• Keith Mathison

Even Atheists Have Faith

Many atheists and skeptics pit faith and reason against each other as if a person who has faith does not use his reason and a person who uses his reason will not need faith. When the New Atheists were all the rage, they made a cottage industry out of pitting the two against each other.

Richard Dawkins, this generation’s most famous atheist, repeatedly made such assertions. Faith, he asserts, is “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (The Selfish Gene, p. 212). Elsewhere he writes, “[F]aith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (The God Delusion, p. 308). In an article in The Humanist, he states, “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion” (“Is Science a Religion?”). In a 1992 speech, he said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence” (From a speech at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, April 15, 1992). Finally, “[Faith] is a state of mind that leads people to believe something - it doesn't matter what - in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence, then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway” (The Selfish Gene, p. 330).

Dawkins is not alone. Sam Harris, another of the New Atheists, put it this way, “It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail” (Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 67). The late Christopher Hitchens, who among the New Atheists at least had the advantage of knowing how to write well, added his two cents, saying: “Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. . . . Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated” (comments made on Penn and Teller television show).

Note that faith is contrasted with evidence, with reason, with the mind. The implication is clear. If you have a brain and know how to use it, you won’t surrender it to faith. All of this is rhetorically powerful, and it appeals to people who want to be considered rational and intelligent. No one wants to be thought a fool, or worse, to be a fool. So, is our only choice the choice between being reasonable and having faith?

No. There is another option, namely, not allowing others to define these terms for us.

If you look at the history of the church, especially during the medieval and Reformation era, you will notice that they speak of faith and reason in a way that is strikingly different from the way our contemporary neighbors speak of these concepts. Reason could be used to speak of a number of things. It could be used to refer to something that humans use: arguments, axioms, laws of logic, etc. It could also be used to refer to something that humans have: their rational faculty that enables them to use the laws of logic. It was thus used to distinguish between kinds of creatures. Angels and men are rational creatures. Trees and tortoises are not.

These earlier Christian authors argued that rational human beings can have knowledge of things in different ways. I can know that the law of non-contradiction is true, for example, simply by virtue of knowing the meaning of the terms involved. It cannot not be true. One would have to assume it in any attempt to disprove it. It is a self-evident truth. Similarly, I can know that “2+2=4” simply by virtue of knowing the meaning of “2,” “4,” “+,” and “=”.

I can know other things by means of direct experience. I can know that my dog is in my house because I can see him there with my own two eyes. I can know other things by demonstration. I can know that Socrates is mortal if I know that all men are mortal and also know that Socrates is a man. My mind, then, can assent to the truth of a proposition because it is self-evident in itself, because of my own direct experience of it, or because it has been demonstrated to me.

But what about faith? Traditionally, understood, faith had to do with assent based upon testimony. I can use my rational faculties to assent to the truth of a proposition based upon my evaluation of someone else’s testimony to the truthfulness of that proposition. That is how earlier generations of Christians used the word “faith” or “belief.” Given this understanding of the word, is faith opposed to reason or to evidence? Certainly not. In fact, because faith involves assent, it requires the use of reason. A non-rational creature cannot have faith because it cannot give rational assent to testimony. Furthermore, evidence is involved because we have reasons for either accepting or rejecting the testimony of another.

Everybody, including atheists, has faith because everybody, including atheists, assents to the truth of many things based solely on testimony from others. We know the time and place of our birth because we assent to the testimony of our parents and/or the person(s) who filled out our birth certificate. We know what we know about historical people and events because we assent to the testimony of the historians who write the history books. We know what we know about parts of the world we haven’t directly experienced because we assent to the testimony of those who have lived in or visited those places. We know most of what we know about science because we assent to the testimony of the scientists who write the science textbooks. There’s not a scientist alive who has personally carried out and personally verified every scientific experiment ever done to confirm every theory and law that he knows is true. They and we know these things because we believe the testimony of the science textbooks we read or the science professors who told us these things.

If we have good reasons for accepting the testimony of someone, it is perfectly rational to believe what he or she says or writes. Dawkins and other atheists know a lot of things based on the testimony of others. In this, they are no different from any other human beings. They have faith too. There is no conflict between faith and reason. There is conflict about whether we have good reasons for accepting the testimony of the Prophets and Apostles.

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