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Ignominiously Defining (Faith)

In Christianity & Atheism, Ignominiously Defining on June 22, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

As it happens, I have spent a fair amount of time discussing and debating God with atheists. Popular books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, among others, have provided more heat to the ongoing dialogue, but not much light. These books (not to mention blogs and internet atheist discussion boards) pretty consistently try to define faith as “belief without evidence.” However, that isn’t faith in a Christian context and doesn’t conform to standard dictionary definitions. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as

“a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

“b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

For the Christian (at least), faith is confident belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t relate to a set of propositions at all and thus evidence as to the truth or falsity of such propositions is manifestly irrelevant. That is not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist, however.

The Bible’s view of faith is consistent with this approach.  Some atheist apologists will point to Heb. 11:1-2 (“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”) to support their claim that faith really means belief without evidence or in spite of the evidence.  Yet the heroes of faith “roll call” that follows for the rest of the chapter includes hero after hero who had directly experienced God and seen Him in action, suggesting that faith allows more confidence than the evidence might otherwise allow, not that there is no evidence.  Those same critics often point to Thomas and his failure to believe in the resurrection without seeing Jesus firsthand (John 20:29:  “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'”) as further basis for their preferred definition of faith.  Yet Thomas wasn’t criticized for not believing without evidence.  He was criticized for not taking Jesus at His word with respect to His resurrection.   

The unsupported claim that faith is belief without evidence is a purported argument disguised as a definition.  And it’s a pretty lousy argument at that.

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9 Responses to “Ignominiously Defining (Faith)”

  1. You just cited the support. Heb. 11:1-2. And your textual criticism might deflate the claim — arguably — but it is not strong enough to defeat it, for various reasons.

    But let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re right in saying that there’s countervailing evidence. What would that tell us?

    Nothing, I think. The Bible is full of contradictions — it is a library, not a book of chapters. And the tradition represented by that library — along with its internal contradictions — is rejuvenated generation after generation. Why is that? Because the contradictions have a purpose. You need rhetorical tools for all seasons: you need the Old Testament God when you want to use the stick, and the New Testament God when you want to use the carrot. You need a sense of blind faith when you’re emboldening those that are already converted, and reasoned or revealed faith when dealing with those who are in doubt or turmoil.

    • And your textual criticism might deflate the claim — arguably — but it is not strong enough to defeat it, for various reasons.

      What other textual support would you offer for the claim that faith should be defined as belief without evidence?

      With respect to your argument about the purposes of the Bible, I disagree less than you might think. Whatever one thinks about that question, it’s pretty clear to me that the claim that faith is belief without evidence is entirely specious.

  2. I’d like to focus on the bit you cited, because I think it’s important to be clear about our methods of interpretation and this provides a useful example. The point of any textual analysis at all, I take it, is not to stipulate how faith should be defined, but first and foremost to make an observation about how it is described as a matter of fact.

    What I am saying is that the counter-evidence you mentioned doesn’t alter the meaning of the passage, and it strictly speaking is even compatible with it. Just because God reveals Himself to a few select characters doesn’t mean that the definition of faith has been abandoned. It just means that the folks in the roll call have an easier time of it.

    That’s what I mean when I say you’ve at best deflated, but not defeated, the passage. I say “at best” because I’m not convinced that the argument even qualifies as a rebuttal.

    • The point of any textual analysis at all, I take it, is not to stipulate how faith should be defined, but first and foremost to make an observation about how it is described as a matter of fact.

      We agree.

      What I am saying is that the counter-evidence you mentioned doesn’t alter the meaning of the passage….

      I deny that it’s counter-evidence. Even if we agree that difference passages will serve different purposes and may even say significantly different things, I think the reading I propose makes the most sense for that passage alone (and even more sense in context with Scripture as a whole).

      Just because God reveals Himself to a few select characters doesn’t mean that the definition of faith has been abandoned. It just means that the folks in the roll call have an easier time of it.

      That reading doesn’t make sense because it holds up those who had “an easier time of it” as the examplars. They were heroes simply because they trusted God enough to do what He asked.

  3. But by the same token, that very passage you quote could be the exemplars and the roll call could be laudable exceptions. And that would be the most cogent reading for most people, since they lead fairly unexotic lives with mundane experiences, for whom faith must be drastically out of proportion with the evidence.

  4. To clarify, by “the passage you quote” I mean Heb 11.

  5. “But by the same token, that very passage you quote could be the exemplars and the roll call could be laudable exceptions.”

    Whose example is provided? If nobody’s, then you’re looking at a description followed by examples. Since the examples don’t support “without evidence,” the better explanation is the one I have offered.

    “And that would be the most cogent reading for most people, since they lead fairly unexotic lives with mundane experiences, for whom faith must be drastically out of proportion with the evidence.”

    You don’t get to evaluate the nature and quality of the evidence for anyone but yourself. I don’t think people generally accept things without reasons, so I suspect that believers generally don’t find their faith out of proportion to the evidence at all.

    • To be clear, it’s a description of prototypical cases, like robins to birds. And your roll-call gives us exceptional cases; penguins to birds. I believe that your claim that I need examples to make sense of the quoted passage is a method of ignoring what the text says. You have no error theory, in other words. I do. That’s what makes for the best explanation.

      “Evidence” does require an epistemology to work through. But it wrong to say that my judgments on objective matters of fact have a force that is limited to me. When I evaluate the evidence on some matter of fact, I am tacitly doing it for you, too. That’s why it’s so easy to resent someone who disagrees with you, simply and calmly, on some matter of fact.

      • To be clear, it’s a description of prototypical cases, like robins to birds.

        I don’t think that’s fair to the text on its face.

        But it wrong to say that my judgments on objective matters of fact have a force that is limited to me. When I evaluate the evidence on some matter of fact, I am tacitly doing it for you, too.

        Fair enough, but the argument is unaltered, I think.

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