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Thursday, July 06, 2017

What’s Behind Faith?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
(Hebrews 11:1)

“I consider rationality (in a nutshell) to be: ‘an accurate apportionment of belief in a statement concerning the objective nature of reality, with respect to the available evidence.’ I can think of no better definition of faith than the exact opposite of this: ‘A grossly inaccurate apportionment of belief in a statement concerning the objective nature of reality, with respect to the available evidence.’

However, I invite those who have faith, and profess it as a virtue, to submit their definition of faith.”
— Joseph Dorrell, Ted Talks, 2012

Okay, Joseph. Let’s play.

Watch out for a mistake a lot of people make about faith.

They think it means, “belief without evidence”, “belief without adequate evidence”, or even “belief contrary to evidence”. They go on to say that one would not need faith if there were evidence. Or they say that any belief that refers to evidence is thereby disqualified from being genuine faith.

Then they say that Christians believe things for which there IS no evidence or things contrary to evidence, and hence Christians are irrational. And because they are irrational, they can be disregarded, mocked or ignored completely.

Faith as Irrational

Faith, they think, amounts to an admission of stupidity and stubbornness. It amounts to a refusal to be scientific, and a determination to believe in unicorns and leprechauns. It is the sort of thing they themselves could never, and would never exercise. They are convinced faith has played absolutely no role in their own lives, and so long as they remain rational people, it never could, they think.

The problem here is twofold: there’s a problem of language and a problem of motivation. The problem of language is that the word “faith” is being interpreted two ways. The problem of motivation is that skeptics have an incentive to persist with the misinterpretation, because it hands them a cheap win.

Faith as Language and Attitude

Because of these two problems, we need to explain the term carefully to those to whom we are speaking, but we can really only do that with people who are open-minded enough to consider the possibility that their own definition of faith could be incorrect. Speaking about it, therefore, requires some discernment on our part: is our conversation partner open to thinking or willfully closed off? And that, we can only tell from the style of their conversation with us.

However, telling this is complicated by a further factor: someone can be very cynical of that common misunderstanding of faith, yet can become much less cynical when they let go of it and reconsider. Faith is actually a quality of placing trust in something for which one has evidence, but that evidence is not so complete as to force a single conclusion. Faith can be premised on 50-50 evidence, on 60-40 evidence, or even on strong evidence to the tune of 98-2. So long as a vestige of doubt remains, a proportional measure of faith will be required if we are to close the gap between hope and action.

Science as Faith

Paradoxically, this is what science does all the time. Scientists, you will recall, run tests. Tests are single trials designed to confirm or disprove the existence of a phenomenon. Repeated tests are performed to increase the likelihood that an observed phenomenon is consistent. Enough tests, and we begin to think we have a scientific law in play. And that’s quite rational.

But in science, we’re never quite sure. Let’s take the case of an experiment to show the existence of gravity, say. 100 times we drop a ball from a standard height of 6 feet. Every time, it falls to the ground at a predictable rate. Maybe then we move to a mountain top or below sea level, and we continue our tests. In every case, results are similar. At some point, we stop running tests and say, “It’s the law of gravity”.

But what if on the 1,000th test, the opposite happens: the ball leaps into the air? What then would happen? One of two things: either that would disprove the law of gravity, or an alternate explanation would have to be found such as “the ball is filled with helium” or “the Earth has stopped spinning”. But how could the scientist know that the law of gravity had not been defeated, when his new observation suggested it had? Only by having some faith in the idea that gravity represents some kind of universal law, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary.

Faith as the Salvation of Science

Of course, solid objects don’t just fly upward. But there have been plenty of disproved scientific “laws”. At one time, by consensus most scientists once believed the following: that the Earth is flat, that it revolves around the Sun, that bodies are composed of four balanced “humours”, that vacuums do not exist, that physical things are made up of “matter”, that light is both a particle and a wave, and that the universe is eternal. Every one of these has subsequently been shown to be wrong; nevertheless, the belief in them persisted long beyond the first disproof.

Why did that happen? It happened because scientists can be mistaken but are not fools. Only a fool abandons a belief too easily. There were good reasons to believe all these things, even though later they were disproved. The scientists were behaving reasonably, even though they had only partial evidence.

The Ordinariness of Faith

We do that every day. We eat food without absolute assurance it has not been poisoned. We step onto elevators without absolute guarantees they won’t plunge to the basement and kill us. We keep meetings with people based on nothing more than their personal word that they will be on time. Sometimes we’re wrong; but most of the time we’re right, and that’s good enough for us.

We’re all people of faith. Not all of us know it.

The Rational Basis of Faith

So the question that remains is this: is there sufficient evidence around us to justify a faith in God? There’s only one way to find out: look at the evidence.

Now, a skeptic will often insist that there simply IS no evidence, but that’s clearly dishonest. The Bible claims the evidence of nature, the evidence of miracles, the evidence of revelation, the evidence of conscience, the evidence of history, the evidence of experience and consummately, the evidence of the Person of Jesus Christ himself. Christian philosophers have proposed an additional series of deductive arguments to support the existence of God: the Leibnizian Argument, the Kalam Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Argument from Consciousness, the Argument from Reason, the Moral Argument, the Argument from Evil, and the Ontological Argument. All of these are generally conceded by philosophers, secular or Christian, to be important intellectual arguments still viable today.

So the skeptic should never say there’s no evidence for Christianity. Instead, he should say is that he does not think that the available evidence and the available philosophical debates, on balance, favour the hypothesis that God exists.

But if he says that, and claims to be a rational person, then he should be able rationally to explain why. So the ball’s back in Joseph Dorrell’s court, or the court of the doubting cynic. For no genuinely rational skeptic should ever expect to reject our beliefs as merely faith, since faith is not just the basis of Christianity but of science as well.

Good to know.


  1. "I consider rationality (in a nutshell) to be: ‘an accurate apportionment of belief in a statement concerning the objective nature of reality, with respect to the available evidence

    Joseph Dorrell, Ted Talks, 2012"

    This is such humbug since no one has nor can have any idea at all concerning the "objective nature" of reality and no evidence of any sort, except revealed by Christ, can ever give us any information on that. Tom, you might as well give up on that on. I am pretty much resigned to the irrationality of the secularist and so called philosopher. What they are doing in my opinion pretty much borders on incredible naiveté. I research important thinkers and find out, for example, that Einstein believed in Spinoza's Pantheism, namely that God is simply the same as the natural universe around you. I read Spinoza and see how naïve he is in making that and other claims. I find it incredulous that pure and unadulterated speculation on part of a person, with zero factual probability, is appealing to persons who otherwise show a great capacity as thinkers and problem solvers. When these people let their imagination run wild, dress it up with erudite language and philosophical sounding terms substituting their own preferences for facts it goes over well with certain types of persons. I therefore think that rationality is trumped by attitude and self-serving convenience as to how an outlook concerning a deity will affect your current modus operandi.

    What they all do is ignore the fact that they are subscribing to the most pure form, totally non-factual form, of speculation when declaring things like that God does not exist or has this of that type of property as Spinoza did. They, for personal, attitudinal, reasons are willing to ignore that Christ - and therefore scripture, and miracles, which, by the way, are attested to by people who are just as, and possibly are more, competent then they are - is at least with some fairly significant probability a historically factual and better representation of the concept and idea of God then what their purely speculative proposals entail. Again, I will repeat here what I have stated before, it comes down to how their personal convenience is impacted by the obligations a belief in Christ would impose. To the most rational and intelligent it seems that inconvenience factor trumps everything. They refuse to even comprehend the truism of it since Christ pointed out exactly that they will choose not to grasp him but that the so-called simple people will.

  2. Oops, meant to say IC, not Tom.

    1. Give up on what, Qman?

      I was quoting Dorrell only to show his conception of faith was no good; I was not in any sense defending his views.

      I would estimate that he's some sort of naive Positivist, philosophically speaking, and Positivism has been discredited long ago. Yet a lot of ordinary, non-philosophy folks haven't heard about that yet, so we still need to respond to his sort of view.

      Me, I'm no philosophical Positivist. Neither is Tom, for that matter.

    2. IC, I did not think or wanted to imply that you are defending his view, just that you offered arguments to try and change his view. What I meant is that it's not worth the effort to try and change a secularist's mind no matter how true and rational your argument. I have concluded one might as well talk to a brick wall and that a special (perhaps divine) jackhammer might be the only thing that could have a chance at succeeding. Maybe that's fatalistic but there can be a point where it seems throwing in the towel is the only thing left to do.

    3. Ah, but there is more than the hard-hearted secularist at stake, Qman. We are Christians here. And it does us all good to realize how little ammunition secularists really have in their guns. So even if we do not change secular hearts, we can encourage Christian ones. And that is our primary purpose here.

      Besides, even a hard, secular heart is not impervious to the truth if God chooses to use it. So to quote a famous poet, "say not the struggle naught availeth."

      It availeth much.