This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Recently, while browsing the philosophy and religion section of my local public library, an interesting title caught my eye. The month’s featured “must read” book, Faith vs. Fact by evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne, had been set off from the other neatly shelved volumes and placed on a stand with its cover staring me in the eye.1 I couldn’t resist picking it up and thumbing through its pages. Coyne’s bold title echoes the words of others who find themselves troubled by religion’s offenses to reason. Atheist philosopher Sam Harris seems to endorse the concern expressed by Coyne’s book when he announces that “religious beliefs are beyond the scope of rational discourse.”2 Even some prominent Christian philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard are known for recommending fideism, which calls for the suspension of reason in matters of religious belief. Faith is pitted against fact, thrown to the vicious onslaught of reason to be torn apart and devoured by the likes of science, truth, evidence, and reality. Faith against fact — these words not only find their way into book titles and chapter headings,3 they serve as common rebuttals to Christian beliefs in ordinary conversations with skeptics.
No atheistic litany would be complete without some expression of woe over Christianity’s blatant offenses to reason. Coyne and his associates raise challenges to the Christian worldview via subtle arguments that Christians might critically engage. In this article, I will address one particular problem related to the tendency to dichotomize faith and reason in ways that confuse doxastic and metaphysical categories. The term doxastic refers to belief (Greek doxa [δόξα] means belief or opinion — what seems to be the case). The term metaphysical, in this instance, describes that which has to do with reality and truth. Religious skeptics typically fail to define and distinguish properly between belief and truth, both of which are essential elements of knowledge. My purpose here is to offer some reflections on how Christians can respond to the faith–reason (faith–fact) dichotomy.
What Is Faith? Definitions are important. Faith has several. But the meaning of faith that skeptics commonly have in mind when evaluating the credibility of religious ideas is that faith is an irrational doxastic (or cognitive) state that stands in an improper relationship to reality. In this view, faith is an illicit belief or unreliable mental state wholly disassociated from truth. It is a lesser form of belief — a state of wishful thinking at best. Atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian even goes so far as to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know.”4 Specifically, faith is thought to be an irrational form of belief that is devoid of the necessary evidential justification provided by science or philosophy. Non-theistic philosophy and scientific reasoning are assumed to be the only proper means by which to connect our doxastic states (beliefs) to reality.
The problem with this definition of faith is that it fails to account for both the complexity of human knowledge and the subtle ways in which the individual’s beliefs interact with reality. Modern Christian usage of the word faith is rooted in the Greek term pístis (πίστις), which indicates a kind of knowledge grounded in trust and forms the basis of the term epistemology (the theory of knowledge — the attempt to explain what knowledge is and how we know what we know). In its most basic form, faith is a cognitive attitude about God.5 When understood as a mental (doxastic or cognitive) state, faith says nothing about the nature of reality or the justificatory reasons a subject may possess for being in the state of having faith. Faith must be about something, directed toward something, or placed in something. Faith is an ingredient that contributes to a larger and fuller theory of human knowledge.
Faith as an Ingredient for Knowledge. Imagine that you and a friend are baking a cake when a dispute breaks out over whether the cake should contain sugar or flour. Your friend insists that your addition of sugar to the cake is unnecessary and that it will spoil an otherwise perfectly good pastry. She insists that flour is the most important ingredient and that without it, no cake could exist. “Sure, you may have sugar,” she says, “but I have flour, the most important ingredient.”
A dispute of this kind should naturally strike us as absurd since a proper cake requires both a sweetener and a starchy substance, among other essential ingredients. It is counterproductive to engage in a dispute over the use of sugar and flour when both are needed. By contrast, a disagreement over whether to use honey instead of sugar is understandable, as these are both reasonable options for sweetening the cake. So also might our bakers discuss the merits of wheat flour over oat flour, or cow’s milk over any number of milk substitutes. A good cake requires multiple ingredients while maintaining room for variations.
Like cake, knowledge also comprises several essential ingredients. These include a doxastic state (e.g., a belief, acceptance of a proposition, or an attitude of faith, etc.), a metaphysical category (represented by truth that corresponds to reality), and some kind of justification, warrant, evidence, or reason for connecting our doxastic state to the metaphysical category. To put this another way, philosophers sometimes talk about knowledge as justified true belief. Some philosophers also suggest the addition of mind-external and reliable belief-forming mechanisms or truth-tracking conditions for knowledge. For our current purposes, however, it suffices to note that most philosophers believe that knowledge requires multiple essential ingredients and that it is of little use to pit these unique ingredients against one another, so as to say, “You have faith, but I have reason.” Or, “You have faith, but I have facts.” Or again, “You have mere faith, but I have truth grounded in science.” As our cake bakers so aptly demonstrate, situating faith in opposition to fact is as wrongheaded as pitting sugar against flour.
The debate ultimately hinges on competing doxastic states and reasons we have for connecting these states to perceived truth. An accurate evaluation of religious belief cannot frame the debate around a comparison of faith and fact when the conversation is intended to discern between the content of two incompatible doxastic states, such as faith(A) and faith(B), or any other incompatible states of faith, belief, or acceptance. Essential to the question of how humans obtain and retain knowledge is the question of which of our beliefs correspond to reality and which of our beliefs do not. Moreover, knowledge requires that beliefs about reality be fortified by justificatory reasons. The concern lies not in whether a person has faith — both the religious skeptic and the religious believer have faith — but in whether that faith corresponds to truth based on some kind of rational evaluation. Faith is a subjective doxastic state that when combined with other epistemic ingredients can generate knowledge.
As in cake baking, the goal of evaluating competing philosophical outlooks is not to compare and squabble over necessary ingredients but to compare finished products. The question revolves around whose cake wins the taste test. In the comparison of worldviews, the question revolves around whether belief in Jesus as Savior is true and whether that belief can be rationally held on the basis of the witness of Scripture and the facts of history. We might ask ourselves: does the Christian worldview “taste better” than competing worldviews?
Responding to Misplaced Dichotomies. Mark 9:14–29 demonstrates the rich complexities of faith by recounting how Jesus healed a demon-possessed boy. The boy’s father brought the boy to Jesus’ disciples believing they could administer healing. When they failed, Jesus intervened. Certainly, the man had heard of Jesus and His reputation as a healer. He had a rational basis for his belief that Jesus and His disciples could produce a miracle of some kind. Word of mouth or a first-hand encounter with the supernatural power of Jesus had evoked a form of belief, and yet the man pleads for something more — for something he could not bring himself to accept by his own volition. The narrative climaxes when the man cries out in desperation, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV). For the man in Mark 9, faith was a belief that was grounded in fact, rooted in hope, assailed by doubt, and tied to evidence while anticipating further epistemic justification. The faith of this man involved some recalibration and expansion as a complex mental state, and yet it was anything but irrational. To pit faith against fact is to grossly undervalue epistemic theory and the human ability to process and incorporate information about the world.
Those who brandish the faith–fact dichotomy as an intellectual weapon against theism should be met with a gentle reminder that dichotomies of this kind are misplaced. An honest assessment of competing worldviews requires an equally honest conversation about the content of those worldviews and the presuppositions and evidence available to those who hold them. Faith and facts are not opposing viewpoints. Faith is simply a doxastic state that is either directed at facts or is not. The real point of discussion with religious skeptics should hinge on what the facts are and on what reasons we have for believing these facts. An honest evaluation of competing worldviews requires a bit of taste testing.—Jonah Haddad
Jonah Haddad has an MA in philosophy of religion from Denver Seminary and is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen where he is conducting research in epistemology and skepticism. He also serves as an associate pastor at Bergen Park Church in Evergreen, Colorado, and is the author of Insanity: God and the Theory of Knowledge (Wipf and Stock, 2013).
- Jerry A. Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (New York: Penguin, 2015).
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2005), 13.
- See also Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: Norton, 2011) and Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2013).
- See chapter 2 of Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Atheists, where this definition of faith is used repeatedly.
- As implied, biblical faith is not merely cognitive but includes also an emotional, evaluative, and willful reliance on God in Christ.