The Deadly Atheist Meme Even Christians Get Wrong
Atheists love all their soundbites, but this one they love most of all. There is none more destructive than this: “Faith is belief without evidence.”
It’s destructive because it’s been wielded with carpet-bombing efficiency as the core idea in Richard Dawkins’ runaway best-seller The God Delusion. Never mind that the book violates Dawkins’ own standard of “reason” on virtually every page. Never mind that he operates without evidence himself in every chapter. He’s sold a lot of books in spite of that, and he’s sold a lot of people on atheism.
It’s destructive because it misrepresents Christianity as an unthinking religion. Never mind that our greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, or that a huge proportion of the greatest scientists, artists and thinkers in Western history have been Christians. Somehow, still, this meme makes Christianity out to be a fool’s game, a delusion.
Worst of all, though, it’s destructive because even Christians — many of them — believe it’s true. They actually think that’s what faith is. So they don’t bother teaching one another how we can know Christianity is true. Thus they practice their religion while discarding the life of the mind — living in open disobedience to the greatest commandment of them all.
A Test: What Would Happen If It Were True?
The meme is wrong. The best way I know (there are many) to prove it’s wrong is by pretending it’s true. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that faith really is belief without evidence. Most atheists (and some unaware Christians) would go on to say that faith and knowledge never cover the same territory. If you have faith, it’s in something you don’t know, and if you know something, it isn’t faith. There’s never room for the two to share the same space.
So let’s suppose that’s true, and add some other facts to that, and take them in order:
- Fact 1: Faith is one of the top virtues in Christianity, second only to love.
- Fact 2: One of Jesus’ main purposes on earth was to build men and women of faith.
- Fact 3 (for the sake of argument): Faith requires not knowing for sure that something is true.
- Fact 4: After Jesus’ resurrection, says Acts 1:3, He “presented Himself alive … with many infallible proofs.”
- Conclusion 1: When the disciples saw those proof, they knew for sure Jesus’ resurrection was true.
- Conclusion 2: At that point the disciples knew Jesus was their resurrected Lord and Savior.
- Conclusion 3: Because they knew it, and because faith can’t share the same space with knowledge, it wasn’t faith anymore.
- Final Conclusion: By proving His resurrection, Jesus was taking away His disciples’ faith!
It’s absurd. Ridiculous. Impossible. But it’s where you land, once you start down a path of saying faith is believing things you don’t know. You make Jesus one of history’s great destroyers of faith. It just proves what a big mistake it is to start down that path in the first place.
Who Thought Up This Idea, Anyway? Not Christians!
In other words, faith isn’t believing what you don’t know. That mistaken belief originated with philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume and others living 17 or more centuries after Christ, who said we can’t really know what we can’t see, hear, feel, smell or taste, and even that’s in doubt. Before then, and in pockets of more sensible thinking since that time, faith has always had a much more reasonable meaning.
Its simplest definition is simply trust. We can trust things we know are true, can’t we? My wife is away at work today. I trust she’ll spend the day doing what is good and right. I trust it because I know it; or it would be equally true to say I have faith in her because I know her.
Faith has always been that way. One of the earliest followers of Christ, Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), said,
We offer proof [of Jesus Christ] . … with our own eyes we behold things that have happened and are happening just as they were predicted; and this will, we think, appear even to you the strongest and truest evidence.
Evidence is at the forefront. More recently, C. S. Lewis put reason there, saying faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” In other words, it’s continuing to believe what you know is true, even if your emotions tell you it doesn’t look that way.
Knowledge Beyond Direct Proof
Faith goes beyond proven knowledge into matters of revelation. Take life after death, for example. Christians have faith that there is a future state of life and joy ahead for us, when we die. There’s no direct evidence for it, at least not in the form of what we can see, touch, hear and so on. But that doesn’t mean it’s believing without any evidence at all. For we know plenty.
We know (or at least we should know) that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; the historical evidence is solid and secure. We know that He promised resurrection to his faithful followers. WE know that He is trustworthy to keep his promises (again, the evidence is strong). Therefore, faithful followers can be sure that they have an eternal life of love and joy awaiting them someday.
That’s a matter of faith, sure. But notice: it’s faith is built on things we know are true.
Knowledge, Trust, Risk
Which leads to my own preferred definition of Christian faith: Faith is an attitude of trust toward what one knows is true, coupled with confident willingness to take risks to go with it.
For trust — faith — implies risk. You’re not really trusting the hot air balloon to carry you safely, as long as the gondola is still standing on the ground. It’s only when the balloon rises above you, and you rise with it, that trust kicks in. Of course you have reasons to trust the balloon — but it’s still trust, isn’t it?
Faith is like that. The risk I take in Christ is that I’ve devoted all that I am to Him to the best of my ability, no matter what, my whole life long. I feel secure in that — because I know who Jesus is. That’s what faith is: built on knowledge, moving forward in trust.
Part of a series on atheist memes.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream who‘s taken on some of the top purveyors of this meme-mistake in his co-edited book True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel Publications, 2014) and an ebook, Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.