The Objective Subjectivity of FAITH | New Atheism | Faith


The Objective Subjectivity of

Joshua Duffy December 2012

1. Introduction If an atheist were so inclined as to begin an argument with a theist, I could think of no better subject to start with than „faith‟. To the atheist, such a concept is sheer foolishness, but to the theist, it is nothing less than divine. This is quite a gulf, and at first glance it is hard to imagine that one could ever attempt to bridge such a gap. This essay is not particularly an endeavour to do so. Attempting to rationalize „faith‟ to an unbeliever is akin to trying to rationalize to a patient with Alzheimer‟s disease that it is 3:30a.m. and they would do well to go to bed or else they will be exhausted in the morning and possibly sleep through breakfast, which is something I have actually rationalized to patients on occasion, much to my chagrin. Point being, the latter does not have the capacity upon which to accept the conclusion. It just does not make any sense to them, which, given the circumstances, is completely understandable. What is hoped to be accomplished in this essay is to determine if there is any basis for having faith, and if that basis is enough to validate faith as an objective reason for believing. The question can be succinctly put: Is having faith rational or irrational? This is the question we hope to answer. In my experience, when most people (be it Christians in the pews, or secularists in the street) hear the term „faith‟, immediately the notion of „blind faith‟ arises, which basically argues


that there is no solid basis for faith, just a hope or a wishful thinking that the Bible (or Qu‟ran, or Torah) is true. Is the foundation of faith so shoddy? Is the notion of „blind faith‟ a misnomer? With this in mind, we will be dealing with faith from a predominantly Christian perspective, as this is the faith tradition most often associated with the concept in our culture. We will consider the opinions of well-known contemporary atheists in regards to faith, as well as a couple of influential Christian philosophers. In finishing, we hope to conclude whether or not faith has any objective value, or if it is wholly subjective. Faith is a dramatically complex idea, as evidenced by the obscure opinions on both sides of its agenda. Seeing as that the majority of people on the earth today are members of the three main religious traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism),1 and that faith is a foundational aspect of each of these traditions, I think it important that some time be given to the issue.

2. Opinions to the Contrary Interestingly enough, there are some outspoken atheists who do not seem to be that enamored with the concept of „faith‟. In fact, most of the time a secularist mentions faith, they do so with the insinuation that it is blind, meaning that it is founded on wishful thinking, having no objective proof. This reduces faith to something completely meaningless and reduces the believer to a naive nostalgic preferring to forego objective reasoning rather than evaluate real evidence. The notion that faith is blind is taken right from the Christian scriptures. In the Apostle Paul‟s second letter to the church at Corinth he writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”2 Now inferring that faith is blind from this verse is exegetically incomplete and will be challenged


“Religions,” The World Factbook, Accessed November 28, 2012. 2 2 Corinthians 5:7, New Revised Standard Version 1989. All scripture references will be from this NRSV.


throughout the course of this essay, but sufficient for the time is to say that this is where the idea of „blind faith‟ comes from. The battle against faith has taken its contemporary form with the rise of what has been called the New Atheism. Leading this movement are Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, who have been termed the „Four Horsemen‟ of New Atheism.3 While they may suffer overexposure in the media in response to their views, it seems warranted, as they are the most outspoken and aggressive in the movement. As such, each demands a succinct quote in regards to the opinions atheists have regarding faith. Dennett writes that faith insists upon foundational incomprehensibilities as central tenets.4 Dawkins states that reason is the greatest enemy of faith.5 Harris writes that “faith represents . . . a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible,”6 and Hitchens seems to have believed, as he was writing his book god is not Great, and even as I am writing these words now, that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments.”7 Granted, what has been just presented may seem like biased proof-texting, but it can be assured that no more complimentary sentiments regarding faith are expressed by these authors. It can safely be said that, in their regard, „faith‟ is not a viable alternative mindset, and they would like to convince you that this is so. But, are their claims about faith justified? Is faith foundationally incomprehensible? Does it regard reason as an enemy? Is it possible to discourse

Alice Gribben, “Preview: The Four Horsemen of New Atheism reunited: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris together for the final time in,” New Statesman, accessed November 30, 2012, 4 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 220. 5 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: First Mariner Books, 2008), 221. 6 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005), 25. 7 Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2007), 13.


rationally about faith? Are faith adherents currently planning the destruction of you, or even me? Or, are these opinions based on personal bias rather than an honest exegetical and traditional investigation?

3. Subjective Experience 3.1 Faith, Similes, and Creatures that are ‘Alive’ The Greek word most commonly translated as „faith‟ in the New Testament is pistis. It occurs well over two hundred times, and is commonly used by all the New Testament authors in all the books save John‟s gospel and his second and third epistle.8 It is not the easiest word to translate, nor put into context,9 which is the reason why there is no standard definition of it within the tradition. It is a rather abstract word, which carries much more weight when combined with personal experience. This is why the atheist regards it as so irrationally foolish, and the believer regards it as divine. How do you convey the truth of an experience to someone who doubts that very experience? How does one convince a skeptic of something like that? What kinds of words would one use? These are questions which are surely important to the unbeliever, and to which I do not have answers. When trying to describe the intimateness of faith, I am forced to appeal to similes and metaphors, as many in the Biblical accounts were forced to.


“King James Concordance.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, G4102, e-Sword; New American Standard(r) Updated Edition Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries (La Habra: The Lockman Foundation, 1998), G4102, e-Sword. 9 See Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary (Chattanooga: AMG International, Inc., 1992), G4102, e-Sword.


A great example of this would be in the revelation shown to John. Christians were being heavily persecuted when John received this vision on the island of Patmos.10 Jesus appeared to him, and John tried to communicate what his appearance was like. “I saw one like the Son of Man . . . His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze . . . and his voice was like the sound of many waters . . . and his face was like the sun” (Rev. 1:13-16). A literal interpretation of this description need not be intended, nor even necessary, to get his point. In fact, a literal interpretation may actually be a hindrance to understanding what John intended to portray. He is not trying to convince someone of the literal features of the exalted Jesus, but relating an experience for which he stumbled for words to describe. An even better example, and perhaps my favorite one in scripture, is found in the fourth chapter of John‟s Revelation. In it, John has a powerful vision of the throne room of God, complete with the strange beings which defy an accurate description, but which simply must be stated: “Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first . . . like a lion, the second . . . like an ox, the third . . . with a face like a human face, and the fourth . . . like a flying eagle . . . each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside” (Rev. 4:6-8). What I find most interesting about this description is the word John uses to describe these beings he sees. He uses the greek word zōon which literally means „a living being‟11 or „a living creature‟.12 John sees these things and can think of no better


See Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 765. 11 Thayer’s Greek Definitions, G2226, e-Sword. 12 New American Standard(r) Updated Edition Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries, G2226.


description that to say that these things are alive! They are living creatures. 13 This description does not seem to be convincing, and apart from his subjective visionary experience, one would indeed be warranted in expressing some mild scepticism regarding it. The atheist would be well within their right to discard such a vision on the grounds that it is sheerly subjective. And I cannot think of a rational response by the believer which would turn the discussion back into the objective realm, save the testimony of such a respected figure as the Apostle John. Only a personal experience by the unbeliever seems to command the weight needed for such a conviction.

3.2 Faith is like . . . um . . . I would submit that faith is similar to what is described above, and while this may not be an adequate enough reason for the nonbeliever to accept it, that is exactly the point. Faith, as an experience, is not convincing, because faith is a subjective experience grounded on objective events such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.14 The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus can be classified as objective but the faith resulting from these events could only be classified as subjective. An argument could be waged on the historicity of these events, but in the end, whether one believed it was true or not, would not dictate whether they had saving faith in God because of it. If one were to progress in a discussion whereby the facts about the life of Jesus were simply inadequate for one to believe in him as a messianic figure, then as Daniel Dennett says, we will “have to excuse ourselves from the discussion,” but not because “we are


It can also carry the meaning of „animal‟ (see footnote 10 and 11 references), but given the fact that the description John gives us is of no known animal we can conceive of, I think the „living being/creature‟ representation is more indicative of the intention of the author. 14 See rfvidz, “Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? (NT Wright),” YouTube, accessed December 1, 2012,


incompetent to proceed with an open mind,”15 but simply because we understand that there is a dimension to experiential belief which transcends objective argumentation. 4. Objective Experience 4.1 Properly Basic Beliefs and „Majority Rules‟ There are reputable philosophers however, such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, who firmly believe that faith falls under the category of what is called a „properly basic belief‟. A properly basic belief is one that is not “based on other beliefs, rather they are part of the foundation of a person‟s system of beliefs.”16 These beliefs are so foundational to common sense that arguing against them seems irrational. Properly basic beliefs include “belief in the existence of the external world, the reality of the past, [and] the presence of other minds besides your own.”17 None of these beliefs can be proven objectively, yet they are accepted by all but the tiniest minority of humanity. Belief in a god also falls into this category of properly basic belief, and if rightly so, then faith as well. There are over seven billion humans on the planet. Of these seven billion, between eighty and ninety percent claim adherence to a religious tradition which believes in a god or gods. Of this, almost sixty percent belong to one of the three main monotheistic religions, where faith is regarded as a foundational proponent for belief. Only two percent of the population on the face of the earth deny the existence of a god.18 Surely such numbers would suggest that belief in god is anything but irrational,19 as Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens would have us believe. It

KYLYKaHYT, “The Four Horsemen Discussion - Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens (1 of 2),” YouTube, accessed November 30, 2012, 46m 25s, 16 drcraigvideos, “What is a Properly Basic Belief?,” YouTube, accessed December 3, 2012, 17 Ibid. 18 “Religions.” 19 rfvidz, “What is a Properly Basic Belief? (Alvin Plantinga),” YouTube, accessed December 3, 2012,


indeed suggests that such a belief would be properly basic. This, of course, does not objectively prove such a god would be real, but neither does believing that other people have minds like your own justify that belief either; it only serves as adequate support. It must be mentioned that “in saying that these beliefs are basic, that does not mean that they are arbitrary . . . they are grounded in experience. There might not be any way to prove such beliefs, but it‟s perfectly rational to hold them.”20

5. Conclusion What can we conclude from what has been expressed. Do the claims of New Atheism have credence given the points on the side of faith? Is faith centrally founded on incomprehensibilities? Is it opposed to reason; completely irrational? Should we lie awake at night, fearful of the impending destruction which people of faith will inflict upon us at any given time? As a subjective experience alone, I conclude that faith is utterly unreasonable to the nonbeliever and will undoubtedly come up lacking as a credible argument, and believers should accept this. But this does not entirely negate the concept of it since it is based on an experience which one member in the discussion has not had. The believer should not discouraged by this, as that experience is grounded upon something objective, even if the non-believer does not see it this way. As an objective experience, the reasons why one might have faith seem a bit more founded. Faith, in the Christian sense, is founded upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and while the resurrection may be the cause of some debate, aside from “one or two


drcraigvideos, “What is a Properly Basic Belief?”


completely out of line mavericks,”21 the suggestion that Jesus never existed is a rather forlorn one.22 Thus, faith may be hard to objectively prove, but the historical Jesus, and the events of his life, are surely objective, and faith based on such conclusions are anything but irrational. While the believer may have some difficulty in convincing the unbeliever that faith is grounded in objectivity, they need not be discouraged as the foundational tenets for Christian faith have stood the test of time for almost two thousand years thus far.23 The objective facts of 1) the constancy in history, and 2) that the majority of the people on the planet today hold similar views, from all walks of life, in different countries and cultures, gives weight to this reasoning, and the appeal to a „properly basic belief‟ does not seem so farfetched, even given the fact that no such „proof‟ is presented. Inference can be logical given credible propositions, which I believe have been presented. It must be concluded that the believer is well grounded in their claim to faith, even if that faith finds its origin in an experience which is subjectively gained. But, if the argument we began this essay with progressed to the point where none of the messianic claims to Jesus were accepted, I do not see how an appeal to „faith‟ would secure the victory for the theist. In that instance, the believer would be better off to appeal to their god in prayer, that the unbeliever have such an experience, than try to convince him of something as intangible as what they themselves had experienced.


rfvidz, “Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? (NT Wright),” YouTube, accessed December 1, 2012, 1:19:421:20:10, 22 See Dawkins, The God Delusion, 122; see also ThickShades0, “Lennox Vs. Dawkins Debate - Has Science Buried God?,” YouTube, Accessed December 3, 2012, 00:37:00-00:44:50, 23 Much farther if traced back to Abraham, or even the promise given to Eve (Gen. 3:15).

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