Hebrews 11:1 and Faith: Atheists Pretending To Know What They Don’t Know

by Tom Gilson

Jerry Coyne’s recent Slate article on science and faith provides another convenient opportunity to clarify the contentious meaning of “faith.” He presents three religious and one putative scientific usage of the word, then comments,

The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Kaufman’s definition as quoted here isn’t bad. If Coyne had stuck with it he might have stayed on solid ground. He doesn’t do that, though.

Misunderstanding Hebrews 11:1 and Faith

Coyne points to one Christian source, Hebrews 11:1, and tells us it clearly expresses that faith is wish-thinking. (In this case as always I am interested only in Christian understandings of faith.) This is an odd conclusion for him to draw; Hebrews 11:1 by itself doesn’t express anything clearly. It’s part of an extended discourse on faith. It wasn’t intended to be read on its own. Ripped out of context this way, its meaning is impossible to discern.

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Let’s take a further look at what the author of Hebrews has to say about it. There’s another semi-definitional usage in Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Knowing What We Have Not Seen

Christian (and Judaic) faith is tightly associated with believing in the reality of God and his goodness to those who seek him. I believe this is the hope that’s referred in verse 1. Of course it’s not seen. Does that mean, however, that it involves “pretending to know things you don’t know”? Not at all. We know all kinds of things that we haven’t seen and can’t see. Before the Apollo missions we knew there was a far side to the moon, that it was alternately cold and hot, that it was dry and lifeless, and more.

I’m pretty sure Coyne would tell us that’s a matter of science, in no way analogous to faith. If he said that, though, he would be unnecessarily restricting his response. Our knowledge of the unseen far side of the moon isn’t just a matter of science; it’s a matter of drawing a good conclusion based on relevant evidence and sound reasoning. Though he would certainly (and obviously) be right) that science is involved in this case, sound thinking doesn’t have to be scientific thinking. Suppose someone unearthed a lost Beethoven piano sonata. Based on relevant evidence and sound reasoning, without having seen or heard the piece, I could conclude with certainty that it’s good music…

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