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Is faith blind?

by Findo on October 4th, 2010
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There’s a common mantra, or perhaps dogma that is oft heard from evangelical Atheists: Faith is blind. Professor Richard Dawkins defines faith as belief that isn’t based on evidence‘. In his best-seller The God Delusion, he puts it:

“The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification.”

It’s worth noting that he wrote that after having been already highly criticised for earlier sentiments. His Oxford colleague Alisdair McGrath wrote:

“As a professional historical theologian, I have no hesitation in asserting that the classic Christian tradition has always valued rationality, and does not hold that faith involves the complete abandonment of reason or believing in the teeth of the evidence. Indeed, the Christian tradition is so consistent on this matter that it is difficult to understand where Dawkins has got the idea of faith as ‘blind trust’ “

Alban McCoy puts it like this:

‘there is no reason without faith, and no faith without reason: they are inextricably connected. They appear disjointed and opposed only when reason is understood in the narrow sense of positivism and faith is understood in the narrow sense of fideism.’

Galileo Galilei wrote :

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”

(Indeed, Peter Williams shows how Dawkins is ‘guilty’ of the same kind of faith that he derides theists for having.)

Of course, some faith is blind. I could have fervent faith that I will win the lottery. But that is not to say that all faith is blind. To just assert that faith is ‘a belief without evidence’ (or despite the evidence, or that joys in lack of evidence) and then apply it to a Christian who speaks of faith is nothing but the fallacy of equivocation. I’ve heard some protest that if you believe based on evidence, then it’s not faith, but that’s nothing more than restating the previous definition that faith is belief with no evidence – a circular argument! Seeing as ‘faith’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘trust’, the objection that faith is not the same as trust is completely baseless. How scholarly is it to take a definition that suits your agenda, and despite massive protest, force it onto people who use the term differently? Dawkins is not the only culprit, but is no doubt partly to blame for the assurance with which many other evangelical Atheists trot out the axiom and refuse to consider that it may not be correct.

In fact, one might even argue that Dawkins’ position is a case of blind faith – adherence to a belief despite the evidence. As Chris Knight writes:

But because Dawkins discusses various arguments for God’s existence, he should be aware that religious faith can be based on argument. He may reject those arguments as false, but that does not change the fact that his own definition of faith is limited. Even if someone has a bad reason for believing in something like homoeopathy or acupuncture (perhaps because it seemed to cure their Aunt Mildred of her warts), they are not then accepting it unquestioningly – they just may not have looked at all the evidence or at the right sort of evidence.

Too many seem to be confused into thinking that because they don’t find an argument or certain evidence persuasive, that there is no evidence.

My faith is based on a culmination of philosophical arguments and reasoning, historical evidence and personal experience (though it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into any detail on that). That is by no means blind. Someone may not find my reasons persuasive, but that doesn’t make them non-existent any more than Ken Ham’s rejection of evolution makes the evidence for it non-existent. If we look at the range of possible meanings in the dictionary, one of them explicitly refers to Christian faith:

Christian Theology . the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved.

My faith is trust in what Christ has done in history. Which leads to my next point: It’s all very well to point to historical understandings of the connection of faith and reason, and to point to my own, but what about the Bible? “Doesn’t it applaud un-evidenced belief over evidenced?” I hear some object. Well, I think the bible is in agreement with the dictionary (or is the other way around?) that Christian faith is trust in what Jesus has done.

In several places the apostle John appeals to witness testimony as reason to believe: John 19:35; John 20:30-31; while Luke, whom the great early C20th archaeologist Sir William Ramsey noted was ‘a historian of the first rank’, begins his two-volume work with:

1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

(See my recent post for more on archaeology and Luke).

Far from having ‘glory’ in lack of ‘rational justification’, the gospel writers point explicitly to rational justification and the witness testimony. Far from telling their readers that they don’t need evidence, they point to the evidence and testimony as reason to believe. See also Luke’s record of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, and note the way he refers to: the evidence of the miracles of Jesus; the empty tomb; and the fulfilment of prophecy. Peter is certainly not just telling the crowd to ‘simply believe’ or have ‘blind faith’.

Even the apostle Paul shares this view. In his letter to the Church in Corinth, the earliest textual reference to the resurrection, he writes:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope  in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Paul’s appeal to faith is grounded firmly in an historical resurrection, otherwise it’s pointless and we who have faith are to be objects of pity. That is hardly celebrating a belief without evidence.

I suppose the Apostle Thomas gets a bit of a bad rap, John having famously recorded him saying:

Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.

I tend to think that any one of the other 10 would have said the same thing if they’d missed out on the first appearance to the disciples too.  In fact, I suspect I would have said exactly what Thomas did. We must be careful with Jesus’ response:

Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

It’s no coincidence that John bookends this incident with the testimony of Peter and the beloved disciple and of Mary on the one side, and John’s summary mentioned above, that these things are written so that we can believe. It’s hard then to think that Jesus was telling  Thomas that he was wrong to ask for confirmation, but rather, we see Jesus, (and John) pointing to the testimony of witnesses, to which future generations will turn. Again, rather than belittle evidence and reason, John is using it as a basis for faith.

Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge, a highly distinguished classicist argues that the disciples’ insistence on knowing the details and truth about Jesus actually led to a change in the way ancient historians operated, leading towards today’s ideals:

Professor Judge: History and testimony from CPX on Vimeo.

Another significant passage on faith is Hebrews 11, with it’s well known opening lines:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Again, we must be careful not assume what it’s saying, but too look at the context. The writer’s usage of ‘now’ to start the sentence indicates that he’s building on a theme, and indeed, if we look back at chapter 10 the writer speaks of assurance of faith and confidence based on what Christ has done on the cross. Chapter 11 is sometimes called the ‘hall of fame’ as the writer points to the faith of the great Old Testament heroes. While the writer notes that many of them died before the promises of God were fulfilled, they acted in faith – trust in God’s faithfulness, based on what he had done in the past. It is why, then, at the beginning of chapter 12 he writes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

It is precisely because of this great number of witnesses to God’s faithfulness that he’s just listed that he urges his reader to continue trusting in the promises of God – precisely because the founder of our faith is Jesus and what he did on the cross. Once again, far from being an encouragement of ‘blind faith’ Hebrews points to the witness and evidence of the past as the foundation of faith. (I’m sure someone with knowledge of the greek could say how pistis used here relates to the root peitho and proof)

So then, we see that it is not only the classic Christian tradition that understands faith to be based on reason and evidence, but that it is the biblical writers themselves who advocate this view. Professor Dawkins apparently wrote to his daughter:

And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

The next time someone like Professor Dawkins tries to tell me that Christian faith is ‘belief not based on evidence’ I might just have to ask ‘what kind of evidence is there for that?’ because as far as I can see, the evidence points decisively to the opposite conclusion.

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