Sooner or later, any conversation about religion comes down to faith. Faith is a virtue. Without faith, it is impossible to be saved. Church leaders and saints are praised for their great and unshakeable faith. The apostle who required proof is disparaged as “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus told him, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)
I was a believer for decades. I had faith in God. I prayed to him, joined my fellow believers in worshipping him, taught about him, and gave money to support his church. Doubt? Sure, I had doubts just like everyone else, but I was taught to believe from birth, and taught the mental control to derail any train of thought bound for Infidel Station. Besides, there were all these other believers around to lend me their strength. The Nicene Creed begins with “WE believe in one God,” not “I believe.” Faith is sustained in community.
What exactly is meant by “faith”? Do non-believers have faith in science? Is faith the same as trust? Do you believe in love? (Cue autotuned Cher.)
This is where we get into equivocation: playing games with the meanings of words. Science is not a static thing, it is a method by which knowledge is organized in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world. It requires no faith in gravity to see that every time I drop something, it falls to the ground. One testable step at a time, scientists have built on that observable fact to explain and predict the movement of galaxies. The practice of science is the very antithesis of taking things on faith.
Faith is not trust, because trust is usually justified by experience. If you received an email from a person claiming to be the widow of the late Nigerian Finance Minister, asking your help to commit international bank fraud, would you trust it? Of course not. People who do are pitied as incompetent to manage their own affairs. Trust without experience is seldom given for anything important. “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first,” goes the old Arab saying.
I have faith that my wife loves me. Again, this is not the same sort of faith. I see it in her face, and experience it in her acts. If you want to be clinical, love can be detected in our internal neurochemistry.
What exactly is meant by “faith”? Simply this: Faith is believing in something without proof. Mark Twain may have said it best. “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
Is there any other area of life in which belief without proof is considered a good, sensible, or praiseworthy thing? Any at all? “I believe the water in this quarry is deep, therefore I will perform an amazing high dive,” says the future paraplegic. “I believe this warm egg salad that’s been sitting in the sun all day is perfectly wholesome,” says the person who’ll be spending the next couple days in the bathroom. “I believe the smiling guy who promises a 50 percent annual return, so I’m investing my life savings,” says the incipient pauper. “I believe Trump will be defeated by an overwhelming majority,” said a whole bunch of us last Tuesday.
We have words for people who believe things without proof. Sucker. Dupe. Gullible fool. Except when the faithful start talking about God. But only their God. Zeus does not exist, he was a myth. Ba’al does not exist, he was a legend. Thor does not exist, except in comic books. But my God is an awesome God who reigns forever.
Why? Because we believe, that’s why. That’s enough.
It’s not enough, and believers know it better than anyone. Asserting that a proposition must be accepted without reason is simply intellectual bankruptcy. So believers don’t think about it. We tell ourselves that it’s not wrong to doubt - after all, Thomas doubted, and he was an apostle - but it’s a sin to dwell upon it to the point of unbelief. We sing louder, pray more fervently, and join the rest of the congregation in Not Rocking the Boat.
No one reading this is going to say, “Ah, now I understand. I have been wrong to accept things without proof. Maybe there is no God.” There is no blinding light on the road to Damascus for atheists. Reasoned argument and scientific facts can be - and are - presented every day, and yet most people still claim faith in a God. But every now and then, a question gets through. A train of thought begins. It might not make it all the way to Atheism Junction, but it gets further than before, clearing the tracks for another question, and another.
So here’s a question: If someone you trusted told you that a soldier killed in Afghanistan and buried in Arlington National Cemetery rose from the dead, would you have faith? Or would you, like Thomas, demand proof? Was Thomas wrong to insist on evidence? Why or why not?