Faith: atheists should stop misunderstanding this

So, let me reiterate: I am an atheist. In brief, I spent the first part of my life as a christian apologist, studying christian theology not as an academic pursuit, but because I believed it was crucial to do so. And eventually, I became an atheist.

But I want to help my fellow atheists to improve their arguments. And as such, I want to talk about an argument that atheists often make: the idea that ‘faith,’ in the christian sense, is about ‘belief without evidence.’

First, we should recognize that the bible was not written in English (unless you are a ‘KJV was a re-inspired version of the bible’ person). The new testament in particular was written in Greek and Aramaic (there is some debate over which books were originally written in which language). But regardless of those language issues, the word, whether it be ‘faith’ in English, or ‘pistes’ in Greek, can have different meanings in different contexts.

The thing is, yes, ‘faith’ can mean ‘believing without evidence.’ However, it has another meaning, trust, including trust based upon evidence. And it is also a matter of being faithful, which can mean, in essence, keeping your side of the bargain.

After all, ‘keeping faith’ means keeping your side of a promise. A spouse ‘keeps faith’ with their partner by being faithful to them, i.e. keeping their marital vows. A politician ‘keeps faith’ with their supporters by fulfilling their promises.

The term ‘faith’ in every day language also often has a basis in experience. We tell someone ‘I have faith in you!’ to encourage them that, for example, based on our knowledge of their abilities, we think they can accomplish the task at hand.

And another part of ‘faith’ is to trust. A spouse trusts that their partner will keep faith by avoiding cheating on them, but they do this based, in part, on evidence that their partner loves them and cares about them. A politician’s supporters have faith that they will keep their political promises, though in this case, they tend to do this despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Trust can manifest itself in other ways, as well, by influencing actions. So, a soldier who has faith in their commanding officer will obey that officer, even when they are sometimes unsure of whether that officer is correct or not. They obey because they think the commander has good ideas about tactics – a notion for which they often have evidence.

The point is, ‘faith’ does not mean ‘believing in the existence of god without evidence.’ Many christians think there is evidence for god (see Romans chapter 1, for example, or the many who attempt to argue for intelligent design; in my own case, it was mystical experiences which seemed persuasive, until I understood the scientific explanation for them), and that ‘faith’ refers to trusting said god as a lover trusts their partner or a soldier obeys their CO. The book of James discusses this at length.

Of course, there are, and always have been, christians who do see faith as blind belief. Church father Tertullian, for example, declared that ‘I believe it because it is absurd.’ However, if we want to effectively counter the apologists, we atheists must recognize that for most christian theology, that is not what faith is. They believe that their beliefs are founded upon evidence, and it is a straw man fallacy to attack them because you want to use a different definition of the word ‘faith.’

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