Faith: The Antithesis of Reason?

“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

This is a quotation from Prof. Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”- a hugely popular publication that sold millions of copies worldwide, and in many regards, made Dawkins’ name in popular writing. This notion of the jarring incompatibility of faith with reasoned thought and evidence permeates a lot of the well-reported debate between (and sometimes within both) evangelical religion and scientific atheism.

So is religious faith really that blind and untestable? And what happens when we try to fit faith with science, logic and reason? Well here are my thoughts.

What is faith?

Many people have taken issue with Dawkins’ definition of faith as “belief in spite of… the lack of evidence”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) primary definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”. This broader definition of faith is the one applied in most conversational English. Uses of the word faith such as “he has faith in this government” or “I have faith that my wife is not cheating”, do not necessarily presuppose total lack of evidence; in fact, the general implication is that faith results from evaluation of the available evidence. For example, someone’s faith in a government is likely to be based on a past record or promising proposals that have be analysed, and faith in a spouse is probably based on cumulative evaluation of their character over a significant time.

Therefore, I’d argue that “belief in spite of the lack of evidence” is a better definition for “blind faith”. However, not all faith is necessarily blind, but rather may be (but does not have to be) based on some sort and some level of evidence.

But this then leads to the obvious question: is religious faith blind?

Is Christian faith blind?

I am a Christian, and will spend most of the rest of this article looking particularly at Christian faith. I’m going to be writing about other world religions and evidence for/against them in another article that should be ready in the coming weeks. But for now, let’s turn to Christianity.

The first thing to mention is that the bible claims in fairly explicit terms, that Christian faith is not blind, but rather based on alleged evidence. One of the biographies of Jesus’ life, the gospel of Luke opens with the following introduction:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.1

Luke is writing his gospel to someone he addresses as “Theophilus” (literally: “loved by God”), which is probably a title of endearment, rather than his real name. Luke appears to know that Theophilus has been taught at least something about Jesus and His ministry (verse 4). However, rather than simply hearing claims, Luke wishes Theophilus to “know the certainty” of the truth of these claims. It is interesting to note that this sounds very similar to the OED definition of “faith” as “complete confidence in something or someone”.

However, the interesting element is what Luke instructs Theophilus to base his certainty or “faith” on. In verse 3, Luke writes that Theophilus’ certainty should be ground in Luke’s systematic, thorough, and carefully investigation of the facts surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus. In other words, Luke directs Theophilus to base his faith on the evidence.

So Christianity claims that its certainty (or faith) is grounded in investigable evidence. Obviously these claims need much substantiation. However, before we look at the evidential basis of the claims of Christianity, it is worth making a small detour to look at faith with respect to the atheistic worldview.

Where does the burden of proof lie?

In my conversations and debates about the existence of God, a very common refrain I have heard from people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics is “the burden of proof lies with the Christian”. Or to put it another way, it is up to the Christian to provide enough evidence for the existence of God, while the atheist does not need to provide evidence for God’s absence because atheism is simply a lack of belief in God (rather than active belief in God’s non-existence).

However, I personally find these stances unconvincing on at least two accounts. Firstly, the definition of atheism as passive disbelief in God seems a rather bizarre one.  “Atheism” originates from the Greek word atheos, meaning a– “without” + theos– “God”. So rather than disbelief in God, “atheist” literally means positive belief in God’s absence. The difference is nuanced but important. It means that rather than a passive lack of belief that makes no claims and thus requires no evidence, atheism is a positive belief system that makes the truth claim that God does not exist. A worldview that withholds belief for or against God is one most people would term as “agnostic”. Thus, in order to be credible, the onus is as much on the atheist to provide evidence for God’s absence, as it is on the Christian to provide evidence for God’s presence.

Secondly, the notion of one-sided burden of proof seems decidedly unscientific. In experimental science, credibility of a theory is not warranted by the theory’s proponents providing an arbitrary minimum amount of evidence, which is what some atheists demand from theists. Rather, science works on the principle that in a field of competing theories, belief is put in the theory that has the most evidence in its favour. And thus if a new theory is proposed with more evidence than the original best theory, acceptance is (or rather, should be) given to the new theory. Obviously, what constitutes “evidence” is the source of much debate in all experimental scientific fields. However, the principles ought to apply to the God debate. Rather than Christianity (or any other religion) having to meet an arbitrary level of evidence, we ought to be looking at the evidence as objectively as possible, and then assess which view has more evidence in its favour: God’s existence or God’s absence.

Is God testable?

In an article about faith and evidence, one key argument that I have to mention is the famous “Russell’s teapot” (also known as the “celestial teapot”). In an unpublished 1952 article simply titled “Is There a God?”, philosopher Bertrand Russell eloquently penned this little thought experiment:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity…2

This thought experiment powerfully illustrates the importance of hypothesis testability. In other words, any truth claim should always be framed in a way that is testable and falsifiable (i.e. possible to disprove) in order to have any scientific merit. This may seem obvious, but has been the downfall of many scientific theories, such as Freud’s famously untestable psychoanalytic theory of personality (1905).

This is also where many religious people run into considerable difficulty. At base, science is the study of the physical world. However, God, almost by definition, is usually believed to be some sort of non-physical being who transcends the physical dimensions. If one then adds the incomprehensible characteristics of omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the result is a God that seems to be placed far out of the reach of scientific investigation. God seems like the epitome of an untestable claim!

However, the Christian has one more thing to add to the conversation. I do agree that an omnipotent, omniscient, super-physical being is almost certainly untestable, unless one further factor is added to the paradigm- God revealing Himself to us. It seems to me that an unknowable God could theoretically enter the realm of testability and falsifiability if He revealed (at least some of) His character in a way that was comprehensible and within our scope of testability.  And this is exactly what Christianity claims happened. In the opening verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews, we read:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power”3

The core Christian claim is that 2000 years ago, God revealed Himself to humanity in arguably the most comprehensible media possible- another human being, called Jesus. The bible claims that Jesus walked Earth claiming to be God, teaching, performing miracles, and finally being publically crucified and three days later rising from the dead, vindicating His claim of divinity. No-one can deny that these claims are huge and almost audacious. However, they are also testable. We can look into and evaluate the historical and archaeological evidence, for and against Jesus’ existence, claims, actions and impacts, and thus rigorously test the core claims of the Christian faith. The historical and archaeological evidence for and against the historical Jesus is beyond the remit of this particular blog post. However, I have written extensively about these things in Chapters 4 and 5 of my book Evidence for the Existence of God, and my other blog articles Archaeology: Digging for Christmas and Can We Trust the Gospels?

Does religion hinder science?

Before I close this little escapade through the topic faith and reason, there’s one more little detour I think it is worth taking. In recent decades, the faith/reason debate has produced the offshoot debate of religion’s contribution to and/or hindrance of scientific progress. Atheist Chemistry Professor Peter Atkins writes “humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is inspired only by sentiment.4 Not to be outdone, Dawkins goes one step further: “It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, “mad cow” disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.5 If Atkins and Dawkins are right, faith in God has and will continue to hinder scientific research progress, and thus must be nullified or, if possible, eliminated from human thought.

However, one key issue with this view is what Oxford Mathematics Professor John Lennox terms “the forgotten roots of science6. The 16th and 17th Centuries saw the disciplines of the sciences exploded in terms of new and revolutionary discoveries and progressions, and the birth of the modern scientific method. However, this radical era was not driven by atheistic ideology, but rather substantially by scientists’ beliefs in a creator God, and assumption of the existence of created order to the universe. Towering figures of this era such as Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and Babbage were all theists, (and in fact mostly Christian), and whose hunt for created intelligible order led to the discovery of a huge number of the fundamental laws and principles of nature. As C. S. Lewis succinctly summarised “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a legislator7

So far from being a hindrance to science, faith in God played a huge role in the birth of modern science as we know it. Science is more the intellectual child than existential enemy of Christian faith!

Is faith the antithesis of reason?

So despite the articulate rhetoric from media-savvy “new atheists” such as Dawkins and Atkins, the pitting of faith against reason seems to me to be somewhat of a straw-man argument when place in opposition of Christianity. The bible claims that its core doctrines are testable and falsifiable, and actively invites sceptics and believers alike to investigate the claims for themselves. And in my opinion, the evidence for the Christian faith is both logical and compelling, and far from being a hindrance to logical thought and scientific development, it is integral to the foundations of the science as we know it.

  1. Luke 1:1-4 (NIV)
  2. Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?”, 1952 (Illustrated Magazine, unpublished)
  3. Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV)
  4. Peter Atkins, “Will Science Ever Fail?”, New Scientist, 8 August 1992, p. 32-35
  5. Richard Dawkins, Is Science a Religion?”, The Humanist, Jan/Feb 1997, p. 26-39
  6. John Lennox, “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?”, 2007, 2009, p.20-23
  7. S. Lewis, “Miracles: A Preliminary Study”, 1947, p.110

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