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The meaning and rationality of faith: A Christian and atheist conversation

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Christians and atheists often engage in heated debate over the rationality of faith. Unfortunately, those conversations tend to generate more heat than light, not least because the parties to the discussion often end up talking past one another. If we want to make real progress on debating the rationality of faith, we should begin by considering what we mean when we use the word 'faith.' Just what is that concept that we are debating?

The following article on faith is excerpted from the book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. In the book, atheist Justin Schieber and I, a Christian theologian, engage in one long conversation talking about God, the universe, and, well, everything. One of the hallmarks of the book is to stem the tide on the unfortunate tendency to talk past one another by modeling careful listening and generous exchange. In this case, we turn our attention to the meaning and rationality of faith.

Randal: Perhaps we can switch gears at this point and turn to defining faith. Just as there are many different definitions of God, so there are many different definitions of faith. In particular, there are two basic ways the word faith is defined, and they are often conflated in discussions like this. So it’s probably worthwhile to be clear on the distinction.

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Justin: That’s a good point. That word gets thrown around a lot, and it’s not always clear what usage is intended.

Randal: In the first sense, faith is roughly equivalent to religion. Insofar as we are working with that definition of faith, it’s clear that some people have faith and some don’t because some people are adherents to a particular religion, while others have no religious affiliation.

Justin: Right. As with the phrase, the Abrahamic Faiths.

Randal: Yup. In this sense I’ve got a faith (Christianity), but you don’t. And in the second sense, faith is roughly equivalent to trust. In other words, to have faith in something is to trust in that thing. If I have faith in the truth of a proposition, then I trust that the proposition is true. If I have faith in a person, then I am inclined to trust what this person says as being true. If I have faith in my cognitive faculties, like sense perception and memory, then I trust that the deliverances of these faculties are generally reliable.

Justin: That makes sense.

Randal: I think it’s important to make this distinction clear because I often hear those without a religious faith (the first definition) insist that they don’t have faith in something like the second sense. But this is simply false. Whether you have a religious affiliation or not, everybody must still trust in some truth claims, in particular persons, and in the very cognitive faculties that mediate information about the world to us. There is no view-from-nowhere that allows us to test our beliefs apart from faith. So only some of us have faith in the first sense but everybody has faith in the second sense.

Justin: I suspect that the nonreligious community would rather use trust than faith when speaking of confidence in some proposition or person because of faith’s religious connotations. But it’s certainly the case that the word can be used in both senses.

Randal: While some folks may feel better about using the word trust, the truth is that there is nothing especially religious about the term faith. Just listen to George Michael’s 1987 hit song “Faith,” in which the pop star’s call to have faith is focused on a lowbrow desire for sexual contact with a woman. Needless to say, there are no lofty religious convictions in that use of the word.

The lesson is that the very common tendency to pit faith against reason is wholly mistaken, for reason always begins in faith or trust. This reality goes straight back to our earliest formation as infants and toddlers, as we extended trust to our caregivers to mediate information about the world to us. Indeed, I like to describe faith and reason as the two oars of a boat. If you only row on one side of the boat, you go in circles. You need faith and reason together to advance in your understanding of the world.

Justin: Thank you for that important distinction. A core takeaway here is that, whatever word we might prefer to use when talking about confidence—be it faith or trust—not all confidence is equally rational.

But, at this point, I’d like to make a related and important point: the rationality of one’s faith or trust in, say, the goodness of a person, the usefulness of an idea, or the accuracy of a text can exist in degrees that can change over time.

In the case of the parents who turned a blind eye to the incriminating evidence against their two sons, they had faith or trust in their children’s innocence. It might be the case that their trust was the rational result of consistent saintly behavior from the two brothers until the night in question. If it were, their faith in the innocence of their children was well-placed, given the information to which they had access at the time.

Where they erred was not in their original faith or trust in the innocence of the defendants. Rather, their mistake was when they let this supreme confidence in the innocence of their sons get in the way of updating their current belief with important additional information from the prosecutor.

Randal: Yup, and this is one of the places where I think folks often get into trouble when judging the rationality or objectivity of other folks. The problem comes when we judge the rationality of other people based on the set of beliefs we hold. That’s a mistake.

Justin: I agree, and it’s a very common mistake. The question is not whether or not some particular belief is rational, the question is rational for whom? Some beliefs can be rational for some persons but irrational for others.

Randal: Right. And this is a point worth underscoring with an example, one that brings us squarely back to theism. Let’s say, for example, that Pastor Jones prays for his daughter to recover from a bad case of pneumonia. A couple of hours after the prayer, the daughter begins to show dramatic signs of improvement.

By the next day, she is fully recovered, and Pastor Jones concludes that God healed her. I have often heard religious skeptics reply that this kind of interpretation of the recovery is irrational because the child’s improvement could just as well be due to chance. I agree that it could be chance: nobody’s denying that. However, we should also remember that Pastor Jones starts out with different background beliefs from the skeptic. Pastor Jones believes there is a God who answers prayer, while the skeptic doesn’t believe this. Since they have different starting points, each reasonably interprets the same data differently relative to their background assumptions. As a result, the pastor can see the hand of providence while the skeptic sees mere serendipity.

So here is how this cashes out: it is reasonable for Pastor Jones to attribute the recovery to divine action, and it is reasonable for the skeptic to attribute it to chance. The point is that we don’t need to decide which interpretation is reasonable or justified. Rather, Pastor Jones and the skeptic can both be reasonable in interpreting the data differently, each in accord with his background beliefs.

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