Theistic arguments for beginners: #2 — The argument from faith

NEAFtACDlZr2EB_1_1This argument asserts that the existence of God can be proven through faith. As expressed on the Iron Chariots Wiki, it goes something like this:

1. Faith is a unique method of knowing.

a. Nothing can be known for certain or proven from scratch.

b. Instead we must rely on certain assumptions that we take on faith.

c. Through faith we can know truths that would otherwise be unverified.

2. The existence of God cannot be determined except through faith.

3. I have faith in God.

4. Therefore God exists.

The word faith is thrown around a lot, but it suffers from being imprecisely defined. Depending on the context, faith can mean

  • an implicit trust or confidence in someone or something (“I have faith in the American people”),
  • loyalty (“This soldier has served his country faithfully”),
  • accepting a claim without evidence (“I have faith that God exists”), or as the King James version of the bible puts it, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Theists may often juggle different meanings of the word within a single conversation.

This version of the argument begins with an assertion that faith is a method of knowing something. Most atheists generally define faith, as it applies to religion, in the third sense above, and so 1 is unlikely to convince them that faith is a method of “knowing” anything.

1-a assumes that nothing can be known for certain, but there are in fact things we can know with at least relative certainty. For instance, one can prove to oneself that one has a mind, or that 2 + 2 = 4, with at least relative certainty of its truth. It is common in theist arguments to make claims for the absolute truth about things, unlike atheists (or, for that matter, scientists), who will generally admit that they do not claim to have absolute certainty about anything. In fact, absolute certainty, by definition, would require omniscience, so the concept is generally meaningless.

But in excluding the concept that we can know things with relative certainty, 1-b divides knowledge into things we can know with absolute certainty and things which we have to take on faith. This ignores the scientific method, which uses empirical evidence gained through observation, experiment, and measurement. We don’t have to have faith in evidence-based medicine in order to be cured of a treatable illness. We don’t have to have faith in the principles of heavier-than-air flight in order for the plane we board to fly. We don’t have to personally know the science behind medicine or airplanes in order to be cured or to fly; we simply need to be aware that the evidence exists and that the treatment, or the design of the plane, is based on that evidence, in order to enjoy the benefits of medicine or flight.

In examining 1-c, the question arises, what truths can be verified through faith that cannot be verified through evidence?, and the only answer seems to be “God”. But because the definition of faith is acceptance of a claim without evidence, faith isn’t a means of verifying anything.

Other problems with this argument include:

  • It doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of the god the apologist has in mind. It can be equally used for any god or gods that humans believe in.
  • A god with the attributes commonly given to him by theists, including omnipotence, ought to be able to manifest to humanity in a clear, distinct, and unambiguous way, instead of relying on the faith of his believers. This would eliminate any questions concerning the existence of a god and resolve any issues regarding his instructions to humanity.
  • If we grant the same level of faith to theists of all stripes, we still see that most of their beliefs contradict each other. We also see that religious people frequently have strong convictions that lead to acts, either of commission or omission, that in turn lead to harmful consequences. Having faith in something, however strongly, does not automatically make that assertion true, or even more credible.

The argument from faith is a circular, self-justifying argument that even the most devout believer ought to be able to see is one of the weakest arguments that could be used to make his case, because it essentially says, if you want to have faith in God, you need to have faith in God. It’s a discussion-stopper, essentially signaling the apologist’s unwillingness to concede an opposing point of view.

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