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'Faith is not the opposite of reason'

Dr Andy Bannister maintains that faith and evidence are not actually in opposition to one another …

Dr Andy Bannister maintains that faith and evidence are not actually in opposition to one another …

“Faith” has become something of a swearword for some atheists. Best-selling sceptical writer Sam Harris says “faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse” whilst less verbosely, Richard Dawkins simply calls faith “evil”, saying it stands on no foundations and thus can’t be argued with.

Many atheists are quick to contrast faith with EvidenceTM and ReasonTM, implying that those belong purely to atheism.

But just a moment: as with many popular atheist arguments, this one has a number of problems when you poke at it.

First, it’s noteworthy that the opposite of ‘faith’ is not the word ‘reason’. The opposite of the word ‘reason’ is the word ‘irrational’. Can you be an irrational religious person? Absolutely. Can you be an irrational atheist? Definitely. The question isn’t what you believe (or don’t believe) in, but the reasons you give when asked.

Now when it comes to faith in Jesus, it’s clear from the Bible that the first Christians considered they had very good evidence for what they believed. Read the book of Acts, the story of the early Church, and you’ll quickly discover that whenever the first Christians were on trial (as they often were) for their faith in Jesus, they pointed to public evidence. The resurrection, the empty tomb (available for all to see), the actions Jesus had carried out in public.

In short, they gave evidence for their faith.

The word ‘faith’ does not mean, as Mark Twain once quipped, “Believing things you know ain’t so” but it actually means trust. Indeed, the word “faith” is derived from a Latin word, fides, which means “trust” and “reliability”.

It also turns up in words like “confident”, which comes from the Latin con fides – or “with faith”. So when an atheist friend tells you she’s confident of her position, try commending her on her faith.

Realising that faith means trust is helpful, as you can then appreciate that all of us, no matter what we believe, use faith every day. Each time you drink a latte, take a flight, visit the doctor, you’re exercising faith that you’re not about to be poisoned by the barista, put your life in the hands of a drunken pilot, or risk becoming a medical negligence statistic. There’s simply no escaping faith: we have to exercise trust to go about our daily lives.

It’s also worth reflecting for a moment on the difference between “belief that” and “belief in”.

Imagine that I’m hiking in the Lake District. Trying to snap a selfie, I lean too far over a cliff edge and fall over. As I plummet towards an inevitably squishy doom, I see a small tree growing out of the cliff face. Amateur botanist that I am, I instantly recognise it as a rowan tree. I also took some engineering classes in school and quickly calculate the load the tree can carry. Here’s the thing though: I can accumulate as many factoids about the tree as I like: none will save me. Rather, I need to act on those facts and grab the tree. I need to move from beliefs that to belief in.

And that’s how biblical faith operates. Christians don’t believe in faith for faith’s sake. Rather the issue for Christians is whom our faith is placed in. The Bible basically says: “Here are the reasons why God is trustworthy, from his character to how he has acted in history, in Jesus. Now, on that basis, on that evidence, will you trust him?” Or as Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 1:12: “I know whom I have believed.”

The question is not whether you have faith. We all do – atheists and Christians, sceptics and seekers, doubters and disciples.

Rather the question is a much deeper one: what or whom are you ultimately trusting in? And is that on which you are placing your faith able to bear the weight?

  • Dr Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and is the author of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments). Find out more at www.theatheistwhodidntexist.com
     
  • RZIM have also produced the popular Short Answers to Big Questions video series at youtube.com/rzimcanada, including “Isn’t faith just for the stupid and gullible?” and “Isn’t ‘faith’ just for weak-minded fools?”

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