Darwin Catholic has been exploring the question: “What is faith and who has it?”
He’s following on from a discussion on Unequally Yoked, where Leah critiqued two common responses from Christians to the John Loftus challenge on defining faith:
Christian theists make two claims about faith:
- That atheists define the concept of faith wrong, and
- That atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.
So here’s my challenge: Define faith in such a way that it fulfills both requirements!
(Darwin has links to both Unequally Yoked and John Loftus, if you want to see the discussions.)
Darwin sets out “to suggest a few clarifying thoughts, though not a complete answer to the questions posed.” First, he gives the Catholic Encyclopaedia definition. Darwin comments:
…faith in this sense necessarily presupposes belief. I can hardly have faith in my wife’s love (as in, trust in its existence and steadfastness) if I don’t really believe that I have a wife or don’t really believe that she loves me. When Christians talk about “having faith” however, they’re pretty specifically talking about “having faith in God” — that combination of believing in God’s existence and of trusting in God to remain steadfast and trustworthy in His love for us.
So one sense in which Christians might say that atheists also “have faith” is that in which atheists perform a similar action (they believe in some thing and that it may be relied upon steadfastly) but in reference to different objects: loved ones, friends, science, progress, etc. Clearly saying one “has faith in” any of these things would carry somewhat different meaning, because these are different kinds of things, but arguably there is some commonality in the type of action which “having faith” in any one of these things might be.
Darwin goes on to talk further about faith being an action. He suggests, if I am paraphrasing him correctly, that faith is an act of the will to construe the evidence in one way, and not another.
Take Darwin’s example of his faith in his wife. He suggests (in the comment stream) that if he came home to find his wife in bed with the pool guy, the evidence would be such that he would lose faith in his wife. But what if he was told by a neighbour that the pool guy’s car had been parked outside his house for an hour and a half – and he doesn’t even have a pool? If he has faith in his wife, he can construe this evidence in a number of ways – that the car was broken down, that his wife is investigating the feasability of a pool to present him with a coherent plan, that the pool guy or his wife or both brought their kids over to play. If he doesn’t have faith in his wife, he might imagine some other scenarios.
To me, the question is not faith in the existence of God. That there is a god or gods – some divine presence that underpins existence in this world – is not (for me) a question of faith, but a matter of knowledge. It’s iceberg thinking. It sits within what Gaita calls the realm of meaning, and what others have called Poetic Knowledge. It just is. God exists, just as the floor beneath my feet exists. To disbelieve would be to have no faith in myself, in my own senses, intelligence, coherence, and ability to interpret sensory information. And if I disbelieve God, then I might as well disbelieve the floor – one depends as much as the other on my physical and intellectual apprehension of what is.
(I know others have deduced ‘god’ from the world – there is a long tradition of such deductions. They might be said to have faith in that sense of belief. I don’t have that kind of faith.)
The question about which I exercise faith is whether the god or gods I apprehend is/are the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Mary and Elizabeth, of Peter and Paul, of St Thomas and St Theresa. Now that is definitely a question of choosing how to interpret the evidence. Is God good? That’s another one. Is God interested in us? All of these are faith questions that make sense to me (and that I think I have provisional interpretations of the data for).
It may be that, in the future, I’ll find evidence that shows the evidence I’ve seen so far in a new light – a light that causes me to completely reinterpret my current belief structure. It has happened before. That’s why I became a Christian; it’s why I became a Catholic. I can imagine such a scenario. I don’t expect it to happen (any more than I expect to come home and find my husband in bed with the pool guy – and no, we don’t have a pool either). However, I concede that my expectations may be confounded. If you go looking for Truth you have to expect to be surprised from time to time.
But if it does, it’ll give me a new idea of who or what God is, because I don’t have faith that God exists, though I do have faith in His goodness, His mercy, and His interest in this contentious and troublesome species of ours on this insignificant ball of rock in one corner of a not particularly spectacular galaxy.
So here’s the definition I would offer in response to John Loftus’s challenge: faith is a choice to interpret the available evidence in a way that supports your contention.
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