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