Faith is key to our lives, even for atheists

Barney Zwartz on how faith is an inescapable part of rational everyday life.

Atheists like to define faith as “belief without evidence”, or the opposite of knowledge. It’s easy to understand why they try to do this, because whoever wins the definition wins the debate.

But in fact faith is vastly more complex than that, and is an inescapable part of rational everyday life – even for atheists. Anyone who insisted on only the purest epistemological truth-standards would be unable to act at all, so rarefied is that atmosphere.

Further, faith is almost never blind and totally without evidence, though like any other aspect of human life it can sometimes be mistaken.

I was much struck, nearly three decades ago, by Melbourne and Princeton philosopher Tony Coady’s book Testimony, which points out how much relying on what people tell us is a natural part of life. He says we only know something as simple as how old we are or our birthday because our parents told us (or the Registry of Births). That this is accurate we take on faith.

All manner of disciplines rely on other people’s testimony, acceptance of which is largely a matter of faith.

The same principle applies to the highest reaches of scientific endeavour. Scientists rely on the testimony of other scientists because it is generally either a waste of time or impossible to replicate their research. And by and large this works, even when sometimes it later emerges that research went astray.

History, psychology and all manner of disciplines rely on other people’s testimony, acceptance of which is largely a matter of faith. I cannot know by experience or perception that Napoleon lived, or any other historical figure whose existence it makes no sense to doubt.

Coady is not suggesting we are wrong to trust this scientific testimony, but rather that we are wrong to exclude testimony from knowledge in any ordinary, useful sense. In other words, faith.

I have to admit two caveats. The rise of fake news means that we should properly be more sceptical about what we read, questioning the data, the source, the agenda.

Second, many religious truth claims are in a different and more complex category: they can seem contrary to reason and experience. But equal questions apply for those who believe nothing exists other than what science can measure, for they cannot even explain human consciousness, let alone spiritual experience.

I believe there is plenty of evidence – historical, social, psychological, spiritual – to justify Christian faith. While I haven’t room for such a discussion now, there is no doubt that the eye witnesses to the resurrection believed it, because many of them later died for that belief. Just because we believe something doesn’t make it true, yet few are willing to die for something they know is a lie.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.

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