Do Skeptics Have Faith?
A common critique of religious faith in general and Christianity in particular is the idea that such beliefs are rooted in “blind faith”. Philosopher Peter Boghossian states this view clearly when he writes:
“If one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. ‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway” (A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 22)
Many skeptics agree with Boghossian’s view of faith. However, such a view is not immune from criticism. Plenty of Christian thinkers have made the point that every person has faith regardless of what they believe. If this perspective is correct, then it means even the atheist possesses a kind of “faith” in their worldview. New Testament scholar Bill Mounce has made this point when discussing skeptical assumptions that critics bring to the Bible, particularly on the topic of miracles:
“These are, to be accurate, faith-based assumptions by Christians, but skeptics also base their conclusions on their faith-based, unprovable assumptions. If you believe there is no such thing as a miracle, then you will expunge the gospel of any mention of the miraculous. But if you hold these beliefs, there is no reason to remove the miraculous from the gospel accounts.” (Why Should I Trust the Bible, p. 31)
It is fair to point out the skeptical critique of Christian belief as “blind faith” falls apart when the concept is examined from the Bible’s point of view. But is it true that all people possess faith? And how should we understand faith if this is correct?
A Definition of Faith
When discussing the topic of faith, it is crucial to have a clear definition. If this is not done, Christians and skeptics risk talking past each other. For present purposes, the following definition of faith will be used: faith is trust in what a person has good reason to believe is true. The idea of trust is central to the biblical concept of faith. The Greek word for faith in the NT means trust. So, when God calls people to have faith in His promises in the Bible, He is calling people to trust in Him. Such trust is to be grounded in what people already know to be true about God. A clear example of this from Jesus’ ministry is found in Mark chapter 2. Without reviewing the entire account, Jesus essentially claims He can forgive sins and then backs this up by healing a paralytic man. Jesus calls people to believe that He can forgive their sins because of who He is: God. He then demonstrates His claim is true by performing a miracle. This is the pattern found in the NT when it comes to faith. While more could be said on this point, this is sufficient to establish the idea that biblical faith is not opposed to reason and evidence.
Faith is Human
Another important point about the concept of faith is that it is a human phenomenon. In other words, there is something about our position as humans which necessitates faith. This something is our limited epistemic position; the clear reality that we are finite in our knowledge. We don’t know everything there is to know. Most of what we know, we do not know with objective certainty. If we do not know with objective certainty, there are many times when we must trust (have faith) that our beliefs are correct. This happens so often that we don’t take the time to reflect upon it. For example, getting on an airplane has its risks. The plane could fail to take off and crash or something could happen to the pilot. However, such possibilities do not stop most people from flying when they need to get somewhere. Why? Because even though they do not have objective certainty they will make it safely to their destination, they have good reasons for thinking they will. Perhaps they reflect on how many successful flights they have been on before or the kind of training that pilots and aircraft mechanics go through. Regardless of the particulars, these serve as good enough reasons to trust in the pilot and the aircraft’s safety. The point is this: since we are all limited in our knowledge, there are many beliefs we hold which flow from acts of trust. Such acts of trust are rooted in what seem to us to be good reasons. Therefore, “faith” as trust is a reality for all people, not just religious believers.
Faith According to a Skeptic
To clarify, there is certainly a difference between the faith of religious believers and the faith of skeptics. Whether one is a Christian or a skeptic will determine the precise content of their faith or beliefs. For example, a skeptic may believe the scientific method is a purely objective means to acquire all truth about reality. They may hold that science has somehow proven there is no God. A Christian may believe God works miracles today and they may have a particular case of the miraculous in mind. Faith is an act of trust, but it can also describe the basic assumptions of one’s worldview. It is in these two senses, that everyone possesses faith. But not everyone agrees with this claim.
Atheist writer John Loftus goes to great lengths in his book, The Outsider Test for Faith, to explain why faith is an unreliable means to knowledge. For Loftus, faith is diametrically opposed to rational inquiry. He states that faith is no more than a “cognitive bias” which causes religious believers to accept claims which are highly improbable. The antidote to this is to use “science-based reasoning”. By this, he means using the scientific method and demanding sufficient evidence for the claims with which one is presented. In Loftus’ framework, one is to judge claims as probable or improbable on the basis of their background knowledge. In other words, the knowledge acquired over the course of a person’s life and experiences should provide a grid through which they evaluate claims. If a claim conflicts with a person’s background knowledge, this claim is less probable. According to Loftus’ reasoning, if I have never seen a person rise from the dead, the claim of Jesus’ resurrection should be less probable to me. This dichotomy between faith as an irrational cognitive bias and science-based reasoning in accordance with probability is central to Loftus’ argument throughout his book. A similar framework is often behind the skeptical charge that Christianity is rooted in blind faith and atheism is rooted in reason and science. But is this view correct?
Why This View is Mistaken
Thinkers like John Loftus pit faith against reason. They argue that belief in God is rooted in irrational faith while atheism is rooted in science-based reasoning. Such a view is mistaken for numerous reasons, but three will be mentioned here. First, as I have argued, all people possess faith in a certain sense. Even skeptics put their trust (faith) in certain assumptions they hold about reality. For example, many believe that empirical observation and testing provides the only (or best) way to know truth about reality. However, such an idea is not demonstrated using the empirical methods of science. Rather, it is a philosophical assumption at play. This alone does not mean it is false. It does mean such an idea is not agreed upon by careful philosophers and scientists. Empirical reason is only one way among many to know truth about reality. Consequently, this opens the door for both philosophical and theological truths to be known and explored rationally; this includes the philosophical claim that empirical testing is the best tool for knowledge.
The main point is that both skeptics and theists hold metaphysical views about reality. These views cannot be demonstrated with rational certainty to such a degree that everyone who considers them is convinced. Therefore, both skeptics and theists hold views they think are right even though they do not have certainty. Thinkers on both sides put their trust in these views and assumptions and therefore, both possess a kind of faith. However, this does not mean there is no correct answer to these important questions or that no one can know such answers. It simply means that skeptics cannot label a theistic view “faith” as a tool to silence rational debate.
Second, one does not need to accept the false dichotomy between faith and reason. Loftus says that faith is an irrational cognitive bias. Many skeptics hold a similar perspective. What is a bias? A bias is a kind of assumption a person holds that influences the conclusions they come to and how they evaluate evidence. As we have already seen, both skeptics and theists have assumptions they bring to the table. The key is are these assumptions held for good reasons? If they are, then they are rational. If they are not, they are irrational. So, the charge of bias does not say much on its own. Christians thinkers throughout history and up to the present have demonstrated the intellectual credibility of Christianity. When asked, various Christians will give different answers for why they think Christianity is true. Some may mistakenly hold Christian belief requires “blind faith”. However, the Bible does not teach this and does not require it. Therefore, Christians simply do not need to accept the false dichotomy between faith and reason that skeptics often use to frame the discussion.
Third, Loftus argues the rational way to come to beliefs is by demanding sufficient evidence and reasoning in accordance with the probabilities. This is all well and good. We should want good evidence to back up our beliefs and probability can aid us in coming to accurate judgements and predictions. The problem is, for any given claim, who gets to judge what is “sufficient evidence”? And how do we determine the probability for a given claim? For example, what is “sufficient evidence” for the existence of God? What is the probability that Jesus rose from the dead? It seems Loftus would reply that sufficient evidence would be scientific or empirical evidence for God. The probability for God’s existence, presumably, should be judged on the basis of our background knowledge about the world and our life experience up to this point. The problem here is that many thinkers have articulated sophisticated arguments for God’s existence based on empirical evidence. So, on the face of it, there is good empirical evidence for God that can be detected through the methods of science. When it comes to background knowledge, this will look different from person to person. Whether belief in God is credible to someone will depend on a variety of factors. These include things such as an awareness of the proposed evidences for God as well as personal experiences in religious contexts and so forth. If someone holds they have good reasons to believe in God (background knowledge), the resurrection of Jesus increases in probability. The point in all this is that probabilistic reasoning and empirical evidence is not the sole domain of atheism. Careful thinkers have used both of these methods to show belief in God is rational and warranted for thinking people. In addition, discussions surrounding what constitutes “sufficient” evidence for a given claim and what the nature of such evidence should be for God is more complicated than it first appears.
Both atheists and theists possess faith (trust) that their beliefs about God are correct. Christians simply do not need to accept the false dichotomy between faith and reason which many skeptics propose. Science based reasoning has been used to argue against God’s existence as well as to argue for God’s existence so it is not the sole project of atheists. In addition, the ability to do science and reason carries with it a whole host of other philosophical assumptions. For reasons such as these, frameworks proposed by skeptics which pit Christian faith against reason fail to stand up against critical scrutiny.
What is the Point?
As we have seen, all people, regardless of their worldview, possess faith. Faith is simply trust in what you have good reason to believe is true. People believe things because they think they are true; they wouldn’t think they are true unless they believed they had good reasons. Thus, it is legitimate, not only for Christians to respond to skeptics who argue that Christian belief is opposed to reason. It is also right to point out that skeptics possess faith (trust) in their worldview as well. While such a response must be qualified and not overused, it stands as a legitimate counter to the common “science and reason” versus “faith” narrative articulated by many skeptics.