“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”.
That’s how the NIV translation of Hebrews, 11:1, describes faith. Probably one of its most famous definitions. The King James Version says faith is “the substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things not seen”. But what is really faith? What do people mean when they talk about faith? It can actually mean different things for different people, so I think it will be fair to first define what I mean when I mention faith.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY FAITH?
To me, faith is absolute belief. Knowing something for sure, beyond doubt, with no need to question it or rethink it. Is it possible to do that in a reasonable way? In theory, if you have evidences that convince you completely of something, in a way you wouldn’t ever go back, it will be logical to believe that absolutely. In practice, it is hard to say one would ever find evidences like that. Perhaps the only thing we could be totally sure of is the existence of our conscience, due to our sense of awareness, but even that is debatable. So actually when people have faith, they are likely having blind faith (in practice, faith = blind faith). Blind faith is basically the religious faith, the one defined in the Letter to the Hebrews, the evidence of things not seen, the assurance of what has not been verified. For many Christians faith is its own evidence, it needs no further. So in the end, my definition of faith is not that different from that of mainstream Christianism.
The curious thing, though, is that I speak of faith with a quite negative connotation. It doesn’t seem to be something good to believe without proof, or to hold belief itself as the evidence. However, at this same time there are Christians all over the world praising their faith and being proud of it. The truth is that in the Christian worldview, faith is a virtue.
The intriguing question is: Why???
THE ARGUMENT OF FAITH AS A GIFT FROM GOD
So this argument is the answer widely given by Calvinist Christians, and mostly based on the ideas in Paul’s letters in the Bible, that see Christian faith not as a voluntary decision of the individual but as a spiritual gift given by God, that makes you magically feel like Christianism is true, even without any proof. It explains why they see faith as the evidence itself. This is an interesting argument which I will discuss better in my next post, but in summary the argument fails because we know people can unconsciously and naturally develop faith in anything, in any religion, it doesn’t mean their faith is correct or given by God. Followers of the Millerite movement, for instance, had faith that Jesus would come back in 1844. Still, the fact they had faith didn’t prove to be a reliable evidence of that.
THE ARGUMENT OF FAITH AS A NECESSARY TOOL FOR LIFE
Many Christians would see my position as radical skepticism. And boy, do they hate radical skepticism. They argue having blind faith is justifiable because everybody needs faith in their daily life. “When you enter your car, if you have no faith that the car will work you will never start the engine”, “you need to have faith that the bus will take you to your destination when you catch a bus” they say. “You didn’t have evidence for it, still you had to do it. By faith.” So in the same way, we should accept the Bible by faith. Well, I totally disagree with that because I don’t think those are examples of faith. When you catch the bus you assume it will go to the right destination because of the signs or because you have taken it before. There is no need to act on faith. You act on probable assumptions.
Take the example of someone in front of a desk who is looking for a ballpoint pen. He would usually assume the pen is in the drawer, perhaps because he remembers seeing it there. If he doesn’t find it there he will look for it somewhere else. However, if he has faith that the pen is in the drawer, and opens the drawer and finds no pen, he will still believe the pen is there. He won’t look for that pen elsewhere. He might start thinking the pen is beneath a false bottom in the drawer, or even that the pen became invisible or something. Anything to explain how the pen is there but he cannot see it. And even if he sees that pen outside, he might think he is mistaken, or that the devil is deceiving him. It’s just an analogy, but that’s the attitude many people have with religion when they have faith. Their dogmas become unshakable, no matter how many counter-evidences they find.
So I don’t think faith is a necessary element and I don’t see a problem with being skeptical, as long as that means acting on considerations instead of faith, probability instead of certainty. Because it is by acting like that that one can see one’s mistakes and try to fix them.
THE INNER MOTIVATIONS
I recognize that faith has its advantages, it can bring hope and optimism, make people think positively in the midst of hardships. And this is the real motivation for faith most of people have, even if they are not conscious of it.
But I’m not so sure this position can be that helpful in the long-term. Following some dogma or ideology by faith resembles walking a road blindfolded. In the beginning you may choose that road because it is comfortable, or because of your friends and family, or even because there was some sense in that. You might have checked that the road seems to go in the direction of your destination. But after that, you trust the road so much that you start walking with your eyes closed. If there is a hole on your way, you won’t swerve. If the road softly changes the direction in the middle, you won’t change to a better road. If it leads you to a cliff, you will fall.
These patterns of faith become especially dangerous in Semitic religions (like Christianism), that preach that absolute belief should be extended to the whole system of ideas and dogmas. It can lead people to self-harmful behavior, absurd sacrifices, discrimination and even violence.
SEEING IT FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF BELIEVERS
It’s very important, though, to understand the position of believers. After choosing to have absolute belief in the religion, it becomes very difficult for them to question it. They may look quite arrogant by not wanting to consider the possibility of being wrong, but there is a complex reason behind it.
Many Christians have a very specific view of the world, a view grounded by a number of interconnected basic christian concepts, like heaven, sin, salvation, etc. These assumptions become extremely deep-rooted into their minds, as if they were self-evident facts (no different from things like gravity or aging), so that even when a Christian decides to question one of these concepts, he unconsciously assumes all of the others to be true. It creates the feeling that each one of the christian dogmas is perfectly logical, so it makes sense to have faith in them even without additional evidence. (Christian dogmas make perfect sense inside the Christian worldview, but not necessarily outside).
Let’s go back to the discussion about faith in the inerrancy of the Bible. Looking from the perspective of a traditional Christian it is more than obvious that you are supposed to accept the Bible as absolute truth, even if it disagrees with external evidences.
Imagine a servant whose master just gave him instructions to build a box. He may look at the instructions and think they seem weird, that those are not good instructions to build a box. But hey, it’s his master, he is supposed to obey him no matter what. Imagine now that the master is perfect, a genius, a god. The servant would have to be very dumb to consider his own intelligence over that of his great master. Imagine now that this master is also the servant’s father and has once saved his life. The servant not only would be dumb, but also very ungrateful and insensitive to disobey. He would believe everything the master says, not only motivated by reason, but also by passion. The Bible is the words of such a master for a Christian. Most of Christians find it very hard to rethink these ideas and look at them from the outside. And without doing that, faith in the Bible doesn’t sound all that mad.
What I saw that usually happens to some of those Christians who once realize faith with no evidence doesn’t make much sense, but still feel too attached to their belief, is that they start to look for more concrete evidences to support the faith. I will limit my discussion to faith in the dogma of biblical inerrancy specifically, which I think is the core of conservative Christianism, the foundation for faith in most of the other dogmas. In my next posts, I will address some of the arguments that allege there are reasonable evidences that prove the divine inspiration (hence inerrancy) of the Bible.