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Sam Harris on Faith

I’m always interested to see, as I read a particular author, what he or she thinks about the nature of faith. Some think it’s a good thing, others think it’s bad, if not about the worst thing of all. Not to mention that people can have widely different views of what faith is. In the show “Once Upon a Time”—which I rather love, by the way—faith tends to be characterized as sheer belief. Belief, for example, that the good will win. I like that belief, although it’s not always clear what it entails. But my biggest problem with such belief in the show is that it seems largely unprincipled. More like faith in faith than anything—which, sadly, was also exhibited in Shepherd Book from Firefly—another show I loved. (I think I watch too much television.) I remember realizing this most clearly when, after Book made reference to the importance of faith, Mal said waiting for God is like waiting for a “train that don’t come,” or something like that; at that point Book asked why Mal thought a reference to faith required reference to God. The suggestion seemed to be that something like faith in faith was enough; that it didn’t matter what we have faith in, just as long as we have faith. I really liked the character of Shepherd Book, but that struck me as more than a little lame. But Joss Whedon can be forgiven; he rocks. And heck, he’s an atheist. And for an atheist says pretty cool things, like these words he gave to Captain America, after seeing Thor and Loki: “There’s just one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” So yes, Joss can be forgiven.

ANYWAY, back to faith. I’ve suggested before that, largely owing to the influence of an Enlightenment-foisted definition, faith has often nowadays come to be understood along the lines of epistemic disadvantage. The idea is that faith makes up for lack of evidence. So much so, in fact, that—as I’ve heard more than one say—if we had evidence, we’d have no need for faith. This is, to my thinking, sheer faith as fideism. I have a dear friend who’s an atheist and a very smart guy who, though he’s not particularly open to faith, tells me the only faith he’d really consider is fideism. He’s drawn to the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard quite a bit, and, especially in the latter, sees a picture of faith as essentially fideistic—a wild leap in the dark, something that goes contrary to the evidence, a counterintuitive staking of an ultimate claim on what may or may not be the right choice, something radical and outrageous and countercultural and even absurd. Yet somehow winsomely so. My atheist friend sometimes makes me laugh because, of all the variants of faith on offer, this is the one that he, a trained philosopher, might gravitate to.

For the record, I do think there’s something radical and countercultural about biblical faith rightly understood, but I don’t think this translates into fideism. God may challenge our assumptions and cultural convictions about what’s right and wrong, but ultimately, the only way we can love God with all of our minds is if God makes sense. It might take some work and hard thinking, and of course God ever in certain respects remains beyond our ken, but it’s either possible for us to reconcile God with our clearest apprehensions of the dictates of logic and morality or, if it’s not, God makes little to no sense and faith is thus irrational. When Donald Miller says, in Blue Like Jazz, that he wants a God who doesn’t make sense, I get a tad nervous. If he means God might challenge our convictions and help us realize that what we thought had been true in fact is false, that’s fine; surely we should retain a correctable and teachable worldview and theology; but the phrase “doesn’t make sense” could mean a whole lot more, none of which is the slightest bit appealing to me and all of which smacks of anti-intellectualism. I think biblical faith is clearly not fideistic. It’s rooted in evidence. The “not seeing” part of faith usually has more to do with our inability to see how God’s going to work things out than having no evidence to believe trust in God’s faithfulness is warranted. The more evidence we have, in fact, the stronger our faith can and should be, in my estimation, contrary to the fideistic perspective.

Recently I read the atheist Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, and his view of faith—and of religious people generally—is a delight to read. His fiery rhetoric veritably drips with animus—so much so, I have to confess, it makes for incredibly fun reading. The dude is passionate. I don’t mean to mock his convictions; I really don’t. I found myself liking him more and more as I read his book, however much I disagreed with parts of it. And it seems to me, anyway, that he sincerely cares about people and would like to see the world become a better place. He’s understandably grieved at how some folks, in the name of their religion and faith, do hideous things, and though I think he’s radically mistaken thinking of all religious conviction as of a piece and equally dangerous and deleterious, the fact that he thinks religion is so big a detriment to human well-being renders it eminently understandable he argues so vociferously against it, particularly its harshest manifestations.

For now I’d like to point out his depiction of the nature of faith, as I think it’s informative, and it adds something to the discussion: The condition of faith itself, he writes, is “conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.” So here Harris identifies what he considers to be five salient features of faith:

1. Convictions without sufficient reason;

2. Hope mistaken for knowledge;

3. Bad ideas protected from good ones;

4, Good ideas obscured by bad ones; and

5. Wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation.

I think there’s little doubt as to why, if that’s his view of faith, he rejects it. I’d reject it, too!

But again, I don’t see biblical faith, rightly understood, as anything like this. Biblical faith is trust in the faithfulness of God to do what he’s promised to do. And such trust is predicated on, in my estimation, excellent reasons to think God is trustworthy—a long, established track record of showing himself to be faithful. Not in the sense of giving us everything we want, but in showing his love, fulfilling his promises, and offering his salvation. Whether biblical faith is lacking in evidence is a matter for dialogue and discussion, not dogmatism. It seems to me, in my own study of these questions, philosophical arguments for God’s existence and historical arguments for the truth of Christianity are strong—even if the evidence is not such as to compel the assent of every rational person. There’s both light and darkness, as folks like Paul Moser, C. Stephen Evans, and Pascal before them, have argued is likely to be the case if God wants to do more than enlighten the mind, like woo the heart. The bald assertion that biblical faith lacks evidence grows tiresome. I suggest that atheists find someone who can debate William Lane Craig without getting their clock cleaned before repeating that vacuous mantra ad nauseum. And whether biblical faith involves empty hope, bad ideas, or wishful thinking entirely depends on whether the claims on which such faith is based are true or not. Again, merely repeating such charges as if doing so accomplishes anything is a paradigmatic instance of question-begging assertion without argument. So, once more, this sort of uncharitable and knee-jerk characterization of the nature of faith, however fun it is to read, leaves me unimpressed, and does little to advance substantive discussion.