I’m going to begin this blog pulling no punches.
If you define faith as ‘believing something without evidence or reason’, I think ‘faith’ is stupid.
It’s not wise, it’s not humble, it’s not a virtue. It’s just a lazy crutch to hold onto beliefs without any reason to do so.
But I don’t think that’s really what most people, deep down, consider faith to be, nor do I think that’s the primary focus of faith when used in The Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.
Consider this usage; ‘I have faith in my mother’. What do I mean by that?
I think it’s clear I’m articulating something much richer than ‘I believe in my mother without evidence or reason’, in fact I’m not saying that at all. I’m expressing hope and trust in my mother to deliver, to come through. My mother’s existence isn’t in question, nor is there any suggestion my faith must be baseless.
It’s a statement of trust.
See, I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a while because I really don’t like what ‘faith’ has come to mean or the way it’s employed to justify unsupported beliefs. Because faith is so much more than that.
But first, let’s start with some Logic 101…
Before we can discuss why the ‘belief without evidence’ definition of faith is so damaging, it seems necessary to go over some basic points of logic.
In theory, these shouldn’t be contentious, but it’s a strange world with many weird beliefs, so let’s go step-by-step.
1. You need reason/evidence to believe things
This one should really be indisputable.
It’s for this reason the statements ‘My wooden door used to be an alien made of wood’ and ‘We need oxygen to breathe’ aren’t equal. One is supported by evidence, one is not.
If you don’t need a reason to believe something, then you could literally believe whatever you want.
‘My dad used to be a T Rex.’
‘The sun is actually a hologram.’
‘The position of the stars can help us predict our futures’.
All equally ridiculous.
But, in reality, I don’t think most people who say this really mean it. I think, instead, they’re arguing that some beliefs don’t need to be held to the same standard of certainty as others. That, somehow, we’re impoverished if we insist on certainty in all aspects of our lives.
This is a little more palatable, and not without some merit. After all, many of us suppose the existence of an objective morality, even if there is little evidence of such objectivity existing, because it is pragmatic to do so.
Nevertheless, if you are to argue a set of beliefs ought to be exempt from needing support, you need to make the case why.
In the case of religions and superstitions, it’s not really clear.
Sure, there are attempts. Alvin Plantinga argues that religious claims are ‘properly basic’, and Wittgenstein would argue religion is exempt from fact-based criticism because believers are using a language unintelligible to those outside of it.
However, I think few of us would actually agree with this, and philosopher Stephen Law has written a solid critique of the Wittgenstein defence which you can read here.
When pressed, most of us would concede we do need to have a reason to believe something.
2. Not being able to disprove something doesn’t make it equally likely as not
Often in debates about the existence of God, a believer will say ‘you cannot disprove there’s a God.’
This is true, but it does not make the existence of God equally likely as his non-existence. There are lots of things that are obviously nonsense but can’t be disproved.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell used the example of a teapot, orbiting the sun, too small to be seen by a telescope. Even though we cannot disprove there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, we’d consider someone eccentric indeed for believing there was one.
3. Something being unexplained doesn’t make unlikely ideas more likely
This is a strange one, but sometimes people might point out something unexplained or unknowable, and then use that as justification for believing a whole load of nonsense as a result.
I’ve written at length on this fallacy here but, simply put, having gaps in our knowledge does not justify filling it with whatever bullshit we so choose. As argued before, a humble agnosticism seems the rational default approach.
And so to faith…
A definition of ‘faith’ which means believing without evidence or reason actively defies the first point, and will often use the second and third in its reasoning.
In other words, it is completely flawed.
But, as I said earlier, I don’t think this is a helpful definition of faith, in fact I don’t think it’s a concept that would be very familiar to the authors of the Christian sacred texts at all….
What did ‘faith’ mean to the writers of scripture?
One thing it’s all too easy to overlook is how our modern framework and context can give entirely new meaning to our language.
When we break down the definition of religious ‘faith’ that I so hate – ‘belief in God without evidence or reason’, you begin to see it has a distinct post-Enlightenment vibe about it.
1. Assumes the existence of God is in question, which has not been the case for many cultures throughout history
2. Places significance on the idea of ‘evidence’ and ‘reason’ as the usual standard by which we gather our knowledge
But that’s a modern reading.
It only makes sense to talk of ‘evidence’ in a post-scientific revolution world where empiricism is generally accepted.
In other words, to many cultures throughout history, that definition would simply be alien, not least to the biblical writers (I’m keeping my scope focused entirely on the Judeo-Christian tradition because I’ve already bitten off more than I can chew!)
In an interesting piece on the use of the Hebrew word Emunah (faith) in the Torah, Dr Menachem Kellner argues that faith means trust in God, not a belief in certain propositions.
Claiming his point is neither new nor controversial, he argues:
‘…the basic, root meaning of emunah is trust and reliance, not intellectual acquiescence in the truth of certain propositions.’
And when we enter the New Testament there is still little evidence that the writers were concerned with justifying the existence of God or urging their readers to have ‘faith’ despite what they see.
In fact, there are scripture that make it clear that, in the writer’s view, belief in God is entirely reasonable.
Romans 1:20 – For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
No appeal to blind faith there!
Other verses even demand believers be ready to give justification for why they believe what they do.
1 Peter 3:15 – Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
I’m not trying to argue that the biblical definition of faith is somehow definitive and the only one, but simply want to show that our usage of it now is, in many ways, a modern construct.
It’s not that belief in God wasn’t a necessary part of faith, but it wasn’t the focus, it was simply assumed, and trying to twist ‘faith’ into an excuse for not giving a reason for your belief in the 21st Century is forcing the word to have an entirely different intention.
Faith throughout history
It’s hard to track exactly how the definition of faith changed throughout the centuries.
Certainly Greek philosophers struggled with the relationship between reason and faith, but in a very different way to how we see the struggle today.
The likes of Plato and Aristotle believed in rationalism, the view that reason and deduction are the chief sources of knowledge, as opposed to sensory experience, and so their discussions are dissimilar to the ones we have in the modern world.
But as we started to shift away from rationalism and metaphysical explanations to empiricism, the fixed natural laws of physics and astronomy in the 17th and 18th Century, and then further challenged still by the revelations of geology, biology, psychology etc. in the 19th, the distinction between faith and reason/evidence becomes much more familiar.
We see the birth of science vs religion, and eventually the use of ‘faith’ as being distinct from needing reason or, particularly, evidence.
Brrr, I hate that definition SO much.
Throughout history, faith has been seen as a virtue by many, but what is meant by ‘faith’ has continued to evolve and change.
The modern definition that understands it as ‘to believe without reason or evidence’ is perhaps the least sophisticated we have come up with.
In much the same way our strict understanding of the distinctions between history and story paradoxically lead to unsophisticated literal readings of scripture, so to does the sharper focus on evidence and reason cause some to pervert the true meaning of faith.
Faith should be a hope and trust in some goodness beyond yourself, transcending certainty – not in spite of reason, but because of it!
It is not, however, a lazy licence to believe whatever rubbish you want and excusing yourself from having to justify it.
Lose the excuse. Keep the faith.