Talk to an atheist about faith, and you’re likely to get an eye-roll. To most, faith is roughly synonymous with superstition, a subject not befitting of modern, science-oriented people. In fact, most skeptics will argue that faith is an obstacle to intellectual progress, a departure from reason into irrationality. Since the apologist’s goal is to introduce the skeptic to the Christian faith, we are oftentimes doomed to failure before we begin.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” abiding, and says that the greatest of these is love. This got me thinking recently about what these concepts mean, and why it is that they “abide” or “last forever.” The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that each is a built-in feature of the human mind. We are designed for relationship and we all seek love and acceptance. To be emotionally healthy, we need to love and to be loved. Similarly, we seem to have within us a natural desire for a future that is, in at least some respect, better than the present. We “hope” for this future, while doing what we can to achieve it. Hope is so central to the human experience that when we encounter someone who lacks “hope,” we inevitably see a disturbance in the person’s thinking, and where hope is completely absent, we will see despair and sadly quite often, suicide. Faith too is a natural function. We have faith – trust – in the airplane in which we fly, even though we do not have the ability, nor the means, to examine it. We trust that the medicine the doctor has provided will help, not hurt, us. As limited beings, we cannot possibly know all there is to know. In order to live, we have to place our trust, our faith, in things for which we can never have complete knowledge; our faith finds support in what we do know – the airline’s safety record or the doctor’s qualifications – even though the ultimate thing is beyond the reach of our knowledge.
The modern secularist no doubt shares the Christian’s view that love and hope are two key elements of the human mind. But faith, by contrast, is a concept that they view as unnecessary. They believe that they can, and should, dispense with it, the way one might shake off a primitive superstition. So the first step an apologist must take is to convince the skeptic that not only is faith a natural feature of the mind, but that it is something we all use every day. The question is not faith versus science, but rather what is the object in which we place our faith.
A good beginning is to settle on an accurate definition of faith. I would suggest a definition of “faith” that the above examples demonstrate – as the act of trusting in something that one cannot know with complete certainty. It contains an action part – trusting – and a standard of proof part, for lack of a better term – the degree of certainty one attaches to his or her conclusion. The opposite of faith is not reason; it is disbelief. In other words, to lack faith in something is to believe that the opposite of it is probably true.
Reason, by contrast, is not an act of trusting; it is act of thinking, a process by which one derives conclusions based on evaluating evidence that is received through the senses. It can be inductive or deductive; it can be sound or fallacious. But in the end, it is simply a tool that one has access to through the use of the mind, much like the tool of vision, hearing, or language acquisition. These things are simply available to any human being with a normally functioning mind. The opposite of reason, then, is not faith; it is irrationality.
Far from being opposites, reason and faith coexist in a continuum, in which knowledge moves from things that are definitely known through observable evidence (trust with high certainty) to things that are not definitely known but highly likely to be true (trust with less certainty) to matters that are entirely speculative and can be taken only “on faith” (trust with little or nothing to support it).
The decision to fly in a plane serves to illustrate the point. No one can know with certainty that the plane will safely carry them. Sitting back in the seat as it takes off is the kind of act which can be characterized as trust in action, or faith. If the plane is a commercial jetliner from a reputable company, and one studies the physics of flight, one’s degree of confidence should increase. If, by contrast, the plane is in a state of disrepair with a drunk pilot, faith that it will successfully fly will be diminished. In either case, if one chooses to act, one is placing faith in the object in question. What he should be concerned with is not whether reason is better than faith, but with the reasons that support the faith.
In the end, faith in God, like any other conclusion a person reaches, is always the product of reason based on evidence, because reason is simply the only way anyone can arrive at a conclusion. What distinguishes sound faith from foolish faith is the strength of the evidence that supports the conclusion and the validity of the reasoning process that was used.
Perhaps if the skeptic can see that faith is not the enemy of reason, one can begin the process of trying to show why placing one’s trust in Christ is the best decision a person can make.
Posted by Al Serrato