Alpha course 4: How do I have faith?

I arrived in the now familiar upstairs room of the coffee shop for the fourth proper session of the Alpha course a bit before 7pm. I spent the first half hour chatting with Matt, Katie and Mandy, mostly about children.

After the video presentation, we formed our usual groups for discussion. Dannii asked Tom for a definition of faith, the subject of the talk, which he’d looked up somewhere. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like,

“Believing something without proof”

I don’t think that’s a helpful definition, because none of our knowledge is proven. Scientific theories are never proven. Sounds odd but they’re not. The theory of gravity isn’t proven. The best theories are simply not (yet) disproven. They’re tentative, consistent with the evidence, but always potentially able to be proven wrong. In fact Newton’s theory of gravity was disproven and was rewritten by Einstein. Proof, as they say, is for mathematics and alcohol.

Tonight’s video sermon was about faith. The speaker was called Emily and she provided a lot of analogies and stories about her experience of faith and how it often differs between Christians. She also said, and again I paraphrase,

Faith is like trust and everyone is familiar with trust. An atheist trusts that there’s no God.

This kind of claim has come up in previous videos and I’ve often heard Christians telling me that you need just as much faith to be an atheist. This feels all kinds of wrong and I’ve spent some time trying to work out why. It seems like religious apologists recognise that faith has a bad reputation as a way of believing things and it is associated with blindness and ignoring the evidence. Mark Twain wrote that faith is “Believing something you know ain’t so”.

So, in addition to making regular reference to the historical and personal evidence, they seek to rescue the idea of religious faith by comparing it with secular ideas of trust and faith in people. In contrast to what is said about atheism, my take on it isn’t so much of a belief, but a lack of one. If you need faith not to believe in a god, then you need faith not to believe in unicorns, or all the other gods which you reject. A theist could argue that an atheist needs to have faith that the universe spontaneously came into being without a creator, but I don’t think this is even necessary. I’d say that I don’t know how or why the universe exists, but that all the religious explanations I’ve heard have been implausible or impossible.

If you think that all faith is the same thing, Greta Christina has made a comparison of secular and religious faith in which she quotes a lot of religious sources about what they think faith is. In my opinion this sums up the issue rather neatly, so I won’t attempt to improve on it.

My Alpha group spoke quite a bit about other religions and it’s something they seem to show genuine interest in. Perhaps it’s worth noting that most, if not all, of the world’s religions rely on faith. Presumably Christians would agree that the Hindu god Vishnu isn’t real, he’s fictional. I happen to agree about that. The same goes for Mithra, Zeus, Odin and thousands of other gods in which people have believed and in some cases still do believe. How do people believe in these gods we think are fictional? At least in part, through faith.

When we were talking about the start of a relationship with Jesus, Tom asked why it has to be through faith. I didn’t have much to say at the time, but on further thought I’d suggest that it’s because Christianity doesn’t make sense. Religious faith allows people to believe things which don’t make sense. I imagine people agree that other religions use faith to believe things which don’t make sense, so why not Christianity?

For example, when a believer prays for the health of a loved one, the ailing person will often get better or find a new way to cope with their illness. This is taken as evidence that God is real and listening to prayers. If the loved one’s health didn’t improve or took a serious turn for the worse, then the believer might be told that they need to have faith, or even that their faith is being tested. Never can it be taken as a sign that God isn’t really there. Faith encourages believers to ignore half the evidence – the half which doesn’t support the religion. I think this is a clear example of bias and one which is positively encouraged by many religions.

Of course, none of this occurred to me until I was on the train home, or on the train to work the next day. I just mumbled something about other faiths and how it shouldn’t be considered the would-be believer’s fault when things don’t make sense to them. Anyway, I had some nice informal chats with people at the end and on the way out. I’m not yet sure if I can make it next week, but I look forward to meeting with them again.

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