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faith

There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, Faith is believing what you know ain't so. --Mark Twain, Following the Equator, "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar"

No faith dies because it is unreasonable, but only because the instincts which it has satisfied find more complete and permanent gratification in other directions. --Amy E. Tanner, Studies in Spiritism (1910)

Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief. A belief is contrary to the sum of the evidence if there is overwhelming evidence against the belief, e.g., that the earth is flat, hollow, or is the center of the universe. A belief is also contrary to the sum of the evidence if the evidence seems equal both for and against the belief, yet one commits to one of the two or more equally supported propositions.

A common misconception regarding faith—or perhaps it is an intentional attempt at disinformation and obscurantism—is made by Christian apologists, such as Dr. Richard Spencer, who wrote the following:

A statement like "There is no god, and there can't be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes" cannot be supported by the scientific method and is a statement of faith, not science (Richard Spencer, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis and faculty adviser to the Christian Student Union. Quoted in The Davis Enterprise, Jan. 22, 1999).

The error or deception here is to imply that anything that is not a scientific statement, i.e., one supported by evidence marshaled forth the way scientists do in support of their scientific claims, is a matter of faith. To use 'faith' in such a broad way is to strip it of any theological significance the term might otherwise have.

Such a conception of faith treats belief in all non-empirical statements as acts of faith. Thus, belief in the external world, belief in the law of causality, or belief in the fundamental principles of logic, such as the principle of contradiction or the law of the excluded middle, would be acts of faith on this view. There seems to be something profoundly deceptive and misleading about lumping together as acts of faith such things as belief in the Virgin birth and belief in the existence of an external world or in the principle of contradiction. Such a view trivializes religious faith by putting all non-empirical claims in the same category as religious faith. In fact, it would be more appropriate to put religious faith in the same category as belief in superstitions, fairy tales, and delusions.

Physicist Bob Park explains this difference in a way even the most devious casuist should understand. The Oxford Concise English Dictionary, he notes, gives two distinct meanings for faith:

 "1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof." A scientist's "faith" is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word "faith," therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.*

There are reasons for trusting science and there are reasons for religious convictions, but the reasons for our trust in science are called evidence and the reasons for our religious convictions all reduce to hope. William James, a scientist and a man of faith, understood this distinction well. In his essay "The Will to Believe," James opines that the evidence for a god and an afterlife equals the evidence for non-belief and that his hope is for survival of the soul. In science when the evidence is equal for two opposing propositions, James argued, we should suspend judgment until the scales are tipped to one side or the other. We don't make a leap of faith in such cases, hoping our favored hypothesis is true. When we do give our assent to one scientific hypothesis over another it is because the evidence compels it, not because we hope it is true.

an erroneous view of faith

If we examine Dr. Spencer's claims, the error of his conflation of two senses of 'faith' should become obvious. He claims that the statement 'there is no god and there can't be a god; everything evolved from purely natural processes' is a statement of faith. There are three distinct statements here. One, 'there is no god'. Two, 'there can't be a god'. And three, 'everything evolved from purely natural processes'. Dr. Spencer implies that each of these claims is on par with such statements as 'there is a god', 'Jesus is our lord and savior', 'Jesus's mother was a virgin', 'a piece of bread may have the substance of Jesus's physical body and blood', 'The God of Abraham is one being but three persons', and the like.

The statement 'there cannot be a god' is not an empirical statement. Anyone who would make such a claim would make it by arguing that a particular concept of god contains contradictions and is, therefore, meaningless. For example, to believe that 'some squares are circular' is a logical contradiction. Circles and squares are defined so as to imply that circles can't be square and squares can't be circular. James Rachels, for one, has argued that god is impossible, but at best his argument shows that the concepts of an all-powerful god and one who demands worship from his creations are contradictory. The concept of worship, Rachels argues, is inconsistent with the God of Abraham (AG) concept.

Rachels makes an argument. Some find it convincing; others don't. But it seems that his belief is not an act of faith in the same sense that it is an act of faith to belief in the Incarnation, the trinity, transubstantiation, or the virgin birth. The first three articles of faith are on par with believing in round squares. They require belief in logical contradictions. Virgin births, we now know, are possible, but the technology for the implantation of fertilized eggs did not exist two thousand years ago. The belief in the Virgin birth entails the belief that AG miraculously impregnated Mary with himself. Such a belief defies experience but not logic. The Virgin birth is conceivable (to make a bad pun), unlike the Trinity.

All arguments regarding these articles of faith are quite distinct from Rachel's argument. To defend these articles of faith, the best one can hope for is to show that they cannot be shown to be false. However, the consequence of arguing that logical contradictions may nevertheless be true, seems undesirable. Such a defense requires the abandonment of the very logical principles required to make any argument and is therefore self-annihilating. The fact that arguments such as Rachel's and those defending articles of religious faith are not empirical or resolvable by scientific methods hardly makes them equally matters of faith.

The statement 'there is no god' is quite different from the claim that there can't be a god. The latter makes a claim regarding possibility; the former is an actuality or existential claim. I doubt that there are many theologians or Christian apologists who would claim that all their faith amounts to is a belief in the possibility of this or that. One can believe there is no god because there can't be a god, but one might also disbelieve--i.e., reject as untrue--the existense of any god while admitting the possibility of AG or any other god. Disbelief in gods is analogous to disbelief in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny. Yet, those who believe in Bigfoot and Nessie, for example, aren't known for claiming they believe out of faith. To say you have faith in Bigfoot or faith in Nessie sounds ludicrous. Believers in Bigfoot think there is good evidence for their belief. Disbelievers argue that the evidence is not strong at all and does not deserve assent to the proposition that Bigfoot exists. Disbelievers in Bigfoot do not disbelieve as an act of faith; they disbelieve because the evidence is not persuasive. Belief in a god, on the other hand, could be either an act of faith or a belief based on conclusions from evidence and argument. If the theistic belief is an act of faith then the one holding the belief either thinks the evidence against belief outweighs or equals the evidence for belief, or the belief is held without regard for evidence at all. Otherwise, the belief is not an act of faith but of belief that the evidence is stronger for belief than against.

naturalism

Another scientist, physicist Paul Davies, represents another kind of deceptive misconception of faith: that science and religion are equally grounded in 'faith'. Here is how he puts it:

...science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified. ("Taking Science on Faith," New York Times, Nov. 24, 2007)

The claim that the assumptions of science are of the same kind as the belief in the trinity, the virgin birth, or the existence of God is as wrong as Dr. Spencer's belief that the claim that 'everything evolved from natural processes' is an act of faith. Davies uses 'faith' to refer to beliefs that are uncertain or can't be proved to be necessarily true, but that is not the essential characteristic of religious faith. We can't prove that it is necessarily true that the laws of nature won't change drastically tomorrow, but that doesn't make the countless instances of experienced order and pattern by countless individuals of no evidential importance. Assuming that invisible green angels move objects to appear as if gravity were real is not on par with assuming there are laws of nature. Neither can be proved to be necessarily true but the latter is backed by evidence in support of it. To lump evidence-based belief with beliefs not based on any evidence as both being faith-based is absurd.

If the only alternatives are that everything evolved from either supernatural or natural forces, and one is unconvinced by the arguments and evidence presented by those who believe in supernatural forces, then logically the only reasonable belief is that everything evolved from natural forces. Only if the evidence supporting a supernatural being were superior or equal to the evidence and arguments against such a belief, would belief that everything evolved from natural forces be a matter of faith.

Those of us who are atheists and believe that everything evolved from natural forces nearly universally maintain that theists and supernaturalists have a very weak case for their belief, weaker even than the case for Bigfoot, Nessie, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. But, more important, we are convinced by the overwhelming nature of the evidence that natural forces have brought about the universe as we know it. Thus, our disbelief in a supernatural creator is not an act of faith, and therefore, not non-rational as are those of theists and Christian apologists. However, if Christian apologists insist on claiming that science is faith-based or that their version of Christianity and the rejections of their views are equally acts of faith, I will insist that the apologists have a non-rational faith, while their opponents have a rational faith. Though I think it would be less dishonest and less misleading to admit that atheists and naturalists do not base their beliefs on faith in any sense close to that of religious faith.

See also atheism, gods, Santa Claus, and theism.

reader comments

further reading

Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, translated, with an introduction and notes by Anton C. Pegis (University of Notre Dame press, 1997).

Rachels, James. "God and Human Attitudes," in Religious Studies 7 (1971). Reprinted in Philosophy and the Human Condition, 2nd. ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1989), pp. 509-518.

Last updated 22-Jan-2014

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