I don’t often agree with New Atheists on the subject of faith, but I do this time—up to a point. In his objections to the idea of faith in science, Jerry Coyne is right, and he’s wrong. I used to speak of faith in science, but I’ve changed my mind. I think he’s right when he says that faith in science is nothing at all like religious faith; in fact there’s a good case for saying it’s so unlike religious faith that it isn’t faith at all.
Oh the other hand, he’s certainly wrong when he goes on to say that religious faith is pretending to know things you don’t know. Yes, faith in science is very different from religious faith—so different, in fact, that faith usually isn’t the right word for it at all. The difference, however, isn’t where Coyne thinks it is.
(As always, when I speak of faith I’m concerned only with Christian faith, even though Coyne and others habitually and thoughtlessly lump all faith into one amorphous, religious mass.)
“Faith” In Science
If there is such a thing as faith in science, it is a simple and obvious belief in natural regularity.
I’m writing this before sunrise today. I have faith the sun will come up this morning. That might be a true statement by a certain definition of faith, but I wouldn’t press the point; it would be silly. Similarly, when people try to claim it’s a matter of faith to trust in the predictability of a familiar reaction, the accuracy of our instruments, or the efficacy of mathematics, that’s really stretching the meaning of faith.
We have confidence in these things. With the relevant experience, it becomes almost impossible not to have that confidence, because the regularities are too strong. Nature is too predictable to doubt.
Series of Synonyms
It’s possible to line up a string of synonyms in a row such that even though each word means nearly the same as the one next to it, the words on either end of the string have rather different meanings. I used a thesaurus to come up with this series:
first, initial, earliest, original, introductory
Every word there is listed as a synonym with the ones next to it, and I chose close synonyms (I didn’t jump from “initial” to “monogram.” Still there’s a clear difference between “first” and “introductory.” They might be interchangeable in some settings, but their meanings really do differ.
Likewise, confidence is closely related to trust, and trust is a near-synonym of faith, but in ordinary usage there are differences of connotation, so that confidence and faith aren’t completely interchangeable; and in scientific contexts, confidence is a better word to use.*
Faith in God
Christian faith, in contrast to confidence in science, isn’t about regularities that can’t be doubted, it’s about a Person and his character. God doesn’t like the unchangingly rotating earth; he relates as a person who freely does what he will do.
The Bible is (among other things) a revelation of God’s character. He has made his character known. He has done so through his actions on the human stage in real history. This is how we come to know any person’s character: by observing what they do.
We can never know exactly what anyone will do next, but if we know something about their character, we know there’s a limit to what they might possibly do. My son isn’t going to run off and join the circus. My wife isn’t going to go look for a job as a computer programmer. Both of them, though, will greet me warmly when they get up this morning.
Faith in God is confidence (the synonyms work in this context) in the consistency of his character. God has shown himself to be a God of justice, of mercy, and of love. He reveals himself consistently through his Word and through nature (see below). We can experience him through prayer. Less frequently he shows himself through answered prayer, and sometimes miracles.
He has promised good to those who trust him and follow his ways. We experience a strong taste of that good now, but we believe it’s nothing compared to what is to come. We trust in that because of his promise, and because he has revealed himself—he has shown his character—as one who keeps his promises.
So Christian faith is a matter of trusting in God’s known character and living accordingly.
Evidence For Faith
We know persons’ character by their actions. God’s actions as revealed in the Bible are known. For reasons I do not have time to go into here, Christians are convinced we have good reason to believe that record is trustworthy. Again without going deeper into it, many thinkers would say that even if it takes no real “faith” to believe the sun is going to rise, the very fact that we live in a universe ruled by regularities—ones that we can comprehend—is evidence for the reality and character of God; and I think they’re right.
So although we don’t know exactly what God will do next, we do know God’s character; and therefore Coyne and Boghossian are wrong when they say faith is pretending to know things you don’t know.
The evidence for faith in God is evidence relating to his past actions as those actions reveal his character. The evidence for science is of a completely different sort. One has to do with an historical record and persons’ direct but unrepeated experience. The other has to do with present repeatable phenomena and extrapolations from there to unrepeatable phenomena, either in the past or future, or at some unreachable distance in space.
The evidence for God’s actions is different from scientifically repeatable sorts of evidence. That does not, however, make it any less evidence. It’s less provable, but it’s still evidence. Therefore Boghossian, Coyne, and dozens of other atheists are wrong to say that faith is belief without evidence. In the case of Christian faith, it’s an evidence-based belief in the consistency of God’s known character.
Related: Hebrews 11:1 and Faith: Atheists Pretending To Know What They Don’t Know.
*The scientific process also involves trust in scientists’ competence and their honesty, without which the whole enterprise would grind to a halt, or worse yet, move onward while yielding a raftload of “false facts.” (There are signs of that happening, especially in the social sciences.) This form of trust, being person- and character-related, is more closely related to faith. All I want to do with that for now, though, is to mention it parenthetically and move on.