Do you know the story of Sisyphus? He was a real fink of a king, who killed and tricked and seduced mortals, then also tricked the God of Death and locked him in hell. (So he couldn't come out, and collect the newly dead. Men would thus fight in wars, and no one would die.) The gods punished this duplicitous tyrant by making him roll a stone up a hill in Hades. Every time the stone almost reached the lip of the hill, it rolled back down again, and Sisyphus would have to start again from square one.
That is what it can feel like, explaining what Christians mean by "faith," to some atheists.
Heaven knows I've tried. Faith and Reason was the subject of chapters in two of my books, beginning with Jesus and the Religions of Man in 2000. Don't want to buy a book? I examined what dozens of great Christian thinkers from the 2nd Century to the 21st said about faith and reason, and wrote up an anthology of their insights, posting it on-line. ('Faith and Reason,' at christthetao.com.) When Victor Stenger criticized my take on faith, both in the Huffington Post and in one of his books, I responded pretty patiently on Amazon.
And what does the Bible teach about faith and reason? When Dawkins and PZ Myers and friends put on the "Reason Rally" in DC a few weeks ago, a dozen Christian writers put together a book called True Reason, explaining how Christian Faith really relates to Reason -- like two wings on a single bird, as Pope John Paul II put it. We were pretty much all in agreement. One of the chapters I wrote examined what the New Testament says about the subject.
From all this discussion, it seems clear that:
* By faith, Christians generally do NOT mean "believing without reason, or in the teeth of the evidence." Christian faith affirms reason. It claims to make sense. It claims to be supported by the facts. This is clearly true in the NT, and to great Christian thinkers down through the centuries, as well.
* My own definition of faith, subject to discussion, is "Holding firmly to, and acting on, what you have good reason to believe is so, in the face of difficulties." This definition fits (I think) what the Bible and most Christian tradition has said on the subject.
* Religious faith is part of a four-step continuum in how people come to know things. We trust in our minds, our sense, other people, and God. Each level of trust involves faith and reason, working together. Without faith, in this Christian sense, it is impossible to do taxes, mow the lawn, burp a baby, or get on a bus. In fact, the lower levels of faith can only tell us a few things about the world, while higher levels reveal the really big truths.
* The opposite of faith is not reason, it is one or another form of madness. The lunatic who thinks he is a poached egg, has lost the ability to rightly trust his own senses. A paranoid person has not lost his reason, he has lost his ability to reasonably trust people. An atheist is not someone who is more reasonable than the norm, she is someone who has lost or disabled her natural, healthy ability to trust God.
* Admittedly, it is possible to believe wrongly. In religion, misplaced trust is what Christians call "idolatry," "superstition," or "following a false prophet." In business, it's called "getting shafted." In love, it's called "adultery," or "shacking up with a loser." In politics, it's called "voting Democratic." (Sorry, my right hand pecked that one out while I was planning the next paragraph.)
That is why faith requires reason, and reason demands faith. Not only are the two not enemies, they are the closest of lovers.
* But many atheists continue to hold to their own idea of what Christian faith 'really' means, "not only without (much) evidence, but in the teeth of the evidence."
John Loftus and his buddies at Debunking Christianity have been taking shots at me the last few days on this subject. This is not because I'm the only one to make this point. My error seems to be an excess (strangely enough) of patience. I keep pushing that stone of truth up the hill of unbelief, trying to overcome this Nietzschean "will to believe" that Christian faith defends irrationality, by pure force of evidence and reason. But the other side has invested too many books in spreading the Great 21st Century Power-Meme. Reality must not reach the reasoning faculties at the top of their necks!
But let's try again. After all, it's only a rock. It's only a hill. One more time, for the Gipper.
This time, I'm responding to a fellow named Johnathan Pearse, whom Loftus has posted as a guest blogger. As usual, his comments are in dark green, mine in light black.
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Written by Johnathan Pearse
David: Part of the problem is that you are extracting these issues from their real world application and in a sense making them irrelevant.
I didn't notice that I was doing that. Certainly, no subject is more relevant to life in the real world.
Let's apply the faith vs reason to real life instances:
1. Do you have faith that unicorns exist?
2. Do you have faith that heaven exists?
3. Do you have faith that gravity will cause this pen to drop?
4. Do you have faith that intercessory prayer works?
This seems a confusing way to start. Jonathan is asking if I have something that he has not defined yet. Is he assuming the Christian meaning of faith, or the meaning skeptics commonly try to project on Christians?
Anyway, I'm surprising that when Jonathan looks for "real world" examples, unicorns are the first thing that come to mind. Why not, say, elm trees? Or the World Series? Or the Force of Gravity?
But then, Jon gets to gravity with (3). His other two examples are disputed Christian claims about reality. So apparently he wants to contrast these disputed Christian claims with an example that everyone accepts, and another example that everyone denies. All right, let's see what develops.
I presume the answer to the first question is no and second is yes. The third would also be yes.
It would be better to ask rather than presume. But again, let's play along.
What is the difference between 1 and 2? As mentioned earlier, it is evidence. Now some of this may be personal experience, but it is still experienced by you, the sensory animal.
Now I'm confused again. This "sensory animal" has had no personal experience of either heaven or of unicorns. So this would seem to be something that the two have in common.
The real differences between heaven and unicorns, for me, is that (a) I don't really care about unicorns, which for all I know frolic gaily on some planet in our or some other galaxy; (b) people who seem to know something about God and other worlds, and who have died and come back from death, like Jesus, tell me there is such a place as heaven; (b) there seems to be some experiential evidence for life outside of the body. But I have made claims about neither phenomena, nor am I prepared at the moment to back them up.
Let us look at 3. I have empirical and tested rational evidence that at every moment previously, the pen has fallen. using a method such as the scientific method I can establish that there is 'proof' that the pen will fall. It is not infallible (see the Problem of Induction) of course, but all it needs be is reliable.
The only reason I think Jonathan may have a pen, is he says he has one. He may just be illustrating his argument with a hypothetical claim. And I don't know the man, and am in no position to evaluate the possibility that he would make up a pen for the empty pleasure of deceiving gullible and random surfers of the net. Stranger things have happened.
But notice the kinds of faith he is exhibiting or asking us to exhibit, in these few comments. He is, in fact, neatly displaying all three of the lower forms of faith, in one paragraph.
First, he appeals to his own memory, one of his cognitive faculties. "I have tested. The pen has fallen."
His simple trust in his own memory seems rather naive. How has he tested his memory? Even by answering THAT question, Jonathan must appeal again to his own memory to access whatever he claims to know about the past, which is the issue in doubt. I, for one, cannot claim to have any knowledge even of the physical properties of my own brain that are involved in stories memories of past events -- still less to have any 'scientific' proof that a given memory is accurate.
Second, he implicitly appeals to the accuracy of his senses. He held the pen in his fingers, presumably, tactily sensing friction and pressure gradiants. He felt his fingers open, saw a blurry movement downwards, heard a slight "bonk" as it struck the carpet, then a slighter bonk as it bouced and hit again, then saw it roll to the left. Three senses, organs of sight, sound, and feeling made up of parts of immmense complexity and close fitting, three nerves shooting impulses into vastly complet interpretive centers behind the skull, tell him, "I saw it happen," like a Rube Goldberg machine with hundreds of parts that all need to work for him to "see" "hear" and "touch" -- all of which he takes on faith, it seems without a single question so much as raised.
Third, he is telling us what he (allegedly) experienced, asking us to trust, not our own mind and senses, but some person (or computer program? clever dog? ghost?) we 'meet' in the most tenuous sense 'on the Internet,' wherever that is. One hopes he is telling the truth. Perhaps someone else on Debunking Christianity can vouch for his character? Someone who is not a sock puppet? Someone who is herself trustworthy? If Debunking Christianity is a real site, with real persons behind it -- whatever a "person" is?
As it happens, I do think it is reasonable to have faith in these three sources of knowledge -- mind, senses, people -- but not such naive faith. One should ask a few questions, first. All three sources of information must be double-checked, and not all are always equally worthy of trust.
But I think it more likely than not, that a pen really did fall. And I think it more likely than not, that we live in a world in which pens usually fall, when unrestrained by gravity, and when God fails (for reasons of his own) to do a miracle. I believe that based on a vast series of inductions and experiences, implicitly tied at every single step to reasonable faith.
Looking at point 4, we know that, from testing it scientifically (which is a reliable method for attaining knowledge), then intercessory prayer does not work.
Actually, I don't know at all that prayer doesn't work. Neither do I know, from testing him not scientifically, but historically, that Jonathan usually tells the truth about his own experiments. Let us hope that he does.
Nor, of course, is it even possible to make such a generalization as "prayer doesn't work." Suppose it "works" sometimes, but not other times? Suppose God chooses to answer some prayers, but not the ones Jon thinks he knows about?
Nor, even if we admit (leaping like a frog over many difficult issues) that "scientific testing" (whatever that is) is "reliable," what does that mean? Does it mean scientific testing always works? That like the Genie in the Lamp, it can answer any question we ask?
Obviously not the latter. I doubt there is any "scientific" way of proving that "Jonathan never lies," for instance. One might test him in a laboratory for thirty years, and he might play along, knowing that he is being tested -- then cheat on his taxes when no one is watching. There is no "scientific" way of proving otherwise. There are only historical trends, and psychological inferences. You may think you know the man. You may know he would do no such thing. But that's not "science."
So even if scientific testing is valid, obviously it is not the only valid way of testing things, nor is it omnicompetent.
Is prayer more like dropping a pen, or like getting to know a person? If prayer involves communication with a sentient being -- God -- and if that Being is wiser than we are, then the answer is obvious. One CANNOT "test" God like one can gravity, by dropping a pen. One can't even test Jonathan so easily. That doesnt' mean one can't learn whether God, or Jon, is trustworthy. One can only think prayer is that easily disproven, by conflating "scientific evidence" with all kinds of reasoning, which is a very unreasonable thing to do.
But if your answer to 4 was yes, then your faith is despite the evidence, which brings us back to our original issue with faith vs reason. There is no evidence, but presupposition in the truth value of the claim that prayer works.
Jonathan is being terribly presumptuous. How does he know I haven't seen God answer prayer in remarkable ways? He is saying "there is no evidence," without having the slightest idea of why I, or other Christians, believe. In fact, Michael Shermer's extensive poll on why people believe, and my own more narrowly focused poll, show that faith generally IS tied to what the believer sees as good evidence.
For heaven, we know that the idea evolved such that it did not exist within the OT. The soul was an idea stolen from the Greeks of the Selucid Empire as they gave the Jews a hard time . . . It is far simpler (Ockham's Razor) and logically and scientifically consistent to posit that heaven does not exist. Since you are the one declaring in the affirmative, then the burden of proof is on you.
This argument seems even more presumptuous. Jonathan seems to have simply forgotten (and now one wonders about those cognitive faculties we have been discussing) that he introduced the idea of heaven. I didn't say anything about it, nor have I argued that it exists. (What would I know about the subject? Ask Jesus, not me.)
He also seems to be committing the popular genetic fallacy -- the reality of heaven is refuted by showing (he thinks) that its origin is somehow disreputable. Anyway, my beloved ancient Chinese famously said, "King Wen is in Heaven," sentiments the ancient Indians shared. So no, the Greeks did not invent the idea of the soul. Even to commit the genetic fallacy in a serious way, Jonathan needs to dig deeper, historically, and maybe into anthropology, as well.
Jonathan goes on (also very presumptuously) to make wild guesses about the source for those beliefs in heaven that I never so much as mentioned. This is exactly why faith, of the blind, credulous sort atheists far too often make us of (having defined themselves as rational without bothering to learn how to be rational in fact), needs to be closely examined with careful critical thinking.
Jonathan goes on to compare Christian faith to crossing a road with a blindfold on:
You, David, might say that in the first instance (ie, crossing a busy street blindfolded -- DM), God might save you. But even that has to be based on prior empirical experiences of God existing, of him stepping in on your behalf. Otherwise your faith would be entirely unwarranted (such as faith in Pegasus flying down and picking you up). Even that faith has a rational basis.
Now I'm really confused. Jonathan seems, now, to have hopped over to our side of the argument.
"Even that faith has a rational basis?" Yes, that's what we've been telling you.
As for crossing roads with blindfolds on, I do NOT do that, precisely because of my faith in Jesus. Jesus quite famously declined to jump off the temple, in the hopes that God would save him from dashing his feet agains the rocks: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," he told the temptor.
What did that mean? That God provides no evidence, no warrant for belief? Not at all. Jesus also fed the 5000, healed the blind, and raised the dead, and told his disciples that these were all "signs" to bring people to faith.
But Jesus had a more sophisticated understanding of what human beings are, and what it means to believe. Yes, God gives us "reasons to believe." But in his way, and according to his rules, not just when we demand them, like dropping a pen on the ground. Faith is not, ultimately, the testing of God, but the testing of us human beings -- holding onto to what we have good reason to believe is true, even in the face of difficulties.
That's because Christian faith involves a relationship with Someone greater than ourselves. That's how faith works: you trust your mind and your senses, then you trust your teacher, your Mom, people who write Wikipedia and journal articles, and expand your knowledge base precisely because these are sentient human beings at or above your own level of knowledge, and therefore not predictable, like a falling pen.
By definition, God is in control of our relationship, if it is to be real. We can't force Him to do what we want, as if he were our puppy dog. That would not be "scientific," it would be presumptuous.
A word I seem to remember using in this blog already.
Jonathan should read Jesus and the Religions of Man. Neither he, nor John, has really shown any sign yet of coming to grips with any of my real arguments about Faith and Reason. Most of these errors could have been avoided, by doing a little homework, first.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference, in a real life context, of the difference between faith and reason. Faith is the gap left in the justifiable belief jar which is left by evidence. Of course, the simple way of looking at it is this: Ask yourself why you have faith in anything; faith in God. I can guarantee, of course, that you would have a reason. It is not faith in a void. It is faith (albeit poorly) based on rational evidence.
In closing, Jonathan jumps back and forth between the two sides of the argument, again, and seems to come down on our side., again, Yes, Faith is "based on rational evidence." Whether it's good evidence or bad evidence, should be the real argument between Christians and atheists. They should stop distracting us from the real issues, by putting silly words in our mouths, then refusing to read, and think about, what we actually say about True Reason.