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Alternatives to Faith

04/17/09 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

I asked my readers to offer their definitions of the word faith. I'd like to stir together their thoughts along with the definitions provided in the dictionary and the Bible, adding a dash of my own opinion and boiling it down into a concise, simple working definition for faith.

Here are some of the things my readers said:

  • Faith is to believe in something when everything else around is saying there is no possible way.
  • Faith is living in a reality that has not yet come and by proof that isn't testable.
  • Believing in something that can't be proven to be true.

Dictionary.com has: "Belief that is not based on proof."

The Bible, in Hebrews 11:1, says: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Here's my summary of all of these definitions:

Certainty without evidence.

There are other definitions for the word faith, but I am responding to this specific one. This is the type of faith people refer to when I ask them questions and point out the lack of evidence for their religion and they tell me that I just need to have faith.

Faith is usually invoked only for questions to which the evidence does not give a clear answer. It doesn't sound quite right to say, "I have faith that water boils at 100°C." We can settle that question with a simple experiment. But faith is likely to come up for harder questions like

  • How did the universe begin?
  • How did life begin?
  • What is the purpose of life?
  • What is the source of our shared moral values?
  • What happens to our consciousness after we die?

Faith allows people to have certainty in the answers they give to these questions. It feels nice to be certain, but if that certainty is misplaced, it can be harmful. Here are some alternatives to faith: The facts, uncertainty and inquiry.

Salmonella is real.

1. The facts

In some cases, faith is applied to a question that has already been answered. In the years before the germ theory of disease and the discovery of bacteria, many explanations were put forward for why people got sick. One idea was that evil spirits can inhabit a body and make a person sick. This idea is even present in the New Testament. Now we know that diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses and malfunctions within the body. Some people still believe that some health problems are caused by evil spirits, but most of us recognize that faith is not a good approach to the question of disease. Rather than having certainty without evidence we can look at the facts and put our confidence in the explanations that are backed by evidence. We still don't know everything about disease, but we know enough to see that facts, when available, are better than faith.

We should all heed Augustine's warning and be careful not to put faith in an idea that is plainly contradicted by the facts.

The Sombrero Galaxy

2. Uncertainty

For some questions, the jury is still out. When we look at the facts, we find that we can't give a confident answer backed up by evidence. Faith allows one to have confidence in an answer that is not backed up by evidence. Is this type of faith-based answer better than no answer at all? I contend that it is not. I think it is better to humbly acknowledge our uncertainty than to put our confidence in speculation. When we don't know, let's just say "I don't know." To put it another way, confidence in an idea should be proportional to the evidence.

Take the origin of the universe as an example. Despite the best efforts of science, we still don't know exactly how the universe came into being. What existed before the Big Bang? What triggered the event? Scientists don't know and may never know. Faith allows people to confidently answer that a god created the universe, but how useful is that? If anything, it brings up more questions than it answers (where did this god come from?). I think it's better to say "I don't know" than to have certainty in an explanation with no evidence. We might find this certainty comforting, but it's a false comfort. And if it prevents us from looking for real answers, then it may cause more harm than good.

Science vs. Faith (click to make it bigger)

3. Inquiry

Once we acknowledge our uncertainty, it's possible to begin an inquiry. Faith, on the other hand, hampers inquiry. If you have certainty in an answer, you won't bother looking for a better answer. This is why creationism (even when rebranded as "intelligent design") is so maddening to those of us who support science. Once someone buys into the idea that a god created each species individually, they won't be interested in or open to the scientific inquiry that is uncovering real answers.

Science is a type of systematic inquiry. The first step is to make a guess (hypothesis) about how something works. The next step is to carefully perform experiments and gather data to see if the facts confirm or contradict the hypothesis. A well-designed scientific inquiry can be repeated by other scientists and should give them the same results. Only after all of these steps, can the scientists draw conclusions with any confidence. And even then those conclusions are subject to revision if someone uncovers contradicting evidence. It won't do to make a hypothesis, convince yourself that it is 100% certain and then ignore all contradicting evidence. That's bad science. But that is exactly how faith works.

Faith also begins with a guess. But then it skips all the other steps and jumps straight to certainty. The main support for faith comes not from facts, but from stories, traditions, rewards and punishments. Someone comes up with the idea that a sound of thunder is caused by Thor slamming his hammer against the mountains. He tells stories about why Thor is doing this and those are incorporated into ceremonies to appease the god. Those who believe in the stories and follow the traditions are promised that the deity will watch out for them and reward them after they die. Doubters are threatened with temporal and eternal punishment. It's impossible to discover the real answer without first giving up our certainty in the imaginary answer. Faith has to be replaced with uncertainty and then inquiry. If the faith answer is really true, then a rigorous inquiry will confirm that. We have nothing to lose by giving up faith.

Faith, as I defined it above, can and should be replaced with facts, uncertainty and inquiry. We will lose a little comforting certainty, but we will gain a universe full of amazing, surprising and useful facts. There will still be mysteries to solve and goals to strive for. We will find that reality is more awe-inspiring than anything imagined by faith.




I appreciate the honesty and sincerity with which you post.
I think that you bring up valid points on faith and evidence, but I think you leave out a major chunk of possible evidence. There is evidence that is not scientific (or provable). Science is really more of a way of thinking when you get down to it, and I hope that most of us think scientifically when we read the Bible or other documents…when we view the world, man-made creations, or creations that we have no proof as to how they were made.
But, when there is no scientific proof, most of us turn to other forms of “proof". Historical, logical, textual, or even relational. These aren’t really proven at all. There is no way to prove them with direct evidence. Mostly because there is no quantitative evidence for these things. I still contend that there is evidence. Historically, there is very strong evidence for the life and person of Jesus. I am reading Studying the Historical Jesus by Bock, which seems to bring up a lot more historical evidence than you have given credit to in previous posts.
You certainly have faith in things you cannot prove. You have faith that your daughter has feelings or emotions, even though you cannot see her feelings. You see the outpouring of them and assume they are there. You assume that everyone else has feelings and emotions, because they tell you that they do, or because a scientist measures brain waves…the point is, we can’t be sure. You can’t go inside someone else and find out.
I have faith that I was born on September 11, 1979. My parents told me it was so. I have a birth certificate. But both of those things could have been falsified fairly easily. I don’t worry about having faith in that because I trust my parents. I probably would even trust the hospital records (but I am less likely to, because I don’t know anyone personally that verified my birth certificate). I don’t think that lack of scientific proof demands that I believe nothing on this account. I think that I should go on celebrating my birthday, because it is more likely that I was born on that day than any other. But, if I came into evidence that I was wrong, then that would be something to talk about.

Ultimately my decision to believe in God, and Jesus for that matter, comes from my relationship with Him and the extraordinary man that he was (as the New Testament records Him). I have read several books that try to disprove the New Testament account, and they either nit-pick on unimportant details, or don’t back up their claims.

I know that you desire truth above all, and I have a high level of respect for that.


Katie [Visitor]04/17/09 @ 22:27

The whole subject is so subjective. If someone believes God created the world exactly like the Genesis account and doesn’t feel the need to inquire beyond that, I can’t say that’s a bad thing for them. I wouldn’t hope for everyone to feel that way or the government to force that view on anyone, but on an individual basis I don’t see a problem. Many don’t inquire because of a lack of interest that has nothing to do with a predetermined belief or faith. I don’t support disregarding facts if they don’t fit with your religious beliefs, but if someone does then c’est la vie.

maryellen [Visitor]04/18/09 @ 16:47
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/19/09 @ 17:43
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/19/09 @ 18:01

Danny, On the feelings evidence…You have no idea how or if anyone but yourself feels…ever. You take it on faith each time…their actions might give evidence to their feelings, but you take it on faith that anyone but yourself has feelings. The only evidence you have is that you feel, and that they verbally tell you that they do. Yet based on your own experience and your trust in others, you believe soundly that everyone else has feelings.

I do take seriously the claims of many other religions of any time. I think that very few religions have been made up out of thin air, but most have been born from experiences and sometimes dreams that are very real. I take many of their claims as historically accurate. If you are talking Greek and Roman Mythology, then I can read Plutarch’s Lives and get the rest of the story. He studied the lives of those people who where commonly turned into gods and goddesses and gives us insight into true lineage. I also find that most polytheistic religions have a very petty nature about them, so I don’t give them as much weight. But that is not to say that I discount the authenticity from which the stories came. I don’t believe anything I read to be the entire story, but I do believe that everything I read has some truth to it.

I still don’t think that any of the religions I have ever come in contact with hold a candle to Jesus. He is absolutely extraordinary.

I also don’t think that Christianity bears the marks of human creation…but since I am human, I might be a bad judge of it.

I guess our main discrepancy would be on the actual evidence of Jesus’ life. I did not read Misquoting Jesus by Ehrman, I did read some reviews on the book, and your post on it. The issues he lays down are not new or profound. I have also read some writing from Bruce Metzger, who he studied under at Princeton. Metzger is one of the leading scholars on Textual Criticism, especially in the NT. Yet Metzger does not see the need to throw out the whole person of Christ based on the scribal changes that Ehrman presents. One review I read of Ehrman’s book also pointed out that none of the texts were actually quotes from Jesus, which makes the title a little strange.

I guess we come down to an impasse again. I think the evidence is convincing and you do not. I would challenge you to read Studying the Historical Jesus by Darrell Bock. If nothing else, to explain to me where the faulty historicity comes in…as I will probably miss it, but I would like to know if I am missing something.

Thanks for your detailed response.


Katie [Visitor]04/19/09 @ 21:18

I’ve been meaning to post on your previous comment on Hebrews 11, but I’ll do it here instead.

I think my definition of faith probably is closer to something like “holding to your the principles” or “living according to the things you think are true.” This applies equally to the construction of iPods (see the comments on Danny’s earlier post on Faith if you’re confused) as to belief in God.

I don’t think “faith” in the New Testament could have meant simply believing in something in the way we think of it today. If it did, Jesus’s commands to “Believe in me” would not make sense. He was right in front of them, after all. To believe in him wasn’t a matter of believing that he existed like someone might believe Santa exists, but rather being faithFUL to him and what he was saying. The Philippian jailer was told “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” presumably before they had said anything else. The blind man asks Jesus “tell me who the Son of Man is so that I might believe in Him.” These uses of the word, I think, make more sense if one reads “be faithful” instead of “believe” where “pistos” occurs in the Greek. Even the English word “belief” (according to “etymonline.com") seems to have originally meant to “hold dear or love". Intellectual assent to an abstract and unproven concept seems to me a later invention and more Greek than Christian in some ways.

At first I was sort of excited by your translation as “faith in things you have faith in” because such a translation sort of supports my definition. Faith is being faithful to what you know. After looking at the Greek myself, though, I think the verse means something more like “Lived faithfulness, is a testimony, the hard evidence, of the things we’re all hoping for but haven’t yet seen.”

The evidence of the lives of those who lived faithfully is proof that what we hope for is real. Moses, Rahab, etc. all lived faithfully, and the Old Testament narrative (which would not really have been in doubt to the author’s audience) confirm this was the right choice. Some folks, it’s true, were sawed in two or otherwise died before things worked out for them, but when we (that is, the early Christians) look back “we” can see that their faithfulness was merited.

You (Danny) still say you believe, though you don’t yet know why, in the “illusion” of free will, and in something like a morality not based on survival of the fittest. When I follow these things through to their conclusion and I (at least) end up at something that starts to resemble a Christian worldview. Faith, I think, is living out these things one intuitively “knows” but for which proof is (perhaps) forthcoming. There is a danger in being unwilling to revise what one “knows” in the face of incontrovertible evidence (as, you point out, even Augustine says). But, I think there is no less a danger in deliberately rejecting those things one deeply feels to be true, even if they cannot be proven by a particular ontological structure.

Doug [Visitor]04/20/09 @ 20:01

I hope you don’t reject Christianity because of certain unenlightened Christians who don’t know what they’re talking about when they say “just take it on faith.”

Zenas The Lawyer [Visitor]http://graspingthegospel.blogspot.com04/22/09 @ 05:05

You believe life just spontaneously happened from non-life, right? Have you ever seen it happen? Has science ever created an experiment that allowed it to happen? If no, you have FAITH life came from non-life! If yes, you have FAITH that some entity, man, can manipulate non-living materials in the right quantities and ratios in the right environment to create life from non-life! Welcome to faith!!!

Larry [Visitor]  04/25/09 @ 13:38
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/25/09 @ 17:06

“This is the type of faith people refer to when I ask them questions and point out the lack of evidence for their religion and they tell me that I just need to have faith.”

You are correct to find a fallacy with this definition of faith. I would submit that “Christians” who take this view of faith are incorrect. And there are plenty of well-meaning, thoughtful Christians who would disagree with this definition as well.

Zenas The Lawyer [Visitor]http://graspingthegospel.blogspot.com04/28/09 @ 14:48
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/04/29/09 @ 05:28

I didn’t mean to imply that other Christians were not true Christians. Sorry for the confusion.

There’s evidence. The question is whether or not you believe that it is good evidence. I do. And I take it that you don’t. It is good and right to demand evidence that would support what one believes.

I hope you continue to find answers in your search for truth.

Zenas The Lawyer [Visitor]http://graspingthegospel.blogspot.com04/30/09 @ 05:01

Had a discussion with my small group yesterday about the meaning of faith in the New Testament and we talked about my current leaning towards faithfulness as a better definition.

Some people pointed out that faith seems often to be contrasted with fear (I think the best example is when Peter starts to sink in the storm and Jesus says, “Oh you of little faith.") and also contrasted(I think somewhat less often) with doubt (James, for instance, says the person who asks something of the Lord must “believe and not doubt” or “he will not receive anything from the Lord.” The promise of a mountain moving into the sea when spoken to is another example.

This puts the definition of faith closer to Danny’s definition (one that I admit is common in some Christian circles and very common in the secular world). But, in the New Testament, I still don’t think faith usually means holding blindly to something that doesn’t make any sense to you at all, but rather, the sort of faithfulness that means that when you are confronted with two conflicting realities you make a choice out of a sense of commitment to a person/Person. For instance–Jesus is walking on water and you are too, but past experience says this is impossible, but you decide to believe that walking on water is possible because you decide Jesus is trustworthy. Or, a more earthly example, you choose to continue to trust a spouse’s love despite situational evidence to the contrary because of past experience or even because of a felt, inexplicable, awareness of that person’s love.

Of course, here faith can be a virtue, but it can also very quickly become a vice if, for instance, a victim of abuse faithfully stays in a relationship in ways that are destructive to all involved. The faithfulness needs to be well placed, and, like most potentially very good things, can also be very bad if misused/misplaced.

Doug [Visitor]05/01/09 @ 23:06

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