Response to Global Atheism Conference - does faith make sense?

Part six of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference

Faith really is becoming the ‘f’ word of today in some circles. It is uttered with contempt by many atheists today, and atheism is sometimes offered as the mature alternative to faith. But the definition of faith among the New Atheists is a peculiar one. So Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, calls it “unjustified belief”. Richard Dawkins says faith is “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. And philosopher A.C. Grayling labels it “a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason”.

As a Christian, I don’t recognise any of these definitions.

In the Christian tradition, it has been by far the most common to see faith as a conviction that grows out of ‘encounter’ with God. This ‘encounter’ takes many and various forms, be it the sort of experience of God reported in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. the words of the prophets, the Law, the narratives of Israel’s history, proverbs, the voice of God in a burning bush), or the personal encounters with Jesus Christ that are recorded in the pages of the Gospels, or the ‘textual encounter’ (for want of a better term!) that people have today when they read or hear the words of the Bible and come to believe that those words are the truth about God.

In other words, faith for Christians is a response to experience (seeing, hearing, feeling) and to knowledge (i.e. thinking, reasoning). This fits remarkably well with contemporary theories of epistemology, whereby it is widely acknowledged that beliefs are formed not merely by abstract reasoning, nor simply in response to our senses, but by a complex amalgam of these things. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga describes it, “This is no leap in the dark, not merely because the person with faith is wholly convinced but also because, as a matter of fact, the belief in question meets the conditions for rationality and warrant.”1

The Bible talks about faith as “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is faith based on experience, on history, on reasoning and on reliable testimony. This faith is not so much a wild a leap into the dark as a confident step into the future.

We can further address this misunderstanding by concentrating on what people of faith (in particular, for my purposes, Christian faith) are not saying.

First, people of faith are not saying that belief in God can be proven correct. The new atheists profoundly misunderstand this (and many believers do, too). The philosophical arguments for God’s existence are pointers to the reasonableness of belief in God, not proofs of it. Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant, the philosophical giants who shaped the most enduring arguments for God’s existence all use the best science of the day to provide reasons for belief in God. None of them thought they were knock-down proofs: unless God is merely a mathematical problem, proofs are not going to be available. But valid reasons to believe in God might be, and that is what the various arguments are seeking to provide.

The arguments about God’s existence (including the contemporary ones, such as the design argument from the finely tuned nature of the universe) are instances of human beings wrestling at rational grounds for belief, and it is a good wrestle to have (if you are into philosophical wrestling!)

Second, people of faith don’t think that you should believe things when the evidence is to the contrary. There might be a few misguided types who think that it is a ‘test of faith’ to believe things when the evidence suggests it isn’t reality, but that is not the position of orthodox Christianity.

Christians are realists, not head-in-the-sand, plug-the-ears idiots

It is for this reason that many Christians in the sciences do not believe in a literal seven-day creation, or in a variety of views about dinosaurs and fossils. They think the evidence is to the contrary. Christians are realists, not head-in-the-sand, plug-the-ears idiots. At least, they shouldn’t be. There is no need to be afraid of evidence and knowledge—of course, we will need to interpret it well. It is very fair to reserve judgement about evidence until such investigation has been done, but then we must let the evidence sit and deal with it as best we see it.

Third, people of faith do not believe that faith can be used as a cover for unethical, immoral, thoughtless behaviour. Faith is not an excuse for anything. This is what makes the recent revelations of prolonged and concealed child sexual abuse in many large denominations so offensive: it seems that certain people, sometimes priests, were allowed to use their ‘faith’ to cover up their wicked deeds. That’s just plain wrong. Faith calls people to live honestly, confronting their own evils, forgiving others but not covering up injustices and abuse. At least, it can’t be used that way. It is anathema to the values of Christian faith to do so, and we simply have to say so and try as best we can to make amends for the wrongs done.

It concerns me that some atheists are suggesting we ought not to extend respect to people of faith

Fourth, people of faith don’t feel they have a specially privileged situation that is somehow beyond challenge. Faiths must be open to critique, and this is a pressing concern in our globalising and pluralistic society. We must maintain freedom of speech as best we possibly can, and it needs to be a robust freedom where someone of one position can challenge someone of another position in detail, with strength, and with fairness. This is a great challenge to those who have influence over the public square. It has to cut both ways, too: atheists need to be open to challenges from people of faith, as much as those of faith need to be ready to answer accusations against them and their beliefs. That’s what being a global citizen is all about.

It concerns me that some atheists are suggesting we ought not to extend respect to people of faith. A.C. Grayling said something akin to this in an interview with me recently;2 I believe he meant that we mustn’t be forced to accept as true the views of others as if religion is beyond critique. If that is his point, I agree. But it will be difficult to do this without calling into question the freedom of an individual to hold that belief. For pluralistic society to work, people must let others hold beliefs that they themselves find incredulous or even offensive. Grayling is concerned that people be judged by their character rather than their beliefs, but this worries me as a citizen: how are these character assessments to be made, if not by reference to a set of beliefs? One person’s character flaw may be another person’s tenet of faith. As a society, we will need to be more flexible, and less judgemental, than Grayling seems willing to be.

Fifth, and finally, people of faith are not suggesting that people without faith cannot do good. It must be a hurtful thing to hear that if you have no faith, people of faith think you are not a good person. We all want to be good people – don’t we?

An atheist is just as capable of doing a good deed as a Christian. It is well worth arguing whether a person of no faith has a sufficient foundation for his or her good works, but that is a minefield.3 What does need to be said is that it is wonderful that there is a move among atheists today to seek ways of serving society, of being better people, and of setting up charitable services in the same manner that church groups have been doing for a very long term. I applaud this move, and look forward to the good it could bring.

Of course, the teaching of Christianity has never been that human beings are in fact good people at all! Christianity teaches that we are all people who have fallen from grace, who have failed to live up to even our own standards, and who have wronged others and ourselves sometimes in ways that are very difficult to repair. Christians have faith that Jesus Christ provided the means by which our failure (our ‘sin’) can be forgiven by God, all the while taking seriously the damage we have done to each other and the need for reparation. If a Christian is claiming to be ‘good’ (or, worse, ‘perfect’), they may have not grasped the central teaching of their religion.

As social philosopher Michael Novak writes in his book, No One Sees God:

  Christianity is not about moral arrogance. It is about moral realism, and moral humility. Wherever you see self-righteous persons condemning others and unaware of their own sins, you are not in the presence of an alert Christian but a priggish pretender.4  

Faith, for Christians, is conviction about not only the reality of God, but also the need for human beings to receive mercy from that God, since we are far from perfect, far from holy, and yet long to be loved all the same. That love is what the Christian faith has to offer.

Greg Clarke is Director of CPX

1. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.264.


3. If you wish to step into the minefield, a recent worthwhile entry point is Robert K. Garcia & Nathan L. King, Is Goodness Without God Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism and Ethics, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

4. Michael Novak, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Doubleday, 2008, p.46.