bookmark_border“A Leap of Faith”

In a comment on my most recent post about Jesus’ use of the word “faith”, Stig Martinsen points to the phrase “a leap of faith” as evidence that Christians sometimes speak of “faith” in a way that implies belief that goes beyond reason or evidence.  I don’t plan to reply to his point here, but I think this phrase has an interesting history that is worth reading and thinking about.
According to the Wikipedia article on “Leap of Faith”, this phrase is generally associated with the philosopher Kierkegaard’s views about faith, although Kierkegaard actually spoke of a “leap to faith” rather than a “leap of faith”:
According to that article, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard was influenced by Lessing:
Kierkegaard’s use of the term “leap” was in response to “Lessing’s Ditch” which was discussed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) in his theological writings.  Kierkegaard was indebted to Lessing’s writings in many ways.
Lessing lays out his “ugly broad ditch” in an essay called On The Proof of the Spirit and of Power in 1777, the same year that Hume’s essays were re-published in a posthumous collection.   This essay by Lessing reads a lot like Hume’s skeptical essays (Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which includes his skeptical essay “On Miracles”, was originally published in 1748).
John Loftus provides several key quotes from Lessing’s essay On The Proof of the Spirit and of Power:
William Craig gives some incisive criticisms of Lessing’s Ditch:
Lessing’s essay laying out the ‘ditch’ is a short and pleasant read:
I found some interesting scholarly analysis of Lessing’s Ditch on Google books:
Lessing’s “Ugly Broad Ditch”
I have heard of Lessing before, I think from reading about the history of the search for the historical Jesus.  According to Schweitzer, the quest for the historical Jesus began with “the publication in 1778 of an anonymous article, ‘On the Intention of Jesus and his Disciples.’ ” (“Historical Jesus, Quest of” , Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.326).  The author was Hermann Reimarus, and it was Lessing who published excerpts from the controversial writings of Reimarus under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author.
The Fragments contained an attack on the historicity of the resurrection narratives.  The Fragments also included the infamous essay ‘On the Intention of Jesus and his Disciples’ which portrays Jesus as a Jew who was trying to establish a literal kingdom on earth, but who failed to do so, and died a disillusioned man believing that God had forsaken him.  This essay kicked off the quest for the historical Jesus. (Info in this paragraph is from “Historical Jesus, Quest of” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p.326)
Not only did Lessing have influence on the study of biblical history, his views, especially “Lessings Ditch”, influenced various important German philosophers and theologians, including Kant, Hegel, Schelling (a university roomate of Hegel), and Schleiermacher.
Karl Barth, the great 20th century Protestant theologian (born in Switzerland, professor of theology in Germany), wrote about “Lessing’s Ditch”:
Barth was also significantly influenced by Kierkegaard, and his theology was in reaction to the Liberal theology of Schleiermacher, both of whom were influenced by Lessing.
So, the phrase “a leap of faith” has a long and interesting history, and it appears to be closely connected with “Lessing’s Ditch”, specifically the attempt to “leap” over his “ugly broad ditch”.

bookmark_borderValerie Tarico on the Most Harmful Religious Ideas

We have had an interesting discussion about Karen Armstrong’s essay “The Myth of Religious Violence.” While it is nice to engage with such erudite essays, it is also nice to find something  that cuts right through the fog and lays everything out. As a short summary of the harm that religion has done, I think it is hard to beat this one. Maybe we could say even more succinctly that monotheism is the worst idea anybody ever had.

bookmark_borderJesus on Faith – Part 5

Stig Martinsen made a plausible objection to my argument for the idea that Jesus viewed giving EVIDENCE and ARGUMENTS as compatible with promoting FAITH:


I have seen the story of doubting Thomas in John 20 interpreted as an example of Jesus endorsing faith as opposed to belief grounded in evidence. I.e. 20:29:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.


I have three counter points to make in response to the reference to John 20:29:

  • The Role of Signs in the Gospel of John in General
  • The Role of Evidence in the Faith of the Disciples in John 20
  • An Alternative Interpretation of John 20:29

In Part 4 of this series, I covered the first point about the role of signs in the Gospel of John.  Basically, the stated purpose of this gospel is to promote faith in Jesus on the basis of the evidence of miracle reports, and this stated purpose is clearly carried out in terms of seven “signs” or miracles of Jesus described in Chapters 2 through 11, and in the fact that these miracles are performed with the expectation of evoking faith (in Jesus) in the people who witness the miracles, and in the fact that the miracles are repeatedly asserted to have produced such faith, at least in some of the people who witnessed them.  Thus, a central theme of the Gospel of John is the production of faith by means of EVIDENCE.  This is an important part of the context of John 20:29, which needs to be taken into account when interpreting that verse.
It is now time to consider my second point.  Since the verse in question is part of Chapter 20, it is especially important to understand this verse in relation to what is going on in that Chapter.  We can summarize this chapter this way:
Jesus presents EVIDENCE of his resurrection from the dead to Mary Magdalene, to his disciples (minus Thomas), and then to his disciples again, and to Thomas.  
If Jesus understood faith to imply belief that is based on NO EVIDENCE or to imply belief that is CONTRARY to the EVIDENCE, then Jesus would have been making it difficult or impossible for Mary, his disciples, and Thomas to have faith by giving them clear evidence of his resurrection from the dead.  Jesus has no such conception of faith.  Rather, Jesus is presented as providing EVIDENCE of his resurrection for the very purpose of bringing his disciples to have faith in him, to get them to firmly believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God.
Furthermore, the resurrection fits in with the general theme of SIGNS (miracles) being the basis for BELIEF (faith).  The resurrection of Jesus is the Grand Finale of the series of miracles reported in the Gospel of John.  Jesus himself implies that his resurrection was a “sign”:
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables;
16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.”
17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then said to Him, “What SIGN do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will RAISE it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”
21 But He was speaking of the temple of HIS BODY.
22 So when He was RAISED FROM THE DEAD, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they BELIEVED the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
John 2:13-22 New American Standard Bible (NASB, EMPHASIS added)
As with the previous seven “signs”, Jesus offers EVIDENCE of his resurrection in hopes of persuading witnesses to BELIEVE in him, to have FAITH in him, to be convinced that Jesus is the divine Son of God:

  • Jesus leaves his tomb open and leaves his burial wrappings in the tomb where Peter and the beloved disciple find the burial wrappings (20:1-10)
  • Jesus appears to and speaks to Mary Magdalene thus showing her that he has risen from the dead (20:11-18)
  • Mary tells the gathered disciples “I have seen the Lord” (20:11-18)
  • Jesus appears to and speaks to his gathered disciples (minus Thomas) and SHOWS them his hands and his side (20:19-21)
  • The disciples who were present when Jesus dropped by on Easter tell Thomas “We have seen the Lord” (20:24-25)
  • Thomas is not convinced by their testimony and demands first-hand EVIDENCE that Jesus is risen (20:24-25)
  • Jesus appears again to the gathered disciples with Thomas present, and immediately offers Thomas the EVIDENCE that he had required:

26 After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus *came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
27 Then He *said to Thomas, “REACH HERE with your finger, and SEE My hands; and REACH HERE your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but BELIEVING.”
28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
John 20:26-28 New American Standard Bible (NASB, EMPHASIS added)
So, just as with the other seven “signs” (miracles), Jesus is providing EVIDENCE with the purpose of getting some people to “believe in him” (to have faith), to believe that he is the Son of God.  Chapter 20 is all about the greatest “sign” that Jesus had to offer, his biggest and most impressive EVIDENCE for his being the savior of mankind, the Son of God.
It does seem a bit obstinate for Thomas to doubt Jesus at this point.  Thomas has presumably already witnessed many amazing miracles performed by Jesus, including some of the seven miracles from the story of Jesus ministry, including the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead.  So, the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the testimony of his fellow disciples ought to have been sufficient evidence in this context (in the story as told by the author of the Gospel of John).  Yet Jesus does not hesitate to provide the conclusive first-hand evidence that Thomas has asked for, and Jesus (or at least the author of this Gospel) sees this as the reason why Thomas comes to BELIEVE in Jesus, to have FAITH in Jesus.  There is no opposition here between EVIDENCE and FAITH.  Rather, EVIDENCE is viewed as the appropriate basis for FAITH.
The FAITH of all the disciples of Jesus, their belief in Jesus, rests upon the EVIDENCE of miracles that they have seen, according to the Gospel of John.  Thomas is not the only disciple that required EVIDENCE for his BELIEF;  he was just a bit more skeptical than the other disciples, according to the Gospel of John, especially Chapter 20 of this Gospel.  So, not only is it a key theme of the Gospel of John that miracles are performed to evoke faith, but this very theme is repeated throughout Chapter 20, which is the context for the verse put forward by Stig Martinsen.  Both the context of the Gospel as a whole, and the context of Chapter 20 in particular are focused on the theme of miracles providing EVIDENCE in support of FAITH.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderThe Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven

One reason for being a skeptic is that people lie…often.  Children lie, teenagers lie, college students and young adults lie,  older adults lie, and seniors lie.
Here is a story that reinforces the need for skepticism.
Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher, has announced that it will stop selling “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” by Alex Malarkey and his father, Kevin Malarkey.
The best-selling book, first published in 2010, purports to describe what Alex experienced while he lay in a coma after a car accident when he was 6 years old. The coma lasted two months, and his injuries left him paralyzed, but the subsequent spiritual memoir – with its assuring description of “miracles, angels, and life beyond This World” – became part of a popular genre of “heavenly tourism.”
Earlier this week, Alex recanted his testimony about the afterlife.  In an open letter to Christian bookstores posted on the Pulpit and Pen Web site, Alex states flatly: “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.”
In his open letter to Christian bookstores, Alex also stated this:
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible.
People have profited from lies, and continue to. …

bookmark_borderIs Religious Violence a Myth?

Karen Armstrong is a prolific author on topics in comparative religion. She is a former nun and liberal Christian who has a gift for writing that is both scholarly and readable. I admire her book A History of God, a genuine tour-de-force that traces the history of monotheism, showing how the concept of God has evolved from age to age and from culture to culture. Last September, in the wake of the horrific attacks by ISIS she published an essay in The Guardian titled “The Myth of Religious Violence”:
Last week’s terrorist outrages in Paris remind us yet again that the nature of the link between religion and violence demands our urgent attention. Such events, and the continuing atrocities of groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab, may give the impression that religious violence has been on the rise in the last few years, and that impression is, in fact, borne out by statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. According to a report released in January of last year:
“The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every region of the world except the Americas.”
The report further notes that certain types of religious violence appear to be driving the rise:
“One example [of increased religious hostility] is abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country. Incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.”
So, religious violence appears to be a significant and worsening problem worldwide, and one particularly notable trend is the increasing incidence of violence against religious minorities.
To put a human face on these statistics, let me mention the case of a young woman who was a student at my university. Before coming to the U.S. she had worked as a retail clerk in a shop in Pakistan. One day a customer noticed that she was wearing a small silver crucifix and began to berate her furiously, claiming that she was insulting Islam. She replied quietly that the crucifix was a symbol of her faith and not a comment on any other belief. The customer stormed out and returned a few minutes later with a bucket of battery acid which he dumped on the young woman’s head. This would be just one instance of what the Pew Research Center refers to as “the abuse of religious minorities by private individuals.”
Armstrong’s essay displays her talent for succinctly summarizing large events without oversimplification and for providing illuminating historical analysis. Her essay makes three main historical claims:

  1. In the pre-modern world there was no notion of “religion” as a sphere separable from politics, economics, culture, or society as a whole. Prior to the modern world, the idea of “separation of church and state” would have seemed not merely incorrect but incoherent. Religion in pre-modern cultures was not a matter of private devotion, but an integral part of a comprehensive conception of society and an indispensable aspect of cultural identity. Much of the non-Western world retains such a pre-modern view today. Thus, very many Muslims view Islam as a pattern for a whole way of life, encompassing every aspect, both private and public. Armstrong implies that the modern effort to sequester religion in a private sphere sealed off from politics is a historical aberration that is not, as we tend to assume, a historical necessity, an organic feature of progress into modernity. Rather, secularization is an artificial construct, arising from a unique set of circumstances that are not generalizable.
  2. With the rise of the secular state there has been a tendency for the nation-state to replace God as the object of ultimate devotion. If a measure of what you consider sacred is what you are willing to die for, then it is noteworthy, as Armstrong indicates, that it is now considered praiseworthy to die while fighting for one’s country but not to die while fighting for one’s religion. Further, the religion of nationalism can be quite deadly and oppressive. Armstrong notes the experience of revolutionary France:

“Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature, and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacque Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.”
3. The various forms of fundamentalism are a reaction—an overreaction—to aggressive secularization. Armstrong notes that secularization has often been pursued aggressively, and even violently. Therefore, in many societies secularization has been perceived as cruel and profoundly disruptive. Armstrong mentions the Young Turks who seized power in Turkey in 1909. They were militantly secular but venerated the new religion of race and nationality. In consequence, they engaged in ethnic cleansing against non-Turkic peoples, infamously massacring over a million Armenians. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern secular Turkish state with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, hated Islam and abolished the caliphate and otherwise oppressed Muslim institutions. He also continued the Young Turks’ policy of ethnic cleansing. Secularization in Egypt and Iran was similarly violent. The fundamentalism of al-Qaida and ISIS is an extreme reaction against coercive secularization. Armstrong concludes:
“When secularization has been applied in force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction—and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis [sic], we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.”
I would like to respond to each of these claims and the implications Armstrong draws from them.
First, Armstrong speaks of religious violence as a “myth.” Her reasoning seems to be that, pace our modern secular understanding, religion is not something that can be causally or even conceptually clearly separated from politics, economics, or culture. Therefore, to try to single out any particular incident as specifically “religious” violence overlooks the fact that it can with equal justification be regarded as politically, economically, or culturally caused. It follows that the figures cited above from the Pew Research Center must be in error or are at least misleading. To speak of “religious hostility,” as the Pew report does, obscures the fact that these deplorable occurrences also and in equal measure can be characterized as due to political, economic, or cultural factors. Even the particular incident of the young woman who was doused with acid cannot be accurately described as an incident of specifically religious hostility because causes that can be called political, economic, or cultural certainly also certainly played a role.
If this is Armstrong’s argument, then it has some odd consequences. If we cannot meaningfully speak of religion as having a bad influence, then neither can we speak of it as having a good influence. It follows that all of the activists and apologists who state a wish to improve society by inculcating religion or strengthening religious institutions are all just blathering. Sauce for the goose. If, on the other hand, it is meaningful to speak of the influence of religion on society and culture, then critiques that charge a bad influence cannot be ruled out by semantic fiat, but must be evaluated empirically. Worse, if our explanatory categories such as “religious,” “cultural,” “economic,” and “political” cannot be applied—because each such concept is so inextricably bound in meaning and reference with other related concepts as to be explanatorily vacuous—then no historical analysis is possible. The consequence of such extreme conceptual holism is comprehensive historical skepticism.
There appears, then, to be no choice but to employ the concepts we have, vague though they may be, in our analysis of history. Actually, when dealing with something as complex and multifaceted as human behavior it is probably unavoidable that our explanatory terms have semantic overlap. It appears, then, that it is meaningful to speak of religious violence, even if we admit that such incidents also have causes that we can identify as cultural, economic, or political. Consider the attacks on religious minorities by private persons or groups, like the acid attack mentioned earlier. Such attacks often are motivated by social causes such as the perception that minorities enjoy some sort of privileged status or that minorities exert an inordinate cultural influence that undermines valued traditions. However, whatever other causes were involved in the horrific acid attack is it reasonable to doubt that motivations correctly described as “religious” also played a role?
Armstrong also seems to misunderstand what is involved in the separation of church and state. To say that we should respect the ideal of separation does not mean that we must impose upon ourselves a sort of self-censorship whereby we endeavor to separate our religious and political convictions, making sure that the latter are in no sense based upon the former. Clearly, such a demand would be unreasonable and psychologically onerous if not impossible. Neither does separation entail that individuals must not organize in groups to seek political, cultural, economic, or social goals that are motivated by their religious convictions. Clearly, much of the motivation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was religiously based. Leaders of that movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., freely employed religious rhetoric in their most famous orations, and there is no reason to think that they were hypocritically using that language merely for effect. Separation of church and state means that the government may not use its power, prestige, or authority to promote the advantage of any creed or sect. Advocates of separation need not harbor the naïve and unrealistic view that religion can be relegated to a purely private and subjective status. They merely demand that the state impose no automatic rights, privileges, or penalties on any species of belief (or non-belief).
With respect to Armstrong’s second point, it is indeed true that the totalizing tendency in religion has been replicated in various secular states, with a concomitant elevation of ideology, Volk, or Fatherland to a semi-divine status. In fact, we may see the paradigmatic totalitarian states of the Twentieth Century—Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s People’s Republic of China—as carrying this tendency to its logical extreme. In these societies, the state and its ideology—and the leader who is their personal embodiment—are made into objects of truly religious devotion. However, this is in no way a criticism of secularism or the Enlightenment ideals on which it is based. The closest historical template for Twentieth Century totalitarianism would have to be a religious one. The defining feature of totalitarianism, that all aspects of life be subjugated to a ruling ideology, is surely closer to the theory and practice of, say, the medieval Church than anything espoused by an Enlightenment philosopher. The Church presented its authority as universal and is doctrines were to be the final word on all matters of private morality, public policy, economics, and even science. The concept of “thought crime” was not an invention of George Orwell, or even of the Stalinism Orwell lampooned; it had been anticipated by the Holy Inquisition centuries before.
Armstrong admits that the Enlightenment thinkers tried to counter bigotry and intolerance by emphasizing that all are equal and endowed with inalienable natural rights. However, Armstrong thinks that the egalitarianism and the protection of equal rights in liberal states is more a matter of practicality than conviction:
“The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities. More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratized forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of morality to an elite few fell behind. Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all of their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.”
Yet, she says, this toleration is only “skin deep” and subject to revocation as soon as it is no longer convenient.
Armstrong’s treatment of the ideals of liberal, secular society is breathtaking in its cynicism and as reductive as any Marxist analysis. When 1.6 million people marched in Paris, carrying Je suis Charlie placards, the ideal of free speech that they were defiantly proclaiming meant more to them than a “skin deep” matter of convenience. When you look at the history of the United States, which enshrines the Enlightenment ideals in its founding documents, one of the salient themes that emerges is that the promise of equality and liberty has been more and more broadly extended as a consequence of great struggles. When those founding documents were written, de facto only well-off white males enjoyed that hallowed equality or could exercise those rights. The enormous struggles of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the rise of labor unions, the suffragist and women’s rights movement, and the current battle for the rights of LGBT people have seen the promise of rights and equality extended more and more broadly in the face of intransigent, often violent opposition. I think that the course of American history is just not comprehensible unless we concede that the ideals of equality and liberty mattered, truly mattered to those who lived and died in their defense.
Armstrong’s critique of secular society appears to rest on a false dilemma: Either God is God or the state will become God. While totalitarian states show that this is sometimes true, the existence, and, indeed, the spread of stable, liberal, democratic, and secular states indicates that Armstrong’s conclusion is far too hasty. Perhaps we are not at the “end of history,” but I think that we can say that after the struggle of ages we have finally found something that works better than anything else: secular liberal democracy. Of course, secular liberal democracy is not without its own paradoxical features. For instance, it can encompass someone like Armstrong who has thrived due to its benefits (Imagine her trying to publish A History of God in Iran or Pakistan) but seemingly rejects its fundamental premises.
What about Armstrong’s claim that fundamentalism is a reaction to secularization? This is indeed true, but it is hard to see what to do about it other than to defeat fundamentalism. Secularization was indeed pursued in a violent and heavy-handed manner in many places. It was often despicably cruel and profoundly disruptive. So were the industrial revolution and the rise of the market economy. However, the communist response to capitalism produced a “cure” worse than the disease. The dark satanic mills of early capitalism were horrible, but not nearly as horrible as the Gulag. Likewise, as an answer to oppressive secular governments, like the current military rule in Egypt, fundamentalist theocracy is no answer.
How can fundamentalism be defeated? Certainly not by drone strikes, bombings, or any number of wars like the ones fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fundamentalism can be defeated only when the people in the societies where it is endemic rise up in unity against it. When 1.6 million people march to demand freedom of speech—not in Paris, but in Riyadh, Tehran, and Islamabad—then we will know that the days of Islamic fundamentalism are numbered.
In conclusion, Armstrong has provided no reason for saying that we cannot speak meaningfully of religious violence and cite copious instances of it. It is certainly the case that religion is through and through a cultural, social, and political phenomenon and that every instance of religious violence is likewise explicable in other terms. Nevertheless, we can legitimately identify religion as one ingredient in the witch’s brew of factional violence. As Bertrand Russell noted, religion is most pernicious when it sanctifies cruelty:
“The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give the sanction of what professes to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages (Russell, Religion and Science, p. 106; emphasis in original).”
Indeed, religion has excused every kind of atrocity, even genocide, and the darkest human passions and prejudices have been wrapped in a mantle of holiness:
“We read in the Old Testament that it was a religious duty to exterminate conquered races completely [e.g. I Samuel, 15:3], and that to spare even their cattle and sheep was an impiety.  Dark terrors and misfortunes in the life to come oppressed the Egyptians and the Etruscans, but never reached their full development until the victory of Christianity.  Gloomy saints who abstained from all the pleasures of sense, who lived in solitude in the desert, denying themselves meat and wine and the society of women, were, nevertheless, not obliged to abstain from all pleasures.  The pleasures of the mind were considered to be superior to those of the body, and a high place among the pleasures of the mind was assigned to the contemplation of the eternal tortures to which the pagans and the heretics would hereafter be subjected (In Al Seckel, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 291).”
Or, as Thomas Paine more succinctly put it, “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”

bookmark_borderJesus on Faith – Part 4

Stig Martinsen made a plausible objection to my argument for the idea that Jesus viewed giving EVIDENCE and ARGUMENTS as compatible with promoting FAITH:
I have seen the story of doubting Thomas in John 20 interpreted as an example of Jesus endorsing faith as opposed to belief grounded in evidence. I.e. 20:29:
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.
Though other interpretations are possible, this is related to the distinction McCormick is making. Though Jesus here isn’t even content to add faith on top of the evidence; he elevates faith above belief grounded in evidence, and denigrates Thomas for seeking more evidence. I wonder what W.K. Clifford thought of this passage! (Of course John is very likely a later and more theologically elaborated gospel than the synoptics, but modern believers are no less likely to quote from it for all that).
I have three concessions to make to Stig Martinsen, and then three points in reply to his objection.
First, I admit that the Gospel of John is near and dear to many Christian believers, especially to Evangelical Christians. So, John Chapter 20 is at least as important to sincere Christian believers as is Luke Chapter 24.
Second, since I do not believe the N.T. to be the inspired Word of God, I do NOT assume that there is just one single conception of “faith” that is consistently held and promoted by the various authors of the N.T. So, the Gospel of John might well present a different conception of “faith” than what we find in the Synoptic Gospels. This is probably in fact the case, since (a) the word “faith” is found in a number of the sayings and comments of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, but NEVER occurs in the Gospel of John, except in the NIV translation of John 12:42, where the narrator (not Jesus) uses the word, and (b) In The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, the article on “Faith” is divided into two parts:        1. Faith in the Synoptic Gospels and 2. Faith in the Gospel of John.
Third, some Christians do interpret John 20:29 as portraying Jesus as scolding or chiding Thomas for demanding extra evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and that Jesus is praising others who will believe in the resurrection without such evidence.  This includes the great N.T. scholar, and expert on the Gospel of John, Raymond Brown.
In my view Jesus did not appear to his disciples on Easter Sunday, not even in visions or dreams or hallucinations. The stories of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in Luke 24 and in John 20 are fiction, and thus neither passage provides factual data about the historical Jesus, assuming that there was such a person. However, what is most important here is NOT what the historical Jesus believed and taught, but the influence of the representations of Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels on shaping Christian thinking about “faith”.
I have three counter points to make in response to the reference to John 20:29:

  • The Role of Signs in the Gospel of John in General
  • The Role of Evidence in the Faith of the Disciples in John 20
  • An Alternative Interpretation of John 20:29

1. The Role of Signs in the Gospel of John in General
John 20:29 needs to be understood and interpreted in relation to the context of this verse.  The basic context is the whole Gospel of John, and, interestingly enough, the purpose of this Gospel is stated immediately after John 20:29, in verses 30 and 31 at the very end of Chapter 20 (New American Standard Bible, EMPHASIS added):
30 Many other SIGNS therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.
31  but THESE have been written THAT you may BELIEVE that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that BELIEVING you may have life in His name.
As mentioned above, the word “faith” never occurs in the Gospel of John, at least not on the lips of Jesus.  Instead, the central word is “believe”.  The purpose of the Gospel of John is to promote the belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”.  In other words, the purpose of this Gospel is to promote FAITH in Jesus.
How does the Gospel of John attempt to bring about this FAITH?  What is the method or strategy used?  Verse 31 tells us that “these have been written that you may believe…”  To what does the pronoun “these” refer?  It clearly refers back to the “signs…Jesus…performed in the presence of the disciples” in verse 30.
What is a “sign”?  The word “sign” like the word “believe” is a key word in this Gospel, and a key theme of this Gospel is the description and presentation of “signs” Jesus performed.  Nearly all of the “signs” described in the Gospel of John are MIRACLES.  Thus the word “signs” appears to be a shortened form of the O.T. expression used of the miracles of Moses:  “signs and wonders” (compare John 4:47-49 with Deuteronomy 4:33-35, 6:21-23, 26:7-9, 29:2-4, and 34:10-12).
There are seven key miracles described in this Gospel in Chapters 2 through 11, which cover Jesus’ ministry.  These miracles are called “signs” by Jesus, by other Jews, and by the author (or narrator) of the Gospel of John:
1.  Turning Water into Wine (2:1-11)
2.  A Nobleman’s Son Healed (4:46-54)
3.  Healing at Bethesda (5:1-20)
4.  Five Thousand Fed (6:1-14)
5.  Jesus Walks on Water (6:16-21)
6. The Blind Man Healed (9:1-17)
7. Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (11:38-48)
So, let’s summarize the purpose of the Gospel of John, in accordance with the stated purpose in verses 30 and 31 at the end of Chapter 20:
To persuade and encourage readers to have FAITH in Jesus (i.e. to “believe” that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God) by describing and presenting reports of MIRACLES (i.e. “signs”) performed by Jesus in the presence of his disciples.
In other words, the Gospel of John is basically a very early attempt at Christian Apologetics!  It is an attempt to present EVIDENCE in order to create  or encourage FAITH in Jesus.  Thus, the very purpose and strategy of the author of the Gospel of John runs contrary to the definition of “faith” suggested by Russell (firm belief for which one has no evidence) and contrary to the definition suggested by Grayling (belief that is in the face of contrary evidence).
This understanding of the purpose and strategy of the Gospel of John is supported by the way that “signs” (i.e. miracles) performed by Jesus are repeatedly presented as evoking “belief” (i.e. faith in Jesus).  After the story of Jesus turning water into wine, the author/narrator says (EMPHASIS added):
11 This beginning of His SIGNS Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and MANIFESTED His glory, and His disciples BELIEVED in Him.  (John 2:11,  NASB)
The story of the second great miracle by Jesus reported in the Gospel of John ends this way (EMPHASIS added):
53  SO THE FATHER KNEW that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself BELIEVED and his whole household.
54 This is again a second SIGN that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.(John 4:53 & 54, NASB)

Jesus comments on his third miracle (the healing at Bethesda), again indicating a connection between the miracles and belief (EMPHASIS added):
20: For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and GREATER WORKS than these will He show Him, THAT YOU MAY MARVEL. (John 5:20, NASB)
A few verses later, Jesus makes another similar comment (EMPHASIS added):
36 But the TESTIMONY which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the WORKS which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very WORKS that I do—TESTIFY ABOUT ME, that the Father has sent Me.  (John 5:36, NASB)
The story of Jesus feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread ends with this comment (EMPHASIS added):
14 Therefore WHEN the people SAW the SIGN which He had performed, they said, “THIS IS TRULY THE PROPHET who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14, NASB)
While the word “belief” is not used here, we are given the expression of belief (or faith) by some of the people who (allegedly) witnessed this miracle.
Later, Jesus is speaking to some of the people who witnessed this miracle and he urges them to believe in him (EMPHASIS added):
26 Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw SIGNS, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.
27 Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”
28 Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”
29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you BELIEVE in Him whom He has sent.”
30 So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a SIGN, so that we may see, and BELIEVE You? What work do You perform?  (John 6:26-30, NASB)
There is no miracle reported in Chapter 7, but we do find another mention of the connection between “signs” (miracles) and “belief” (faith):
31 But many of the crowd BELIEVED in Him; and they were saying, “When the Christ comes, He will not perform more SIGNS than those which this man has, will He?”   (John 7:31, NASB, EMPHASIS added)
In the story of the man who was blind from birth who was healed by Jesus, we are again reminded of the connection between miracles and faith in Jesus:
15 Then the Pharisees also were asking him again how he received his sight. And he said to them, “He applied clay to my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”
16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such SIGNS?” And there was a DIVISION among them.
17 So they *said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him, since He opened your eyes?” And he said, “HE IS A PROPHET.” (John 9:15-17, NASB)
The Pharisees say that Jesus is “not from God” but others, including the healed man, conclude that Jesus is from God, based on the “signs” or miracles Jesus has performed.  The Pharisees later interrogate the healed man a second time, and he re-states the reasoning about why he and others believe that Jesus was from God:
30 The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes.
31 We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him.
32 Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.
33 If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33, NASB)
This man is “put out” of the synagogue because of his faith or belief in Jesus, which is clearly based on an alleged miracle.  Jesus hears about the man being kicked out, and returns to clinch the deal (EMPHASIS Added):
35 Jesus heard that they had put him out, and finding him, He said, “Do you BELIEVE in the Son of Man?”
36 He answered, “Who is He, Lord, that I may BELIEVE in Him?”
37 Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.”
38 And he said, “Lord, I BELIEVE.” And he worshiped Him. (John 9:35-38, NASB)
So, yet again, the author of the Gospel of John points out a connection between “signs” (miracles) in verse 9:16, and the result that people “believe in” (have faith in) Jesus in verses 9:16-17 and 9:35-38.
The final great miracle of Jesus’ ministry that is reported in the Gospel of John is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  It is this miracle, according to the Gospel of John, that leads to the decision of Jewish leaders to have Jesus killed. In the midst of performing this miracle, Jesus himself points to the connection between miracles and faith in Jesus (EMPHASIS added):
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.
42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, SO THAT they may BELIEVE that You sent Me.”
43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” (John 11:41-43, NASB)
This connection between miracles (“signs”) and faith in Jesus (“believe in Him”) is reinforced by the discussion of the Jewish leaders in making the decision to seek to have Jesus killed (EMPHASIS added):
45 Therefore many of the Jews who came to Mary, and SAW what He had done, BELIEVED in Him.
46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done.
47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many SIGNS.
48 If we let Him go on like this, all men will BELIEVE IN HIM, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:45-48, NASB)
Thus, not only is it the explicitly stated purpose of the Gospel of John to present reports of Jesus’ miracles in order to promote FAITH (belief) in Jesus, but the power of Jesus’ miracles to persuade people to have FAITH in Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, is emphasized over and over again in Chapters 2 through 11, which cover the ministry of Jesus.
In short, the context of Chapter 20 verse 29 is that the bulk of the Gospel of John is basically a presentation of EVIDENCE for the divinity of Jesus, EVIDENCE in the form or miracle reports that are intended and expected to persuade people to believe in Jesus, to have FAITH in Jesus.  Therefore, the idea that there is something wrong or shameful  about asking for EVIDENCE in order to believe in Jesus or have FAITH in Jesus runs contrary to the basic purpose and strategy of the whole Gospel of John, and to the repeated theme emphasizing that the miracles of Jesus were intended to evoke faith, and often succeeded in doing so.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderJesus on Faith – Part 3

Jesus talks about “faith” in Matthew Chapter 6 and also in Matthew Chapter 16 (Mat. 6:25-33 and  16:5-12).  In both of these passages, Jesus tells his followers that they have “little faith”, and then Jesus puts forward an ARGUMENT or REASONS in order to INCREASE the FAITH of his followers.  
But this makes no sense if we interpret these passages using the definition of “faith” proposed by Bertrand Russell: firm belief for which one has no evidence.  And this makes no sense if we interpret these passages using the definition of “faith” proposed by A. C. Grayling: belief held in the face of contrary evidence.  Given these definitions, providing a GOOD ARGUMENT or GOOD REASONS for a belief will make it very difficult or impossible for someone to have “faith”.
Jesus presumably believed that the REASONS he gave to his followers were GOOD REASONS and GOOD ARGUMENTS, but Jesus gave REASONS to his followers in order to increase their faith, not to make faith very difficult or impossible for them.   Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus did NOT understand the word “faith” to mean what Russell or Grayling says it means.
Another way to get at Jesus’ understanding of “faith” (or the understanding of “faith” held by the authors of the Gospels) is to consider what Jesus  says about “doubt”.   Doubt is obviously something that contrasts with faith, but we can clearly see that Jesus saw these as opposite or contrasting concepts.  Consider, for example, the Gospel story of Peter’s attempt to walk on water:
28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 
29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 
30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 
31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little FAITH, why did you DOUBT?”
Matthew 14:28-31  New American Standard Bible [EMPHASIS Added]
Here, as in the previously considered passages from Matthew, Jesus says that one of his followers, Peter, has “little faith”, and immediately asks Peter “why did you doubt?”.  Clearly, Jesus thinks that “doubt” has a very close connection with having “little faith”.  So, increasing faith implies decreasing doubt, and increasing doubt implies decreasing faith, in Jesus’ view.
While Jesus often spoke about having “faith” in God, the Christian religion is focused on having “faith” in Jesus, and in particular having “faith” in the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  In other words, one of the primary objects of Christian faith is the alleged resurrection of Jesus.
An important Gospel passage concerning “doubt” about the resurrection of Jesus occurs in Chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke.  Thus, consideration of this Chapter might shed light on the concept of “faith” as it relates to the resurrection of Jesus, one of the primary objects of faith in the Christian religion:
36 While they were telling these things, He [Jesus] Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” 
37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 
38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do DOUBTS arise in your hearts? 
39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 
40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 
Luke 24:36-40  New American Standard Bible [EMPHASIS Added]
In this passage, Jesus does not say that his disciples are “of little faith”.  However, he did say something very similar in verse 38: “Why are you troubled, and why do DOUBTS arise in your hearts?”  So, Jesus might just as well have said: “Why are you troubled, and why do you have so little FAITH in your hearts?”.  Thus, in this passage, Jesus is talking about FAITH, or the lack of FAITH in his disciples.
Jesus’ disciples are presented here as lacking FAITH in the resurrection of Jesus.  They saw someone who looked like Jesus, but believed that Jesus was dead, so they inferred that they were merely seeing a spirit or ghost.  They DOUBTED the claim that God had miraculously raised Jesus’ dead body back to life.  In other words, they were lacking in FAITH in the resurrection of Jesus.
How does Jesus respond to this lack of FAITH in his physical resurrection?  Jesus responds by providing EVIDENCE in support of the claim that his dead body was brought back to life:
39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 
40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 
This EVIDENCE provided by Jesus can be stated in terms of REASONS or an ARGUMENT:
1. You can see my hands and my feet (i.e. that they look like solid flesh).
2. You can feel my hands and my feet (i.e. that they feel like solid flesh).
3.  I am made of flesh and bones, and I am not a spirit or ghost.
Thus, as in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Matthew, and in Chapter 16 of Matthew, we see in Chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke that Jesus’ response to a lack of FAITH in his disciples is to provide EVIDENCE or REASONS or ARGUMENTS to his disciples in support of the belief that they are having trouble accepting or firmly believing.
So, in this very important and central Gospel passage, one that relates to FAITH in a key Christian doctrine, we see Jesus providing what he takes to be GOOD REASONS or GOOD ARGUMENTS for the belief in question.  This is completely contrary to what we would expect given the definition of “faith” proposed by Russell, and given the definition of “faith” proposed by Grayling.
As a skeptic and an atheist, I do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  I also do not believe that Jesus appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday.  My view is that the story about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on Easter Sunday is fiction not history.  Thus, I don’t believe that Jesus said the words attributed to him in that story, nor did Jesus actually show his hands and his feet to his disciples, in my view.  But this does NOT undermine my point about Jesus’ understanding of the word “faith”.
The real point is not about the actual historical Jesus (if there was such a person).  The real point is about the understanding of “faith” held by the authors of the Gospels, and put into the mouth of Jesus by those authors,  and the understanding of “faith” held by the hundreds of millions of Christian believers who read those Gospels, most of whom DO think that the events of Luke Chapter 24, and Matthew Chapters 6 and 16, are factual and historical.
In other words, sincere and devout Christians who believe that the Gospels provide historical accounts about the words and actions of Jesus, read and study the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, and they are influenced by the conception of “faith” that is put into the mouth of Jesus, and into the actions of Jesus, by the authors of the Gospels.  Thus,  because the understanding of “faith” in the Gospels does NOT fit with the definition of “faith” proposed by Russell, and does NOT fit with the definition of “faith” proposed by Grayling, we ought to be very cautious and skeptical about the claim that sincere and devout Christians understand the word “faith” in accordance with the definitions proposed by Russell and Grayling.

bookmark_borderJesus on Faith – Part 2

In my previous post on this subject, I argued that the comments of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-33 concerning faith  show that Jesus did NOT think that faith means firmly believing something for which one  has no evidence (Bertrand Russell’s def. of “faith”) nor that faith means believing in the face of contrary evidence (A.C. Grayling’s def. of “faith”).  Thus, Russell and Grayling FAILED to capture the meaning of the word “faith” as used by Jesus, at least in the passage quoted from Chapter 6 of Matthew.
Here is another passage from Matthew where Jesus talks about faith (EMPHASIS added):
And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. 
And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 
They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.” 
But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little FAITH, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? 
Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? 
10 Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? 
11 How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 
12 Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
 Matthew 16:5-12 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
As in Chapter 6, Jesus tells his disciples that they have “little faith”.  Why does he say this?  Again, as in Chapter 6, his followers seem overly concerned about whether they will have enough food to eat.   In Chapter 6, Jesus taught that his followers ought not to worry about their basic needs being met, but should instead TRUST in God, trust that God would provide them with necessities like food, drink, and clothing.
There seems to be a similar situation here.  Jesus’ disciples seem to be anxious about whether they have enough bread to eat.  They seem not to have taken to heart the lesson that Jesus tried to teach back in Chapter 6.  But Jesus makes a second attempt to persuade his followers that they ought not to worry about whether they will have enough food to eat:
But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little FAITH, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? 
Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? 
10 Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? 
11 How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?
Once again, Jesus gives his disciples REASONS to trust that God will provide them with basic necessities like food:
1. When we had just a few loaves of bread, we were able to feed five thousand people without any problem.
2. When we had just a few loaves of bread, we were able to feed four thousand people without any problem.
3. If (1) and (2) are the case, then God can provide and has provided lots of bread when we needed it.
4. God can provide and has provided lots of bread when we needed it.
As a skeptic and an atheist, I don’t believe that Jesus and his disciples actually managed to feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread.  So I have serious doubts about the truth of the premises of this argument.
However, Jesus or the followers of Jesus might well have believed that such miracles of feeding actually happened.   It is also quite possible that these stories are merely legends, and that Jesus never actually attempted to feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and never believed that thousands of people were actually fed by a few loaves of bread.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew apparently believed these events happened, and most Christians who have read this Gospel believe that these miraculous events actually happened.
In any case, Jesus is presented in this passage as telling his disciples that they had “little faith” because they did not TRUST that God would be concerned enough about their well being to make sure they had enough food to eat, and Jesus gives them another ARGUMENT to show that they ought to TRUST that God would provide them with necessities like food and water.  Clearly, Jesus is presented as putting forward something that he believed to be a GOOD ARGUMENT.   Even if the argument is in fact a BAD one, this does not matter for the question at issue.  What matters is whether Jesus believed it to be a GOOD ARGUMENT (or that the Gospel of Matthew represents Jesus as providing something that he believed was a GOOD ARGUMENT).
If Jesus wanted to INCREASE the faith of his followers, and he certainly did, and if Jesus understood the word “faith” to imply belief in something for which one had no evidence (Russell’s def.) or belief in something in the face of contrary evidence (Grayling’s def.), then Jesus would NOT have provided an ARGUMENT in support of TRUSTING in God to provide believers with food.
Providing REASONS and ARGUMENTS for trusting in God would make it very difficult or even impossible for his disciples to believe without any evidence that God could and would provide them with food.   Providing them with REASONS and ARGUMENTS for believing that God would provide them with necessities would make it very difficult if not impossible for them to believe this in the face of contrary evidence.
Thus, we can reasonably infer that Jesus did NOT understand “faith” to mean a belief for which one has no evidence (Russell’s def.), and that Jesus did NOT understand “faith” to mean belief in the face of contrary evidence (Grayling’s def.).  Whatever Jesus meant by the word “faith”, he clearly did NOT mean what Russell thinks “faith” means, and he did NOT mean what Grayling thinks “faith” means.

bookmark_borderTerrorist Outrage in Paris

I am angry. Very angry. We know that Islamic fanatics are mad dogs whose very humanity has been consumed by their devotion to a rabid religion. We have seen them massacre whole communities of innocent people for no reason other than religious bigotry. We have seen them kidnap hundreds of girls and young women then sneeringly taunt the loved ones of their victims. We have seen them murder and mutilate other girls for the crime of seeking an education. Today’s murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, is an attack on all of us for whom freedom of expression is a sacred right. I take it personally. So should you.

How should we react? We cannot give in. Fear cannot win. We must collectively express unqualified support for freedom of expression even when—especially when—it is offensive. If I think your religion is stupid and evil, then I have every right to say that it is stupid and evil. Is that offensive? Tough shit. There is no right, repeat, NO RIGHT, not to be offended.

We will inevitably hear the mealy-mouthed apologetics of moderate Muslims and the whines of the secular self-appointed guardians of sensitivity. Oh, if only we would respect the delicate religious sensibilities of others, then these terrible, terrible things would not happen. We only have our own callousness to blame. Horseshit. Reprehensible things deserve reprehension. Ridiculous things deserve ridicule. Criminal gangs of fanatics and the egregiously absurd theology that motivates them need to be called out in no uncertain terms. If non-fanatical Muslims are also offended by satire and “blasphemy” against the Prophet, then good. Maybe it is good to remind them that the outrage they feel when Islam is insulted is exactly matched by the outrage we feel when freedom of expression is attacked.

bookmark_borderJesus on Faith

What does the word “faith” mean?  According to my dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition), the word “faith” has several different meanings:
Definition 1:  A confident belief in the truth, value, trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
Definition 2:  Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
Definition 3:  Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance…
Definition 4:  Belief and trust in God.
Definition 5:  Religious conviction.
Definition 6:  A system of religious beliefs.
Definition 7:  A set of principles or beliefs.
Many skeptics latch onto Definition 2, or some very similar definition, as John Loftus points out in The Outsider Test for Faith (p.212 & 213):
“Faith consists in believing, not what appears to be true, but what appears to our understanding to be false.” – Voltaire
 Faith is “believing what you know ain’t true.” – Mark Twain
“We may define ‘faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” – Bertrand Russell
 “The whole point of religious faith…is that it does not depend on rational justification.” – Richard Dawkins
 “Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence.” – A. C. Grayling
 “Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence.” – Victor Stenger
Such definitions of “faith” are used to show that faith and reason are necessarily and unavoidably incompatible, and thus that faith is necessarily and unavoidably unreasonable or irrational.
One thing to note here is that none of the six other definitions of “faith” have this implication.  Confident beliefs are sometimes rationally justified.  Loyalty is sometimes reasonable and rational.  Belief in God is rational for people who are aware of what seem (to them) to be good reasons to believe in God, and in any case, if the concept of ‘God’ is coherent, then we can imagine circumstances in which it would be rational to believe in God.  If belief in God could in some cases be reasonable, then so could trust in GodReligious convictions can in some cases be reasonable and rational.  A system of religious beliefs could at least in theory be reasonable and rational (even if all of the major world religions include false or unreasonable beliefs).  Certainly there are sets of principles or beliefs that are reasonable and rational to accept.  So, it is only on Definition 2 that reason and faith are necessarily and unavoidably incompatible.
I’m not happy with Definition 2.   For one thing, it has the feel of cheating.  It is one thing to view faith as being unreasonable or irrational, but it is another to define “faith” so that it is unreasonable or irrational BY DEFINITION.  If someone wants to argue that faith is usually or always unreasonable or irrational, that is fine with me, let the skeptic who makes this claim ARGUE for this view.  But to simply build irrationality into the concept of “faith” seems too slick and too easy.  This seems to be the kind of move that is worthy of a used-car salesperson, not the right approach for a philosopher.
 A second objection to skeptics who latch onto Definition 2 is that it does not seem to accurately reflect the actual use of the word “faith” by Christians.  Since Christians believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, sincere Christians (such as I once was as a teenager and young adult) take the words and teachings of Jesus seriously.  Sincere believers in Jesus read and study the Bible, and pay especially close attention to the Gospels and to the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels.
There are several Gospel passages in which Jesus uses the word “faith”.   Of course, Jesus did not speak English, so he did not literally use the word “faith”.  The Gospels were written in Greek, and Jesus probably spoke Aramaic.  But there are several Gospel passages in which a saying or comment by Jesus is translated with the word “faith”.  Does Jesus use the word “faith” in a way that implies believing “something for which there is no evidence.” (Bertrand Russell)?  Does Jesus use the word “faith” in a way that implies believing something “in the face of contrary evidence.” (A. C. Grayling)?
Here is a Gospel passage in which Jesus uses the word “faith”:
 25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 
27 And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 
28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 
29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!
31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 
32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 
33 Butseek firstHis kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will beadded to you.
Matthew 6:25-33 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Why does Jesus say that his followers are “of little faith”?  Because they are worried about having enough food and water, and enough clothing to wear.  How does such worry relate to “faith”?  If they had greater faith, they would TRUST that God loved them and cared about their well being, and would not let them starve to death, or die of thirst, or go naked and die of exposure.  Does Jesus think that such TRUST in God is unreasonable and irrational?  Does Jesus think that there is “no evidence” to support such trust in God?  Does Jesus think that such trust in God flies in the “face of contrary evidence”?  I don’t think so.
Jesus appears to think that there is REASON to TRUST in God, REASON to believe that God will watch out for our well being and our basic needs:
 25 “For this REASON I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 
Jesus provides an ARGUMENT in support of the belief that God should be trusted to watch out for the well being and basic needs of believers:

  1. God takes care of birds, making sure they have enough food to eat.
  2. Humans (who believe in God) are of greater value to God than birds.


  1. God will take care of humans (who believe in God), making sure they have enough food to eat.

Those of us who are atheists and skeptics can find problems with this argument, and can come up with strong objections and counter-arguments, but I think it is reasonable to say that Jesus (and/or the author of the Gospel of Matthew) believed this to be a good argument.
Jesus (and/or Matthew) believed that this bit of thinking provided a good reason to TRUST in God, and to believe that God would take care of the basic needs of believers.  In trying to determine what Jesus MEANT by the word “faith” this is all that matters.  The fact that his argument is a bad argument is irrelevant to the question at issue, which is: How did Jesus use the word “faith”?  What did Jesus take the word “faith” to imply?
If Jesus was interested in INCREASING the faith of his followers, and he was, and if Jesus understood the word “faith” to imply believing something when there was “no evidence” to believe it or when believing it would be flying in the “face of contrary evidence”, then Jesus would NOT have given what he took to be a GOOD ARGUMENT for the conclusion that his followers should TRUST in God, trust that God would provide for their basic needs.  Giving a GOOD ARGUMENT for this conclusion would make it difficult or impossible for his followers to trust in God without any evidence or contrary to evidence.
The definitions of “faith” given by Bertrand Russell and A.C. Grayling are cheap shots at Christian believers.  Their definitions allow them to conclude that faith is always contrary to reason without having to do any serious intellectual work to get to that conclusion.  Furthermore, their definitions of “faith” appear to FAIL as interpretations of what Jesus meant by the word “faith”.  And since the sayings and teachings of Jesus are authoritative for sincere Christian believers, it seems doubtful to me that such Christians would generally use the word “faith” in the sense that Russell and Grayling have outlined.