Don’t believe me? Atheist Sam Harris states:
“It is only by the most acrobatic avoidance of passages whose canonicity has never been in doubt that we can escape murdering one another for the glory of God.” (The End of Faith, ch 2)
If I were to publish a book telling my readers that atheistic evolution teaches that humans evolved from monkeys, I would be sharply criticized, and rightly so. Because evolutionary theory doesn’t teach this. Rather, it asserts that some millions of years ago there existed “ape-like creatures,” and the line of these creatures split, giving rise to both monkeys and a human line of descent. Some creationists say evolutionists teach that humans came from monkeys in order to make the idea of evolution seem ridiculous. It’s a dishonest (or uninformed) tactic.
I assume reasonable people will agree on this.
In the interest of promoting respectful and honest dialogue, I must point out that atheistic evolutionists are doing precisely the same thing on an international scale, and they likewise need to get a grasp on what they are criticizing. Popular best selling “New Atheist” authors, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens uniformly misrepresent the nature of biblical faith. It’s one thing for an uneducated person to propagate a cartoonish stereotype of biblical faith, but for these movement spokesmen, it’s inexcusable. If they are literate enough to hold advanced degrees in their fields, then we can expect them to be able to read the Judeo-Christian scriptures and understand what they have read, despite their prejudice.
How do these guys misrepresent the biblical concept of faith?
Well, no matter which side of the debate you’re on, by now you’ve probably learned that:
> Faith is an irrational means by which we deal with what we don’t understand.
> Faith and reason are contradictory – faith starts where reason and knowledge end.
If a belief is verifiable, then it is in the realm of rationality. If a belief is unverifiable, then it is in the realm of faith, fairy tales, and unicorns. If it’s verifiable then it’s by definition outside the realm of faith.
> These things are true of all religious faith – all religious faith is the same.
Dawkins states it succinctly: “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence” (Edinburgh Science Festival, 1992)
Christopher Hitchens concurs: “Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals…” (author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)
Sam Harris waxes metaphorical: “Faith is the mortar that fills the cracks in the evidence and the gaps in logic, and thus it is faith that keeps the whole terrible edifice of religious certainty still looming dangerously over our world” (author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason)
Please allow me to clarify what I am about to say and not say:
1) I’m speaking of biblical faith, not religious faith in general.
2) This very brief essay is about the nature of biblical faith, as it is described in the Bible.
3) The point of this essay is not to convince you that the Bible is true. That is a separate topic. My point here is to inform the reader as to what the Bible actually says about faith, since experts and “skeptics” so uniformly get it wrong.
4) I contend that the Bible is unique in its description of faith. Based on what I’ve seen, the New Atheist’s criticisms may indeed apply to other faith traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism. I’m not addressing those religions here. I only contend that critics like Sam Harris are sloppy, incorrect, and overeager in lumping all faith together.
Having said this, I have one simple point. Biblical faith is about relationship. The starting point of biblical faith is the fact that God is depicted as a relational being in the Bible. Throughout all of scripture this relational God goes to great lengths to demonstrate that He can be trusted. Thus, faith in the Bible always has an object. That object is our relational Creator who loves us.
In contrast to how the “skeptics” mischaracterize it, the Judeo-Christian scriptures never characterize faith as:
An irrational form of positive thinking
Following your heart per se (confusing the Bible with Disney movies)
A mystical religious force
Narrow mindedness per se
Resistant to what is new or different per se
Stubborn dogmatic belief in the face of contradictory, verifiable evidence. (“Belief in spite of the evidence” – Dawkins)
Biblical faith is always trust in the person of God, based on historical acts, demonstrations, and interactions that God has specifically provided to show Himself trustworthy. This is explicitly stated in the Bible, and it is unique to the Bible. In the Bible, people are never told to believe without good reason. Find me a place in the Bible where someone believes in Jesus “despite the evidence, just because his heart tells him to”, or because she has a warm, fuzzy, “feeling of faith” welling up inside, and I’ll send you a new iphone. In fact, in the book of Acts after the resurrection of Jesus, many accounts of belief are accounts of people logically concluding, kicking and screaming against their either Jewish or pagan dogmas, that Jesus is who He said He was, and then very reasonably placing their faith in Him.
The picture of faith in the new covenant is meant to be like that of a child placing confident trust in a loving father who has proved himself deserving of that trust. Regardless of whether or not you think the Bible is true, it is clear that the writers of the scriptures believed they were writing about historical events that really happened in space and time, and that these events carried meaning. Both old and new covenant books look back to historical events performed by God, and, in part, base their future hope on those past events. This is the opposite of “belief in spite of/because of a lack of evidence.”
But don’t take what I say about the Bible “on faith.” See for yourself. Following are just a few of countless examples of biblical faith:
The God of the Bible initiates agreements, called covenants. These are historical, relational acts. In general terms, God initiated the “old” covenant, and later instituted a new covenant in the messiah.
The spring feasts of Israel are designed to call to remembrance God’s relational faithfulness to Israel. Most prominently, the Passover feast has been celebrated for millennia as a remembrance of God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from slavery to Egypt. It was simultaneously a prophetic foreshadowing of the more profound freedom from slavery that the messiah would bring. This continuity between the old and new covenant books is remarkable and irrefutable.
Throughout the Tanakh (Old Testament) Israel is told to “remember” what God has done in history:
Ex 13:3 – “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, and out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand YHWH brought you out from this place” (also Deut 16:3)
Psalm 105:5 – “Remember the wondrous works that He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He uttered…” (other clear examples: 1 Chr 16:12; Ps 77:11; Isa 46:8,9)
Throughout the New Testament the authors take care to appeal to historical realities – verifiable references to times, events, people, and places, including genealogies. A few of many examples:
Luke 1:1-5 – “…those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…”
2 Peter 1:16 – “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…we ourselves heard…for we were with Him…And we have something more sure, the prophetic word”
1 John 1:1 – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it…”
Obviously these writers were attempting to make the case that the events they recorded actually happened. For New Atheist critics to now say that biblical faith is “belief in spite/because of a lack of evidence” is a gross misrepresentation.
In Romans 4:20, 21 Paul clearly states the relational nature of Abraham’s faith regarding the miraculous conception of Isaac: – “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.”
In making a case for faith in Jesus, His disciples repeatedly appeal to history, prophetic fulfillment, and current works of power in their preaching: Stephen recounts Jewish history at Jerusalem (Acts 7:1-53); Paul recounts Jewish history at Antioch (Acts 13:15-44); Peter appeals to fulfilled prophecy and signs performed by God (Acts 2:22-36 & 3:12-26.)
When we think of faith in relational rather than irrational terms, well-known faith verses are seen in a clearer light:
Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The rest of chapter 11, known as the faith chapter, is a run through of history showing that the “things hoped for” and “not seen” were things God had promised. In context, this verse cannot be made to advocate the “surrender of the mind and reason”, as Hitchens claims. Harris’s treatment of Heb 11:1 is a shining example of ignoring context (page 64, The End of Faith.)
Hebrews 11:6 – “And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those Who seek Him.”
This is profoundly relational. God is not desiring irrational belief here.
Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Hebrews 10:38 – “The righteous shall live by faith…”
This is not a call for people to live in opposition to reason, but in trusting relationship with God.
2 Corinthians 5:7 – “…for we walk by faith, not by sight”
This is not a call to blind irrationality, but a call to trust a loving God even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
The New Atheists did not invent the idea of irrational faith. They have simply uncritically parroted a popular misunderstanding of faith that has been around for a long time. As a boy I was sometimes told by well-meaning church people that we’re not meant to understand (fill-in-the-blank) – that this is what faith is for. As though God is pleased with ignorance and superstition. But the Bible says nothing of the sort. In saying this, these people inadvertently undermined the message of the Bible. The New Atheists have propagated the error of these well-meaning folks and then blasted their “faith”. I actually agree with many of their criticisms. Bad theology from people who are sympathetic to the Bible is still bad theology. But bad theology coming from those who despise theology looks suspiciously like the fox helping the goose light the fire under her soup pot for dinner. If “skeptics” want to criticize the actual Bible, they are free to do so, but the first step would be for them to understand what it says.
Once they do admit what the Bible actually says, “skeptics” may feel that historical acts, fulfilled promises and prophecies, eyewitness accounts, and supernatural works of power (such as the resurrection,) are insufficient reason to place one’s faith in our Creator. They may feel such accounts in the Judeo-Christian scriptures are unreliable. So be it. But that is a different issue. My point here is that the picture of relational faith that permeates the Judeo-Christian scriptures is internally consistent, and that the God described therein is the Author of reason, is reasonable, and appeals to reason.