Faith: A Disappearing Concept

Mark Rubinstein

If you and I disagree about a theorem in mathematics, we might check our derivations together or consult a textbook. If we question the existence of the Golden Gate Bridge, we can take a trip to San Francisco and see if it is there. Doctrines justified by religious faith are qualitatively different. Crucial aspects of faith claims take place where we can’t see them (God, heaven, hell, the soul, the irrecoverable past, or the uncharted future). If it were practical to rely upon textbooks, check a chain of deduction, or simply observe, these claims would long ago have been converted into refuted falsehoods or verified truths. Forestalling this, opposing forces are encamped on twin peaks separated by an epistemological divide, with observation and reason on one side and revelation and faith on the other—a conflict commonly abridged to “reason versus faith.”

In a typical interchange with a believer, we eventually get around to faith. Imagine that we reach a point where the believer honestly admits that he or she doesn’t have enough evidence to fully support his or her beliefs—then draws out the big gun of faith, intending to silence all opposition. At first he or she justifies faith by reference to the reassurance it offers in the face of death, the psychological need for certainty or closure, escape from existential loneliness and isolation, and so forth. But I am not interested in what the believer chooses to think to make him- or herself feel better. Instead, I ask in what way beliefs based on religious faith are true. Faith is fundamentally the “last defense”—the residuum after all evidence has been examined and found wanting, all arguments from comfort set aside.

Faith came into its own with the invention of Christianity. The word faith (in its sense of “having faith”) essentially does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but appears, on average, once per page of the New Testament (254 times). Jesus can or will heal only those who have faith. And those who believe but never see Jesus will be rewarded even more than those who have witnessed his miracles. Pauline Christianity takes this even further, elevating faith, along with hope and charity, to a virtue. But what does it really mean to believe something “on faith”?


What Faith Is Not

“Faith” can mean “trust,” in the sense of deciding to rely upon something without implying belief, but that is not the kind of faith I am discussing here. The faith at issue here is not the faith that, say, your father will recover from an illness. People often say this, but what they usually mean is that they hope their fathers will recover. The faith that I find intriguing is not the faith that is consciously pretending but rather the faith of certainty (or more generally, the faith that moves one closer to 100 percent belief).

I have often heard the argument that one cannot escape faith. To conclude from observation that a chair exists, it is claimed, also requires faith. This is an example of a popular rhetorical trick in which a misleading conclusion follows from taking a word out of its normal context and using it in another seductively related but inappropriate way. The proper response is to reject the expanded context, because it trivializes the useful distinction between faith and reason.

I believe that I am now typing on a laptop computer. Am I taking that “on faith?” No, I believe that because, through the senses of seeing, feeling, and hearing, that is what I am experiencing. People usually reserve the phrase “on faith” to refer to something that is not sensually experienced. Is my confidence that something that has not yet happened, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow, based on faith? No; it is based on deduction used to derive scientific theories of cause and effect and on induction from my past experience, because on every day that I can remember the sun has risen. When you say you accept the truth of the Bible on faith or that you believe in God or Jesus on faith, I think you mean something else—you mean that you are not using only observation, deduction, or induction to reach your belief.

Here is a related common confusion. Some argue that science, no less than religion, must be taken on faith. To quote physicist Paul Davies: “Science has its own faith-based system. All science proceeds from the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.… Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith—namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws” (“Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, November 24, 2007).

There are two problems with this statement. First, science does not presume that nature is rational and intelligible. Rather, science, by noticing regularity in nature, provides evidence that nature is rational and intelligible. Second, we see the word faith here, but Davies gives it an uninteresting and almost tautological meaning. Given the current state of knowledge, it is obvious that we do not know how all the laws of physics got there, and it could even be that the laws do not apply in all parts of the universe or at all times. The danger of saying that science and religion are both “faith-based” misleadingly suggests that their standards of knowledge are the same and that once faith creeps in (as it must, Davies argues) then faith is justifiably used to support beliefs not based on observation and reason. The interesting issue surrounding faith, it seems to me, is whether or not there is a source of reliable knowledge apart from observation and reason.

Another source of confusion comes when one argues that you take the facts your teacher tells you about gravity, ancient Greece, Virginia Woolf, and so forth, on faith. But this is, again, not interesting. Taking facts of this sort on faith is a practical necessity, because you do not have time to investigate everything. When you believe claims based on this type of authority, (1) you know that observation and reason have been used to determine them, and (2) you know the experts agree. The faith-based “truths” of religion fail both tests.

There is yet another confusion about the meaning of faith that should be sorted out. Conclusions based on deduction, such as theorems in geometry, proceed from unproven postulates. If these postulates cannot be directly verified by observation, then they are in this special sense taken on faith. Although many systems of deduction cannot dispense with faith in this sense as a starting point, this does not mean that this kind of faith can dispense with reason. In fact, it can be tested by reason. First, we scan the hypotheses looking for internal contradiction. Second, we can compare deductions from the hypotheses to observation. If the postulates taken on faith lead to any conclusion that is contradicted by observation, then at least one of the postulates must be rejected. But even this special sense is not what is meant by taking something on faith, because faith is construed to be beyond the reach of reason. Nonetheless, faith usually is constructed on top of but not implied by a supporting structure of observation and reason.



Some argue that you must decide issues of faith one way or the other. In its 1997 Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church declares that “faith is certain.” But a person who understands probability knows this is not true. I believe that such black-and-white thinking, mistaken as it is, fosters religious faith. Unsurprisingly, religious thinkers from Augustine to C. S. Lewis have denied the usefulness of probabilistic thinking, at least with
respect to matters of faith. From our limited human perspective, uncertainty is all around us, but we are not at its mercy because we can use probability to measure it. For example, we can say that from our limited personal perspective, there is a fifty-fifty probability a coin will land tails; for something else, such as the existence of God, the probability of an outcome might be ninety-ten. And that probability estimate can matter greatly, because it will affect our choices. Probability is one way we humans can measure the degree of our ignorance, and it is sheer foolishness to give up such a useful tool of logic. The sound basis behind the use of probability does not exempt religion.

Until the seventeenth century, when the groundwork for probability theory was laid, philosophical discourse commonly excluded the middle ground. A proposition was either true or false; it was not probably true or false. The failure to develop such an important extension of logic was maintained by circular feedback: the misunderstanding of the usefulness of personal probability abetted the growth of religion, and religion in turn delayed the development of probabilistic thinking.

The historical evidence for a measured skepticism is overwhelming. Many things that were once universally believed to be certain have turned out to be false. Saying that you are certain means that there is literally nothing you could learn in the future that would change your mind. Surely, such a position is too extreme. Modern skepticism advises us to qualify all assertive statements with personal probabilities. We can refine probabilities by gathering more evidence or giving something more thought—and the methods of statistics have been developed over the last four centuries for this purpose—but we can never reach 0 percent or 100 percent certainty. The modern skeptic will, without apology, qualify his or her metaphysical statements with probability, remain open to new evidence, and school himself to live cheerfully with this uncertainty.


What Faith Aspires to Be

Now that we have dispensed with what religious faith isn’t, let us look at what religious faith aspires to be. Faith, as is relevant here, is confined to knowledge, understanding, or increased conviction that is not gained by observation or reason. Although faith can be supported by reason, faith is the distance between what can be verified by observation and reason and what you say you believe. If you say you take scripture “on faith,” that is what you mean.

There are two circumstances where faith could conceivably make sense. As Augustine contended and experienced in his own life, men live their lives half-blinded and enfeebled by sin; faith is the surgery that clears their vision and allows them to see the truth. Some Christians compare faith to a wedding in which the bride commits herself 100 percent to her husband. Clearly, if you are only an 80 percenter, your marriage may not be satisfactory. A good friend of mine, from his own experience, assures me that if only I followed Augustine’s advice and gave myself over to Christ, I would understand why he must be our Savior. But am I not, then, entitled to believe that it is not I who lack his experience but rather he who lacks mine? The believer’s argument for faith from personal experience is weak and idiosyncratic. Moreover, the Augustinian notion—that 100 percent faith must precede true understanding—is also treacherous. History and psychology have amply demonstrated that people can convince themselves of almost anything that cannot be easily rejected by the senses. Billions of people end up believing inconsistent ideas, each with 100 percent certainty, which they have reached by faith.

Just as faith must precede understanding, Augustine also thought that before faith must come grace—a gift from God given only to the few. The rest of us don’t make the grade. If, for whatever reason, God has not chosen you for grace, then you cannot accept Jesus into your life. It is as if there is a sixth sense believers have that you lack. You can observe and reason all you like; you will never find the truth. That is the reason, believers will tell you, that despite your cogent arguments, they understand but you never will. For me, this kind of argument, as important as it is to Christian theology, strikes below the belt. Believers claim that by birth they are immensely superior to you because they get to be saved and you can’t be. The argument from grace to faith to understanding cannot be completely refuted (or verified): that is why some theologians like the argument, but that is also why they are not playing fair.

There is also a second way that lack of faith can lead to your undoing. God may have set up the test of worthiness this way. He has purposely made it impossible for observation and reason alone to discern him. He is only interested in saving those who prove the depth of their commitment to him by taking a “leap of faith.” To be worthy of eternal life, you must first be put to the test. In effect, you must first prove your loyalty to the king by risking your life in battle.

So if a Christian believes that the probability is 99 percent that Jesus rose from the dead but 1 percent that he did not, his or her soul is in peril. Believers cannot afford to doubt because doubt itself can lead to their undoing. Doubt is a particularly frightening and entrapping form of sin. Compared to murder, adultery, and theft—which one can simply not commit—doubt is something that cannot be completely prevented; God, who continuously monitors us, will catch us even if we have the slightest doubt for a second. There is another way Protestants who believe in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination are trapped. These Christians desperately need to know if they are predestined, but they are predestined if and only if they have no doubt about it! They are thus caught in the web of “Satan’s trap,” where in struggling to break free they are the more enmeshed.

If God requires 100 percent commitment for salvation, then you will need a “leap of faith” to hurdle any doubt you have and grasp certainty. Pascal formalized this argument for believing in God in his famous wager. Of course, we now understand that Pascal’s reasoning is seriously flawed, because it depends on his particular enumeration of the possible. For example, he fails to allow for the reasonable possibility that if God exists (because no human has enough information to conclude this is true), believers may be sent to hell while courageous doubters, who have the correct opinion given the information available, may go to heaven.


What Faith Is

You may think that you “have faith”—that you believe to a high probability not fully justifiable by observation or reason—but that is not credible. You can choose to believe any one of millions of things that contradict the Bible; so if your choice to believe the Bible has no reason—it is only one of faith—why do you not believe one of those other things in the same way? That is the crucial question to test if your faith is truly faith: if you answer with an argument based on observation or reason, then your belief is not a matter of faith. In that case, put your gun back in the holster, and let’s talk about it. But if you say there is no basis in observation or reason, then I continue to ask: What justifies your belief?

Why not take “on faith” a number of other alternatives? Why not believe that our world is actually another world’s penal colony or vacation paradise? Perhaps we are tourists reborn on Earth with memories temporarily erased, believing that we will die when actually “death” is the return trip home. Possibly, our universe is an early, failed experiment by a young God who has abandoned it and gone on to create better ones. Or, God is what the universe will g
radually mature to become. Or, perhaps instead, as I imagine you sometimes must feel, our Earth is another world’s lunatic asylum. Why not believe one of the many science-fiction speculations by such visionaries as the late Arthur C. Clarke? Faith makes an anarchy of epistemology, because one man’s faith is another man’s blasphemy. As Voltaire concisely put it: “There are no sects in geometry.” But truth based on faith has a million clashing guises.

Martin Luther compared the absence of faith to someone who must cross the sea but never takes the voyage because he or she does not trust the ship. So he or she is never saved, having metaphorically never left the shore. A better analogy compares the absence of faith to someone who wants to cross the sea and must select a vessel for the passage, but only one of the many available is sufficiently seaworthy to arrive safely at the destination. Unfortunately, with a limited knowledge of ship construction, one has no way of knowing which ship to take. In this case, as frustrating as it might be, one will probably be better off staying home. As Sam Harris aptly puts it in The Moral Landscape, “Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.”

In the end, there is nothing left for faith to be. All that remains is the grin of the disappearing Cheshire cat. So the assertion that you believe something on faith is essentially without meaning—by using that phrase you are self-deceptively evading a deeper insight into your motivation: you must have a reason. So I conclude that faith serves as the last defense that shields you from introspection. In the end, the big gun of faith has no real bullets. Better to follow the advice of Isaiah (1:18): “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”


Mark Rubinstein

Mark Rubinstein is a retired professor of finance who taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He now writes on early Christianity and humanism.

In the last analysis, faith is the last defense shielding the believer against introspection.

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