Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist
You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me—Jesus speaking to “Doubting Thomas,” John 20:29 (New Living Translation)
Faith is not a virtue, and yet, religion is rife with it. In the arena of the gods, faith is not only rewarded but necessary for survival. Why? What makes it so important that the godly demand it from us on pain of death? What is its value, really? And why would the gods covet it like Gollum lusts after the ring?
The answers have done little to curb my scepticism. I remain distrustful of faith, and we ought to be wary, in case you were wondering, because the essence of this thing is the same as that which compels the gambler to bet, just one last time, despite any better sense.
Faith is neatly threaded through the flesh of our hopes and fears, and using it—tugging at the thread as it were—can really hurt and cause damage.
The Meanings of Faith
Faith in General
The beauty of language is to blame for our troubles when we talk about faith. Words are contextual—one word, many meanings. This simple notion helped us to create our feature-rich array of expression, where hallmarks such as poetry and humour evolve and flourish. Unfortunately, bugs are readily introduced into the code of our discourse too—a drawback I hope to avoid here.
I have no objection to faith as a synonym for religion, so let me dispense with it first. You are of the Christian faith? Good for you.
It’s when trust is substituted for faith that we need to take care. If I were to say, “My apple tree hasn’t borne fruit for a few years now; I don’t have much faith that it will grow apples this summer,” we would probably all walk away with the same understanding: that I’m not confident that my apple tree will bear fruit because of its history. But pretend, now, that I’m religious, and that I turn to a non-religious person and say, “You have faith in your spouse, much like I have faith in God.” Here, unlike our fruitless tree, we are at risk of conflating different ideas, which can pave the way for miscommunication and even deception.
As the religious party making the above comparison, I implied that faith and trust are essentially the same thing: we both have confidence in something—you, in a lover; me, in a god. The rub is that religious faith—even when it’s stripped down to this bare “confidence in” definition—is different to everyday trust in at least one crucial respect: trust is conditional, faith is absolute.
We’re told that God expects our faith, but we can’t, in turn, insist that God earn our investment. Even in the face of reasonable doubt—especially then—the godly instruct us to persist with faith. All the while, deities are exempt from ever having to demonstrate their faith-worthiness, meaning that a state of waning confidence on our part can only ever be quantified by appealing to our failure as mortals.
Plainly said, the godly reject any condition that results in a faith-value of nil. You must simply have faith; it is absolute in this sense. Whereas, trust, if it is to mean anything, is conditional on merit.
Now, we may protest and argue that while God is not required to, he does indeed prove his worth, that religious faith is justified by merit.
The problem here is one of standards. We can trust for good or bad reasons. A religious experience, for example, is a bad reason, and when you investigate the evidence and arguments in favour of God—the purpose to my blogging, really—then you will find that all of them are compromised in terms of reason and rationality. There are no good reasons that justify trust in God, is the point.
We’ve arrived now at the crux of the matter. Setting aside my objection that faith is absolute, I will concede that faith is similar to trust. It’s a special kind of trust, in fact: faith is to trust without good reason.
Believers admit as much when they say things like, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than a to be a theist.” I’ll disregard the fiction of this tired trope—except to note that it depends on the false premises that atheists must believe that “something” came from “nothing” and that complexity cannot be emergent unless “intelligently” guided. Instead, let’s look at the inferred definition of faith hidden within the statement. What theists are really saying here is, “Look, Mr Atheist, you believe something without good reason, something more incredible than what we believe. Boy, you sure have a lot of faith to do that.” Their argument is basically, “We’re bad, but we’re not that bad,” which is peculiar but not particularly helpful, especially when they’re confused about what atheists actually believe about life and the universe.
To recap, let me set down the definitions of faith that I’ve touched on so far.
- A particular religion
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something
- Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof
Faith in Christianity
We’re ready to turn to the Bible now. What does it say about faith?
From my experience, the most popular verse that Christians turn to is from Hebrews 11 (sometimes called the “faith chapter“):
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen—Hebrews 11:1 (New King James Version)
Well, what does that mean?
The easy bit is to clarify, “things hope for,” which—for Christians—are things like the reality of God, the promises of relationship and everlasting life, etc. “Things not seen,” refer to things like the existence of God, blessings, answers to prayer, and so forth. At least, that’s the gist of it.
To crack the rest, it’s perhaps best to start with a simpler translation of the verse:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen—Hebrews 11:1 (English Standard Version)
Okay, so faith is having certainty that the things hoped for are true or will come to pass, and faith is having a firmly held belief in the truth of things not seen.
Now, the two key words in the New King James Version are, “substance” and “evidence.” Literally translated from the Greek, we get, “a standing under” from ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) and “proof” from ἔλεγχος (elenchos) respectively. With this, the definition becomes: faith is that which stands under the things hoped for; faith is proof for the things not seen. Meaning that faith is the foundation; faith is the assurance. It follows, then, that a better foundation comes with stronger faith, making your hopes more secure while improving your proof for the unseen. It’s a fine idea.
It’s interesting to note that in the first century, the Greek word that’s translated to “substance” also had a technical meaning in business; it meant “title-deed.” Faith is the title-deed to the things we hope for.
With this understanding, faith is not having certainty, or conviction, or assurance, or evidence, but rather faith is all of those things. Another way to look at it is that faith gives you those things. Faith is like a god-given superpower, a spiritual antenna if you will, that allows humans to perceive the workings of God thereby giving us certainty and conviction.
This leads neatly to another interpretation of the verse that’s concerned not about what faith is, but rather what faith does. Faith, as this supernatural “sensory organ,” gives substance to the things hoped for. Faith provides proof for the things we can’t perceive through our natural senses.
I’m sure there are more ways to skin this verse, but I’m done decorticating for the day. Faith is either having something like confidence, belief, trust, conviction, assurance, and so on, in which case, I can refer you to my before-mentioned objections—of faith being absolute and unjustified on account of bad evidence—or faith is some sort of mechanism through which we experience the divine. The latter is good fodder for a graphic novel, but in our mundane reality, it remains an assertion devoid of any sort of reasonable evidence. Perhaps some Christians run around claiming to be little God-detectors because they’re really, really, really sure of their experiences and because their interpretation of an ancient piece of text seems to support their intuition and hopes, but these are hardly good reasons to believe it’s true. In fact, they’re woefully inadequate, given the extraordinary nature of the claim.
The Bible uses faith in a variety of other ways, but we can use a coming up for air. I’ll conclude this section by quoting Christian minister, John W. Ritenbaugh:
Regardless of the context, faith always contains a mixture of believing, knowing, understanding, trusting, and sometimes even bold conviction—all locked together and pointed toward a specific object. Within the Bible, that object is almost always either God, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, or a messenger sent by God, whether angel, prophet, or minister.
Faith in Islam
My knowledge of Islam is not as robust as it is for Christianity. I’ll rely on German Islamic scholar, Dr Christine Schirrmacher, to help me get started. She states in her essay, “The Meaning of Faith in Islam”:
In the Koran, the term ‘faith’ means ‘to consider something to be sure and reliable’ without doubting. Faith can only be given by God, and means above all, that a human being acknowledges Allah’s greatness and superiority, his own position as God’s servant, who owes Him gratitude for His mercy towards man.
That belief is essential to salvation is accepted by all schools of Moslem theology. Opinions differ, though, on the consitution [sic] of faith. Possibilities include: (1) The inner conviction of the truth of the revelation of God without any public confession being necessary, (2) the declaration of the Islamic confession of faith, combined with the inner conviction of the heart, (3) the fulfillment of the prescribed Moslem duties, (4) the Moslem conviction of faith combined with the fulfillment of the Moslem duties and good works, (5) the declaration of the Moslem confession of faith, inner conviction and good works.
Ibn Taymiyyah, a thirteenth century Islamic theologian, scholar, and logician wrote:
وَمَعْلُومٌ أَنَّ الْإِيمَانَ هُوَ الْإِقْرَارُ لَا مُجَرَّدُ التَّصْدِيقِ وَالْإِقْرَارُ ضِمْنَ قَوْلِ الْقَلْبِ الَّذِي هُوَ التَّصْدِيقُ وَعَمَلِ الْقَلْبِ الَّذِي هُوَ الِانْقِيَادُ
It is understood that faith is affirmation and not merely belief. Affirmation includes the words of the heart, which is belief, and the actions of the heart, which is compliance—Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 7/638
Faith, therefore, means to believe, to affirm, and to comply. This pertains presumably to the “Six Pillars of Iman,” the Islamic articles of faith, which is to believe in each of the following: Allah, the Angels, the Divine Books, the Prophets, the Day of Judgement, and Allah’s predestination. The referencing scripture here is from An-Nisa, the fourth surah (chapter) of the Qur’an:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا آمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَالْكِتَابِ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ عَلَىٰ رَسُولِهِ وَالْكِتَابِ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ مِن قَبْلُ ۚ وَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِاللَّهِ وَمَلَائِكَتِهِ وَكُتُبِهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلَالًا بَعِيدًا
O you who have believed, believe in Allah and His Messenger and the Book that He sent down upon His Messenger and the Scripture which He sent down before. And whoever disbelieves in Allah , His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day has certainly gone far astray—Qur’an Surat An-Nisa 4:136 (Sahih International Translations)
Dr Schirrmacher concludes her essay by saying:
The comparison of these statements about faith from the Koran and from Moslem theologians with those of the Bible demonstrates similarities as well as differences. The Bible also presents faith as more than a mere acceptance of various regulations, a theoretical agreement with dogmas or a membership in a religious group. On the other hand, Biblical faith could be called ‘a firm, unshakeable trust in God’ rather than merely a humble recognition of God’s sovereignty, as it is in Islam.
Given the dedication and fervour that I see in both Muslims and Christians, I personally discern precious little difference between “humble recognition” and “unshakeable trust.” For all intents and purposes, Islamic faith is the same as Christian faith. At least, the differences are skin-deep, and my grievances go down to the bone.
A More Reasonable Faith
Mine’s been a layman’s treatment of religious faith to be sure, but I’ve captured the gist, I trust, and I’ve yet to discover an understanding of faith that undermines my first objection: according to holy men, regardless of their brand, faith is an absolute requirement that God is not obliged to earn. Likewise, my second protest stands undispersed: every given justification for faith suffers from a case of spurious validity. I’ll add a third concern now: faith leads to a disproportionate level of certainty.
As such, my working definition is simply this:
Faith is to believe with firm conviction and without good reason.
Or as Matt Dillahunty puts it:
Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don’t have evidence.
Believers can’t accept this definition, of course. We have different, irreconcilable views on the nature of good reason. Next stop, Impasse City.
Now, when I was a believer, I wasn’t stupid, or irrational, or bad at logic, or anything like that—at least, not most of the time. However, when it came to God and religion, I had a respectable blind spot. In that bounded context, my thinking—when I actually cared to contemplate—was not reasonable at all. Had I applied my weekday scepticism on Sundays, my convictions may not have formed the air-tight seal that it had.
Faith ships with an impressive array of pre-installed defence mechanisms. My personal faith was protected from scrutiny for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I was raised in a religious home—the Christian worldview was taught as fact—and what we learn as children really sticks, you know? And then, the Bible doesn’t really encourage you to explore your options; the authors simply assert that they’re writing God’s own truth, and I accepted that at face value. Why wouldn’t I, given my existing belief? This means that I took Paul’s words to heart:
But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him—Hebrews 11:6 (New King James Version)
As an aside, Paul probably didn’t write that. “The consensus among most modern scholars is that the author [of Hebrews] is unknown.” The point stands, however, regardless of the scribe: doubts are dangerous items to carry on your religious person, and fear serves as a powerful motivator to discard such ticking time bombs. The strategy is to play it safe, to abort reconnaissance and retreat to previously occupied, protected territory.
Since I’ve discovered epistemology, scepticism, and critical thinking, the limitations of faith is blindingly clear. I remain an atheist, however, not just because faith has proven to be an unreliable pathway to truth, but also because of faith’s sporting chance to cause harm.
I’ll use myself as an example. Religion was a big part of my life, as it is for many. I had faith in God and I believed that the Bible was his spoken word. My beliefs informed my thoughts and actions.
As such, I was prejudiced and intolerant toward anyone who didn’t share my faith. Here are a few select examples:
- I insisted on testifying and witnessing to a friend; our friendship took a serious knock as a result
- I once told my boss that I wanted to pray for him and then proceeded to pray out loud, asking God to give my boss wisdom so that he could accept Jesus as his lord and saviour. I had no concept of how arrogant, insulting, and rude that was, how uncomfortable that must have made him feel. To my shame, my embarrassment only manifested years later. At the time, I gladly told my Christian friends of how God had used me to spread his good news
- I believed being gay was a sinful life choice, and I would’ve said as much to a gay person had I known one at the time. If the opportunity had presented itself, I would’ve voted against the legalisation of “gay marriage,” denying gay couples their happiness and benefits
- I told several non-Christians that they were going to hell if they didn’t repent; I did this without batting an eyelid
Another consequence of faith was my bronze-age view of women. Well no, it wasn’t that bad, but I did subscribe to the sexist and repressive notion that within marriage I would be the head of the household, the poppycock idea that my wife ought to submit to me.
As a result of faith, I was denied a healthy start to my sexual life, and my early experiences were tainted with guilt, shame, and fear. I’m resentful of the natural joy that was taken form me in this regard.
Yet another direct ramification was my certainty that the earth was 6000 years old and that humans were created in our present form. I rationalised that the scientific community as a whole, all the disciplines, were mistaken or lying. Arrogant much? I would’ve been a climate change denier too, I reckon, and that is dangerous indeed. Imagine if the movers and shakers of the world possessed that kind of faith and believe, as I did, in prophecy and the world’s imminent apocalypse. It’s frightening to think that that’s the world we actually live in.
All these things didn’t make me a bad person; I was just high on faith, tripping on kool aid as it were. My intentions were mostly honest and good. And yet, I harmed people, myself included. I shudder to think of the harm I could’ve done had I not retired from the Christian fight in the seventh round.
Now obviously, as a believer, you’re not doomed to be an asshole. I’ve met loads of lovely religious folk who know better than I did. I’ve known my fair share of believers who fit the asshole bill too—it flows all to naturally from the well of holy doctrine. Of course, I’d be remiss not to escalate and discuss the truly malignant, life-threatening, kind of believer…
Some religionists deny their kids medical treatment—often for fatal but curable diseases—in favour of prayer because their faith demands it. And that’s not the worst of it (if you can believe such a thing). In the diverse religious world, there are fringes of fanatics that rationalise truly abominable actions. You see, faith can foster such ironclad certainty that any action becomes permissible. But here’s the kicker. Zealots use the exact same excuse that moderates use in justification for their actions: faith.
And yet, we live in a world where faith is lauded. A person of faith is someone to be respected as a matter of course. Indeed, it’s uncouth to be critical, and that lends these extremist bastards a certain level of legitimacy. In the context of religion, how are we to judge one person’s convictions against another, and conclude that one is true and other false, when both have the same shifty foundation? It’s my word against his, and we have little recourse other than to brand each other as liars. Because the evidence in support of faith is a fraud, we have no method to resolve the conflict using faith methodology. We have to turn to something else, something reasonable.
That is what the fuss is all about.
A Confidence Man’s Bread and Butter
We ought to be suspicious of faith; a list:
- It’s required up front, and God doesn’t have to earn it
- It depends on bad evidence
- It can lead to a I-will-never-change-my-mind level of certainty—or I know that I know that I know—which is indicative of a strong underlying insecurity
- It often requires bolstering, a constant puffing-up. Like a mantra, I’ve heard it said, “I believe…I believe…I may have doubts, but I have faith. I believe!”
- Validation is said to come after investment. “Just have faith, and you’ll see!”
- In order to protect faith, you’re encouraged to ignore doubts, to apply more faith, instead of pursuing answers via thorough inquiry like we ought to do
- Doubts are often blamed on the devil, a scapegoat
- It’s maintained by the fear of God’s displeasure
- Loss of faith is always considered to be your fault
- It’s essentially unfalsifiable
- The faith of mutually exclusive religions are equally “valid”
- It provides no reliable mechanism by which to discover and verify truth
- People raised without faith are unlikely to take up faith as an adult; people raised in a particular religion are unlikely to leave or to convert to another religion. The God you have faith in is overwhelmingly determined by your place of birth
- Faith offers particularly fertile soil for cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, selective perception, emotional bias, availability cascade, Semmelweis reflex, and subjective validation
Questions and an Answer
Let’s presume the following premise is true: God has a genuine desire save mankind and to have a personal, meaningful relationship with every human. Most believers will accept this, I think. At least, Christians should.
Given what I’ve established—that faith is reasonably flawed, unreliable, ripe for extortion, and a source of confusion—ask yourself, why would God treasure it? Why value credulity over reliable inquiry? Why install an intellect and penalise the version of software that interfaces with the best available tools for optimal function?
Remember, God can choose to make the matter of his existence and providence such an apparent fact of the natural world that to deny it would be to herald a descent into delusion. And yet, we’re still debating. The world remains divided.
You may object, perhaps, and argue that robust proof would negate free will, that love, for it to mean anything, must be a free choice, and that our sorry state of confusion is our own damned fault. And yet, proof of God doesn’t undermine free will at all. Rock-steady evidence would make our choice an easy one, granted, but it remains a choice nonetheless.
Consider the story of Saul, the Christian hater, and his Damascus road conversion. God practically beat the zealous persecutor with a proof-stick. The man was left with little choice but to convert and become Paul, the Christian on steroids. Yet, no-one argues that his free will had been compromised or that his relationship with God must have been diminished.
Where’s my Damascus road? Where’s every human’s proof? Doesn’t God know what it would take to convince each and every one of us? Doesn’t God care about these missed opportunities?
No. Given God’s desire for relationship, faith doesn’t make any sense. Sure, God can have a perfectly sufficient reason for himself to lose at his own game, but what kind of God does that make him?
Isn’t it evident that humans invented faith? It’s simply a tool for preservation, a cog in a cleverly designed self-perpetuating belief machine, and I don’t trust it for a second.
References and Notes
- ^ “Hebrews 11:6” from the Bible.
- ^ “Luke 4:12” from the Bible.
- ^ “Proverbs 3:5-8” from the Bible.
- ^ “Oxford Dictionaries” definition of faith in English. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Faithful Heroes: A Study of Hebrews 11:1-7” article from Grace Communion International website. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “A Study of the Book of Hebrews” book by Dennis Dinger (Apr 2012).
- ^ “Bible Hub” lexicon of Hebrews 11:1. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Faith Is ‘hupostasis’ – Hebrews 11:1” blog post by by Rex Rouis (See Title-deed). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “How To Annoy An Atheist: A Correction Of Sorts” comment by Vicky Odendaal where she quotes one of her teachers whose name is unknown (Jul 2013). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Unholy Trinity Down Under: atheist evangelical preaching at its finest!” comment by Matt Dillahunty (Mar 2015). Usage of the phrase “Little God detectors” taken from here. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Bio: John W. Ritenbaugh” Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “The Christian Fight (Part Three)” article by John W. Ritenbaugh (Jul 2007). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Christine Schirrmacher” article from Wikipedia (in German). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ abc “The Meaning of Faith in Islam” article by Christine Schirrmacher (Jun 1997). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Ibn Taymiyyah” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “The definition of faith in Islam” article by Abu Amina Elias (Aug 2015). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Iman (concept)” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Matt Dillahunty” article from Wikiquote. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Christian Couple Kills Their Second Child… with Prayer” article from Friendly Atheist (Apr 2013). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “Faith Healing Parents Watch Their Child Die… but Won’t Be Getting Jail Time for It” article from Friendly Atheist (Jun 2012). Retrieved Mar 2016.
- ^ “1 Timothy 2:4” from the Bible.
- ^ “Acts 9:3-9” from the Bible.