therefore looks very simillar to the method employed by Christians. But the key difference here is that the scientist is willing and able to discard his model if and only if a better model comes along. The Christian is not afforded this luxury. The Christian is stuck with the historical claims made by the Bible, and they must defend these as vociferously as they defend the inerrant nature of the Bible, regardless of what new data may arise. To be locked into one such model runs counter to what it means to be science, and in my view, counter to the appropriate use of the human intellect. If there is a God, and he has gifted us both a desire and an ability to understand the world around us, why then should we shy away from such knowledge? Why try to box it in when it doesn’t fit what we think it should be?

    • Atheism and science are not equivalent. Science does not diametrically oppose Christianity. These are different orders of thing. My post below elaborates more fully. So while I see much of your point, I think you’re starting too far down the line. I can’t account for how other Christians would use the word faith, but if I say that rational materialists have faith, I mean that they have faith in rationalism, not in evolution or heliocentricism or what have you.

    • deiseach

      Jake, is there anything for which the scientific method is not a good fit? That is, does the scientific method work as the best available tool to use in all instances, not just in empircal measurement of observable reality?

      Should I evaluate the effect of music by the scientific method, and if so, how? My favourite flavour of ice-cream? Why I like autumn better than summer?

      We don’t always follow particular paths of logic and reason even if we ascribe the best outcomes to doing so. What I am getting at, I suppose, is that those who advocate the scientific method for use in general (outside the boundaries of science and research) seem to have faith that this is indeed the best and even the only worthwhile method of dealing with the human condition and living in this world.

      Unfortunately, that reminds me too much of Golden Age SF where the notion was that in ‘the future’, we would have a better scientific understanding of things and technicians would make all the decisions; the most outstanding example of that is Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the science of psychohistory drives the development of human history for thousands of years, based on Hari Seldon’s Plan which operates on a series of projections (what in religious terms would be called prophecies) as to how the course of politics is going to turn out and how to keep it on the straight road to rebuilding civilisation after the collapse.

      • Ray

        I think distinctively scientific reasoning plays two roles even in the areas you listed (I would frame this as introspection versus third person scientific methods.)

        1) It tells you whether the proposed method can plausibly provide information. In this case, whatever part of your brain is involved in belief formation is crazy-interconnected to the other parts of your brain, so it makes sense that you would form beliefs that are more extensively informed about your motivations for preferring one season over another, say, than someone who was only learning about your internal thought process from your revealed preferences, spoken accounts, or even tools like fMRI. Tarot cards or astrology, on the other hand don’t have such a plausible mechanism.

        2)There is plenty of scientific research that can, honest to goodness, tell you stuff about your internal thought process that you didn’t know. e.g. change blindness, implicit association tests, and all the stuff in the book “predictably irrational.”

        • deiseach

          I was thinking more along the lines of “I don’t like Michael Bublé, even though he is both popular and critically praised”. Do people really select what new singers they will listen to, based on a checklist of technical vocal proficiency and the latest neurological studies as to what parts of the brain are stimulated when listening to vocal music?

          The SF stories I mentioned seemed to posit that kind of future, where the ‘experts in white coats’ would make all these decisions and provide the best nutritional choices, the best potential mates, the best child-rearing advice, etc. etc. etc. in a technological wonderland of ever-increasing progress, but do you know any human being – even a scientist – who really does make decisions on “Hmm, I don’t feel like cooking, will I have a Chinese or an Indian for dinner tonight” via the scientific method or just on a whim?

          Yes, we can analyse preferences and find out why we like what we like, but that does not mean that better understanding of the underlying principles of why we like tenors and dislike cats screeching makes all that much difference in our everyday lives as to why we do things.

          That’s the problem with some of the atheist prognostications for the wonderful rational future we will all live in, once the likes of religion and its irrationality are done away with; once proper methods of critical thinking and a scientific education are provided in schools, then instead of people wasting time reading their horoscopes in a magazine on their teabreak, they will instead all be working on cures for cancer (I take this example from an interview Richard Dawkins did a few years back, where he did more or less say we’d have cured cancer by now if people didn’t believe in horoscopes and the like). No, humans have plenty of irrationality besides religion and nobody is going to spend every single minute of their working day being a productive robot; they will still want teabreaks, and during their teabreaks, even the improved atheist man or woman will be chatting about the winner of the X-Factor instead of solemnly discussing the next step in the race to build a Mars base.

          • Ray

            I agree with much of what you say there, but I think it’s a bit far afield from the main point of the discussion.

            I don’t think disliking Michael Buble involves accepting any claims which would be rendered implausible by consistent application of the scientific method. I’m pretty sure traditional religious belief does. Therin lies the distinction as I see it between religious and non-religious forms of faith.

    • Daniel A. Duran

      “I think distinctively scientific reasoning plays two roles even in the areas you listed.”

      Jay, the scientific method and science itself cannot be justified by scientific reasoning. Sooner or later everybody has to turn to metaphysics to answer the basic questions of existence.

      BTW, metaphysics is a philosophical discipline that deals with the fundamental questions of existence. It is not “religious spook-stuff” or “super-natural ectoplasmic talk,” I’m not saying that you’re clueless as to what metaphysics is ( I do not know you) but some people reading this might think is some Taoist sect or something.

      • Daniel A. Duran

        Sorry, the post was addressed to both *Jake* and Ray.

    • Jake

      Christian- Fair enough. Science and Atheism are not the same thing, and perhaps it is a mistake to conflate the two. However, the only times I’ve ever heard this argument in the wild, it’s been in an attempt to compare an Atheist’s faith in science with a Christian’s faith in God (in particular with regard to the origin of the universe, life, etc.- things not directly observable today). That being said, I don’t disagree with anything in your later post, other than what’s included in my response to Daniel.

      deiseach- I think Ray makes some good points, but I would like to raise another. The things you’re describing that don’t make sense in the framework of the scientific method aren’t matters of fact, but rather matters of opinion. “Do you like Michael Buble?” is a different question than “Is Michael Buble a good singer?” The former is a matter of opinion, and not a scientific question, and I agree that science has no place there (other than perhaps to help explain why you come to whatever conclusion you come to). Rather, there is no scientific evidence that could convince you that you do not, in fact, like Michael Buble, if you actually do. The second question, however, is a matter of fact, insomuch as we can all agree as to the definition of “good”. And that’s what the scientific method is good for. If we can all agree what it means to be a good singer, then we absolutely can determine, through science, if Michael Buble is a good singer or not. It’s also worth noting that historical fact is a very different thing from scientific fact, and is based upon a preponderance of evidence and reliable testimony, rather than on reproducibility and reason.

      Daniel and Christian- As you both pointed out, rationalism can only go so far. There’s no sense in talking about a rational basis for rationalism, any more than there is in talking about the proverbial world on the Turtle’s back. But this isn’t really a condemnation of any worldview, nor is it, in my view, an implication of a faith-based belief for material rationalists. Axioms play a key role in any belief system, not because all belief systems require faith, but because it’s impossible to bootstrap something from nothing. If we don’t start with some baseline propositions, we end up stuck on the most basic of questions- how can I even verify that this reality exists? How do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? So I suppose I would say that rational materialists have faith only insomuch as it requires faith to assert that you exist. The idea of rationalism, as you defined it, seems quite obviously axiomatic to me, my argument being that your own definition of “faith”- a mental assent to a proposition for which there is or can be no definitive logical support- requires an appeal to logic. My definition of rationalism being merely applied logic, it seems that in order to even have a cogent discussion on the matter, we’re forced to acknowledge that we’re all playing by the same rules of logic.

      • Ray

        I’d also note that it is in fact possible to be mistaken about ones own likes and dislikes — as observed by Dr. Seuss in his treatise “Green eggs and ham.”

      • Ray

        Snark aside, I would say that the reason one can’t conclude that deiseach likes Michael Buble based on critical and popular opinion is simply that, “deiseach likes Michael Buble,” is a different claim from “most critics like Michael Buble,” or “most music fans like Michael Buble.” The fact that humans are similar in their likes and dislikes to one another might lead one to think these claims correlate with one another, but strict implication seems like quite a stretch.

        • deiseach

          Deiseach does not like Michael Bublé, even though she recognises that he is, objectively, a good singer. Let science, if it can, explain that one 🙂

          Which is my point; it’s not enough to say about religion or anything else “Pooh! It’s not science!” since the majority of us do not go around living our lives by virtue of appeals to science in every little detail. Now, science may have much to say about the claims of religion, but there are elements where science does not apply, and it’s not good enough to shrug these elements off as non-essential or trivial or ‘if it’s not measurable by our paradigm, it doesn’t matter’, since you could dismiss a great deal of what humans value in their lives by the same token.

          • Alex

            Are you saying that religious belief might have merit independent of whether the claims of that religion are true and furthermore that science is unable to assess the former?

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Faith can be understood in several ways but it was classically understood, especially among Catholics, as pertaining to ‘revealed theology’ or the things that cannot be discovered and demonstrated by human reason (the incarnation and the trinity, for example) but that are revealed by God.

    “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

    The delusion (whatever that is) and condemnation seems to be a punishment that comes after and because people commit sins or immoral actions. It seems similar to other passages that speak of God leaving sinners to their passions and vices as a punishment. Additionally I have a hard time seeing that “believing what is false” is identical to sin. Remember, in Calvinism God predestines some people to hell before they are created and urges people to sin when they are on earth and that doesn’t seem to be the issue here. I don’t the passage committed to Calvinism.

  • Fun fact: did you know that “theist” means “a person who loves tea”? It’s true! It’s in the OED and everything.

    As a Christian theist, then, I can try to answer the first question. I wouldn’t say that atheists have faith in the same way that Christians do, but this isn’t because I have some rigourous definition of faith worked out. It’s because not all atheists are alike. Nihilists don’t seem to me to have faith. That’s the point of nihilism. (But do nihilists exist? Or did we make them up because we had to?) Rational materialists have some kind of faith, however: first, that the world can be explained using reason (rationalism); second, that the world can only (and/or sufficiently) be explained in empirical, physical terms (materialism). You can talk about probablistic reasoning all you like, but doing so still requires the first. So that’s a faith in a method (or, more accurately, an epistemology hinged on a bare-bones metaphysics), and a faith for which there can be no rationale because all rationales given would rely already on rationalism. But that’s rational materialism, not atheism.

    I’d say even existentialists and absurdists still smuggle in some kind of faith, despite denying it. These would also be faiths in method. (Nihilists get out of it because they deny all method, too. They just…deny all the things. This is why I suspect there are none.)

    Is this what Christian faith is? No. But if I said that rational materialists or existential atheists have faith, too what I would mean is that they have faith in the sense in which I presume they use the word: a mental assent to a proposition for which there is or can be no definitive logical support. Their assent is of a method’s ability to determine truth (however defined or constructed in their system). This use of “faith” is strategic equivocation, so I can’t and won’t provide a definition of faith that covers both requirements. But I wouldn’t ever say that atheists have faith “just like” Christians do, because that indeed would be a lie. (Or it’s true and I’m completely wrong. That’s possible.)

    This doesn’t, in fact, answer the question as the question asks to be answered. But to answer the question as it asks to be answered would be dishonest.

  • Sam Urfer
  • Emily

    What? The first part I might agree with, in that I think faith is very much experiential and most atheists I’ve spoken with think it is propositional. The second I do not, because I think it is both experiential and propositional in specific ways (for instance, it involves God! and Jesus!). It reduces faith to nothing meaningful to generalize it into, “well, everyone has both experiential and logical experiences of the world, so whatever experiences you have, that’s faith.” I think the distinguishing factor between atheists and Christians is that atheists DON’T have faith…if not that, what is it?!

    • Sam Urfer

      Having faith *in God*. Geocentrists, Young Earth Creationists, Global Warming Deniers and so on lack faith in various scientists, Buddhists lack faith in the revelation to Muhammed, and so on. Doesn’t mean they believe in nothing. Everyone believes someone about something.

    • Your distinction between faith as experiential/propositional I think explains much about the way atheists and theists can talk across each other on this topic.
      Certainly, from how my theist friends have described faith, I can conceive of it as most closely related to my faith that a friend will come through for me when I really need them – with the obvious caveat that my friend is purely material, natural and physical. So it’s a faith in things seen, and thus perhaps not really faith at all.

  • Andrew

    I’m not sure how atheists define faith. But, I think, that atheists suggest that they live free of faith and that their faculties are driven solely by reason, observation and evidence – boy that sounds cold and boring. I hope I’m wrong.

    CS Lewis wrote great stuff on this.

    He said that faith is an art. It’s the art of staying true to something (a situation, a notion, a position, etc.) that you’ve accepted based on your reasoning even in the face of serious challenges. Further, faith is contingent on reason.

    For instance, some, when traveling, are aware of the training and experience of the pilot and and know the extremely strong likelihood that they will safely reach their destination. Nevertheless, they are stricken with fear as the plane takes off seeming to defy gravity. Their faith prevents them from screaming in terror and staying the course. The same reason/faith applies to a mother’s love.

    I suppose that faith is necessary far less to those who claim direct knowledge of their position. For the rest of us, maybe another group of the 99%, faith is what boosts our confidence and enables us to maintain. There are plenty of moments of doubt when a leap (of faith) would change our path. These are usually dark times when we’re shaken to the core. Most often we stay put because our faith keeps us there. Some arrogant types, believers and atheists alike, will boast of some silly notion of their courage at the face of the uncertainty. The correct term that describes the action employed by both is faith.

    Even if not acknowledged by atheists, this type of faith is borne by believers and atheists alike. I’m fascinated by this commonality. The moments of doubt bring the two very close. The believer, experiencing disbelief, may be overwhelmed by grief and loneliness; the atheist, finding belief, is struck by awe and wonder.

    • I’m sure this was not your intention, but I was somewhat offended by ” the atheist, finding belief, is struck by awe and wonder”.

      I think that this was for two reasons. The first is that you juxtaposed the believer finding disbelief with bad consequences, and the atheist finding belief with good consequences.
      The second is that my lived experience of [atheist] awe and wonder is that they have nothing to do with belief (or lack of it). My moments of doubt aren’t nearly that fun.

      Returning to where you began; I do not claim to be based purely on reason, observation and evidence.
      However, I do not feel that what fills the gap is ‘faith’, however defined. When I fail to operate on reason, observation and evidence I am following my monkey-drives, not acting on faith.
      And inasmuch as I have a faith, such as you describe here:
      “It’s the art of staying true to something (a situation, a notion, a position, etc.) that you’ve accepted based on your reasoning even in the face of serious challenges”
      Well, I would say that my faith in those terms is a simple proposition – that reason, evidence and observation do lead to truth – and a corollary, that the truth is a good, if not the good.
      It may be a faith in the same terms as a faith that Jesus Saves!, but I think it’s much more limited in extent.

      • Andrew

        I sure don’t mean to offend, as I’m sure you don’t when you invoke an exclamatory slogan used by some Christians; this way over-simplifies and hovers close to ridicule.

        Faith in it’s strictest sense is fidelity, that is, remaining true to a cause (religious or non-religious) in the face of challenge, surely you have this quality; faith is also an affidavit (again fides), acknowledging a deep trust and commitment. It is this trust that I referred to as the “gap filler”.

        An admission of faith can be difficult. I’d suggest that you read your post closely. You say that you “follow” your monkey drives (can’t help but think of the Wonder Twins), I guess alluding to some strict physical processes.

        But you also say that you do experience awe and wonder. Experiencing awe and wonder is, at least, the recognition of the something beyond oneself. Awe is an intense and extreme emotion, potentially filling its bearer with fear of an unknown. Awe is not found in synapses and electric impulses. Awe may be even more powerful than faith.

        Let’s stop parsing words. At some point we’ll be arguing what the meaning of is is. It’s okay to admit faith. You can be a faithful atheist.

        • There is nothing wrong with having faith in some senses of the word; in other senses it is a profoundly harmful thing.
          Keeping faith with someone, viz having integrity or showing loyalty – generally ok.
          Generically for ‘trust or confidence’ – neutral.
          But in the most common sense of religious faith – harmful.
          Which sense of faith we are using does matter. As in fact is being discussed at Camels with Hammers at the moment, in his Disambiguating Faith series.
          So whether or not I am happy to have the word ‘faithful’ applied to me depends very much on which sense we are considering.

          Also, I’m afraid I can’t let this slide:
          “Awe is not found in synapses and electrical impulses”. Why not? Once we bundle in neurons and all the other structures of the brain, why should that structure find it any harder to produce awe than hunger, love than boredom, wonder than anger?

          • Andrew

            Okay, we’ve found some common ground. We both recognize faith as a good human characteristic.

            But you say “Generically for ‘trust or confidence’ – neutral.
            But in the most common sense of religious faith – harmful.”. The second sentence does not challenge the first in any way. The faith is the same. You may not like the usage of faith (trust, confidence in a religion), but there is no difference. The validity of remaining true (fidelity) is not contingent on its object. The benefit/harm of religion debate is not for this discussion.

            We both (human beings) understand that we can recognize beauty, we are capable of love and awe, etc. Presumably, we also agree that at some point in our evolutionary history, we separated from the beasts and have been empowered with these wonderful abilities; we (humans) certainly existed in a perfectly fine physical state before we created art, made music, and felt love and awe. Believers have arrived at a notion that these non-physical human attributes have been imparted from outside our physical condition.

            Non-believers have faith that these traits came upon us as the self-deriving result of one’s own chemical mixture. And I suppose that they base this faith on some evidence of anthropological study neuron-impulses, and the like. For me, my faith is just not that strong.

  • On question one:

    Like love, faith is a complex thing that won’t be easily nailed down in a one sentence definition. But it is, also like love, a concept naturally available even to people who can’t put it into words. So I’ll try pointing to some important aspects of it, so that you may recognize what I’m talking about:

    First aspect:
    Even if I think the evidence for something compelling I might struggle with the act of actually believing it. If the application is religious belief this probably seems suspicious to an atheist, but there are also many secular examples:

    Consider, for example, how easily many people are scammed. Offer them something too good to be true and they will fail to apply their reason even if they are otherwise good at it.

    Also, look at how people adopt political beliefs. Loads of otherwise intelligent people are all to happy to believe Obama will introduce sharia law, or that Bush will declare martial law and cancel the election, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that CO_2 has no influence on global temperature, or that the minimum wage has no influence on unemployment, or that either kind of sex ed has a measurable influence of behavior, or (to take a more German example) that we can fulfill our electricity needs with wind and solar only with presently available technology, despite none of that being easily reconcilable with evidence. So it seems people can ignore a lot of evidence to adopt beliefs that allow them to fit in with their tribe.

    Further, look at depressive people, who might have trouble realizing they are loved by their loved ones even everything points to that being so.

    And, of course, people are very unlikely to recognize the immorality of social institutions they profit from, be it slavery, abortion, factory farming, farm subsidies, or unrestrained financial speculation.

    So in sum it can be hard to believe something even after the evidence is in. But we still should swallow reality even if it’s momentarily hard to swallow. While most outspoken atheists would be uncomfortable calling that virtue faith, their rhetoric is actually big on it, think of the litanies of Gendlin and Tarski, “red pill” talk, etc. Now they often think we Christians are not practicing that virtue but rather fleeing into comfortable delusions. Often this gets coupled with a redefinition of faith as “belief without evidence” or even “belief against evidence”. Naturally, I don’t see it that way. I think Christianity is actually the rational position, but sometimes the act of assenting is still hard. So on this aspect I actually assert both points Loftus complains about.

    Second aspect:
    There is a lot of stuff I believe by authority and/or trust. This is true in religion but it is equally true in other parts of life.

    To take a trite example, I do believe most of science on authority. This is obvious, because it’s pretty much impossible to study all sciences, so we basically have to trust those who have studied what we haven’t. But that’s not all: Even where we know what the evidence is, we mostly haven’t seen it. Even if you study a particular science in college you don’t get to repeat all the key experiments because there will be neither the time nor the money, equipment, and local expertise necessary to do that. What’s more, I did several standard lab experiments in college that simply didn’t work. And I didn’t conclude I was being thought a bunch of lies, but simply that there was something wrong with my approach and/or the equipment. Basically I trusted scientific tradition more than my immediate experience. And this isn’t unusual, actually if a student always reports measuring what the therory predicts the tutors would be well advised to suspect that student of forging their lab reports.

    Another example is basically everything not treatable by pure empiricism. Your beliefs that your mother loves you and you are not a Boltzman brain go in that direction. I would add beliefs in objective reality, in the existence of an external material world, in the general reliability of your senses, and in the moral law. Basically what you call “the absence of radical skepticism”. These are all more matters of extending trust (if perhaps impersonal trust) than of empirical observation. So on this aspect, too, atheists do have faith and in so far as they deny it they must be defining faith wrong.

    So we believe loads of stuff by trusting rather than by seeing. This is another aspect of faith and it necessary both for atheists and for Christians. Now atheist rhetoric might like to narrow this aspect of faith to unreasonable trusting, but that is begging the question. I actually think it is reasonable to trust some authorities most atheists don’t think reasonably thrustworthy. The basic approach is something atheists do rightly rely on even if the dumber ones among them claim not to.

    Third aspect:
    Faith is closely connected to the other theological virtues, love and hope. You can easily see that in the “your mother loves you” example. Failing in that faith requires a failure in hope and will soon enough lead to a “reciprocal” failure in love. Both the courage of my first aspect and the trust of my second one are based in hope and love and lead back to them.

    Here I think faith in God actually is a game-changer. Surely an atheist can rationally have faith, hope, and love in many contexts, but for a Christian all of reality is ultimatly rooted in a good to love who loves us back and has a plan for our salvation we can reasonably hope in. This gives rise to the whole “personal relationship” thing. So it gets, in the words of the man whose name I stole, “less like a theory and more like a love affair”. There’s an I-you-relationship the atheist’s I-it-questions are missing.

    So atheists can rightly claim not to share in this aspect of faith or at least not in the extent Christians do. But notice that this comes, at least logically, after the other aspects, just as it does with your mother. So the aspect of faith atheists don’t share builds on the aspects they suspect of being unsound epistemology but actually do share.

    On Question two:
    As it says (and NFQ already notes that) “they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion” If we leave God causing it out for a moment this effect is clearly empirical reality. Whenever we refuse to practice the virtue of faith (as explained above) we fall victim to delusions. This is particularly true with morality: invest yourself in evil (by intensity or habit) and you soon will find some rationalizations for it. In your ethical framework this would be the triviality that if you damage your character your character will be damaged.

    This is of course the common C. S. Lewis view of damnation. The damned characters in The Great Divorce typically do suffer from powerful delusions, but ultimately they do so by choice. And this starts small in our earthly life. Now the reason this pericope seems so shocking is that it explicitly says God sends the delusion which sounds worse than a natural effect. But I don’t think the destinction between natural effects and acts of God is ultimately tenable. Since reality comes from God so do its laws. God did create and permanently sustains a reality in which refusing to love the truth leads to powerful delusions and the difference between that and sending powerful delusions to people who refuse to love truth is basically semantic. The question why he does that is of course a variant of the theodice problem and I wont tackle that in a blog comment already far too long. I just note that this pericope accords both with free will and our actual experience.

    Now as for why I interpret it that way, there are also proof texts againsts Calvinism, like 1 Tim 2:3-4. But then Calvinists can find interpretations of those texts that make them compatible with Calvinism. Ultimately I don’t think the free will question can be answered from scripture alone. But that’s OK, because I’m not a protestant and don’t need to answer questions from scripture alone. There is also sacred tradition and general revelation through nature and the moral law inscribed in all of us. And there is a Church guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting it all. So I’m quite comfortable with ruling out interpretations on non-scriptural grounds. This doesn’t empty the passage of all content. I still learn that failures in the virtue of faith lead to strong delusions which can be fatal for salvation. And I learn to be careful about the semantic distinction between natural consequences and acts of God. Both lessons are hard enough to swallow. But there is no need to add in Calvinism.

  • What is faith? Adherence to any metaphysical first principle / axiom.

    Atheism and theism are as much based on faith insofar as there is no straightforward empirical or logical way to prove one or the other is right. By their own axioms they call themselves right. And by their own axioms they call each other wrong.

    And of course allowing for empirical or logical standards for knowing is itself a metaphysical move requiring faith; in senses and reason, in an external reality that is real, etc. Because we literally can’t think without these first principles, everyone has them.