Monday, December 23, 2013

Faith is Belief without Good Evidence

It's been too long since I've engaged in some hardcore Counter Apologetics, but I'm on vacation and I've had the time to do a lot of reading lately.  This article is meant to be an in depth, but hopefully respectful critique of the Christian definition of faith by Tom Gilson.

There's been some back and forth on how the word faith is to be defined in light of Peter Boghossian's new book A Manual for Creating Atheists. 

The primary antagonist I've read defending faith is Christian Apologist Tom Gilson who writes at  To say the least, Tom has written rather extensively against the definitions of faith espoused by Boghossian, Loftus, Lindsay, and Coyne.

What's more is that I think he actually makes a few good points, including a few where I think I may agree with him over those four atheists whose work I admire greatly.  

Now I still  think Tom is wrong on the whole of it, and that's the focus of this post, but the devil is in the details.

Defining Faith - Atheist Style

The primary contention Tom has with our atheist authors is how they define faith, which actually is defined in two ways:

1.) Belief without good evidence.

2.) Pretending to know what you don't know.

You can imagine that attacking the notion of faith while defining it as such is pretty easy, so Tom tries to make a case that Christian theologians and scripture doesn't use the term in this way.  Tom is to be commended for acknowledging that some Christians do use the term in this way, but he argues that is not necessarily true for all Christians.

Where I side with the Christian Apologist

I find myself in some sympathy with Tom when he attacks the definition of faith as "Pretending to know what you don't know".   In my view this definition is problematic, largely because of the word "pretending".  The word implies that a believer knows a belief is false, but claims it as true anyway, which is effectively accusing them of lying.

I don't take kindly when Christians claim that I never really was a believer despite what I say otherwise, so I prefer to not make the same accusation in return.  Further, I have no epistemic access to what goes on in the mind of a believer, so a definition that presumes I do have that access seems flawed from the start.

I think the main point the atheists were trying to make is that believers are typically aware that justifying things on faith is a tact admission that they're on shaky epistemic grounds, but that's not the same as pretending to know what they don't know. 

Even then I think that accusation could be problematic in some cases, so I'm not really going to elaborate on it here, instead moving on to the far more defensible position of faith meaning "Belief without evidence."

Back to Countering

My main contention is that defining faith as "belief without good evidence" is not only defensible in the religious context, but it's actually implied that this is what is meant in the Christian bible, at least in some cases.

That last part is critical, because the central piece to Tom's argument is that the Christian bible doesn't teach that the word faith implies belief without good evidence.  He also correctly points out that for his argument it doesn't matter if the events described in the bible are actually true.  All he needs to show is that the bible doesn't mean the word faith is to be understood as "belief without good evidence".

What the Bible Says

The primary piece of scripture that an atheist appeals to which defines faith as "belief without evidence" is Hebrews 11:1

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Like many Christians in cases with problematic scripture, Tom's first response is to yell "context!" rather loudly.

This appeal to context can be successful, but as many politicians and even apologists have taught us, context doesn't always save them from the problems that appear present.

Still, it can be a legitimate defense. So let's look at the other verses, starting with the verse Tom prefers to quote, Hebrews 11:6

"And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."

Tom contends that "faith is tightly associated with believing in the reality of God and his goodness to those who seek him. I believe this is the hope that’s referred in verse 1. Of course it’s not seen."

At first this seems entirely circular.  If we're talking about faith in a god, then in verse 6 it directly says that faith (at least in part) simply is believing that god exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

I'm not seeing much relief for Tom's rebuttal of faith as "belief without good evidence" by combining verse 6 with verse 1.  If "belief in god and his goodness to those who seek him" is the "hope" in verse 1, then faith is the assurance of this? Based on what? The entire contention here is that the assurance of god existing and having properties is based on no evidence.  The "conviction of things not seen" part certainly doesn't help either. 

Notice Tom's last line there: "Of course it's not seen."  Why? Why is it not seen? What inference do you have where it is just obvious that the existence of god is something that is inherently unseen?  The fact that god doesn't show up directly?

The point is that if it was seen, or more accurately, evident to the senses - then you wouldn't need to call it faith in the first place! This is because things that are evident to the senses counts as "good evidence".

 Let's look at some more context, let's look at Hebrews 11:1-2

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

"For by it the people of old received their commendation"

Other translations (the NIV) state verse two as: "This is what the ancients were commended for."

The contention is that Hebrews 11:1 strongly implies that faith is belief without good evidence.  My point in support of that is that we can look at other places in the bible where people are commended/blessed explicitly for their belief without good evidence.

The Best Biblical Example of Faith as Belief without Good Evidence

The best example of this is in the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20:24-29


24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I think this strongly illustrates that belief without good evidence is something that the bible "commends".  Note that this is not "belief without any evidence", since Thomas did have the testimonial evidence of the other apostles that Jesus rose from the dead.  Note that this testimony violated all of Thomas's background knowledge about dead people staying dead, which is why he was justified in his disbelief.

At best Faith Lowers the Evidential Bar

The contention from Tom I'm sure will be that such testimonial evidence does or should count as "good evidence".  We can dispute that, but what I think Tom can't dispute is that having direct evidence of seeing Jesus risen is absolutely "better evidence" than the simple testimony that contradicts existing background knowledge or prior probability.
I would be astonished to hear anyone claim that such testimony evidence of someone being risen from the dead is as good as direct empirical evidence of said person being alive when you previously observed them to be dead.

This is extremely important because even in this best case scenario faith is necessarily lowering the bar of the quality of evidence required for belief! 

This because even if we consider the testimony to be "good evidence" (and it's not) it is unquestionable that the empirical evidence is "better evidence".

Other Examples

I encourage you to look at the rest of Hebrews 11 for the other examples listed of faith that the ancients were commended for:

·         Noah heard a voice in his head telling him to build an ark for a flood, and he built it on faith.
·         Abraham heard a voice in his head telling him to go live in a far away land he didn't know how to get to, and he travelled and lived somewhere on faith.

·         Sarah believed on faith that she would have a child despite the fact that she was well past the child rearing age because god told her she would.

Notice there's not a complete lack of evidence here, in each case the person hears something from god - in a dream, or as a voice.  Is that "good evidence"?
Do we put much trust in the person who hears voices that tell them to do things?  Notice in Sarah's case she's believing in something that she has very good reasons to not believe.  That's believing something someone told you despite evidence to the contrary.

That's certainly a definition of faith, and one Tom will reference in the future.  It's trusting in the promise of another person.  And it certainly takes a lot of faith to believe the word of another person when we have strong evidence to the contrary of what they're saying. 

Of course we also consider it foolish to continue to have faith when the evidence to the contrary piles up higher and higher.

The point I have here is that faith in these shaky situations is still very different than faith in the context of modern believers like Tom.  In each case here we have individuals with direct experience of interactions with god.  They hear the voice of god, and in many cases are able to actually converse directly. 

There is admittedly a stronger version of this situation with the Israelites that Tom references in his allusion to their faith as described in Psalm 106.  Notice the Israelites there have an even better direct experience with god, it's not just an interactive personal revelation, but direct empirical experience with divine power.

Those of us living today have no such experiences at all.  Or do we?

A Sensus Divinitatus?

Tom makes reference to the work of Alvin Plantinga who contends that humans have a "Sensus Divinitatus" which is a "sense of the divine" in the same way that we have a sense of sight or touch. 

It's basically a fancy way of saying that someone has personal revelation from god of god's existence, goodness, etc.  For Christians this is called the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" that lets them know not only that god exists but also that Christianity is true.

Tom does some fabulous rhetoric with the standard atheistic response to this claim.  If an atheist says "that's not evidence for god, that's just psychology at best!" then the atheist is "pretending to know something they don't know" since the atheist doesn't have access to the subjective experience of the person who claims to have the "sensus divinitatus".

In one sense, Tom is right here.  As an atheist, I don't know what is going on in the head of a believer.  But I do know some other things that not only give me extremely good reasons to doubt the believer is experiencing the divine, they also give the believer good reason to doubt their own experiences of the divine.

 This includes:

  1. I know I do not have any experiences of the divine, even if I desire such an experience and pray for it.

  1. Psychology does demonstrate that human beings do have an over-active agency detection system, leading us to falsely attribute agency to experiences where there is none.

  1. Other people from other religions also claim to have similar experiences of the divine, which leads to completely contradictory accounts of "divine revelation".
These three facts are just as evident to believers who claim a Christian "Sensus Divinitatus" as they are to us atheists. In fact take note that Tom can not deny points 1 and 3 without engaging in "pretending to know things he doesn't know". 

In fact Tom would be begging the question if he insists that his Sensus Divinitatus is right, but the one in a Mormon, Hindu, or Muslim is wrong (or the work of an evil spirit), or that the atheist "doesn't honestly seek god". 

So if everyone plays by the same rules and does not "pretend to know something they don't know" then the claim to the Sensus Divinitatus is one that should be treated with skepticism by both atheists and believers.

But it gets even worse, since the whole point of bringing up the Sensus Divinitatus was presumably to draw an analogy between believers today and the figures in the bible who were commended in trusting the voice in their head or the angels that actually showed up to talk to them.

To get back to my main point, unless Tom is going to admit that his "Sensus Divinitatus" works like it did for the figures in the bible, where he is having actual conversations with god or angels, then his situation isn't analogous to the one where "faith" in the biblical context is referenced.

To my knowledge believers in the Sensus Divinitatus don't claim to have that kind of experience, so the analogy between the Sensus Divinitatus and what went on in the bible is a false analogy.

Other Evidences?
Tom alludes to historical evidence in the bible where prophecies were fulfilled: Noah survives a flood, Moses led people out of Egypt while doing signs and wonders.  Joshua led people to victory over Canaanites with signs and wonders.  Sarah has a child after menopause. Etc.

His point here is that faith as referenced in the bible points to evidence of signs and wonders, miracles to be precise, as evidence to justify the faith.  He's not claiming that the bible is necessarily true in all this, but that the bible's use of the word "faith" references evidence to justify belief in god - so the atheist definition of "faith" is false.

The problem for Tom is that he is just flat out wrong with this reference.  Read Hebrews 11 carefully.  Noah had faith in what god told him about the ark and the storm, and that faith was (supposedly) vindicated by the flood.  Joshua had faith god would deliver victory in the siege of Jericho, and that faith was vindicated when the walls fell.  The same applies for Moses, Sarah, and Abraham.

In each case faith comes first, it is the trusting in god on scant evidence.  The miracles weren't evidence for faith for those people mentioned, they already had to have faith to do the actions that led up to the miracles occurring! 

At best they're supposedly evidence of god for people who came after those who were contemporaries of Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, etc. And that's assuming they actually witnessed the miracles.

Not only is Tom wrong when it comes to the faith of the actual people referenced in Hebrews 11, but it creates a deeper problem for his definition.  Even in the best case scenario for Tom where miracles are pointed to as evidence for god for the Israelites who witnessed the miracles - this is very different than the situation Tom and believers face today! It's another false analogy.

We don't find any miracles happening currently.  In fact one of the main reasons actual historians don't consider the bible to be historical is that they describe events that are in no way analogous to what we have going on now.  It would be one thing if Mark 16:17-18 were true and only Christians could perform those miracles today.  That would be verifiable and common, which would lead us to believe that maybe the miracles described in the bible are true.  But as it stands the bible is no different than any other religious text with claims of miracles, or even the claims of miracles made by people living in India who witnessed signs and wonders performed by the likes of Sathya Sai Baba.

Historical Definition vs. Current Usage

Tom may be tempted to brush over all of these issues because his goal is to try and say that faith as it's described in these senses in the bible is about being based on the evidence of direct experience of miracles, which is not "belief without good evidence".

The first problem with this approach is that faith is not used only in this context in the bible, and faith is also used to support the idea of belief without good evidence.  The second problem is that if faith is belief in light of good evidence, and that evidence is described as direct experience of miracles - then that's not the kind of faith that is practiced today.

Tom can't have it both ways - even if faith in the bible was always discussed in reference to having miraculous evidence for belief in god, then Tom's "faith" today requires lowering that bar an inconceivable amount if he's going to rely on Natural Theology and a fuzzy "Sensus Divinitatus" to count as "good evidence".

Final False Equivalences
The last bit I want to address in this too long post is Tom's references to "knowing things unseen".  He uses two examples: knowing scientific facts about the dark side of the moon before we observed it, and the notion that if we found a lost Beethoven sonata, Tom would "know" it was good music.

First lets tackle science.

The facts about the dark side of the moon were technically a hypothesis that was then tested when we arrived.  Further, this hypothesis was based on solid empirical data that was and still is repeatable and falsifiable.  What we have here are predictions based on good evidence, and in the end we are able to verify this prediction in principle.  That's a key difference from religious faith.

If science operated with faith as defined in Hebrews 11:1 and used like it is by contemporary believers then we would have scientists going around proclaiming things like "String Theory is True!"  We need not worry about cosmological arguments, because the fundamental nature of reality is Strings, and the fine-tuning argument is bunk because there's definitely a multiverse out there.  

This isn't how science operates though, and we don't go around proclaiming things like string theory because there's currently no way to test String Theory.  We only have things described by already existing theories that String Theory also describes extremely accurately, but we don't know what is really the case.

The sonata example is a bit more interesting, since Tom claims that knowing the unseen doesn't necessarily require the scientific method.  The first thing to point out is that "good music" would actually be "something Tom would consider to be good music".  Second it would still be based on solid, repeatable evidence - Tom's prior experience with Beethoven's other music.  It is again something that would then be testable once found, we could listen to the sonata and judge if it were good.  This is not analogous to the situation with god at all where Christians argue he is fundamentally untestable, and it's not close to the descriptions of faith used in the bible either. 

The Hard Conclusion
I hope I've shown that even when we look at how the bible uses the word faith, we see plenty of instances where it equates to believing something without good evidence, and that the examples given in Hebrews 11 are ones where belief on faith comes before any miraculous evidence is provided to bolster it.  In nearly every case the miracle is the reward for faith, not the evidence for it.

Finally, even if the bible did use faith in the manner Tom says it is, he is dodging the fundamental point that Boghossian, Loftus, Lindsay, and Coyne make - that faith is not a reliable way of knowing things to be true.  That is the true issue at stake here, since the situation Tom and modern Christians find themselves in is not the same situation the characters in the bible supposedly found themselves in.   Tom doesn't live in a world where signs and wonders are prolific, he has to take it on faith that the stories of miracles in the bible are true and the ones in other holy books aren't.


  1. And so you have shown that, according to your reading of the Bible, faith is sometimes belief without good objective evidence. Boghossian says it always is. You selected passages that you can interpret to support your position, but a broader selection of faith passages contradicts it, showing that in the majority of cases, faith follows evidence. Would you like to see a list of links demonstrating this? The Scripture references themselves are far too numerous to list.

  2. I think I've shown quite a bit more than that Tom.

    I've shown that:

    1.) Your appeal to the Sensus Divinitatus is undermined by considering all the evidence and having no parties "pretend to know what they don't know".

    2.) Your appeals to evidence in Hebrews 11 is undermined because in the cases listed the miracle evidence comes after the person mentioned showed faith. Your own interpretation of Heb 11:1 deviates very much from a direct reading of the passage and other examples in the text.

    3.) Your ways of "knowing things unseen" are false analogies to what you do when it comes to presenting "evidence for god". Notice how scientists don't have "faith" that String Theory is true, they withhold belief until they can test it.

    4.) I've shown that there are passages, including the ones you quoted, that show faith is belief without good evidence. In fact I've shown that the person you claim is god incarnate commends those who believe without good evidence . I'm not seeing how you can interpret your way out of that passage, and that's critical.

    Once your bible and your god start commending faith in the sense that Boghossian uses the word then your case is undermined. This is especially hard considering the other passages can be interpreted in multiple ways.

    In other cases, the passages are where "good evidence" in the form of direct experience of miracles is referenced in terms of faith. I don't deny that if I had direct experience of miracles I would believe, in fact I've written on this extensively before: