In an earlier post, I discussed my issues with faith, in the sense of believing that which is unsupported by evidence (such as believing that a global flood occurred, or that Earth is only several thousand years old). However, there are some objections that I commonly hear when criticizing faith: “That’s not what faith means! Faith is about hope/loyalty/trust.” “Nothing is certain; all beliefs require faith.” “You have faith your wife/brother/friend/etc. loves you.” I will address each of these arguments in turn.
“That’s not what faith means! Faith is about hope/loyalty/trust.”
There is a critical issue with this sort of defense: I am not criticizing the word faith itself. I am criticizing the act of believing that which is unsupported by evidence, for which I use the word “faith” as a label. If someone changes the definition assigned to the word “faith” and then defends that, my argument has not been addressed; it has been sidestepped entirely. An argument in defense of faith is meaningless if it uses a different definition for the word than I am.
To hammer the point home, here are some examples of the word “faith” being used to describe believing that which is unsupported by evidence, which is the behavior I am criticizing (Credit to Adam Lee’s Thoughts in Captivity for collection of quotes):
“The Bible is preserved, reliable, and true because of the nature of its Author. It should be believed over observation and evidence.”
—Kurt Wise, Faith, Form, and Time, p.26. Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2002.
“Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.”
—William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 36. Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1994 (revised edition).
“If the conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”
—Tom Porch and Brad Batdorf, Biology for Christian Schools (3rd edition). BJU Press, 2004. Available online at BJU Press.
“By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”
—From Answers in Genesis’ “Statement of Faith” (available online at http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/about/faith.asp)
“To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it…”
—Ignatius of Loyola, “Spiritual Exercises” (available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ignatius/exercises.html)
“After ten years (in prison in Siberia), [Dostoevsky] emerged from exile with unshakable Christian convictions, as expressed in one famous passage, ‘If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth… then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.’”
—Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 141. Zondervan Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.
When faith is used in this context, it obviously bears the definition I assigned it earlier: Belief in that which is unsupported by evidence (or even contradicted by it!). Where is the virtue in this? What is admirable about believing something is true even if reality contradicts it? Reasonable people are not impressed by those who stubbornly insist that the Earth is flat no matter how much evidence is presented to them. Why, then, should an unreasonable adherence to falsehood suddenly become laudable just because said falsehood was written in an ancient book?
Number of adherents does not matter, either; error does not become virtue by majority vote. Though it may have been understandable if most people hundreds of years ago believed the sun orbited Earth, the virtuous path when confronted with contradictory evidence is to revise your beliefs to match, not to cling to revealed error with even more tenacity. It is accuracy, not confidence, that makes beliefs virtuous.
“Nothing is certain; all beliefs require faith.”
This argument is true in a technical sense; nothing is absolutely certain. However, this argument is disingenuous in that it implies that since absolute certainty does not exist, all beliefs are therefore equal (a position typically espoused in relativism and solipsism). The simplest response to this, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, is to note that no one seems to think all beliefs are equal when deciding whether to leave their house through the front door or the window on the second floor.
Sure, it’s technically possible everything we believe and all available evidence is wrong. It could be that the Bible is completely true and all evidence to the contrary is simply deception planted by Satan. It’s also possible that we’re all trapped in the Matrix and everything we think we know is simply a computer simulation. But that does not mean either possibility is even remotely plausible and should be taken seriously. We could spend forever arguing in circles about the essentially infinite number of absurd, unfalsifiable, and unlikely scenarios it’s possible to dream up, or we could accept reality and the evidence it presents, and disregard that which contradicts it (such as the Bible).
“But wait,” a theist might say. “Even if we live in a world of probabilities instead of certainties, and you prefer to believe that which is probable instead of ridiculously improbable (Okay, I doubt any theists would use those words), doesn’t the fact that your beliefs are still not certain mean that it still requires at least a small amount of faith to hold them?” To which I will respond in my final segment:
“You have faith your wife/brother/friend/etc. loves you.”
This argument is akin to the previous in that it highlights the fact that human relationships are rife with uncertainties. Even our closest friends and family can betray or disappoint us from time to time. So doesn’t it take faith to trust people (and since trusting people is good, therefore so is faith)?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that trusting people does indeed require faith. Now, let’s examine a hypothetical situation: We’re under a tight deadline, and need someone to go out and buy something for us and bring it back as quickly as possible. We have the choice of either asking for this favor from Andrew, a friend well known for being intelligent, efficient, and trustworthy; or Brian, a flaky, forgetful person well known for getting sidetracked and lost. Given that this is an important favor we need done as quickly as possible, would we rather be counting on Andrew or Brian to come through for us?
My point should be clear: Even in the uncertainty of human relationships, we count on reason and evidence to make decisions with a higher probability of achieving the results we want. While it could be argued that it takes faith to rely on either Andrew or Brian, given the circumstances it would take significantly more faith to trust that Brian is reliable than Andrew, and any reasonable person would thus prefer to be relying on Andrew.
In other words: We use evidence to take the path of least faith, and thus treat faith as something to be avoided.
This demolishes the goal of the argument of “you have faith in people”, which is to try and establish faith as virtuous. Even if we grant that human relationships require some measure of faith, we still make decisions based on evidence to minimize our reliance on faith as much as possible. Faith is treated not as a virtue to be embraced, but a last resort that we only count on when we have no other choice. And most importantly, faith is treated as inferior to evidence.
And so I reiterate: When faith is treated as a vice or something to be avoided in all other circumstances, why should we turn around and suddenly regard it as a virtue when discussing religious beliefs?
The very fact that religions tend to demand people embrace faith should be a cause for concern, and a massive red flag that their associated claims won’t stand up to logical scrutiny.