The Necessity of Faith
by guest blogger Neil Shenvi
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:18
Before I was Christian, I scoffed early and often at the simple-minded and ludicrous faith of most Christians. I had certainly seen and heard Christians making some very improbable statements and then justifying them not by argument or logic but by an appeal to this nebulous concept. What irritated me even more was the view that faith was a virtue rather than an escape route. When positions could not be defended and counter-evidence mounted, faith ended the discussion. I, on the other hand, had a belief in God that was firmly rooted in philosophical reasoning and logic. I also had the intellectual integrity to admit when I was wrong and would gladly relinquish my views if someone could disprove them (granted, when you are as smart as I was, this happens rarely). However, I now realize that faith is not an escape route nor is it an unstable foundation. Rather, it is the only firm ground upon which anyone can build their life. Furthermore, it is the foundation upon which everyone, from the most devout believer to the most ardent atheist, does build their life whether they like it or not.
First, a digression: a few years ago there was a program on television called, Did the Moon Landing Really Happen. I only watched for a few minutes, but from the glimpse I had, I gathered that the program was devoted to expounding the claims of a group of scientists who believed that the moon landing had been a government fabrication filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. The scientists who were interviewed supported their theories with seemingly convincing evidence. For instance, there is a radiation belt surrounding the earth that would have destroyed any electrical systems that passed through it; the flag planted by Neil Armstrong is shown in the film footage to be waving slightly, which would not have been possible in the atmosphere-less environment of the moon, etc… I could list many more facts which were marched out over the course of the hour-long special if I had continued watching. Unfortunately, I changed the channel after a few minutes.
Let me immediately affirm that I do believe in the moon landing and that I suspect the whole conspiracy theory to be a load of rubbish. In the same breath, let me also affirm that this belief is founded on nothing more than extreme and whole-hearted faith.
Ask yourself the following questions. First, have you ever once seriously entertained the possibility that the moon landing was staged? I haven’t. Second, if you were to consider this possibility, is there any concrete evidence, either for or against this claim that you could advance to convince a skeptic? And I doubt that an appeal to the history books would satisfy a real skeptic (after all, you forget the vast nature of the conspiracy). What is more, if you were ever to enter a fair, moderated debate with one of the conspiracy theorists on the program, who would win? Though I am certain that there are scientific experts who could convincingly dismantle these conspiracy theorists, I most certainly could not. Yet despite the rational, logical, convincing arguments advanced by the conspiracy theorists -arguments which I cannot refute- I still believe in the moon landing. Why? Because I believe by faith.
All of us have certain premises, which we accept without proof and on which we build all our subsequent beliefs. In this case, my belief seems mainstream and reasonable; however, appealing to mainstream belief is a statement of faith in mainstream belief. I believe what is documented by the news, what I was taught in school, and what eyewitnesses have confirmed, because in the past these sources have proven reliable. But appealing to the reliability of sources is a statement of faith in the continued reliability of these same sources.
True and pure skepticism does not exist. The only way to avoid premises is to believe nothing. True skepticism rules out any appeal to evidence because the evidence itself is more material for skepticism. And yet, even the most ardent skeptic who denies every conclusion and pronounces all evidence as inadmissible, is still clinging to faith – in some ways the most profound faith of all. This type of intellectual, rational skepticism presumes a deep, fanatical, unjustified faith in one’s own ability to reason. If you demand, as a skeptic, that any belief to which you subscribe must be proven, you are making the assumption that your personal intelligence is sufficient to determine when and if a thing is proven. On what basis do you believe that?
I remember first reading about quantum mechanics in high school and pronouncing it the most ridiculous theory I had ever heard. All of the proofs and experiments of which I am now aware would have been of no avail since I had a high school understanding of mathematics and physics. Consider the common, grade school question: “Why is the sky blue?” Often, the explanation itself requires an explanation, which itself requires an explanation. Eventually, the questions stop because the child is satisfied or bored, not because he really understands the answer. But it would be a very tiresome six-year-old who, after hours of questioning, bellows: “I demand proof, not hand-waving and nonsense about Rayleigh scattering. I conclude that you really don’t have any evidence at all for what you are saying.”
Do you believe in the theory of relativity? Why? Can you explain it to me? Unless you are a physicist, you probably cannot. Do you believe in the Battle of Actium? Can you show me the evidence? Unless you are a historian, you probably cannot. Then on what basis do you believe in it? Well, someone you trust told you that it is true and you are fairly sure that there exist people who could prove it to me. True enough. But are these answers founded on reason and logic alone? Or is there an element of faith?
All of this discussion is an attempt to illustrate that on a daily basis, in our most trivial activities, and in our most foundational beliefs, all of us are making deep faith commitments to particular views of the world. We put our faith in science or in popular opinion or in a religious system, but it’s all faith from top to bottom. I am not claiming here that faith in God or religion is right and faith in science or atheism or history is wrong. I am simply claiming that faith -unquestioned, unjustified assent to a set of premises and often to an entire worldview- is the basis for every belief.
Let me now take a moment to address an argument I once read in The Skeptic magazine. The author described how theists often demand that atheists disprove the existence of God rather than providing any evidence themselves for His existence. They seem to think that the burden of proof lies on the atheists. The skeptical author likened this argument to a philosopher who insists that you disprove his claim that there is an invisible elephant sitting in the room with you. His conclusion was that those who make extraordinary claims must supply the evidence; the burden of proof lies with Them. If you believe in some supernatural, transcendent Creator, then it’s up to you to prove He exists. In ot
her words, if you want me to believe in your extraordinary claims about God, then it’s up to you to convince me with extraordinary evidence.
Of course, this argument all hinges on what we call extraordinary. For thousands of years, billions of people found atheism extraordinary. Most of the world’s population still does. I find the claim that the universe appeared out of nothing quite an extraordinary one. So does the burden of proof lie with the atheists? At the very least, we’ll have to admit that neither of us can claim that our position is the default.
The other argument that is frequently appealed to is the idea that because science can explain everything in the universe, there is no need to drag some mysterious God into it. This reasoning is essentially Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. First of all, it is important to note that a belief in Occam’s razor is completely unjustifiable. Why does the universe need to be simple? In fact, anyone who has studied modern physics will tell you right away that it really isn’t simple at all. Classical mechanics is very simple, but unfortunately it happens to be incorrect. Second, we must address what we mean when we say that science can explain the universe. Do we mean that science HAS explained the universe or that science WILL explain the universe? The former statement is simply false; there are still tremendous questions about the fundamental laws of the universe even at the simplest level. The latter statement is more subtle.
Science is beautiful in its predictive and explicative ability. There are many problems that we have been able to solve in the last few decades that puzzled physicists for centuries. But is there any reason to believe that science can solve all such problems? At the turn of the century, a famous mathematician named Hilbert compiled a list of twenty-three unproven mathematical conjectures which he challenged other mathematicians to solve. Progress was made on many of them. However, Kurt Godel later proved that one of the problems was unsolvable – neither able to be proved or disproved. Whether physics will reach a similar point is unclear. When you say that science WILL explain the universe in its entirety, you are making an inductive assumption about the ability of science to describe the universe: “because we can describe some of it, we can describe all of it”. I could equally well say, “In ten years, all progress in physics will stop”. Both of these are statements are unsubstantiated.
If faith is a necessity, it does not follow that it is a virtue. In fact, we might view faith as a necessary evil; something we would do away with if we could. But in the Bible, we are exhorted over and over again to believe by faith. What is it, then, that makes faith not simply inescapable, but commendable?
First, let me immediately say that I am out of my depth; I’m just a graduate student. But since I’ve started this essay, I’m going to try to finish it. One of the definitions of faith that has helped me is that of C.S. Lewis, who defined faith as the quality of maintaining a belief which you once determined to be true in the face of circumstances that would tempt you to abandon it. It might seem shocking to the rationalist in all of us, but it is indeed true that circumstances rather than evidence often shake our deepest beliefs. When I was young, I had very strong scruples against profanity. I had been taught by my parents that foul language was wrong, and as a very moral little child I absolutely refused to use bad words. I remember one afternoon in seventh grade being accosted by a classmate who used every form of coersion at his disposal to pry a dirty word from my mouth. But I was convinced that it was wrong and nothing could move me – until ninth grade when I realized that my clean mouth was uncool. How many of your moral principles were you dissuaded of rationally in calm discussion, and how many were tossed aside at a party or late night in your dorm room when they no longer suited you? Afterwards, we always come up with very logical arguments, but at the moment of decision, it is not reason, but our momentary lusts that carry the most weight.
A more complex example: when I was eight, my parents took me to San Francisco to visit relatives. In the city, I saw homeless people for the first time. I distinctly remember passing an old woman on Fisherman’s Wharf. She was dirty and wrinkled and sitting on the street, but she was playing with a kitten. When I saw her, I knew that I should help her. I knew that I should ask my parents to give her some change. But I was young and frightened, and I just walked by with my parents. On the car ride home, I remember crying inconsolably because I knew that it was wrong that people were living on the streets, because she was cold and dirty and no one loved her, because I knew that I should have helped her.
Twelve years later, in college, I firmly believed that homeless people should be sterilized, or at least locked up. They contributed nothing to society; they were broken and lazy and nothing could help them if they refused to help themselves. What changed? Did I reason my way from point A to point B? Actually, yes. Every step of the journey was a step of logic. But what made me head in that direction? The truth is that I knew in my heart at age twenty the same things I knew at age eight: It was wrong that people were living on the streets. It was wrong that no one cared. It was wrong that I didn’t care. So because I didn’t have the courage to face a world in which injustice existed, because I didn’t have the honesty to admit that I was selfish, that my heart was hard, I reasoned my way into a belief system in which I didn’t have to care. I created a reality in which homeless people got what they deserved. Because if they were homeless through no fault of their own, then I would be guilty. And I couldn’t face that.
Faith is the ability to hold on to beliefs that we know to be true even when we are tempted to abandon them. And this, I think, is why faith is a virtue. What if I followed Jesus because of reason (although I do have reasons for my faith)? What if I followed Jesus because of logic (although I do think that Christianity is logical)? How long would I last? How long before my heart found something else that it wanted more than Him? I have plenty of reasons for my belief in Christ, but none of them is the foundation of my belief. We walk by faith not because reason and logic are evil or false, but because they’re simply too weak. Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” We all put our faith in something; we all build our lives on some foundation. But if Jesus is who he says he is, then he is the only one in whom we can put our faith without fear of it being shaken.
Neil Shenvi is the author of Neil Shenvi Apologetics, a website on which he publishes many articles and essays with the skeptic, seeker, and those reaching out to them in mind.