Return to Summary Page ..................... Return to Previous Section ..................... Go to Next Section

17. Christianity cannot & should not be defended solely on the basis of faith.

17.1 Faith is a critical item in the evaluation of a reasoned response to the postulates of Christianity.

17.2 Faith and belief are not necessarily equivalent. Beliefs, whether considered or casually acquired, are optional. Faith has an element of inner compulsion about it (most Christians would say it was a gift of the Holy Spirit) and is closely related to trust.

17.2.1 It should be noted, however, that the New Testament vocabulary does not distinguish between "faith" and "belief" (both terms being covered by pistis), presumably because it has no time for the dispassionate holding of views. However, I will try to preserve the distinction between these two expressions in what follows.

17.3 Faith should not be a blind leap in the dark. In particular, though it may go beyond the evidence, it should not go against it.

17.3.1 Hence, faith itself must be a response to experience interpreted by reason, even though it goes beyond what can strictly be demonstrated to be reasonable.

17.3.2 In the New Testament, faith is contrasted with sight, not with reason. To quote John 20:39, those who have not seen, but yet have believed, are the more blessed. However, they have believed on testimony that is (allegedly) reliable. This is consistent with what we have found, ie. that our beliefs (and therefore our faith) should be based on experience, whether our own or others'.

17.4 Another way of looking at faith is to invoke the probabilities discussed earlier in this paper. There, we stated that no knowledge is certain, but only has a certain probability of being true. One could define a reasonable belief (expressed by proposition p, probability of truth p) as one with p > 0.5, so that it is more rational to believe the proposition than its negation (p, probability 1-p).

17.4.1 Faith would then equate to that added conviction or enthusiasm with which a belief is held over and above that which is strictly warranted by the evidence, ie. if p < 0.5, "faith in p" = 0.5 - p. If p > 0.5, "faith in p" = p - 0.5.

17.4.2 Alternatively, "faith" is the term applied to the practical adoption of unreasonable beliefs (defined as those beliefs with p < 0.5).

17.4.3 However, is not faith required to hold any belief, even if its probability p > 0.5 ? For instance, the probability of survival or the first round of Russian roulette is 5/6 for the first player, but most of us would need faith to undergo the ordeal even though we are more likely to survive than not. The explanation of this problem is the matter of "expected reward". In our game of Russian roulette, the expected first round loss is 1/6 * "value of life", so most of us would require a big incentive to play this game. It is possible to conceive of situations in which we might choose to play, however (eg. if the only alternative was a "two bullet" version !). Faith would only come into this game if one were to persuade oneself that one was not running the risk the odds imply. Such a dilemma confronts people who have the possibility of undergoing a pioneering form of treatment for an illness. However, if the alternative is "certain death today", most of us would submit to such treatment. In practise, faith is often required because we are not sure of the probabilities involved. In such instances, "faith" = 0.5 - p', where p' is the perceived probability of p being true.

17.4.4 It is to be noted that since all substantial world views will have p < 0.5, they will all be classified as unreasonable beliefs and can therefore only be maintained by faith.

17.5 There is an element of similarity between this understanding of faith and the classic New Testament definition in Hebrews 11:1, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen".

17.5 A convincing reason needs to be sought for why Christian belief has to be built on faith (contrasted with sight rather than with deeds).

17.5.1 It appears fortuitous for faith to come to the rescue of doubtful doctrines.

17.5.2 It is also impossible, on the basis of faith alone, to decide between two sets of beliefs, eg. between two conflicting religions or ideologies.

17.6 The common assumption that all beliefs are held by faith (ie. are uncertain, though not necessarily with probability of truth < 0.5), and therefore that those who exercise faith cannot be criticised for irrationality, ignores the probabilities.

17.6.1 It is not possible to live an integrated life without a world view and impossible to find one that is reasonable in the above sense of "reasonable belief". Hence, faith is inevitable if we are to live an integrated life. However, some world views are less probable than others and the more they go beyond what can with reasonable probability be demonstrated, the less probable they become, and the less reason we have for basing our lives on them.

17.6.2 In particular, each time a genuine objection is found to a belief, while this objection may not have strict logical force and so be fatal to the belief (ie. reducing its probability towards zero) it is still damaging to the belief and greatly reduces its probability and that of the enclosing worldview that is dependent on that belief.

17.7 U have sought to demonstrate that the objections facing traditional Christianity are many and cogent. Hence, its probability as a world view is very low and the amount of faith required to sustain it is very high.

17.7.1 I assert that much of the faith required of a modern believer is entirely incremental to that expected of those to whom the Christian message was first delivered. To the original hearers, Christianity would have appeared much more reasonable. We must not forget the aspect of initial unfamiliarity, however. The Cross may have been a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but its edge has been blunted by nearly 2,000 years of cultural familiarity. Also, this is not to suggest that the exercise of faith today displays greater virtue than that of the early saints, for a number of reasons:-

a). Firstly, belief contrary to evidence is not virtuous.

b). Secondly, belief is no longer associated with persecution (at least not in the comfortable West).

c). Finally, many of the original objections to the Christian faith and its practise are no longer felt : for instance, we are no longer perplexed by someone's refusal to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor (as was Pliny), rather the reverse.

17.8 The New Testament speaks of faith as a gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and so on. How are we to deal with the view that the Holy Spirit confirms the truth of Christianity in the hearts of believers and that this conviction is of more significance than any external evidence that might be adduced pro or con ?

17.8.1 This idea is a return to the notion of the evidential value of numinous experience, which we dismissed when we considered the most reasonable foundation for Christian belief. The New Testament passages that appear to support this view are such as Romans 8:16 "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God". As before, the objection to this form of faith is its insubstantiality. Convictions of this sort have been known to galvanise people to perpetrate unspeakable acts (eg. suicide bombings). To say that in such cases the faith was induced by a demon rather than by God gets us nowhere : how do we know how such beliefs arise ? At a less extreme level, we have all known convictions and insights that turned out to be mistaken or foolish when the adrenaline had dispersed.

© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
Go to Commentary on this Section
Return to Previous Section
Go to Next Section
Return to Summary Page