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Five articles which demonstrate that a common understanding of faith is flawed

May 8, 2015

“Faith” is a term which Christian believers and atheists often disagree about. An atheist friend of mine recently admitted that he ‘doesn’t use faith ever’ and still manages to get along.

So what is faith?

It is fairly common for atheists to assert that faith is ‘belief without evidence’. Atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian claims that ‘faith is “pretending to know things that you don’t know”. Sam Harris defines faith as ‘unjustified belief’ and Richard Dakwins faith is ‘blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence’, A.C. Grayling goes even further to say that faith is a ‘commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason’.

Yet Christians would say that these definitions of ‘faith’ are a pervasive, persistent and resilient caricature. An alternative definition of faith more akin to the Christian kind is described as ”commitment’, ‘trust’, ‘rely’ or ‘depend’. Something like, ‘trusting, holding to and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true in the face of difficulties’, or ‘trust or confidence in something or someone.’ Christians claim this is ‘faith’.

Which definition is true?

So who is right? I am hosting Peter Boghossian at an event in Melbourne next month. So I thought I’d test his definition against the alternative definitions of faith proposed by Christian believers. Hence I found five articles recently published in The Age and we can assess how we commonly use the word ‘faith’. Which definition of faith best explains the data?’ Let’s have a look.

1. NAB chief executive Andrew Thorburn asks for investor faith

In this article newly appointed NAB Managing Director Andrew Thorburn is faced with challenges of a poorly performing overseas businesses. He has to demonstrate to investors that despite some mistakes, the business still has investment potential,

As one of Australia’s most respected banking analysts summed up the performance of the bank since 2000: “You name it, NAB stepped in it.” Thorburn will have to scrape all that off to reveal what he insists is a gem hidden thus far from investors and customers.

How does he do this? Well he explains,

“The first thing is to demonstrate, not claim,” he says. “I want us to deliver results and build a momentum, and that will give our people confidence and our investors confidence in the company again.”

Thorburn wants to demonstrate the investment potential of NAB by delivering results. This will give investors confidence in the company. This is the investor ‘faith’ that he trying to build and is the focus of the article. In that sense ‘faith’ is used in the sense of ‘trust or confidence in something or someone.’ This faith is not built by claiming something in the absence of evidence or by pretending to know something that isn’t known, faith is about building confidence through evidence – i.e. the improved financial performance of the bank.

2. Melbourne Rebels coach Tony McGahan has faith in club’s future

In this article the Melbourne rugby team is continuing to plan for the future, despite the fact that there are difficulties that must be overcome. Hence,

Melbourne Rebels coach Tony McGahan will continue to re-sign key players on multi-year deals in the belief that the club’s financial future will improve  in the next 12 months.

There is a degree of uncertainty about the Rebels’ future. But with the prospect of new investment in the club, the club believed they were heading in the right direction.

McGahan said his players had faith in the club’s direction and future – otherwise they would have taken more lucrative offers elsewhere.

I think the players have strong faith in [rugby operations general manager] Baden Stephenson, myself and the coaching team about the direction we are going,” McGahan said.

This is a great example of faith. There is real uncertainty about the future of the club. Will it remain viable?

Yet the players and the coach have demonstrated ‘faith’ in the club’s direction and future. They are not pretending to know something they don’t, it is closely aligned with ‘trusting, holding to and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true in the face of difficulties’.

There are good reasons to believe that the future of the club will be secure: the ARU TV deal; the prospect of private equity investment; the dedication and ability of Baden Stephenson and the coaching team. However these are not entirely secure. Yet the players act as though these things are true and that is a demonstration of ‘faith’. It’s not believing ‘in the teeth of evidence’ for the players have good reason to remain playing with the team.

3. Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat puts faith in youngsters and back up men

Here Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat must trust and rely on younger and more inexperienced players as he has six players missing through injury or international duty.

The Melbourne Victory boss put his faith last season in youngsters and inexperienced players through the run in to the finals and in the Asian Champions League…. And Muscat is gearing up to do something similar this week

Faith is used here in the sense of ‘trust’, ‘rely’, ‘depend. Muscat can’t guarantee success with these players, but he must rely on these less experienced players to do the job. Yet this ‘faith’ is not in the absence of evidence, it is built upon evidence. The only reason the inexperienced players can justify being played is because they’ve earned it.

“It’s a big game for us tomorrow night but I am not giving anyone a chance [they don’t deserve]”, Muscat said. “The youngsters that are in the squad have earned it. It’s not me manufacturing an opportunity for them. Those in the squad have earned the right to be in it or have the opportunity to come on [off the bench].

Again, faith is used as ‘trust or confidence in something or someone.’ This is not contrary to the evidence, but based on it.

4. Blues, Tigers put faith in youngsters

This article uses faith in the same way as the previous one. It is about ‘trusting’, ‘relying’ and ‘depending’ upon players who have yet to ‘prove’ themselves at the elite level.

Both Richmond and Carlton will throw a debutant into the furnace for the traditional season-opener at the MCG, with Blues youngster Clem Smith set to be the first player from last year’s draft class to start his career on the big stage.

The Tigers have also put their faith in an untried player, giving wingman Kamdyn McIntosh his first chance after three years in the system and, on a night of selection surprises, included Chris Newman just a month after he underwent minor heart surgery

Again, this faith is not baseless and without evidence. McIntosh from the Tigers has good credentials, “Kamdyn is also an elite runner and uses the ball really well.”

The reason that the clubs put ‘faith’ in him is because he is unproven. He has never played a game at the senior level. Hence this faith is without evidence, but trust and commitment on the basis of the evidence that he should do a good job. No one can prove he will play well, but the club have staked a commitment in him – that is faith.

5. Tim Carmody issue threatens public’s faith in Queensland’s courts

This final article outlines how Justice Alan Wilson used his retirement speech to issue a condemnation of the Queensland Chief Justice, Tim Carmody. Wilson proposed that Carmody had “failed to demonstrate the administrative, political or personal skills required of his role.”

The author of the article, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, suggested that this criticism of the judiciary would undermine public confidence in the courts.

We never know when we might come into contact with the law, but when we do, our confidence in the skill of the judge and the integrity of the court is imperative. Public confidence in the courts is fundamental to stable government and the rule of law. Criticism of judges risks that confidence. That risk is heightened when that criticism is levelled at a Chief Justice by his peers.

Hence in this article, faith is confidence. It is ‘trust or confidence in something, like the legal system’. The very fact that ‘faith’ is being threatened by Wilson’s comments, demonstrates that ‘faith’ requires some base or evidence from which to draw confidence.

The atheist definitions of ‘faith’ make the headline nonsensical. How can something threaten ‘faith’ if ‘faith’ never requires justification? It appears that the definitions of ‘faith’ broadcast and trumpeted by these atheist voices are plainly and desperately inadequate.

Conclusion

It is clear that the atheist definitions of faith are inadequate. Common usage of faith in modern Australia indicates that ‘faith’ means ‘trust or confidence in something or someone.’ Faith is something that can’t be proven, but it is not without evidence. It also demonstrates that we all live by faith every day. Football coaches have faith. Investors have faith. We all have faith.

Finally, this way of understanding ‘faith’ is entirely consistent with the way ‘faith’ is used in the Bible. In John 20:31 the author writes so that the reader ‘may believe [i.e. have faith], that Jesus is the Christ and by believing have life in his name.’

John is inviting us, the readers, just like Kevin Muscat, Tony McGahan and others did, to trust and have confidence in someone – Jesus. This invitation is not without evidence for John has spent the previous 20 chapters outlining the evidence for why it is reasonable to trust Jesus. He’s outlined Jesus’ credibility and credentials. Faith in Jesus is trust based on the evidence of his life, death and resurrection.

Faith is not belief without evidence, it’s trust or confidence in someone and Christians believe that Jesus is someone worth trusting.

Image courtesy of thepathtraveler at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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From → Comment, Jesus

5 Comments
  1. I wrote an article on Boghossian and faith that you can find here:

    http://freedthinkerpodcast.blogspot.com/2014/05/will-boghossian-go-with-evidence-or.html?m=1

    Might be good to press him on this issue since the experiment was his idea!

    • Thanks Tyler. We’ll make him aware of this. We have been running our own ‘Perceptions of Faith’ survey. It is mainly locals in Melbourne (Australia) so should remove the ‘educated’ element somewhat. We’ll be engaging those results in our event as well. Thanks for the link. We’ll make sure it’s an interesting event.

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Rob, surely it is the New Testament’s understanding of faith that matters (or rather it’s authors’ understanding). The word means something different in a theological setting. If the NT teaches that it is a ‘good thing’ to believe without evidence and a ‘bad thing’ to rely on evidence, etc and that this is linked to the word translated ‘faith’ in our NT, then in the Christian setting that is what faith means.

    Somewhere I made a list of verses on this that I can dig out if it’s of interest.

    Cheers

    Ed

  3. Great Article, Rob.

    Ed, it is indeed important to engage with the NT teaching on the topic, but the NT usage of “faith” is completely in line with the examples shown here: confidence in something based on partial evidence (but not complete proof).

    • Ed Atkinson permalink

      Thanks Sentinel, sorry I don’t know when you replied here, I missed any email notification I normally get. I don’t agree with you on “the NT usage of “faith” is completely in line with the examples shown here: confidence in something based on partial evidence”. I am not sure how we take this forward. I could give a list of verses that seem to deny it. We could start with Hebrews where faith itself is the ‘evidence of things not seen’.

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