Recently there was a conference held on the east coast of Australia by and for atheists. Its title was…I don’t recall exactly, but it was along the lines of “Something Reason Something.” Reason had a prominent place anyway, and that’s what I want to focus on. The implication of the title is that reason trumps faith, which is what religious people have. But is it the case that atheists don’t use faith and theists don’t use reason? Isn’t it rather that – in the popular view – atheists place a higher reliance on reason and theists on faith? It seems more reasonable that this is what we should understand the proposition (or accusation) to be. If so, the statement is at best a half-truth, if for no other reason because it implies that faith is a source of knowledge. It is not.

What is actually meant by the accusation of “reason versus (or “above”) faith” is that theists have greater trust in an empirically untestable source of information than in reason, and atheists vice versa.

The difference between faith and an authority (a source of knowledge, whether or not that source is trustworthy or accurate) is the difference between the journey and the destination. Imagine we’re standing on a riverbank called Ignorance; we want to cross to the other side to the Shire of Knowledge. There are four bridges we may use to cross the river of Questioning. These four bridges are authority, reason, tradition, and experience. Faith is what moves us to walk across any given bridge.

Faith: read the book, see the film, know the definition.
Faith is not an actual entity. Faith is an abstract noun that describes our acceptance of a proposition as true. Reason too is an abstract noun. It is the mental process of understanding the relationships between objects, based on apparent cause and effect. The difference between faith and reason is that reason makes or recognises possible connections between objects, but faith means we accept one or several of those connections as true. Reason is a source of knowledge. Faith is not. Faith is what makes us trust our reason.

There are two parts to the definition of faith: assent (belief that), and commitment (belief in). Latin makes this distinction; between assent (assensus) and commitment (fiducia). Assent is intellectual agreement: “this fact is true”. Trust is commitment: intellectual agreement in action. Faith is the attitude of both assent and commitment. We believe that what another claims to be true is true, and we act accordingly. We have faith in gravity, so we don’t jump from high places without a bungee cord or a parachute. The opposite to faith is not doubt, but unbelief: we reject the claims of the other as false.

The object of faith
Faith (both assent and commitment) describes our attitude of confidence in an object or person. This is a key point: faith always has an object. We always have faith in something. Faith is like the electric cord which connects an appliance – for example, a toaster – to a power socket. You could have the world’s most expensive electric cord, with inbuilt surge and EMP protectors, and quadruple insulation around a gold core. You could wave it around, proclaiming, “I love you, cord!” But unless the toaster’s cord (faith) is plugged in to the wall socket (the object of faith), there’ll be no toast.

We don’t just ‘have faith’, like milk in a carton. Some people think that faith, like reason, is an authority; and they exhort us to ‘have faith’ or even to ‘have faith in faith’. This is to say, faith itself can provide the answer, and is no different from wishing. We may as well say that the act of searching will find our lost keys even if we don’t search in the place they actually are.

One night a man walking home sees another man peering at the ground underneath a street lamp.
“Lost something?”
“Yes, I’m looking for my keys. I’m pretty sure I dropped them in my car.” He indicates a vehicle about ten metres away, outside the circle of light of the overhead lamp. The other is astounded.
“Then why aren’t you searching in your car?!”
“It’s too dark. The light’s better over here.”

It doesn’t matter how strong our faith is that we’ll find our keys; if we don’t search for them, or if we search for them in the wrong place, we won’t find them. Our faith (that we will find the keys) will not find the keys: searching (until we find the keys) will find the keys. Our reasons tells us that the keys can be found by searching. We have faith that our reason is both valid and true, and so, putting faith into action, we will search until we find the keys.

Faith by itself can’t do anything. Faith itself doesn’t exist except in relation to something else. Faith can’t tell us what “absquatulate” means, but a dictionary can. Faith can’t tell us how to cook a red chicken curry, but a recipe can. If we believe that our faith will enable us to spell or cook, we’ll end up disillusioned; as will our dinner guests. If we have faith that the book will give us the information we want, we’ll look in the relevant book for the definition or the recipe.

If we have faith in reason, that means we also have faith in our senses, that they correctly perceive the world around us; and in our physiology, that it correctly transmits that information to our brain; and in our neural processes, that the connections they make between our perceptions accurately reflect the external world. “Kangaroos eat grass” would be valid reasoning. On the other hand, the idea “kangaroos plaid vertical” is nonsense, by our definitions of those words, and the idea would result from incorrect or poor perception, transfer of information, or connection between concepts.

Reason makes use of perceived connections between events, which perceived connection we’ll call evidence, to make conclusions. If we have faith in reason, we trust what reason tells us. Of course we might be incorrect in our conclusions, but that only means we have incorrect assumptions or premises, or our logic is invalid. Reason as an authority is trustworthy only as far as we use it correctly. This is true of the other sources of knowledge: external authority, tradition, and experience.

People who have faith that a God exists have different reasons for their belief. Some cite “common sense” (which can be far less common than we assume, and isn’t necessarily as obvious as we’d think – consider quantum physics), others because they’re taught it as kids, others because of an experience, others because of statistics. For me, four concepts comprise the nails in the coffin of atheism: information theory, irreducible complexity – and add to that minimal function – and the empty tomb of Jesus. You can research these yourself [1].

People who have faith that there is no God also have different reasons for their belief. From memory, Sartre became an atheist because he didn’t like feeling that he was being watched, in the sense of morally judged, by God; so he simply rejected the idea that God existed. Others may cite the existence of suffering, or that science disproves the God of the gaps [2].

The point is, people taking either stance have faith that the evidence supporting their position is valid. These beliefs may or may not be valid, but it is through a process of reasoning that we evaluate the evidence – assuming we do evaluate the evidence. If we don’t, our position (though not anyone else’s) is supported more by blind faith than by a reasoned one.

Blind faith
A section on faith wouldn’t be complete without looking at “blind faith”, which implies mindless trust. Mark Twain described faith, not blind faith, as “believing something you know ain’t so”. This interpretation makes faith into anti-rational wishful thinking. It makes a caricature of religious people as gullible and naïve, resembling the heavens they seek: stars in their eyes and empty space behind them.

I prefer to call this kind of faith “stubborn” or even “irrational”: belief, religious or not, that refuses to allow contrary evidence to influence its devotion to its object. Even if we are usually intelligent, careful and well-informed, our commitment to any particular belief can be so strong that we might not examine evidence as objectively as we should, or we ignore indications that our beliefs aren’t as well-founded as we thought.

Stubborn faith is different from uninformed faith, which all of us regularly act on. When we sit on any given chair, we implicitly believe that it will hold us up. This assumption is based on years of past experience: we’ve sat on thousands of different chairs, and none of them have collapsed. With chairs in general, our faith is informed: “the usual behaviour of a chair is to hold me up”. But with regard to any particular chair at any particular time, our faith is uninformed until we test it, we don’t know if the chair will collapse or hold us up. This is the sort of faith I would call blind: it is uninformed but it does not resist unpleasant facts, which is what stubborn faith does.

This is similar when a person is the object of faith or unbelief. If we have no relevant information about a person we have nothing to judge them by, so our faith is blind. But if we take someone at their word when there is sufficient evidence that they are trustworthy, this is faith that is informed.

Earth’s human population is greater than six billion, so it shouldn’t be astounding that beliefs, attitudes and levels of intelligence vary within groups. Among atheists, theists and agnostics, there are those whose intelligence makes Forrest Gump seem like Nicola Tesla, and those whose brains make Nicola Tesla seem like Forrest Gump. There are those who have more education and those with less. Similarly, any atheist, theist or agnostic can be kind or cold, humble or arrogant, or reasonable or closed-minded; although theists have the least excuse for cold, arrogant or closed-minded.

Being smarter doesn’t mean that we are right (neither does being kind or humble or reasonable); merely that, if we try to be objective with the evidence and correct for our biasses, we are more likely to reach the right answer by going down every rabbit hole and eliminating all other possible explanations. People on all sides of the debate can, and do, do this. Others don’t.

All of us are protective of our worldview because if it are shown to be false, how will we cope? We will be lost in an existential void with no guide: what will we base our lives on? Unyielding despair? We usually fear uncertainty above all else, so in order to preserve the idea that our beliefs are true, we might not deal objectively with the evidence about our beliefs. Statistical impossibility, for example: the theist points to the order and complexity of the universe, concluding that it is statistically impossible that it should have arisen by chance. (Apparently this is what made astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramsinghe become theists.) The atheist might rejoin that because an event is statistically impossible, this doesn’t mean that it is practically, actually, impossible [3].

This response is logically valid – the universe might have just happened [4] – but it is special pleading: to argue for something that is not impossible but so unlikely that it wouldn’t be seriously considered. I believe Richard Dawkins uses the example of a quantum event in which the arm of a statue moves (I don’t recall the point of his example). Such an event isn’t logically impossible but is so improbable in our experience that no atheist, theist or agnostic would consider it to be worthy of serious consideration, unless there were no other more probable explanation [5].

If theists used a similar rejoinder – that the existence of God was statistically impossible but not practically impossible – atheists would mock them mercilessly, and rightly so. It would be like arguing that a child could be born with the powers of Superman. The event isn’t logically impossible, but who would seriously consider that it might actually happen (like “Mr Glass” did in Unbreakable)? The human genome, as far as we know, doesn’t enable us to fly or give us x-ray vision. However, we do have muscular strength; so what is the probability of a neonate having the strength of an Olympic weightlifter? Again, it isn’t logically impossible, therefore it’s statistically possible; nonetheless, is it practically probable? Hardly; yet if some statistician would work it out, I’d be willing to bet that its probability would be higher than the evolution of this universe by chance (not just any universe but this one), which even the most devoted and educated atheists acknowledge is as close to practically impossible as we can get.

Of the following two deductions, which do you think is the more rational and logical?

1. It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and moves like a duck, so it’s probably a duck.
2. It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and moves like a duck, but it’s probably a small, oddly shaped hollow log with a breeze blowing through it at just the right angle.

The first is more rationally and logically defensible but a few people in all camps are too willing to believe the second kind of deduction – special pleading – in order to hold on to their beliefs. That’s when their faith fits Mark Twain’s definition.

The best way to avoid falling victim to blind faith is to be curious and to play both sides of the argument. We should make our decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than try to find evidence to justify our beliefs; otherwise we are in danger of sacrificing our objectivity – our intellectual integrity – for the sake of what we know, or suspect, is probably false. This is what everyone says, but not everyone practices what they preach.

Jesus and reason: a quick dip into the Bible.
Galileo is reported as having said, “I do not believe that the God who gave us sense, reason and speech would have us put aside the use of these.” Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 22:39; italics mine). He also told people to count the cost of following him, using the similes of a person considering whether he can afford to build a tower, and a king considering whether he can defeat an enemy (Luke 4:28-33).

Paul the apostle discouraged mindless faith. He told the Christians in Corinth that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, after His crucifixion and burial (1 Corinthians 15:6). If they wanted evidence that Jesus did defeat death, there were people the Corinthians could talk to for first-hand testimonies. In the book of Acts we read that, when in a new town, Paul would go into the synagogue and reason from the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Further on, while Luke commends the Bereans for readily accepting the Gospel, he also wrote that they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:2-3,11).

Epistemological geometry: I hope you like circles.
Rationalism is the belief that reason is the most reliable way to find truth, and reason itself can give us a bucketload of answers why it should be the highest authority, which is a situation we call a circular argument. Belief that reason is the supreme authority is based on faith. It is the same for external authority, tradition and experience. We might believe that as there is safety in numbers, there is also truth in numbers, and that knowledge from tradition, the experience of many others, is the most certain – which reason would tell us. Or we might believe that experience is the path to surest knowledge (called empiricism) – which reason would tell us. The battle between rationalism and empiricism as to which is the most trustworthy authority has gone on since Plato and Aristotle. But in case we’re thinking that reason is streets ahead, consider: how do we know we’re evaluating the evidence correctly? How do we know that the information we have in our minds about the external world accurately reflects the external world? And so it goes.

So we combine reason with empirical evidence, and apply these using a particular methodology, which we call science. Science is the best way to acquire objective knowledge about the world, because it uses these two authorities, one of which is external (experience) and the other internal (reason).

On the philosophical level – reason’s playing field! – to whatever degree we trust reason, someone’s authority, tradition and/or experience, all four are, ultimately, self-supporting. It’s like the scene in the first Superman movie when Superman catches Lois Lane and says, “Easy, miss; I’ve got you.” She looks down and exclaims, “You’ve got me! Who’s got you?” No one did: Superman supported himself. Likewise each of the four authorities are self-supporting, and this is where the call for proof must end. We must choose which we think is the most trustworthy in any given situation. I say ‘must’, for the following reason: as we search for a source of objective knowledge, circular reasoning, however unpalatable, is the inevitable barrier. This is why: the ultimate source of trustworthy knowledge cannot deny that it is the ultimate source of trustworthy knowledge, or it would be false to itself and so we could not trust it. Any other source will carry lesser actual authority, even if we trust it more than the ultimate source. Even if that lesser authority points to the ultimate source as the ultimate source, that authority will be considered insufficient: someone will find a way to invalidate it.

This fact, that the ultimate source of trustworthy knowledge is self-supporting, is the lettuce in the epistemological salad: it doesn’t satisfy anyone (except as far as we enjoy truth for its own sake). But when the philosophers are busy arguing over the merits of cos versus iceberg, we can sneak over to the grill of empiricism to give our minds something substantial to chew on. We trust that reason and experience, properly applied, can lead us to the facts, so we search for evidence that we would expect to find if the authority were what it claims. These will support the claim of the ultimate source to be the ultimate source but cannot finally prove it; nevertheless, if the evidence does not contradict the theory, we have a rational basis for belief.

For example, to test the claim of the Bible to be divinely inspired, we would look for evidence of fulfilled predictions, events that would be most reasonably explicable as divine intervention, and a text consistent with itself, logic and the facts of history, gathered from archaeology and other studies. If the evidence shows that the Bible is reliable, this doesn’t mean it is divinely inspired; however, if some of that evidence includes fulfilled predictions, we might conclude that the most probable explanation is that the Bible is from God.

The evidence helps us decide what the most probable source of the Bible is, but whether or not we believe that explanation is ultimately our choice, and our decision depends on who or what we trust the most; what we want to believe; and our foundational worldview. If we have already decided that God doesn’t exist, we may believe that the Bible is reliable, but not that it has a divine source. Maybe we’d conclude that the explanation for fulfilled predictions is that the predictions were written after the fact, or maybe Isaiah had the genetic ability to create mental quantum tunnels to see the future.

Either way, it is through faith that we believe the Bible to be either the word of God or an ancient anthology of merely human authorship. No matter the issue, whether the source of the Bible or the sturdiness of a chair, we can only accept or reject the self-supporting claims of the four authorities (or their manifestations, such as God or a media report or peer pressure) through faith.

All this means we can’t treat faith as if it were a personal quality that some people have and some don’t; or as if faith were a pair of glasses that some people wear because they’re too weak to look directly at the nasty realities of life. Faith in something is the foundation for our every belief and action. That faith might be reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, based on evidence or mere hope. If we’re wise, we’ll base our beliefs on the first of each of these options.

[1] Beware though; people have examined the events around Jesus’ death and empty tomb from a historical perspective – such as Lee Strobel and Frank Morison – and have ended up becoming believers. One of the girls at my church started reading the Bible and studying Christianity in order to reject it from a position of knowledge, and also became a believer. Granted, others have examined the same evidence and haven’t believed. Yet even skeptics like David Strauss have concluded that some of the suggested reasons for the empty tomb of Jesus, such as that he didn’t really die (which was the explanation Barbara Thiering gave in her book Jesus the Man) were invalid. Roman soldiers knew their job – they could face death if they failed in it, such as by falling asleep on watch – and would known a faint from real death.

By the way, I capitalised “God” to differentiate a supreme being who created the universe from merely a higher being (like an angel or ascended master) or merely a great human (like a “god of sport”).

[2] All these reasons I have considered and find objections to, but the purpose of this essay doesn’t include discussion of them, and better qualified people than I have written about these: Drs Wilder-Smith (there’s a website containing a dozen or so of his audio recordings), Edgar Andrews – Who Created God? – and John Blanchard –Does God Bbelieve in Atheists?

[3] I understand that statistical impossibility occurs when an event has a lower probability of occurring than one chance in -1040.

[4] Slightly off the topic, but I think relevant, is that if an atheist uses the “statistical versus practical” argument to oppose intelligent design, then they shouldn’t ridicule the possibility of miracles, or of anything involving the supernatural on a similar basis, and not merely on the belief that there is no supernatural, which would be begging the question: assuming what has to be proven. Assuming for the sake of argument that miracles do occur, or at least have occurred, we don’t understand their mechanics. I believe Isaac Asimov said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Why couldn’t something similar be true of miracles? Where could quantum physics lead us?

[5] Note the use of experience combined with tradition as an authority, and draw your own inferences about the validity of the conclusion. Look up David Hume: well, what he wrote.