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Irrational Faith

The Christian apologist J.P. Holding (a.k.a. Robert Turkel), in his Internet piece “Fallacious Faith: Correcting an All-too-Common Misconception” offers three examples of what he terms unfair characterizations of the true biblical definition of faith. One is Mark Twain’s famous satirical jab: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” The second relates to a typical Christian who, when faced with objections to his beliefs that he cannot answer, says sheepishly, “I don’t care, I still have faith.” The last involves a self-professed faith healer who accuses his subjects of not having the requisite amount of faith when his healing fails. Holding writes:

All three of these examples offer an incorrect definition or understanding of what Biblical faith is all about. Twain’s own definition does correctly . . . embody the way faith is understood by far too many today–but it does not match the Biblical definition of that word, and as the [other] two examples suggest, faith is a badly misunderstood concept in the church at large.

In attempting to distance himself and his religion from these “misconceptions,” Holding is making a tacit admission of their inherent irrationality. No argument there. But what is Holding’s “correct” definition of faith, and is it any more rational than the three irrational ones he rejects? In this essay, I will show that Holding’s Biblical definition of faith is just as unworthy of respect as those he dismisses above, proving once and for all that faith, in any context, is irrational.

Before I begin, I must confess that I don’t buy Twain’s definition any more than Holding does. Faith typically does not mean believing in what you know to be false (though, certainly, some people do), but rather believing in that which has never been shown to be true. If I were to offer my own favorite (and probably just as unfair) characterization of faith, it would be more in line with this definition from The Devil’s Dictionary, the biting masterwork of 19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce:

Faith (n.): Belief, without evidence, in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

This definition is more in line with Holding’s you-just-gotta-have-faith Christian whose faith is blind and not based on any semblance of rational evidence. The fact that Holding recognizes the irrationality of this type of faith is commendable. In my own personal experience (which is, admittedly, not worthy of much consideration), Christians seem to revel in this type of irrationality, particularly when backed into a corner regarding their contradictory beliefs. To Holding’s credit, though, he at least points out the obvious: “Our [Christian’s faith] needs to be grounded in something firm and not held blindly.” Bravo.

In all fairness, this type of faith-as-ignorance is not limited to Christians. I’ve seen many atheists claim allegiance to untestable theories. But I’m not sure Holding is justified in dismissing this “unfair” characterization of faith, and the others, simply because they are not in line with his own Biblical interpretation. This rings of intellectual dishonesty and falls into the trap of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Since there are many Christians who understand faith in these contexts, one cannot blithely toss them aside as No True Definitions of faith simply because they paint faith in an unflattering light. Holding is free to deride them as long as he realizes he is mocking a vast segment of Christianity in the process.

Having said that, what is Holding’s “true” definition of faith? It turns out it is more in line with the often-quoted (and often-ridiculed) passage from Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Holding writes:

[Faith] here is a matter of trust in a God who has demonstrated His ability to be a worthy patron, and the examples are those of clients who, knowing this ability, trust in God’s record as a patronal provider. Hebrews 11:1 therefore is telling us that faith (trust in our patron, gained by conviction based on evidence) is the substance (the word here means an assurance) . . . of things hoped for (this word means expected by trust, which is something earned!), and the evidence of that which is not seen, which in context means we expect, based on past performance, continuing favor from our patron, who has already proven Himself worthy of our trust by example.

Note how Holding practically trips all over himself trying to justify faith in terms of evidence. As is typical among Christian apologists, he wants the stamp of legitimacy that evidence (i.e., the scientific method) provides, without conforming to the pesky rules of evidence that impart that legitimacy. That, however, is a matter for another essay. As I will explain below, my argument does not depend on the invalidity of Holding’s evidence; in fact, I generously assume he is correct.

Holding’s premise, then, is that Biblical faith is not blind at all; rather, it is trust that has been earned based on the evidence of past performance. The obvious objection to this is that the Bible is open to widely varying interpretations, and while Holding’s liberal translation certainly suits his own agenda, he has not even attempted to demonstrate its validity. When you consider the thousands of denominations of Christianity spread throughout the world today, each with its own interpretation of (presumably) critical doctrines such as the path to salvation and the nature of Heaven and Hell, it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are many ways of interpreting the various Biblical passages that deal with faith. Holding’s premise, therefore, is certainly open to debate.

But that’s not the route I want to take here. Where the Bible is concerned, debating interpretations is a fruitless task, simply because the number of ways to interpret scripture is limited only by the number of people doing the interpreting. Holding may be correct, but he offers no independently verifiable evidence that proves his interpretation is any more valid than the run-of-the-mill skeptical interpretation of blind trust. So debating the premise is a waste of time. Far more effective, I think, is to grant the premise and then show it makes no difference.

Consider the following argument:
  Premise: The moon, planets and sun revolve around the earth.
  Conclusion: The earth is at the center of the universe.

We could spend eons trying to convince someone that no, no, no, those celestial bodies do not revolve around the earth, it’s the earth’s own rotation that gives the illusion of motion. Or we can just say, fine, have it your way, but the conclusion is still invalid. And that’s how I’m going to proceed here. So–fine, guys, have it your way–Biblical faith is actually “earned trust based on the incontrovertible evidence of past performance.” (I trust J.P. Holding and other Christian apologists will have no problem with that paraphrase.) As I will show, though, it makes no difference: faith–even in this context–is completely irrational.

Before jumping head first into the meat of my argument, we need to clear up a matter of terminology. Any time the words “evidence” and “faith” occupy the same sentence, or are lazily interchanged as in Holding’s definition above, a rational skeptic would rightly object, for if “faith” is truly based on “evidence,” then the term “faith” is superfluous. Why not just call a horse “a horse”? If a true Christian’s faith is nothing more than a rational belief based on verifiable evidence, then can we not just dispense with the notion of faith altogether? (Since Holding jumps through so many hoops, above, to try to equate the two, I assume he’d be more than happy to do this.) Well, as it turns out, no, we can’t. Because even in Holding’s generous interpretation, there is still the matter of trust. Granted, it is a trust based on past evidence (and remember, I’m only choosing to grant it for the sake of my argument), but it is trust nonetheless. So the obvious question becomes: Does trust play a role in, say, science, and is Biblical faith, therefore, merely a misunderstood mirror-image of the scientific method? The answer, of course, is no.

Consider the simple case of flipping a coin. If the coin has not been tampered with and the conditions are such that a certain randomness can be achieved, you would expect twenty flips of that coin to produce a sequence of heads and tails similar to the sequence below:


But now suppose you flip that coin twenty times and the following sequence occurs:


Here is where the scientific method and Holding’s version of evidentiary faith part company. In Holding’s view, the trust earned by 20 consecutive flips of tails would be the evidence needed to say that the next flip of the coin would be tails. If we think of each tail as a documented miracle by Jesus, the clear evidence of these twenty documented miracles would be enough for Holding to conclude that having faith in the twenty-first miracle is simply a rational extension of what we would expect given the evidence of the previous twenty miracles. As Holding states: “We expect, based on past performance, continuing favor from our patron, who has already proven Himself worthy of our trust by example.”

(A small aside: Keeping our notion of tails as a documented miracle by Jesus, what if we were to assign heads to mean “a documented failure by Jesus to heal or cure.” How do you suppose it would affect Holding’s “trust” if, say, Jesus’ track record was more like sequence #1 instead of #2? I suspect it would not affect his trust in the least, because he would stumble directly into the Observational Selection fallacy, also called the Enumeration of Favorable Circumstances. Or, and I will say more on this below, the tendency to “count the hits and forget the misses.”)

What would the scientist or mathematician say, given the same set of circumstances? Clearly, past performance is no indication of future performance, and the odds of obtaining tails on the next flip is the same as it was on the previous twenty flips: 1 in 2. This is why there are disclaimers aplenty on advertisements for mutual funds; trusting that a fund will perform in the next year as it has in the last ten could lose you a hell of a lot of money. So there is no place for trust in science or mathematics. Scientists either know, or they don’t know. Why can an eclipse be predicted hundreds of years in advance? Because we have mathematical equations that explain the motion of the planets and sun and moon, and these equations can be run to infinity if necessary. It is not trust, therefore, that sends us to Guatemala in the year 2030 to watch a solar eclipse; it is independently, verifiable evidence that successfully makes predictions about future events. Trust did not make a transistor, nor can trust land an airplane. So Holding’s evidentiary faith is still faith because it relies on trust, a human weakness I like to refer to as Charlie Brown Syndrome (CBS).

Poor Charlie Brown. He has a great deal of trust but not a lot of brains. Every time Lucy agrees to hold the football for him, Charlie Brown trusts her not to pull it away. It doesn’t matter that Lucy has never not pulled it away; he still has faith that this time will be different, that Lucy will finally hold it still long enough for him to boot it to the sky. And every time, he ends up flat on his back. Why does he keep at it? Is he really that gullible? Is his faith so blind (for that’s what it appears to be, blind faith, trust in spite of contrary evidence) that he will keep slamming himself into this particular porch light for the rest of his days?

In J.P. Holding’s view, I’m sure, as well as in the skeptic’s view, Charlie Brown is–let’s face it–an idiot. He keeps at it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is not Holding’s evidentiary faith any more than it’s a scientist’s hypothesis. This is truly blind faith, hoping against all hope that a situation will turn out right even though there is no evidence to support that hope; indeed, even though there’s a ton of contradictory evidence to dash the hope. This is jumping out of a ten-story building hoping that God will sprout wings on your back, or standing closer to a Foucault pendulum hoping God will reduce the amplitude. This is faith for the mentally disturbed.

But what would it take to make Charlie Brown a hero in Holding’s eyes, a perfect example of a human being with rational, evidentiary faith? Turns out, not much at all. All it would take would be some evidence of past performance. And it is here that I’m afraid I have to take some liberty with Charles Schulz and his wonderful creation. I’m thinking that the reason Charlie Brown continues to abuse himself is because he did, indeed, have evidence of past performance, that at some point in the past, before the first comic strip appeared, Lucy held that damn ball still for him to kick. Maybe it was once, maybe twice, maybe a hundred times; it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Charlie Brown had a trust in Lucy that was forged based on the evidence of past experience. If we don’t grant that possibility, both J.P. Holding and I would rightly call Charlie Brown a moron.

But we have granted the possibility, and it makes a huge difference. If Lucy had held the ball steady in the past, then Charlie Brown was certainly acting rationally when he expected, via the evidence of past performance, she would hold it steady again when that first comic strip appeared. Here, Holding and I are on the same page. Charlie Brown had evidence that the ball would stay put. In a way he was trusting Lucy, but it was a trust based on evidence, much like the trust you put in a chair to support you when you sit in it. Or, more precisely, much like the trust you put in a chair that has never failed to support you when you sit in it.

Where Holding and I part company, if it is not already obvious, is the next time Charlie Brown approaches that ball. A rational, skeptical person would now be in tune to the obvious: that, gee, maybe I better be a little bit on guard here, just in case she doesn’t follow the evidence of past performance, just as a rational, skeptical person would be a little bit more on guard the next time she sat in the chair that had just failed to support her. A rational, skeptical person would, perhaps, consider the evidence of all past performance but would also give much more weight to the evidence of most recent performance. So maybe this person approaches the chair or the football with not as much reckless abandon and instead with a degree of caution.

But J.P. Holding’s good Christian, who relies exclusively on past-performance evidentiary faith, is not a rational, skeptical person. This individual looks exclusively at favorable past performance without taking into account unfavorable current performance, thereby committing the popular fallacy of counting the hits and forgetting the misses. This person remembers Lucy holding the ball but curiously forgets about the last time she didn’t. This person throws himself into the chair that just crashed to the ground a moment ago with the same reckless abandon because he remembers only the times it successfully supported him and gives no weight to the most recent failures. And it is at this point that we can dispense with the analogies and dive right back into the Bible and Holding’s original assertion. Remember, we are simply granting his premise, that Jesus performed miracles and these miracles are valid evidence in support of the past-performance criterion. In this light, it is easy to see why granting this premise has no bearing on the sanity, or rationality, of present-day Christians who rely on this type of trust.

If Holding’s premise is granted, then I have no problem calling Jesus’ contemporaries rational. After all, they witnessed his miracles and saw his power first-hand. He backed up his claims with proof, with rational evidence. He healed the sick, resurrected the dead, brought food to the starving and eradicated disease. If this man had told me the world was going to end tomorrow, you bet your ass I would have believed him. The evidence of his past performance would have imbued within me a deep and reverential trust assuming, of course, that no contrary evidence presented itself at some point in the future. Had I lived at the same time as Jesus, and had he performed the miracles that I am generously assuming that he did, it would have been irrational not to take his claims seriously.

But let’s fast-forward a couple of years. Jesus is now dead, but it is claimed he can still heal the sick, still eradicate disease, still resurrect the dead. All you have to do is have faith, faith grounded in the evidence of his performance when he was alive. But looking around, you see sick people who are not healed, dead children who are not resurrected, famine and pain and suffering that is not alleviated. And yet, you attack that football with the same zeal, and you throw yourself into that chair with the same gusto, and you say: I have faith because of the evidence when Jesus was alive. And you do this over and over and over again even though you end up flat on your back every time. It never occurs to you to wonder why.

And then two thousand years pass. Wars and diseases and plagues have killed millions, prayers have gone unanswered, not one person has been resurrected, and yet the descendants of Jesus” contemporaries are still throwing themselves into the damn rickety chair and still falling flat on their backs as Lucy yanks the football away yet again. And this, my friends, can no longer be considered rational. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you previously had; at some point, you have to start taking into account the misses, too. You have to, simply–get a clue. That chair is in serious disrepair; get it fixed. Lucy is a psychopath; stop trusting her. Jesus may have performed miracles once, but he sure doesn’t do it anymore–so stop asking and stop believing that he will. Faith, or trust, that a broken chair will support you because it once did, or that Lucy will hold the ball still for you because she once did, or that Jesus will perform miracles for you because he once performed them for others, is misplaced and irrational. We are right back where we started from, even granting Holding’s ridiculous premise. Faith, even the evidentiary kind that is supposedly based on a “correct” reading of the Bible, can never be rational when it is so inherently exclusionary. When you count the hits but ignore the misses, that’s not evidence; that’s blindness.

Holding and other apologists will argue there is ample evidence of Jesus’ current miracles all around us, but this, of course, is highly debatable. They will argue that human suffering is our own fault, not Jesus’, which is either disingenuous or just plain sick, I can’t decide. They might also bring up the following argument, as Holding does:

To reject a gracious act was the height of dishonor. Jesus could not heal these people, not because of a lack of power, but because of ingratitude and a rejection of his gracious patronage! A rejected patron could and would never force his gracious gifts upon a client who didn’t want them!

In other words, if a person is not healed, or a disease is not eradicated, or a child is not resurrected, it’s not because Jesus couldn’t do those things; it’s because Jesus merely withheld his favors from an ungracious host. Do you see the perfectly wondrous circularity here? Jesus can never lose and, by extension, you (the naive, believing Christian) can never win. If you have a sudden miraculous recovery, it is not because of your own inner strength or the intervention of medical science; it is because Jesus thought you worthy of his healing powers. If you die a horrible death despite your pleas and despite the outpouring of prayer on your behalf, it is because either you or the people praying for you were not, in some way, gracious enough to your patron to deserve his wondrous patronage. It’s like Linus putting his arms around Charlie Brown and saying, “Lucy would hold the football still for you, Charlie Brown, if you were truly worthy. But you just don’t deserve it.” It is becoming easier and easier to understand why many Christians have a sadly deflated view of their own self-worth, as depicted in “inspirational” hymns like this:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

A “wretch” like me? Is there any doubt the average Christian must feel a strange sort of empathy toward Charlie Brown who, in his zeal to prove his worthiness to his own personal “God,” keeps kicking away and falling flat on his back, all the while losing whatever shreds of his self-esteem remain? Why am I not worthy? he must continuously wonder. (Kick, splat.) Why does Lucy not grant me favor? (Kick, splat.) Poor Charlie Brown, and poor, poor Christians who ask the same of God and Jesus. Please, Jesus, feed my starving child (kick, splat), Cure my mother of cancer (kick, splat). Bring peace and love to the world (kick, splat). You have to feel sorry for them in a way, but it is their own reliance on irrational faith that does them in.

If only they would wake up one day and think to themselves: You know what? It’s not that I’m an unworthy wretch, it’s that I’ve been trusting in an unworthy doctrine. And with this revelation in mind, Charlie Brown–and all people of irrational faith worldwide–could walk over, pick up that metaphorical football, and tell their own personal Lucy-God to take a flying leap.

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