Hebrews 11:1 and Faith: Atheists Pretending To Know What They Don’t Know

comments form first comment

Jerry Coyne’s recent Slate article on science and faith provides another convenient opportunity to clarify the contentious meaning of “faith.” He presents three religious and one putative scientific usage of the word, then comments,

The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Kaufman’s definition as quoted here isn’t bad. If Coyne had stuck with it he might have stayed on solid ground. He doesn’t do that, though.

Misunderstanding Hebrews 11:1 and Faith

Coyne points to one Christian source, Hebrews 11:1, and tells us it clearly expresses that faith is wish-thinking. (In this case as always I am interested only in Christian understandings of faith.) This is an odd conclusion for him to draw; Hebrews 11:1 by itself doesn’t express anything clearly. It’s part of an extended discourse on faith. It wasn’t intended to be read on its own. Ripped out of context this way, its meaning is impossible to discern.

Let’s take a further look at what the author of Hebrews has to say about it. There’s another semi-definitional usage in Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Knowing What We Have Not Seen

Christian (and Judaic) faith is tighly associated with believing in the reality of God and his goodness to those who seek him. I believe this is the hope that’s referred in verse 1. Of course it’s not seen. Does that mean, however, that it involves “pretending to know things you don’t know”? Not at all. We know all kinds of things that we haven’t seen and can’t see. Before the Apollo missions we knew there was a far side to the moon, that it was alternately cold and hot, that it was dry and lifeless, and more.

I’m pretty sure Coyne would tell us that’s a matter of science, in no way analogous to faith. If he said that, though, he would be unnecessarily restricting his response. Our knowledge of the unseen far side of the moon isn’t just a matter of science; it’s a matter of drawing a good conclusion based on relevant evidence and sound reasoning. Though he would certainly (and obviously) be right) that science is involved in this case, sound thinking doesn’t have to be scientific thinking. Suppose someone unearthed a lost Beethoven piano sonata. Based on relevant evidence and sound reasoning, without having seen or heard the piece, I could conclude with certainty that it’s good music.

Bad Evidences, Unsound Reasoning, Unreasonable People?

So if science doesn’t have to be in the picture, that means it’s fair to ask whether it’s possible that Christian faith could also be a matter of drawing good conclusions based on relevant evidences and sound reasoning. If so, then Christian faith might conceivably rest on a foundation as unquestionably firm as our knowledge of the other side of the moon or the quality of a newly heard Beethoven sonata—which it does not. I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone that I’m not claiming that it does. As Kaufman succinctly said, the evidences and reasoning behind Christian faith are not sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.

Still there are many among us who are reasonable and who think that we have good evidences and reasoning to support our conviction that God exists and rewards his seekers. Jerry Coyne and Peter Boghossian, from whom Coyne borrowed his definition of faith, would undoubtedly dispute that. I can think of three general strategies they could follow.  They could argue that the evidence is not there, that our chain of reasoning is unsound, and/or that we are not reasonable people.

I’ve seen some atheists rush straight to that last option: that Christians are not reasonable people. I keep hearing “thinking Christian is an oxymoron.” But that’s not a reasonable charge to make, unless the person making it thinks Blaise Pascal, James Clark Maxwell, Galileo Galilei, Michael Faraday, William Wilberforce, St. Patrick, and many others like them were unthinking, unreasoning persons: which is obviously wrong.

Again: Unreasonable People?

And some atheists say that Christians are unreasonable people because we accept non-empirical, non-scientific evidences in favor of our beliefs. To define reasonability that way, however, is to beg the question; for the reasonability of non-scientific knowledge is the very point in question.

In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, the person who says Christians are by definition unreasonable people reveals him or herself as an irrational person, at least as far as that claim goes.

Christian Faith Is Not the Same as Faith In Science

It is at least possible, therefore, that among those of us who think that there is good evidence and reasoning to support our Christian faith, some of us are reasonable people. There are also (at least possibly, if we employ the same level of caution) unbelievers who are reasonable people and think there is good evidence and reasoning behind their position. We’re at parity there.

Coyne’s article is about whether science involves faith, which he denies. I don’t disagree with him much, for while I think there’s a kind of faith involved in science, it’s not the same as what’s involved in religion. Reasonable people can disagree about religious convictions. Reasonable people really ought not disagree about scientific convictions, and in mature sciences they rarely do. Where they do disagree, it’s generally either with respect to science-in-pro”wgress, such as the anthropogenic global warming debate, or else something else masquerading as science, such as when people claim “science shows the fetus doesn’t have consciousness or feeling, therefore it’s not a morally significant person.” That’s philosophical anthropology and ethics, not science.

So while the faith of Christianity and the faith of science have some things in common, they also differ in significant ways. Let’s grant that to Jerry Coyne.

Who’s Pretending To Know Things They Don’t Know?

But we cannot reasonably grant that Christian faith involves pretending to know things we don’t know. I’ll use Hebrews 11:6 to explain why. Christians claim to know that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him. There are two primary ways Christians claim to know that. One, prominent among Reformed thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, is through direct experience of God, the sensus divinitatis, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Reformed thinkers don’t typically say that’s the only way of knowing God’s reality—Plantinga certainly doesn’t (PDF)!—but they insist it’s one of the ways we can know God. I agree.

To this the empiricist atheist objects, “That’s not knowledge, that’s just psychology, at best!” Our answer is, unless you know my internal experience, you’re pretending to know things you don’t know. If Boghossian’s definition is right, then you’re doing nothing more than practicing faith!

Evidence- and Reason-Based Faith

And then there are the actual evidences in favor of the reality of God. These range from philosophical to documentary to archaeological to experiential; for Christianity claims that God works in history in identiable ways.

For this we can return to Hebrews 11, where the author speaks of men and women who sought God and were objectively rewarded for doing so. Abraham founded a nation. Noah survived a flood. Moses led a people out of Egypt, with many signs and wonders accompanying. Joshua led the same people to the conquest of Canaan, again with signs and wonders.

Did all this really happen, or are we just playing pretend-knowledge games again? Let’s not jump ahead too quickly to that question, because if we do, we’ll miss answering an earlier one: does Hebrews 11:1 describe faith as “wish-thinking”? No. In context, it points to documented occurrences in history, sufficient (if true) to give solid substance to the hopes of faith.

But thats not all. Consider Hebrews 2:3-4, where the author makes an appeal to contemporary evidence, directly accessible to the letter’s recipients:

It was declared at first by the Lord [the reference here is to Christ on earth], and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Consider also (if you have the time and patience) the entire letter to the Hebrews, which is a closely argued explanation for how the way of Christ fulfills and supersedes the ancient way of the Hebrew religion. This is (if I may repeat myself) reasoning in action. This letter contains less appeal to contemporary evidence than, say, the Gospel of John, because it was written to people who needed a different kind of question answered. But evidences and reasoning are by no means absent.

Again: Who’s Pretending To Know Things They Don’t Know?

In this post I have not explored whether we have sufficient evidence to support Christian faith today. I’m convinced we do, but that wasn’t my topic of discussion. This has been about the meaning of faith in Hebrews 11:1. In its original context, as intended by its original author, it simply could not have meant “wish-thinking.” Still Jerry Coyne, Peter Boghossian, and others tell us with great assurance that it does. When they do that, they display an unreasoning willingness to draw dogmatic conclusions based on conveniently selected, incomplete, context=free evidence.

They pretend to know things they don’t know.

P.S. I’ve grown accustomed to people objecting to my using the Bible to support my position on faith. It’s happened so often I’ve begun aggregating the objections and my answers. Let me add here: if anyone objects to my using the Bible to explain how Coyne and Boghossian misread the meaning of a passage in the Bible, I’m going to petition your school to lower your GPA.

Related: “Faith” In Science: Jerry Coyne Is Both Right and Wrong

top of page comments form

19 Responses to “ Hebrews 11:1 and Faith: Atheists Pretending To Know What They Don’t Know ”

  1. This may be tangential to your point, and if so, I’ll simply leave the comment and not pursue it further. Nevertheless, we can easily test several different belief claims against “based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

    For example, is belief in God based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person?

    Is belief in God’s goodness based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person?

    Is belief that God rewards those who seek Him based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person?

    Is belief that there exists a far side of the moon based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person?

    Faith, in this context, means belief without evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person. That is, to have faith is to be convinced where many others would not be.

    One of the welcome cultural advances brought by New Atheism is to give an approving voice to those who remain unconvinced.

    Atheists have been villianized and demonized as amoral, immoral, hedonistic, robotic and unfeeling, angry, at war with themselves, and so on. In contrast, New Atheism asserts the wisdom of being unconvinced and challenges conventional thinking that having religious faith is itself a virtue.

  2. Larry, I think I made mostly the same point in my post that you made in your four questions and your conclusion that follows them.

    It might be conventional thinking “that having religious faith is itself a virtue.” It’s not Christian thinking. It’s far too indiscriminate. Christianity says that having faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ is good and is rewarded by God. There’s a lot of religious faith out there that’s not based in or supported by evidence. There’s a lot of religious faith out there that contradicts Christianity. There’s no virtue in that. None.

  3. It would seem that the skeptics either ignored or were ignorant of the authorial intent behind Hebrews 11. A good study Bible or Greek New Testament lexicon or commentary (or Logos software), where those scholars have gone into the original Greek text and the meaning / usage of the words, will explain the passage in its 1st century setting.

    For example, using Logos, the instrumented NASB for Hebrews 11:1 shows us that the word translated as assurance or substance is the Greek ὑπόστασις, transliterated as hupostasis, or that upon which something stands, a foundation or support. If one follows the word study link to the Perseus Digital Library lookup for that word ( see here), one finds that that same word was used in ancient papyrii (the link above has the reference) to refer to a title-deed of property as well.

    It is entirely possible that Hebrews 11:1 was meant in that context as well. In that case, faith would be the title-deed of things hoped for, and then the word translated as hope ( Gk ἐλπίζω, elpizo really does mean ‘what we look forward to receiving’, rather than something uncertain and wished for.

    Then the analogy would be, say, inheriting a house and land that one had never seen before but knew about (say from a distant relative) and being given the deed and title documents to it. It is yours now, and one can think of looking forward to taking full possession of the property and living there in the future. The assurance that the property is real and yours comes from the legal power behind the title-deed.

  4. We agree, then, that Christian faith is still faith in the sense of not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.

    Or is it your contention that Christian faith is based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person? That is, do you claim that enough (quantity/quality) evidence exists so that every reasonable person should be a Christian?

  5. That’s good info, Victoria, thank you. It further underscores the atheists’ rush to draw conclusions divorced from evidence and knowledge.

    A question occurs to me, somewhat related to the infamous Courtier’s Reply. Could it be that these atheists think that because in their view all religion is based on evidence-free faith, that therefore they can say anything they want about it, without bothering with evidence of their own?

    Just a question. I’m trying to understand the motivations behind this kind of obvious intellectual shenanigans. But then, I really don’t expect I’ll ever get it.

  6. Larry, that’s a complicated question.

    To my mind, the evidence for Christianity is solid enough to convince any reasonable person. I find, however, that there are reasonable people who disagree.

    One reason for this, I think, is because God wants faith to be a choice rather than a compulsion. There are personal factors involved: Do I want to believe in a naturalistic world? Do I want to be free of eternal responsibility? Do I want self-sovereignty? Or on the other hand, Do I find the Christian explanations for life to be satisfying? Do I want them to be true?

    One could frame those questions in all kinds of ways, but I think the personal side of the issue is fairly determinative of both disbelief and belief.

    I’ve written more on a related theme here.

  7. Larry,

    We agree, then, that Christian faith is still faith in the sense of not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.

    While I agree, I hope you realize that this is not unique to Christianity or religion. From the OP.

    “Where they do disagree, it’s generally either with respect to science-in-pro”wgress (sic), such as the anthropogenic global warming debate, or else something else masquerading as science, such as when people claim “science shows the fetus doesn’t have consciousness or feeling, therefore it’s not a morally significant person.” That’s philosophical anthropology and ethics, not science.”

  8. While I agree, I hope you realize that this is not unique to Christianity or religion.

    I do.

    The same could certainly be said of philosophical naturalism, too.

    Agreed.

    However, I wonder if religion and philosophy — such as philosophical naturalism — are a bit different in that philosophical systems aspire to be so reasonable and logical as to command assent from all reasonable people.

    Religious systems as we understand them may aspire to encompass all people in the world, but they seek adherents more by values than by reason, I would say. Reason is a part of it, of course, but not so much to make faith unnecessary.

    No larger point with this except that philosophy and religion seem a bit different and I am trying to locate where the difference lies.

  9. Larry,
    The terms ‘religion’ & ‘religious’ are vague so it’s difficult to evaluate what you are saying, but I’ll give it a try

    I think philosophy and religion have different approaches to knowledge. They can often support each other and overlap in places too. Religious knowledge can be supported by good (i.e. reasonable) philosophy and good philosophical knowledge can also be supported by reasonable religious knowledge.

    What is an example reasonable religious knowledge? Believing (trusting) that you are traveling with God incarnate during the 1st century because of the experiences you and others had with that public figure, and trusting that he spoke the truth about things you cannot possibly know – so much so that you became a Christ follower.

    Problems arise when religious knowledge is dramatically undermined by reasonable philosophical knowledge or vice versa.

    Naturalists dispute the example I gave above on the grounds of philosophical naturalism being more reasonable than reasonable philosophy (generally speaking) will allow. I suspect that’s how we got many of these wacky hallucination theories, false memory theories and swoon theories.

    In other words, reasonable philosophical knowledge (broadly speaking) leads us to conclude that philosophical naturalism is overstepping its bounds.

  10. I find Kaufmann’s definition sets a pretty high bar. It seems like the “…sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” asks an awful lot from really any proposition outside of maybe those reducible to mathematical equations. If that’s the standard seems most everything we understand about ourselves and the world we live in must be an act of faith. Maybe that’s fair though but I would guess Coyne would be pretty uncomfortable accepting that most everything he believes he believes by faith.

  11. You claim that you have summarized the disputation to using revelation as evidence for your claims in the following sentence:

    To this the empiricist atheist objects, “That’s not knowledge, that’s just psychology, at best!”

    For one thing, reducing “hallucination” or “wishful thinking” to the broad term “psychology” is a frank distortion and a straw-man of the positions empiricists hold. Can you prove that a religious experience was not a hallucination? Of course not, so you need to rely on the information that you have been gifted with by the omniscient and omnipotent creator of the universe to back up your claims, otherwise skeptics have no reason to believe.

    unless you know my internal experience, you’re pretending to know things you don’t know.

    People do not doubt that religious experiences occur, we doubt that they are valid ways of coming to know additional information about the external world (an invalid type of epistemology). Empiricists evaluate the truth-claims made by those who experience these transcendent feelings and thus judge whether the experience holds up to scrutiny as someone receiving direct information from the omniscient creator of the universe. If simpler explanations, such as the “psychology” mentioned above, would work as an explanation, then they are used due to principles like Occam’s Razor.

    Is there anywhere that you address the claims that the bible (I don’t understand why this book should receive a capital letter to go with it, perhaps you can enlighten me on that) is not historically verified? That would be one of the principle claims Coyne has made in his piece, I don’t see it mentioned in your response. Are you familiar with the work of Bart Ehrman? Evangelic Christian-turned-agnostic, his principle area of study is the historicity of the New Testament specifically. From Wikipedia:

    he highlights the diversity of views found in the New Testament, the existence of forged books in the New Testament which were written in the names of the apostles by Christian writers who lived decades later, and the later invention of Christian doctrines—such as the suffering messiah, the divinity of Jesus, and the trinity.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_D._Ehrman
    http://www.bartdehrman.com/

  12. Mea culpa. When I used the broad term “psychology” to cover “hallucination” and “wishful thinking,” I was being terribly unfair and illogical.

    You on the other hand, were being terribly fair and logical when you said,

    . Can you prove that a religious experience was not a hallucination? Of course not, so you need to rely on the information that you have been gifted with by the omniscient and omnipotent creator of the universe to back up your claims, otherwise skeptics have no reason to believe.

    That’s awfully accurate of you to say that, since the only two options are proof or relying on my private experience with God as your reason to believe. Skeptics have no other reason to believe.

    (Did you notice the sarcasm tags around that?)

    The fact is, Oisin, you missed my argument entirely. I presented two ways Christians could conceivably know the faith is true. The second way was the way of evidence. I’m very familiar with Bart Ehrman. He figures prominently in the Touchstone article mentioned here that you will not see, unfortunately, for at least a couple months. In the meantime you can find more of what I’ve already written on him.

    There is evidence for the faith, and your statement that skeptics have “no reason to believe” other than my “information I have been gifted with” is considerably more of a rank distortion than my using “psychology” as shorthand for “hallucination” and “wishful thinking.”

    But wait: I said you had missed the point of my post, and I haven’t yet explained how you really did so. This post was not about how Christians know that the Bible is true. It leads me to a lament: Why oh why oh why oh why oh why — and again, oh why — do people never pay attention to what I’m writing about, but always expect me to write the book on how we know the faith is true every time I write here? Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. See the last paragraph of the OP. This happens way too often. I write a post about how Jerry Coyne’s definition of faith is distorted, and along comes yet one more commenter asking, “How do you know the Bible is true?” as if that had anything to do with the truth of what I had written about Jerry Coyne’s definition of faith!!

    Oisin, I thought I had headed this off in my closing, italicized paragraph. I cannot take on the whole apologetic enterprise every time I write about one piece of it.

    I suggest you go back to the OP and re-read it, this time not asking it to be anything but what it is. Then if you have some rational objection to raise, I’ll be interested to hear it. Your response to what I wrote about believers’ internal experience is not a good rebuttal, by the way, since you took it as if I had meant this was what believers could provide others as evidence. That’s not what I said.

    (I don’t understand why this book should receive a capital letter to go with it, perhaps you can enlighten me on that)

    Easy: because in this context it refers to a specific book, which makes it a proper noun. I could enlighten you as I have, or you could look it up.

  13. yes, we have all heard of Bart Erhman, Oisin, and so have his scholarly peers who have taken him to task for his misleading popular writings.
    Erhman has an ax to grind, and other Biblical scholars have debated and addressed his claims

    http://www.apologetics315.com/search/label/Tim%20McGrew

    https://bible.org/article/gospel-according-bart

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/082543338X/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d1_i3?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1HRK3T1WVN61SZQK1WXH&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1630083502&pf_rd_i=507846

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1433501430/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d1_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1HRK3T1WVN61SZQK1WXH&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1630083502&pf_rd_i=507846

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0830833552/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d1_i6?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1HRK3T1WVN61SZQK1WXH&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1630083502&pf_rd_i=507846

    http://www.apologetics315.com/search/label/MIsquoting%20Jesus

    for positive arguments for the historical reliability of the Bible, archaeology has done a great service for filling in many details
    see http://www.biblearchaeology.org/ for articles and publications.

    see
    http://www.apologetics315.com/search/label/Mark%20D.%20Roberts

    also, for a really in-depth scholarly analysis of the historical reliability and understand of the book of Acts, see

    http://www.amazon.com/Book-Acts-Setting-Hellenistic-History/dp/0931464587/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384618720&sr=1-1&keywords=colin+hemer

    for what modern textual analysis has done for our NT,
    https://bible.org/article/what-we-have-now-what-they-wrote-then

    Michael Kruger has a number of articles on the NT, its reliability and the formation of its canon (the books that comprise the NT), here http://www.apologetics315.com/search/label/Michael%20J.%20Kruger and links therein.

    In short, Erhman is not the last word in NT scholarship.

    As Tom said, this is not the point of his OP, so I don’t intend to get caught up in yet another debate on it in this thread, although this is a scholarly interest and pursuit of mine ;). This is just to make sure our other readers have the opportunity to see both sides of what is going on in NT scholarly circles. Tom and others have addressed the historical reliability many times on this site, so interested readers can search for those threads here, and follow up with the links I provided.

  14. Oisin,

    If Victoria didn’t provide you enough reading on Bart Ehrman here is a particularly thorough critique of his “Misquoting Jesus.” And just in general, the assertions made in the blockquote from Wikipedia were refuted well before Ehrman even made them.

Comments close automatically on posts older than 120 days.