A Dialogue On “Faith is Belief Without Evidence”


Phil and Alex are back in the coffee shop having a friendly talk as usual. And just as Elvis Presley’s guitar in his old movies could sound like an entire symphony orchestra (by the magic of film-making), so when Phil and Alex talk, they can speak hyper-links (by the magic of blog dialoguing).

[This is an alternate version of my post on A Pair of Self-Refuting Atheist Errors.]

ALEX: I know you don’t much like Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Atheists, Phil, but I’ve taken a look through it and it’s making sense to me.

PHIL: Well, you’re right about one thing, my friend: I don’t much like the book, but whether I like it or not is neither here nor there. The bigger problem with it is that he’s wrong about so many things. Take his first definition of faith: he says it’s “belief without evidence.”

ALEX: Sure he does. But that’s not just him saying that; that’s what faith is, isn’t it?

PHIL: Is it? I wonder what kind of evidence you could give me for that.

ALEX: Evidence? What do you mean? That’s just what faith is, isn’t it? If you had evidence you wouldn’t have faith, you would have knowledge instead.

PHIL: I see. What you seem to be saying is that faith is belief that isn’t knowledge. It sort of sounds like Boghossian’s other definition, that faith is pretending to know things you don’t know.

ALEX: No, not just “sort of;” that’s exactly what it is. It has to be, otherwise you wouldn’t talk about having faith in God, you’d talk about knowing God.

PHIL: We do, actually. I could go there, and I could tell you in particular about one of the great modern classics of Christian literature (it’s called Knowing God), but at the moment I’m mostly interested in your evidence for the claim that faith is belief without evidence. Where I find people saying that, you see, is in atheist books and on atheist websites. Atheist commenters say that sort of thing on blogs. But I hardly ever see these atheists referencing anyone but each other as sources for that definition.

ALEX: Oh, no, that’s not true. Here, let me show you on my iPhone. I’ve got three definitions for you here. One is at Merriam-Webster: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” There’s another one at Dictionary.com: “belief that is not based on proof.” But the one that really makes my point is at the Free Dictionary: “Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” See, there’s the evidence you asked for, right there in the dictionary: faith is belief without evidence.

PHIL: Are those the only definitions those dictionaries give?

ALEX: Well, no, but they’re the ones that apply to religious faith.

PHIL: So you say. Only one out of the three supports your contention. Are the other two wrong? It seems rather overly convenient for you to choose just that one as the one that’s right——but no, you don’t need to respond to that, it was rather pointed, I know.

Anyway, I have another question: what about all the evidences that Christians give for our faith? Surely you have some idea how many books have been written on Christian evidences. Surely you’ve seen some of the websites that give evidences for faith. Surely you’ve read some of those things: I know you wouldn’t go around saying there’s no evidence for faith, without at least checking into whether there actually might be! You have, right?

ALEX: Of course I have.

PHIL: So, are you saying that none of those writers has faith? It seems as if you must be, since they’re giving evidences. If faith is believing without evidences, and if they believe with evidences, then none of them has faith.

ALEX: No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I have read some of those books and blogs, you see, and I know what’s in there. You might say they have evidences, but it’s nothing that could ever convince me. It’s nothing that could ever persuade anyone who didn’t believe already, or didn’t already want Christianity to be true.

PHIL: Not even the books by Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, Josh McDowell, and the many others who weren’t convinced themselves before they looked at the evidences? —— but wait, don’t answer that, that would take us off track, too. I’d like to show you some empirical evidence that you’re wrong about that—which would include those authors, among others—but it would be a bit premature, since I’m not sure we agree on what counts as evidence in the first place. And we’re not likely to get too far without that, are we?

ALEX: No, you’re right. I mean, yes, you’re right: if we don’t agree on what counts as evidence then I won’t do much good to talk about your evidences, whatever they might be. But what’s so hard about agreeing on evidence?

PHIL: Good question! To me sounds like you don’t think Christian apologetics has real evidences to offer; and it’s not because there aren’t books or websites that purport to offer evidence for faith, but because you don’t think any of those evidences are good enough to persuade anyone except people who already believe, or want to believe. Is that right?

ALEX: That’s about right.

PHIL: But you say that you have evidence to support your belief that “faith is belief without evidence.”

ALEX: Yes, I already told you that.

PHIL: It’s not convincing to me.

ALEX: Right. I knew that already, Phil.

PHIL: But I don’t think you’ve thought through what it means. It seems to me that all you have for your claim, “faith is belief without evidence,” is the sort of evidence that’s convincing among atheists. They’re the only ones I ever hear saying it. I don’t think it would persuade anyone who didn’t already believe it, or possibly some people who didn’t care enough to look into whether it was really true or not. I know for certain it wouldn’t convince anyone who knew the biblical and historical connections between faith and evidences and reasoning.

ALEX: Who said it had to persuade you? It’s evidence. That’s all you asked for, and that’s what I gave you, straight from the dictionary.

PHIL: You yourself said it had to be persuasive, Alex. You said that we Christians can’t count our evidences as real evidences because they could only convince the already-convinced, or people who want to be convinced. But your “evidences” for the truth of your definition of faith aren’t any more persuasive than ours, or (I could argue) even less so! No one accepts them except people who already agree it’s true, or else want it to be true. (I don’t think either of us puts much stock in what is or isn’t convincing to people who don’t care enough to look into whether something is true or not.)

And if your evidences aren’t actually persuasive, then they don’t live up to your standard of what counts as evidence. Your “evidence” isn’t evidence at all; and again, that’s according to your own standard.

But it gets worse for you, I’m sad to say, because if you believe that “faith is belief without evidence,” then by your own standard, you believe something for which you have no evidence—which means you accept it on “faith,” according to your own definition of faith!

ALEX: That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, though; I still think faith is belief without evidences. And Boghossian says “faith” only applies to religion, whereas my claim isn’t a religious one.

PHIL: Oh, don’t worry, I’m not really going to argue that you’re accepting it on faith. That’s not because I agree with Boghossian—we disagree on a lot—but because it would require that I with your definition of faith, which is the very thing I’m trying to show is wrong.

Still, though, when you criticize faith as “belief without evidence,” you’re committing something a lot like a performative contradiction—which, as you probably know, is a statement that can’t be true because no one can make it without violating one of its own assumptions.

ALEX: Sure, I know about that. I like logic games, too, you know; such as for example, could this be true? “I am unable to express any thoughts in the English language.” It isn’t logically self-contradictory, but it’s impossible for anyone who expresses it to express it truly. That makes it a performative contradiction.

PHIL: Exactly! In a similar way, if you say that Christian faith is belief without evidence, that could only be true if you assume an extremely high standard for what counts as evidence. But your claim doesn’t live up to that standard itself, since there’s no equally strong evidence to support it.

Or rather, you’re assuming a standard for evidence that you don’t live up to yourself. Or I could state it more simply: you have a double standard for evidence: one that you think Christians have to live up to, and a different one for you to live up to.

ALEX: Hey, look, Phil, I thought we were friends. Those are pretty rough things you’re saying.

PHIL: We’re still friends, Alex, and believe me, I’m trying to treat you with the respect a friend deserves, by thinking this through with you. I’m not saying anything you couldn’t have figured out for yourself, if you’d spent the time thinking about it. And I know you well enough to know you wouldn’t want to hold on to a double standard like that, once you recognized it for what it was.

It may not feel like it, but from my perspective I’m trying to help. And of course I’m also trying to clarify what’s true about faith, because obviously that’s important, too.

ALEX: Well, you’re right I’m not in favor of living by double standards. I’m going to have to think about this a while. I do believe you have good intentions in mind. Thanks, Phil—maybe….