Part of the extended series Evidence for the Faith
I thought I was about to launch into a series on evidence for the Christian faith. Recent discussion here tells me there’s one more preliminary step to take first, however. I haven’t yet defined just what it is I’m about to provide evidence for.
You see, there’s one sense in which the New Atheists are right: there’s no evidence for faith. They’re right, however, only to the extent that they misunderstand what faith is, and how faith relates to evidence-based factual knowledge and rational inference. At the end of the day, there is evidence for faith after all. Confused? Read on.
The New Atheist Charge: No Evidence for Faith
The typical New Atheist position is that there is no evidence for faith, by definition, for if there was (sufficient) evidence it would produce knowledge, not faith. This is a standard line of argument among their camp.
I placed “sufficient” inside brackets there to catch a distinction they often miss. When they say there is no evidence for faith, often they mean literally no evidence at all. Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith about believing things for which no evidence is even conceivable. It would be nice if they gave it at least the respect of saying there is insufficient evidence, rather than no evidence. But that’s impossible if one believes the premise if there was evidence, it would lead to knowledge, not faith.
I Agree: There’s No Evidence for Faith. (I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that!)
Christians do present evidence, despite opinions to the contrary. Just what is it, though, that we’re presenting evidence for? Is it really faith? I say no: we do not present evidence for faith.
And with that, I’ve given up the game, right? No.
Evidence for Facts and Inferences Instead
Stick with me a moment and I’ll explain why he’s wrong. First I want to explain what Christian apologists like myself typically seek to demonstrate through the use of evidence. This is but a small sampling, but it will serve a very important purpose.
- We use philosophical arguments to show that there is a reasonably high probability that God exists. These are based on evidence such as:
- The non-eternality of the physical universe
- The unique nature of humans, including rationality, consciousness, moral responsibility, and so on.
- The fine-tuning of the universe to permit chemical complexity, and thereby life itself
- The existential conflict of humans: our awareness of falling short of something better
- We use textual studies to show that we have trustworthy versions of the original biblical documents.
- We use historical studies to show that there is considerable demonstrable truth in the Gospels.
- We use biblical studies to demonstrate the remarkable consistency the Bible demonstrates from beginning to end, on both the thematic and the detail level.
- We use historical studies, again, to show that there are facts for which the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best-fitting explanation, provided that it’s not examined from an anti-supernaturalist perspective.
- We use the philosophical metaphysics and the philosophy of history to show that there is no good reason to assume an a priori anti-supernaturalist stance in examining the Resurrection narrative.
- We use philosophical arguments to show that ontological naturalism (a prominent form of atheism) is unlikely to be true.
And so on.
Whether these sorts of evidence are sufficient is a question for another day. There will be plenty of opportunity to discuss all these topics. For now the question is, for what are they evidence?
Do any of them work as evidence for faith? Not exactly. See the list again. These types of evidence (coupled with arguments) count toward the existence of God, the trustworthiness of our contemporary Bible, the truth of the Gospel narratives, the likelihood that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead, and the unlikelihood that naturalism is true.
They lead to conclusions about the nature of reality, and about events in history. Look again, if you’re not sure of what I’m saying. They’re not evidences for faith—not directly, that is, although indirectly they certainly are.
Where then does faith come in? I have two answers to offer.
Evidence for The Faith, and Evidence for the Rational Inferences That Support Faith
First, there is the faith, that is, the body of beliefs that make up Christian doctrine. I’ve already described which body of beliefs I think we can support evidentially. The conclusions I’ve outlined above are part of the faith so understood.
Then there is personal faith, which is belief and/or trust in the implications of what we know to be true.
For example, given that there are good reasons to consider the Bible reliable as history, that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, that God is revealed in multiple ways as a promise-making and promise-keeping God, I conclude that I can trust him with my eternal condition. Many Christians have taken that trust all the way to giving up their lives on earth in faithful expectation of a good outcome after death.
That’s a Christian expression of faith. It’s also, I would argue, an expression of sound reason. (We’re still bracketing, for now, the question of whether the evidence is sufficient for the facts behind the faith.) We can even treat these types of evidence hypothetically. Suppose the evidence for the existence of God, for the reliability of the Bible, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise-making and -keeping character of God were adequate to justify the belief that all of it is true. From there to the conclusion, “I can trust God with my eternity,” is hardly a leap. It’s a rational step.
Faith Follows the Inference
It is a step of faith, still, for we cannot see the future into which God is leading us. We live in a confusing and often contrary world, and we ourselves are confusing and contrary individuals. C. S. Lewis rightly said that faith is continuing to believe what we know is true even when our emotions tell us it isn’t. It’s a matter of holding on to the truth we’ve recognized in the light, even when the world turns dark on us. It’s remaining faith-full toward what we know, and faithful to the God we are coming to know.
We could contrast Christian faith with a very similar Muslim expression of faith; for many Islamists have thought they would gain a better eternity by sacrificing their lives in jihad. What makes our faith any different from theirs? Why would I be confident in my faith and not theirs? It’s because of the evidential basis for the facts on which my faith rests. When we say we have evidences for faith, that’s what we mean: we have evidences for the facts upon which we rest our faith.
Why the New Atheists Are Wrong About Faith Being a Way of Knowing
So now we can circle back around to Boghossian’s error, of setting up faith as a way of knowing and then knocking it down. We have seen that for Christians, faith is typically* an attitude toward what is known, not a way of knowing. Specifically, it’s an attitude of trust in the implications of what is known. Evidence and reasoning take us as far as the conclusion that (using the same example as before) we can trust God with our eternal lives. Faith is the actual placing of trust in what evidence and reasoning have shown us to be true.
Boghossian and others say faith is an unreliable way of knowing. Their biggest error is not in the word “unreliable.” It’s in considering faith to be primarily a way of knowing. It could hardly be an unreliable way of knowing unless it were a way of knowing in the first place.
Summary: How There Really Is Evidence for Faith After All
In spite of all this, I’m still going to speak of “evidences for faith.” Understand, though, I’m really speaking in shorthand. I’m talking about evidences for the facts that lead to the rational inference that we can place our trust in God, as God is revealed in the Bible.
The facts are not faith, so to be completely analytical and careful about it, they are not evidences for faith. (They are, however, evidences for the faith.)
The inference we draw from those facts — that we can trust God — is also not faith.
Faith is the emotional, volitional, and rational act of resting our trust in the facts and the rational inferences we draw from them. Beyond that, it’s all-important relational act of trusting in God himself.
There is more to be said on God’s role in initiating faith. Much more, actually, for although faith is reasonable and consistent with rationality, it does not flow purely from reason apart from a sovereign work of God. This is familiar territory for believers but not easily explained among others. I’ll return to it as soon as I can. (Update: see Faith, Reason, and Regeneration below.)
*If this were a more deeply technical discussion I would look at faith from additional perspectives, and find that there are actually ways in which Christian faith is a way of knowing. I would also consider the case of Christians who have believed without examining evidences; whose beliefs are true if evidences and reasoning support them, even if they themselves have not examined or reflected upon the evidences.
My complaint with Boghossian is not in his saying that faith is sometimes, in certain contexts, or in certain manifestations a way of knowing, because he doesn’t say that. He says it is always and only that—which is false.