What is faith? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
It was with a fear of great disappointment that I read David Pye’s chapter in Why Christianity Is Not True on faith. I was getting concerned when the chapter began. David Pye starts with
The reader may for some time have been wanting to say something along these lines: “What about faith? You’re talking about Christianity, a religion, but don’t religious beliefs just come down to faith? Aren’t you missing the point by ignoring faith and talking only about evidence?”
In other words, religion and religious beliefs are seen as belonging to a different
category than most human thought, one where beliefs not based on evidence are viewed as normal and to be expected.
From here, Pye goes on to describe a pastor who says this is a misconception and the congregation chuckles. He says this might be a chuckle of anxiety as many think that this is what faith is. Sadly, I think that Pye is right in this. This kind of faith is seen as a virtue. This shows a great failure in educating the church.
The major shock to me in this chapter came when in a way, Pye gets the answer to the question of what faith is right.
Faith can be seen as trust. To have faith in someone is to trust them. We can think of faith in God or faith in the bible in this kind of way – trusting in God or trusting in the bible as the Word of God.
He goes on to say that
A word that I think captures what faith is like in practice is loyalty.
Having a religious faith in practice – and especially in the long term – may be similar to supporting a poor football team. A loyal supporter stays with his team through thick and thin. Even though his team have been relegated each of the last two seasons, have just been knocked out of the Cup in the first round and are still playing hopelessly – he still turns out week after week to support them. He is showing loyalty.
This, I think, is very similar to the outlook of religious people. There may be little evidence to support what the religious person believes. Nonetheless he is loyal. He sticks with what he believes. He has faith.
The last part about a lack of evidence I disagree with of course, but the rest of this isn’t too bad. In the ancient context, faith would be seen as a kind of loyalty to a person. Faith is not about how you know but how you live what you know. The analogy of an airplane is accurate. One can be equipped with all the knowledge that planes fly and are a safe way to travel generally. It’s when one takes the step and gets on the plane that one is acting on what they know, which is an act of faith. It’s not blind faith, but it is following through with the evidence.
Pye goes on to list some other ideas of faith. One is faith as defiance. He tells about a Catholic who doesn’t know his Bible well and is visited by JWs. When confronted with their knowledge, to which sadly they are better informed than he is, he says he does not care what they say. He was born a Catholic and he will die a Catholic and nothing will change that.
This is not true faith and this is a little problem with Pye’s earlier analogy. Faith to a sports team does not mean they are the only true sports team. Faith in an ideology should mean that ideology is true and you live according to it. If one does not have solid reason to believe it is and is confronted with unanswered defeaters and one cannot find an answer, then one should seriously consider they are wrong. Faith, properly understood, is good, but faith for the sake of faith is not.
Pye goes on to talk about faith as something to attack or destroy. He quotes Dawkins who says religious faith is put in a bubble often that dares not be questioned. I have to say I wonder what faith Dawkins is talking about. Even before The God Delusion I saw Christianity regularly being treated in such a way. It was nothing new to me. He also writes about how Alister McGrath was said to destroy someone’s faith in atheism.
Pye sees this as a bad usage of the word faith since Christians present faith as a virtue so why speak of faith in atheism? When we say something like this, we mean that if we were to take the atheistic idea of faith, then we aim to destroy it. There are people who have a loyalty to atheism and don’t really care about the evidence. They will believe anything provided it argues against Christianity. (Jesus mythicism anyone?)
Pye also talks about faith as a trump card. What do you do with a lack of evidence? Play the faith card. This is again, nothing like what the Bible means by faith. I have my own writing on what faith means. I have no patience for a Christian who speaks about faith when presented with contrary evidence.
Another instance is belief being thrown out as a nebulous claim. I agree. People are told to believe something and they’re not told what to believe or why they should believe it. Belief for the sake of belief is no more a virtue than faith for the sake of faith is.
Another case brought forward is that of blind faith. I have to agree with the criticism of Gumbel. Dawkins presents faith as belief without evidence, and he’s not alone in this, but the irony is that this is itself a claim of faith. Dawkins would be hard pressed to find a scholar of Greek in the time of the New Testament who would think that that is what is meant by pistis.
He also looks at cognitive bias. He quotes McGrath again who says that we all have this and usually it’s to conserve what we already believe. I agree that this is true and it’s true for anyone. I know of a number of atheists who I am sure would rather commit ritual suicide than actually admit something in the New Testament could be true. I also know a number of Christians who hold on to their faith for purely emotional reasons.
Pye says he suspects most Christians hold on to Christianity due to social losses if they deconverted. This could be true, but as expected, it is not true for all. Just last night, I was talking to someone about what it meant to become a Christian and told him that being a Christian won’t always make you feel good. Sometimes, Christianity feels miserable. You should become a Christian though because Jesus rose from the dead. When asked “But what if Jesus is just another Jewish rabbi who died a horrible death?” then I replied, “Don’t follow Him. You can like His teachings and live them out, but don’t believe He’s the Son of God or anything like that.” No one should ever believe something they think is untrue.
Pye ends saying that he believes we can only know if something is true by the evidence. I agree. He also says Christians point to evidence when available but faith when it is not. For some, this is true, but for a number, including myself, this is not. Faith is not an epistemology. It is a response to what one knows. If one says they know the Bible is the Word of God, it is faith to live it out even when life is hard. It is not to believe the Bible is the Word of God when you are confronted with contrary epistemological evidence.