For the rational person, is faith a bad word?

I had the chance to speak with Oxford mathematician, John Lennox, while he was visiting Austin a couple of weeks ago, and as an experienced Christian apologist, he offered me some very good advice. One piece of advice that surprised me, however, was that I should limit my use of the word “faith” in conjunction with science.

The problem is, while we Christians understand what is meant by the word “faith,” atheists don’t. The word has been co-opted and corrupted to mean “blind faith,” as in “believing without reason or evidence” or “believing in spite of evidence to the contrary.” Here’s a typical example (sent to me by an atheist on Twitter):

blackmore_faith

Christians and atheists use the same words, but it should be evident we’re speaking different languages. For the atheist, faith is the act of surrendering your intellect. However, C. S. Lewis probably put it best when he explained that faith is, in fact, the opposite of that: it is the act of holding onto a belief you once accepted through reason in spite of your transitory emotions.

There is a wonderful example of faith in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, which did not make it to the film adaptation. In it, Dr. Arroway, who understands and believes in the laws of physics, is admiring an enormous Foucault pendulum. Her friend, the not-quite-priest, Palmer Joss, asks her if she’s willing to test her faith in the laws of physics by placing herself just a little beyond where the pendulum is predicted to stop in its upward swing. (See the video below.) Admirably, she does so, but admits to having her faith shaken a bit as the several-hundred-pound weight at the end of the pendulum was swinging towards her face. This is precisely what Lewis meant by having faith–holding on to a reasonable belief in spite of your emotions.

There is another, slightly different, sense in which Christians use the word “faith,” which doesn’t have anything to do with emotions. It means to accept something as likely to be true in spite of your inability to prove it. Christian philosophers, William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, point out ways in which we take things on faith, probably without even realizing it. For instance, most of us take it on faith that there is a past. Does that sound ludicrous to you? Well, try proving that the universe didn’t just pop into existence five minutes ago, complete with fake memories of everything that we think happened in the past. You can’t prove it didn’t happen. Try proving that you aren’t in the Matrix and being manipulated to think you’re experiencing things that you really aren’t. You can’t. Yet you very likely go through your daily life taking it on faith that reality is reality and that you are in fact experiencing these things and that your memories are real, because that is a reasonable thing to do.

Atheists engage in faith every bit as much as Christians, but the ones who object to “faith” are either too blind to realize they engage in it, or they pick and choose what sort of faith is acceptable and what is not.

Faith is not a bad word. Unfortunately, Lennox is right, and you won’t get very far with non-Christians if you insist on sticking to the strict definitions of words that carry emotional baggage. By all means, correct atheists who accuse you of having faith as though it’s a bad thing, but when trying to convince them that Christian beliefs are reasonable and not at all incompatible with, say, modern science, you will have to use other words. For all their talk of reason, most atheists are no different than most people in general, and are far more readily convinced by rhetoric than by dialectic. In other words, they are more easily moved by clever appeals to emotion than by strictly logical arguments.

6 thoughts on “For the rational person, is faith a bad word?

  1. “Faith” is a hot topic with me, because everyone is expected to have “faith” in what they are told, be it Atheism, Darwinianism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and all forms of Christianity. I hate it! Yes, faith is necessary at some point, but most people just start with faith and never get educated or discerning back at the beginning easy places of verifying the validity of the data and arguments. I believe in God, but believe God wants us to test every teaching to determine its validity. Most persons who graduate from universities never learned to think, they were simply propagandized and told what they are to think. I say, it is wrong to engage in faith until we have reached the limit of our ability to prove what we believe, which is far beyond what most people stop at. I believe that it is each of our missions in life to learn so much about God that the step to believe him is just a step, but not a leap.

  2. Pastor and Scientist Guy R. Gifford
    MARCH 2, 2016 AT 1:20 PM
    I hate faith! “Faith” is a hot topic with me, because everyone is expected to have “faith” in what they are told by their parents, by their schools, by their universities, by their religious institution, by their political association, and by the news media. And what is worse, they do! Be it Atheism, Darwinianism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and all forms of Christianity, nearly all of their advocates start out by expecting you to have faith in them personally, next they give you a hand full of easily verified or cognitively agreed upon facts, and then they expect you to have faith in the “yarn they spin” in their foundational teachings, and then faith is required at every step along the way of their doctrinal path. Most persons who graduate from universities or any other school never learned to think; they were simply propagandized and told what they are to think. I say, it is wrong to engage in faith until we have reached the limit of our ability to prove what we believe, which is far beyond what most people stop at. I believe that it is each of our missions in life to learn so much about God that the step to believe him is just a step, but not a leap. Yes, faith is necessary at some point, but most people just start with faith and never get educated or discernment at the beginning, at the easy places of verifying the validity of the data and arguments. I believe in God, but believe God wants us to test every teaching to determine its validity. Christianity’s Biblical doctrines are more provable than Darwinianism, yet most Christians have never been given more than that first hand-full of facts, and then told, “you’ve got to have faith”. They were never taught discernment, critical analysis as standard practice. Darwinianism starts with a few provable facts, such as incomplete geologic column information, then asks for a long series of “faith jumps”, then one link, then another long series of “faith jumps”. This cycle goes on a few times until they finally get you to their ultimate goal. Sadly, they call that “proved science”. Wow! What “science” has come to be called. On the other hand, the Catholic church, the Orthodox church, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others teach their acolytes to not ask questions because they don’t have the answers or their answers don’t make sense, so the acolyte is told that they just must have “faith” that what we are teaching you is correct. They either create lemming zombies, or the person leaves the faiths. Protestant Christianity isn’t traditionally this bad, because Protestant Christianity has traditionally given the freedom to ask “why?” and answers are find-able, but many Protestant Pastors are this bad, but they don’t need to be. If only the Protestant Pastors would diligently continue to study to bridge the gaps, they would have a nearly complete bridge, with only a small gap to step over, but not needing to blindly leap over.

  3. When it comes to “Faith”, I’m often reminded of the story of Daniel in the Old Testament. How much more easily would it have been for him just to go along to get along? And yet the steadfastness of his faith revealed the glory of God’s power to overcome every Earthly obstacle.
    Political-correctness didn’t just evolve. It was created by two Marxists after the turn of the century to criminalize undesirable or oppositional speech. Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs, both Marxist theorists, believed that a workers’ paradise could never be completely achieved in the face of Western culture itself, particularly its blind faith in Christianity. The masses could only improve their class standings if they made the state their God.
    The Holy Spirit helps us discern truth from fiction, convicts our consciences when we are morally conflicted and speeks for us when we are unsure of what to say.
    I will not be silenced, censored or intimidated by people who can only accept what they can see, hear and touch. It is the athiest who is incapable of imagining anything greater than him/herself.
    My “FAITH” in Jesus is complete and unshakable because in the end, whether I’m right or wrong, Christ is the only thing worth believing in….
    As a believer if you are still unsure about how to approach the issue of faith, ask yourself this question: Which of God’s promises to you are acceptable to compromise?

  4. Great Article!

    Your quote (‘Atheists engage in faith every bit as much as Christians, but the ones who object to “faith” are either too blind to realize they engage in it, or they pick and choose what sort of faith is acceptable and what is not.’) is similar to the theme of a book recommended to me:

    Frank Turek; ‘Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case’ 2015 ed.,

  5. Given that Sue Blackmore believes in “memes” I don’t think she gets to be taken seriously when she talks about evidence and reason. Whatever she thinks she has evidence and reason for is just the particular mind virus that she has been exposed too and that is blinding her to reality in order to propagate itself.

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