No, Atheists and Skeptics: Christian Faith Is Not a Failed Epistemology


Is faith a failed way of knowing?

I keep hearing from atheists and skeptics that “faith is a failed epistemology.” What they mean is that if religion is something we know by faith, then we don’t know it at all, because there are too many ways to go wrong in knowing “by faith.”

Now, if faith were indeed an epistemology — a way of knowing, in the sense that they’re talking about there — they would be right. It’s a completely unreliable way to “know.” There’s no objective check on what we “know” that way; in fact Th could “know” something “by faith” without any connection to reality at all.

That may be the way some religions work. I think Mormonism is probably an example. It may also be true of some philosophies, or of some religion/philosophy hybrids that operate on some ethereal “spiritual” level.

Christian Knowledge Is Reality-Connected Knowledge

Christianity, on the other hand, is connected to reality. That is, it is either connected to reality (as Christians believe) or if it is not (as atheists and skeptics charge) then it is utterly false. The biblical account of history is just that: an account of things that really happened in space and time; or if not, then there is no truth to Christianity.

In Christianity there is knowledge and then there is faith. I am not speaking of the order of salvation here — the sequence of events in our minds and hearts by which God reveals himself personally to the one who is being saved. God grants faith as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9) which opens the eyes (2 Cor. 4:3-6, 1 Cor 2:14-15) to enable his people to apprehend truths to which we would otherwise be blind.

Faith Rests On Knowledge

That’s one way of looking at the faith-knowledge sequence. It’s a description of God’s initiative in persons’ hearts. But there is another logical sequence that better describes the relation between faith and knowledge. It’s illustrated well in what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:13-14:

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.

The quotation is from Psalm 116:10 (actually Psalm 115:1 in the Septuagint version). The logical sequence here is different from the order in which Paul wrote it, so let’s clarify it this way:

  1. Paul knows that God raised Jesus from the dead.
  2. Not written but in the background: Paul knows that Jesus promised resurrection to his followers (John 14:1-8).
  3. Thus he believes that God will raise him and others from the dead.
  4. Because he believes, he speaks.

First there is knowledge. The Tyndale commentary on this passage says, “Paul’s faith is strengthened by the knowledge that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise him along with Jesus.” Paul’s knowledge doesn’t follow his faith, rather his faith follows his knowledge.

Faith Is Trusting In What One Knows

The step Paul takes in #3 is a step of faith. There’s no demonstrable proof that he or his readers will be raised from the dead. His confidence in his future resurrection is based in his trust in Jesus’ promise and in his knowledge that Jesus himself was raised. Thus faith for Paul (and for all biblical Christianity) is a matter of trusting in what one knows. That trust is well placed, given the reality of what Paul knew. It’s a leap, sure, but it’s a sensible one in view of the known facts; a leap from light into light, not a leap into the dark.

It’s a Rational Response

Now it does almost appear that we know certain things by faith. How does Paul know he’ll be resurrected? By connecting the dots between Jesus’ resurrection and his promises, and trusting that the promise will be fulfilled. He might put it this way:

a. I know Jesus was resurrected.
b. I know because of Jesus’ own resurrection that there is power in God to raise me from the dead.
c. I know Jesus promised me resurrection if I follow him.
d. I know Jesus’ character has been shown trustworthy in every observable way.
e. I know enough, therefore, to put high confidence in his promise. My confidence is high enough to call it knowledge.

The jump from (d) to (e) might look like a faith leap — but it isn’t. It’s a rational inference. If (a) through (d) are true, then it’s rational to draw the conclusion (e).

Where then does faith enter in? It’s in (f):

f. Therefore I will choose to trust the One who has been demonstrated trustworthy. 

That’s not a way of knowing; rather, once again, it’s an attitude toward what one knows.

Why So Much Confusion Over This?

More specifically, faith is an attitude of relational trust. I’ve had skeptics tell me that’s not so. They’re simply wrong on that. It’s trust in the Greek, it’s trust in every biblical usage (sometimes with more emphasis on relationship). It’s trust in the lexicons and the dictionaries. It’s trust in every credibly written theology. Biblical, Christian faith has always been relational trust.

Why then do atheists and skeptics say it’s a failed epistemology, or that it’s “believing what we know isn’t true,” or “pretending to know what we can’t know”? I can think of  two possible reasons.

Christian Confusion and “Christian” Confusion

First, some are uninformed or maybe confused. Some Christians are partly to blame for that, since not all believers have thought carefully about the relation between faith and knowledge. That’s to be expected, by the way: not all Christians even care about that relation; they can live out their faith happily enough without thinking about it. (I think they might be stronger in faith if they thought about it more, but I would never say their faith is unreal just because they can’t articulate it this way.)

So they’ll tell people their faith is “how I know God is real,” or some such thing. They just don’t know how to explain it better than that. That doesn’t mean that’s the best or most accurate way to explain it. We don’t derive definitions and explanations from people who haven’t thought much about it.

It’s also the case that some people claiming the “Christian” name, having given it some thought, actually believe faith is “how we know.” This is confusing indeed. My response would be that they’ve got a mistaken view of Christ and the Bible in history. I would place them in the same category as the other religions I mentioned in the third paragraph of this article.

Or, Why So Much Misdirection?

The other reason skeptics and atheists describe faith so wrongly is because they want to make it look bad. It’s a self-serving move on their part. I’m convinced this is the case for the more prominent atheist writers on “faith,” including Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, and Boghossian. They’ve found a way to make faith stupid by definition. They hammer on that definition, hoping to persuade people by mere loud repetition that their view on it carries more authority than Christians’ view — even though Christians are the ones with the intellectual heritage and experience to know.

They try to paint Christianity as stupid and anti-intellectual. They have to ignore all the relevant literature on the subject to do so. Who’s being anti-intellectual?

Eyes That Need Opening

But then there is the blindness of which I spoke earlier. The reality is indisputable: thoughtful informed Christians have never treated faith or thought of it in the way many atheists want to define it. But they treat it as if their definitions were the only correct ones; the only accurate way to describe faith. (Boghossian says so explicitly.)

In other words, their definition of faith is wrong  — obviously wrong. Yet still they press their case, confident as if they had every reason for it. Why won’t they open their eyes?

Faith Is a Reasonable Response to What We Know

Faith is not a way of knowing, but an attitude of confidence regarding what one knows. Often it’s confidence in spite of what one sees; for one can know what one cannot currently see. It’s been described as remaining confident in the dark of what one has seen in the light. Christian faith is not a failed epistemology, it’s a reasonable attitude in response to what we can know to be true.

Image Credit(s): DariuszSankowski.