Monday, January 31, 2005

Blind faith is not Christian faith.

It seems like just about everybody I meet defines faith as "belief in something you have no reason to think is true." If that's really what faith is, then you can destroy a person's faith merely by demonstrating the truth of their belief.

Doesn't that sound kind of backwards? Is there really some virtue in being irrational? I think such a view is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.

I wrote a more detailed response to this idea of "blind faith," in a discussion I had over a year ago, but it's long, so I won't reproduce it here. Instead, I just want to hit on some of the high points.

Let's look at Hebrews 11:1, because that's the primary scripture this idea of "blind faith" comes from. It says:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Since people interpret this passage to mean that the definition of faith is "belief in things you can't see or have no reason to believe," I want to say why I disagree. There are two parts to this verse about faith. The first says faith is "the assurance of things hoped for." The second part says faith is "The conviction of things not seen." I think both of these parts are saying essentially the same thing. The second part is just an elaboration or rewording of the first part. "Conviction" and "assurance" both mean basically the same thing. That much seems obvious. But what's not immediately obvious is that "things hoped for," and "things not seen," both mean the same thing. In fact, I would argue that they are referring to something specific--namely the resurrection to eternal life.

This observation I'm making isn't arbitrary. I base it on something Paul said in Romans 8:24-25. He said:

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

I didn't quote the whole context, because I'm trying to save space, but if you read the surrounding passage, you'll see that Paul is talking about the resurrection. The object of our hope is the ressurection. When Paul says that nobody hopes for what he already sees, he obviously isn't talking about visual perception. He's talking about hoping for what you don't already have. You don't hope to have things you already have. You only hope for them if you don't have them yet. The hope that we're waiting for is the resurrection. It's in that sense that we don't "see" it.

Now let's go back to Hebrews. When it says faith is the "assurance of things hoped for," the author is not defining faith, but giving us an example of faith. To have Christian faith means, among other things, to have some assurance that we will be raised from the dead. Likewise, in the second part, it says faith is "the conviction of things not seen." In other words, to have Christian faith is, among other things, to trust that your hope in a resurrection will be fulfilled. "Things hoped for," and "things not seen," both mean the same thing, and they both refer to our resurrection. This passage has absolutely nothing to do with having blind beliefs in things we have no justification for believing.

But assume for the moment that faith is blind arbitrary belief. If we make that assumption, then we run into several contradictions in the Bible. Let me just list a few examples:

Proverbs 14:15: "The naive believe everything, but the prudent man considers his steps."

Acts 9:22: "But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ."

Acts 18:28 "For he [Apollos] powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ."

Acts 19:8 "And he [Paul] entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God."

1 Corinthians 14:20: "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature."

1 Peter 3:15: "Always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence."

All of these scriptures presuppose that our faith be based on something. We can't very well give a defense for our hope if we don't have reasons for why we believe. The apostles didn't go about telling people to "just believe." On the contrary, they argued and gave reasons for why people ought to believe. Were they out to destroy people's faith? Of course not! Christian faith is not blind, arbitrary, and unjustified belief. Christian faith is simply trust in what you have reason to think is true.

For further reading on this topic, check out Fallacious Faith by J.P. Holding.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Can a belief be justified if it can't be proved?

In light of a conversation I've been having with Safiyyah on logic and beliefs, I wanted to say a couple of things about faith, which I'll do in the next couple of blogs. In this blog, I want to say something about the rationality of believing things that can't be proved. In the next blog, I want to say something about the Christian idea of faith.

Most of the things we believe, we have some reason for why we think they are true. We believe one thing is true as a consequence of some other thing we think is true. It can't be the case, though, that everything we hold to be true has some justifying reason.

J.P. Moreland points this out in Skepticism & Epistemology when he discusses the itterative skeptic. An iterative skeptic is somebody who says, "How do you know that?" after everything you say. The assumption underlying the iterative skeptic's question is that you don't know something unless you can account for how you know it. (How does the iterative skeptic know that?) But if you have to give a reason for everything you know before you can be justified in your belief, then none of our beliefs are justified, because the only way we could justify them is to go through an infinite regress of reasons for how we know. We have to answer the iterative skeptic's question infinitely, and infinity cannot be completed because it is, by definition, without an end.

If we know anything at all, then, there must be some things we know that we don't need to give a justification for. There must be some starting point, some basic set of truths that are sort of built in, that we didn't derive from reasons.

I can name a few things I know but that I can't prove. I know that I exist, I know I'm thinking right now, I know how I feel, I know that 2+2=4, I know that if two things contradict they can't both be true, I know there are other minds, that the external world exists, and that the future will resemble the past. I can't prove any of these, but I don't see that I need to prove them before I'm justified in believing them.

The interesting thing to me is that the set of things we can't prove also happen to be the things we can know with the highest degree of certainty. Although I think it's possible I could be wrong about the existence of morality, the external world, the past, other minds, and the uniformity of nature, I do not think it's possible for me to be wrong about my existence, the content of my thoughts, peceptions, memories, the laws of logic, and basic math and geometry.

Consequently, and sort of in response to Safiyyah, I do not think that beliefs that were not arrived at by the use of logic are necessarily relegated to "blind faith." After all, logic cannot be derived from logic without the use of a viciously circular line of reasoning. Logic must be known a priori. Logic itself cannot be proved, but must be assumed before you can prove anything else. That doesn't mean our belief in logic is "blind faith." We are quite justified to believe in logic, because logic is rationally grasped. It's intuitively obvious.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The burden of proof

If you ever go to or the dozens of other places there are where theists and atheists debate each other on message boards, you might notice them shifting the burden of proof back and forth. This makes absolutely no sense to me. Why are they debating there in the first place? Is it simply to win a contest? If so, their shifting of the burden of proof might make sense. Outside of formal debate, though, there’s no point in shifting the burden of proof. The burden of proof is on whoever wants to persuade. You can’t persuade somebody by shifting the burden of proof on them. If you want to convince another person you’re right, the burden is on your shoulders to show them that you’re right. If a person has no desire to pursuade anybody, then they have no obligation to assume the burden of proof.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The new atheism

After listening to and reading a whole bunch of debates on the existence of God, I have noticed that an unusual amount of time gets spent dealing with this idea of “burden of proof.” The rule in formal debates is that the burden of proof is on he who asserts. If you make a claim, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate the truth of your claim.

Nobody denies that the theist has the burden of proof in these debates. He asserts that God exists, so it’s up to him to make arguments to support his assertion. But theists will often claim that atheists also share the burden of proof since they are making an assertion. They are, say the theists, asserting that God does not exist, and they must make arguments to support that assertion.

As soon as theists try to shift the burden of proof onto the atheists, the debate immediately begins to revolve around the meaning of “atheism.” The usual meaning most people associate with atheism is the belief that there is no God. If you ask the average atheist on the street, that’s exactly what they’ll tell you, too. So it’s become a widely accepted definition.

But there’s been a trend among atheist intellectuals to avoid the burden of proof by giving a different meaning to the word “atheism.” According to them, atheism doesn’t mean a belief in the non-existence of God. Rather, it simply means a lack of belief in God. Since they define atheism as an absence of a belief in the existence God rather than the presence of a belief in the non-existence of God, they aren’t asserting anything. They aren’t asserting that God doesn’t exist, just that they lack any belief that he does. Since they aren’t asserting anything, they have no burden of proof. All they have to do is offer rebuttals to the theists’ arguments, but they don’t have to prove any claim of their own.

At this point, the theist will say, “But that’s not atheism. That’s agnosticism!” That brings me to the whole point of this blog. Atheists aren’t giving enough information to really settle this dispute, and this disputes never gets settled in these debates. Both sides eventually drop it after wasting a lot of their time. But it seems to me there's a simple way to settle the dispute, and that's to have the atheist answer a simple question.

Agnosticism is a position of neutrality. It means lack of knowledge. Agnostics don’t know whether God exists or not. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t; they don’t know either way. So Agnostics lack any belief in the existence of God, but they also have a lack of any belief in the non-existence of God.

Atheists, on the other hand, have a lack of belief in God, but they don’t say anything about the status of their belief or lack thereof in the non-existence of God. Do they think God exists? No. Do they think God does not exist? This new definition of atheism leaves that question unanswered.

Do you see the difference between agnosticism and atheism? Lemme break it down:

Agnosticism: lack of belief in the existence of God; lack of belief in the non-existence of God.
Atheism: lack of belief in the existence of God.

The question I would like to put to the next atheist who tells me he has a lack of belief in God is this: “Do you also have a lack of belief in the non-existence of God?” If he says, “Yes,” then he’s agnostic. He lacks a belief in God, and he also lacks a belief in the non-existence of God. He just doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. But if he says, “No,” then he’s an atheist by the ordinary street definition of the word. If he does not lack a belief in the non-existence of God, then he HAS a belief in the non-existence of God, which is exactly what the theists have been saying all along. Atheism entails the belief that God does not exist. If he is defending atheism, and atheism consists of a belief in the non-existence of God, then the theists were right all along to insist that the atheists must share in the burden of proof.

At least that’s true in formal debates. I want to say something in my next blog about the absurdity of arguing over the burden of proof outside of formal debates.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The very first post of my very first blog ever.

I decided to start this blog because whenever I read anything in Christian literature, philosophy, or whatever, I always have ideas come pouring into my mind. Sometimes, they're just other ways of articulating what I've read, and other times, they are original thoughts that were sort of inspired by what I read.

Usually what I do in these situations is write them down on a piece of paper if I have one handy. Then I tuck it away somewhere thinking that some day when I write my book, I'm going to go back over these notes I've made and use some of the ideas I put down. Either that or some day I'll go back to these notes and sort of refine my thoughts. I'll think them through a little more and maybe write something more about them.

I just want to see if having a blog will make the whole process a little more fun. I call my blog "primitive thoughts," because the things I write down are not meant to be things I've completely thought through and refined for publishing. Rather, they are my initial ideas about things--things that just pop into my head--that may some day be developed further and refined or abandoned.

Every now and then, I may post a blog containing something I've written down before on one of those sheets of paper but never really got back to. Shoot, I may just post whatever I feel like posting whether it fits the explanations I've given on this blog or not. Ya never know!