David Geelan  |  22 February 2019  |  

I talk often about faith with my Christian and atheist friends, and less often with my Muslim and Buddhist friends (but I learn a lot when I do). I think that perhaps when the Christians and atheists talk, they somehow both over-simplify what faith means.

For the atheists, it’s almost a dirty word. They see it as the opposite of evidence: faith is understood as belief in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contradictory evidence. But this is much too narrow an understanding.

For the Christian believers, it’s often understood as being about a relationship more than about evidence and empirically testable matters—but in discussion it sometimes also becomes the point beyond which any further discussion is impossible. It’s seen as something that “just is.”

An example I often use in these discussions is the statement that I have faith in the tyres on my motorcycle to safely get me around a tight corner at a steep lean angle and a high speed. I need to have this faith to be able to ride at all: if I didn’t, I would be paralysed by fear at every corner.


First, though, a digression about knowledge. Faith is, in some sense, a warrant for knowledge and a claim to knowledge. I don’t agree with those who suggest that faith is what is substituted in the absence of knowledge.

Some philosophers talk about knowledge as “justified true belief”. In other words, to be said to know something, someone must believe that it is the case, it must actually be the case, and the person must have adequate, relevant grounds for believing it to be the case.

Where we are talking about religious things that are not reliably able to be tested by doing experiments, such as the existence of angels, whether or not what we claim to know is true is somehow undecidable. We can believe it to be true, and we can have what we consider to be adequate, relevant grounds for that belief, but we cannot in any final sense know that our belief is true.

This may be one of the ways in which “faith” is used: rather than claiming to know something in the philosophical sense, claiming to know by faith that something is the case means that we believe it and have what we consider to be adequate, relevant grounds (reasons, evidence, arguments) for believing it. We”re willing the leave the question of its actual truth on the side of our plate for the moment until more evidence is available.

The question of whether good quality, well maintained motorcycle tyres will grip while going around a corner is not this kind of religious question, but it helps to illustrate what I mean by “adequate, relevant grounds”. The evidence I use is that (a) this is a quality brand of tyre and (b) I have heard testimonials from friends who use them and (c) the government has safety standards for products sold in this country and (d) I have extensive experience of safely using them in this way. I also have a role to play in ensuring that I can continue to have faith in them, by looking for nails or punctures and checking the pressure.

I consider those grounds to be adequate—there are enough independent kinds of information to reassure me. They also need to be relevant. “This brand has the best TV ads” might not be relevant, or “I like the fact that the company name ends in a vowel”.

Evidence of Things Not Seen

Faith is most often described by religious people (not only Christians) as having a role that is well described by Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” While faith can be a pervasive part of life, it is usually not invoked to explain things that are seen: we don’t often talk of having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.

It’s a discussion for another time, but this is one of the reasons why it is not helpful to claim that scientists have faith in a religious sense in either the enterprise of science as a whole or some particular fact, theory or law. (The next piece I write for Adventist Today will likely explore some of these ideas). Certainly there is faith—in the motorcycle-tyre sense—that when a sample is placed in a complex instrument the reading that is produced accurately reflects the relevant quality of the sample, but that is a different thing, partly because running the same test on the same sample tomorrow and next year should yield the same result.

My atheist friends might put most of their focus on issues like double-blind experiments into the efficacy of intercessory prayer (does a person really get better if someone prays for him but the sick person doesn’t know? Systematically? And to a measurably greater extent than people with the exact same condition who do not receive prayers?) and issues of deep time and dating and origins. But faith is much more often used by religious people to explain a sense of peace they have, a sense that there is someone they can always rely on.

Of the grounds I talked about for trusting my tyres, there are no government-mandated standards for religion in most countries (thank goodness), so (c) is off the table. It seems disrespectful to talk about (a) in terms of a “quality brand” of religion… and I kinda wish religious people would stop doing it! I try not to disparage the people who use Pirellis and Bridgestones just because I choose Metzeler for myself.

That leaves us with (b) and (d)—testimonials and experience.

For religion, there are testimonials given in the here and now by friends, family, fellow church members, pastors, teachers and others. There are also testimonials written down by others, some recently, some much less recently. Testimonials by trusted people are one of the important foundations of faith. Personal experience is another: going around that corner, making it safely and with a burst of exhilaration means that I’m better set up for the next and the next.

I’m not advocating any particular position here. What I hope is that people of different faiths, or no (religious) faith (we all have faith in something, in some of the senses discussed here), can understand more richly and interpret more generously what others mean when they speak of their faith, so that all of us can work together at making the world a better place for everyone.

David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College and has ended up (so far) as an Associate Professor of Science Education at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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