Rods and Snakes: What is Biblical Faith?
In his most recent post, Tom admits that some cases of faith in the Bible fail to count as reasonable according to basic evidentialist standards. Tom’s very modest goal with his post is simply to show that Biblical “faith is often based on objective evidence.” Stronger theses are easier to knock down (which is why Karl Popper liked them!), but even this weaker claim (“often” rather than, say, “always”) is not hard to shake.
First, one should note how Tom’s above statement contrasts with the sort of belief one finds in science. Theories that come to be accepted by the scientific community as a whole – heliocentrism, evolution by natural selection, the big bang theory, special and general relativity, the theory of the atom, and so on – are paradigmatically based on objective evidence. Indeed, there isn’t a single widely accepted scientific claim that is not based on loads of objective evidence. (Think about this for a moment.) I have absolutely no prior prejudices in favor of science (over religion), but I have become a huge fan of science precisely because of it’s extremely robust epistemological foundation in checkable evidence – evidence that one can always in principle see for oneself. How nice is that?
Second, as a side note, as far as I can tell there is virtually no objective evidence for the claim that some of the events that Tom mentions ever happened. There is, indeed, no reason at all for believing that long, long ago a rod really did turn into a snake, or that the Red Sea really was parted. Ancient tales like these can be found all over the world – and indeed their frequency has diminished over time in proportion to the rise of more empirical, scientific ways of thinking. Surely Tom doesn’t believe that Joseph Smith really did miraculously find some golden tablets buried in the ground. Yet Tom admits to believing that a rod turned into a snake (or at least to the claim that God appeared in a burning bush; this part of Tom’s post is somewhat ambiguous). I think such beliefs are very, very unreasonable.
Third, let’s completely grant for the sake of argument that instances of faith in the Bible do indeed involve solid objective evidence. The question – indeed, the crucial question – that still remains is this: can human beings today have this sort of evidence-based belief in the doctrines of Christianity? If I witnessed God in a burning bush, and if I had compelling independent reasons for thinking that I don’t suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy (which causes individuals to have “revelatory” experiences) or from schizophrenia, that my brain isn’t being electrostimulated by a neurosurgeon right now, that no one slipped a bit of LSD into my punch, and so on, then I would be fairly convinced that God exists – or at least that something very unusual is going on behind the scenes, something I need to know more about. If other individuals witnessed this event too, there would be even more reason for believing. And if this event could – ideally, as scientists do all the time in the laboratory – be repeated multiple times, then we could be even surer that the evidence is solid (i.e., that it’s not the result of delusion, deception or trickery) and thus that the theistic beliefs based upon this evidence are reasonable to accept.
My point is this: let’s just say that the Bible does “often” take faith to involve evidence-based belief. The question relevant to me, you (the reader), Tom and everyone else living in the contemporary world is: Is it possible for Christians today to have “faith” of exactly this sort? That is to say, to what extent are Christian beliefs presently justified by our total evidence? Do we still witness burning bushes? Do we still see rods turning into snakes? Do we ever observe seas opening up like the Red Sea? Do we ever find manna falling from the sky? Do we ever see water being turned into wine, or people walking on water, or beings that claim to be divine ascending into heaven? People back then sure did have a lot more evidence than we do today. Indeed, as I explicitly mention in my book, most of the very best evidence for religion today is characteristically “subjective” in nature – feelings, ambiguous cases of answered prayer, sensing the presence of Allah, God, or whomever, and so on. But subjective evidence isn’t good evidence, since it requires that you have to merely take someone else’s word for it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to merely take the Muslim’s word for it that Allah is real. I want a bit of evidence that I can check out for myself.
I’m reminded here of Richard Swinburne’s statement that “There is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God’s existence, and too much might not be good for us.” (Still trying to figure out what exactly he’s referring to in the first part – but the second part speaks volumes.) As someone trying to figure out if (a) any religion is true, and (b) which religion is true if one of them is, I need way, way more evidence than I have to commit to any of the world’s many religions.
Fourth, there are plenty of – maybe more, although I haven’t counted – places in the Bible where beliefs that are clearly not based on the best available evidence, or that even contradict this evidence, are taken to be acceptable or preferable. For example:
1.1 The Case of Abraham: the Bible says: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” [Italics added in most of these passages.]
1.2 Similarly: the Bible says: “It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old.”
2. Don’t Think For Yourself: the Bible says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
3. Don’t Make Others Stumble: the Bible says: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble [i.e., doubt]! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” [BTW, is anyone else a little morally shocked by this? How could a book inspired by God himself contain such ethical filth?]
4. Ask Without Doubting: the Bible says: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
5. Have Faith and Don’t Doubt: the Bible says: “And Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.’”
6. Oh Ye Of Little Faith!: the Bible says: “Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
7. Knowledge by Faith: the Bible says: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
8. Possibly the most famous example of the Bible endorsing belief without sufficient evidence involves the Apostle Thomas. Thomas was told a truly extraordinary claim: that Jesus rose from the dead after three days of decomposition. As a good evidentialist, Thomas requested evidence – specifically, evidence that he could see/touch for himself – to support this outrageous assertion. Bad move on Thomas’ part. Indeed, the very fact that “doubting Thomas” is a derogatory term indicates that Christianity has a long history of praising belief that’s not based on good evidence (“faith,” I would call it, but see below). Indeed, as Jesus himself said in response to Thomas’ skepticism: “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
(Note by the way that being a “doubting Thomas” is what being a good scientist is all about. In fact, as I write in A Crisis of Faith [which, apparently, no one here has actually looked at]: “… scientists are the most skeptical group of people out there. They are in the business not only of answering questions, but of questioning answers. As a general rule, you might say that it’s more difficult to convince scientists that the beliefs they already accept are true than any other community of individuals. In contrast, it’s more difficult to convince religious individuals that the beliefs they accept are false than any other group of people. This gets back to the “why” versus “what” issue: science is obsessed with arriving at beliefs that are well-founded, while the world’s religions begin their journey with infallible doctrines and immutable truths.”)
These are only a few examples of how the Bible talks about faith – about the acceptance of beliefs in the absence of good checkable evidence. Don’t think too hard, don’t doubt, just believe! (I’m reminded here again of studies showing that analytic thinking is antithetical to religious belief.)
Fifth, to be clear about something, I really don’t care whether one pairs the term “faith” with our concept of evidentally unjustified belief or with our concept of belief that’s supported by the totality of the evidence. We all agree on the conceptual distinctions here: some propositions are well-supported and some are not. How we link those concepts up to lexical items doesn’t really matter – indeed, you can call the former concept “Joe” if you’d like (and if one did, then I’d say that, e.g., Hinduism involves a lot of Joe).
My approach in Crisis was not lexically biased towards my current, tentatively-held atheism. Rather, my approach was – to spell it out straightforwardly, as I’ve done with just about all my views in this mildly anti-philosophical debate – (a) to look at the claims made by Christianity (and other religions, like Mormonism and Islam), and then (b) to take a look at the best available evidence (on the explicit assumption that evidence is what makes beliefs reasonable to believe). In my best judgment, (c) the central claims made by Christians largely lack any kind of good supporting evidence – certainly they lack the sort of evidence that corroborates scientific claims like “mass and energy are equivalent,” “space and time form a continuum,” “humans evolved from australopithecines,” and “the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.” All of these are hugely well-supported, and this is precisely why whole scientific communities hold them. And finally, given the conclusion of (c), I select the term “faith” – “widely” used by the relevant experts in precisely this way – to pick out the particular species of belief needed to accept the central propositions of Christianity, which appear to be largely unsupported by fact. My approach thus puts semantics at the very end, and careful epsitemological examination at the beginning. (This is in part why the shameful term “internet atheism” is both undeserved and unnecessarily pejorative.)
I have plenty more to say about these issues, but time is limited. I would be happy if Tom could reply to each of my points here.