For a while now, the camping ground of the popular, vocal ‘new atheists’ and their followers has been the idea that ‘religious people’ (which covers an almost impossibly broad spectrum of people around the world throughout history) are universally stupid, because they have ‘faith’.
This of course means that the new atheists (the blessed clever ones who need to help the rest of stupid humanity) need a definition of faith, and they are frequently ready to come up with one: ‘faith is the belief in something without any evidence to support it’ – and furthermore you get the impression that they think that religious people often hold onto belief actually contrary to other evidence. There is not much more to their definition than that at its core.
The problem is, that ever since I heard this definition from Dawkins first, around the time that he released The God Delusion, I’ve had a problem with the definition. It doesn’t fit at all what I know to be ‘faith’ in my life.
Furthermore, atheists have repeatedly been told that this is not the definition of faith held by most Christians; are they not listening?
I cite two recent examples from my recent observation. Dr William Lane Craig debated Dr Alex Rosenberg on Feb 1st and the full debate can be watched here. Rosenberg (atheist) fell into the trap of defining faith in this way before having the definition roundly rejected by Craig.
Secondly, another atheist who apparently hadn’t heard this rejection from anywhere yet, heard it recently on Premier Christian Radio’s show Unbelievable, which you can find here. Ralph Jones (atheist) saw fit to describe faith in just the same way, and again had his definition completely rejected by Randal Rauser – who carried the same tired tone of ‘when will they learn?’ that I heard in my own thoughts as I listened.
I would like to offer an observation. It appears that the new atheists are addressing a quite different set of people, perhaps a more minor, random set in the community (I don’t know what the exact numbers would be). These people believe that if you walk under a ladder, you will experience bad luck. That Friday 13th heralds evil. And that if you see a black crow, you have to address him in a certain way (I can’t remember how; in fact I can’t even remember if it’s a crow or something else).
The atheist definition of faith aligns perfectly with those who are, to some degree, superstitious. I’ve had plenty of great Friday 13ths, walked under a number of ladders in my time, seen black cats cross my path (heck…we HAVE one), even put up umbrellas indoors to dry them out. None of them to any detriment to my well-being. Yet there are a group of people who would balk at the thought.
Meanwhile the atheist, after he has debated a religious person and offered this false definition of faith, goes home trusting that his wife will be there as she always has been, trusting that the pavement won’t cave in underneath his feet as he walks, trusting that the air is still breathable.
My kind of faith is more like ‘trust’ than the atheist version, ‘superstition’. We don’t always have evidence for what we put our trust in – though we do acquire some evidence without having to use scientific means (the notion of hiring a private investigator to tail your fiancée before you marry is, for example, ridiculous).
If we roll it out to its cognates, ‘trustworthiness’ then takes us to notions like ‘faithfulness’, which is a frequent translation of the New Testament Greek word ‘pistis’. Examination of this pregnant word leads us to observe further useful translations such as ‘fidelity’, relating to the Latin ‘fide’. This too carries the connotation of faithfulness – behaviour that is consistent, without the need to continually provide evidence that you are in fact worthy of trust. As I have said, evidence is not absent, it is merely not a scientific requisite in the laughable way that many new atheists seem to make it out that it is.
This is why apologists now (including Craig in his debate with Rosenberg) are hinting at, or giving full apologetic backing to arguments from Christian experience around the world throughout the centuries. This really is a powerful piece of overwhelming data which has not, I feel, been fully appreciated in the debating community, frequently because the new atheists presuppose some kind of delusion. If, however, these Christians over the centuries have in fact been acting on a form of evidence-based trust, they could provide the very key the atheists are looking for.