Thursday, September 24, 2015

Conflating Faith With Faith

Kyle Butt cautions Christians against using the standard dictionary definition of faith.  Christians, understandably, don't want to be seen as believing without sufficient evidence.  They love to tell themselves that their faith requires, and is justified by evidence that is overwhelming and irrefutable.  But the dictionary defines faith as belief without evidence, not because of some ideological motivation to subvert the true nature of faith, but because that is, after all, what we generally mean when we use the word.

This was the case when the New Testament was written.  Hebrews Chapter 11 discusses the nature of religious faith, starting with a definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  This passage eloquently captures the real nature of religious faith.  It is something that we want to be true, but can't justify by means of empirical evidence.  This idea is amplified in the remainder of the chapter, and it agrees with the modern dictionary definition.  This is the faith of Abraham, when he offered his son for sacrifice, having no reason other than his faith to believe that the son would be spared.  This is the kind of faith that is pleasing to God, according to The Book.

But there is another definition to be found in the dictionary: trust or confidence.  And this is often the fallback position of Christians who have been accused of believing without evidence.  When used in this sense, faith is generally based on having good reason or evidence to support a belief.  For example, I might say that I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.  This is not the kind of blind trust exhibited by Abraham.  It is based on knowledge and evidence.

But no Christian wants to be seen as having beliefs without epistemic justification.  So they insist that their religious faith is fully justified, and even try to turn the tables on non-believers by accusing them of lacking justification for what they believe.  This is why many Christians will proclaim "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist."  It is the idea that their own belief is fully justified by reason and evidence, and that the non-believer must ignore all this and make a "leap of faith" to conclude that there is no God.  However, Kyle Butts argues that using the word 'faith' in this manner undermines the true Christian definition of faith.
The false view that faith is “a leap in the dark” without adequate evidence is the concept that Christians have in mind when they say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. According to a proper definition of biblical faith, however, it is only because of the rational justification and logical evidence available that true Christians hold to their beliefs (see Miller, 2003). What it takes to be an atheist is not biblical faith. To be an atheist, a person must choose to completely deny the concept of biblical faith and adopt an irrational allegiance to that which has been repeatedly disproven.
Butts ignores the discussion in Hebrews, and cherry-picks or cites other biblical passages that can arguably be construed to support the notion of faith being based on reason, despite the fact that those passages don't even use the word 'faith'.  He even claims that belief in God and the resurrection of Jesus are based on "infallible proofs".  And it is in the face of these infallible proofs that the atheist must defiantly abandon reason and ignore the evidence to conclude that there is no God.

So what are these infallible proofs?  As to the existence of God, the single reason most often cited by theists, and also by Butts, is the evidence of design in the universe, and in the creatures of the earth.  He cites Romans 1:20.  “For since the creation of the world His [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”  It is easy to see how theists view nature as evidence for design, but to call it infallible proof is something else altogether.  The simple fact that there are naturalist explanations for the way things are refutes that.  Theists may reject these explanations, but their mere possibility tells us that theists' so-called proof is not infallible.  In fact, science tells us that naturalist explanations are more than mere possibilities.  They are amply supported by objective evidence, unlike the design hypothesis, which is based on - wait for it - faith.  That's right - their belief is based on evidence , but the evidence is believed because of faith.

What about belief in the resurrection?  What infallible proof do Christians have?  They have the stories of the New Testament.  That's all.  Nothing more.  These legendary tales are hearsay, passed down by word of mouth for a number of decades before they were committed to writing.  The oldest of the gospel stories, never even mentions a virgin birth or resurrection (the current ending of Mark doesn't appear in the oldest manuscripts, but was added later, according to the best scholarship).  The gospels, when taken in chronological order, tell a progressively more embellished tale about the divine nature of Jesus, and include many points of disagreement between them.  So this is what they call infallible proof?  They believe the evidence, not due to any epistemic justification, but simply because of their faith.  And if I don't buy it, I'm the one who is making an irrational leap?

What we have here is a conflation of two different kinds of faith.  Faith of the first kind is belief without epistemic justification, and faith of the second kind is trust based on epistemic justification.  Butts wants us to abandon the use of the word 'faith' in the first sense, because he insists, as do many other Christians, that his belief is not only fully justified, it is based on infallible proof - and therefore it is irrational to deny it.  This, despite the fact that an objective evaluation of the evidence leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.

I prefer to abandon the use of 'faith' in the second sense, mainly because the first sense is most commonly used, even among Christians who still believe what Hebrews says, and who haven't got the memo from those who insist on the dogmatic position that religious faith must be based on reason.  Let's just call faith what it is: belief without epistemic justification.  That agrees with what Boghossian says about it: "pretending to know things you don't know", and it also agrees with what the bible says about it: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen".  It is what Christians think they mean when they say "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist".  Not to mention the primary dictionary definition: "belief that does not rest on logical or material evidence". 

Even though Christian apologists would prefer to use the word in the second sense (or something approximating it), that leads to confusion and disagreement over what they mean.  And Victor Reppert only confuses the issue further by bringing in his own definition of faith as something that would apply to all beliefs, regardless of whether or not they have epistemic justification.  I think we should avoid all this confusion and conflation, and just use the word 'faith' in its most common sense.  Christians shouldn't be ashamed of it.  They should embrace it.  That's what is demanded by their own bible.  "But without faith it is impossible to please him" - Hebrews 11:6.  And despite their sincere belief that their faith is based on evidence, that belief is itself a leap of faith.

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