Having Faith in Our Definitions
I recently posted about WLC’s quibbles over the definition of “atheism.” In my opinion, when two people disagree on the definition of a term, the best way of resolving the issue is to go with the definition proposed by the person who self-identifies with the word. For example, in the case of Dr. Craig’s issues with the definition of “atheism,” we should utilize the definition claimed by someone who calls himself an “atheist.” Otherwise, any arguments that are made against that person’s atheism run the risk of becoming straw men, as they are based around false precepts. This week, Dr. Craig’s podcast once again attempts to wrestle the control of a word’s definition away from atheists. In response to Dr. Peter Boghossian’s new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, WLC discusses what he views as a faulty view of “faith” raised up by opponents of religion.
And, in a marked twist for this blog, I actually agree with William Lane Craig, in this case.
One of the popular arguments from atheists against religion is that faith is not a virtue. Such atheists define “faith” in this case as believing in a concept even without reasonable evidence. Since this makes “faith” irrational by its very nature, these atheists argue that any religion which is based on faith is, therefore, obviously flawed. According to the argument, then, religion is irrational by definition– and anything irrational is obviously something we should avoid.
Of course, those people who support and defend religion obviously do not define “faith” in this way. In his podcast, Dr. Craig and his co-host, Kevin Harris, seem to prefer a definition for faith more along the lines of “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” They argue that “faith” and “reason” are not opposite positions, and that it is completely possible for someone to utilize reason while simultaneously having faith. In fact, Dr. Craig argues that the cause of his faith is the rational evidence he has for God.
Ironically, these same atheists who insist on defining “faith” on their terms also deride WLC and other apologists for doing the same with the word “atheism.” They complain that the apologists’ arguments against “atheism” are straw men, without realizing that their own arguments against “faith” are similarly fallacious. So, when Dr. Craig relates his cute little anecdote about “schmatheism,” during the podcast, atheists rightly cringe at the fact that WLC is blatantly admitting that he is avoiding his opponent’s actual position in order to attack an easier target. Unfortunately, many of those self-same atheists do not recognize that they are, themselves, arguing against “schmaith.”
There is nothing wrong with “faith,” as it is defined by the religious. When I was a Christian, I would say “I have faith in Jesus” with the same intent and meaning as I might say “I have faith in my wife.” I meant it as indicative of a bond of trust. The vast majority of religious people with whom I’ve conversed do the same. They have faith– they have trust. The problem is not the faith, itself. The problem is in the reason and evidence behind the faith. A person can have faith in a person or thing based on good reasons, to be sure; but they can also have faith based on poor reasoning. Quibbling over whether “faith,” itself, is problematic turns into a game of semantics which resolves nothing.
Dr. Craig asserts that he has faith in God, and that is faith is based upon the reasonable evidence laid before him. First and foremost amongst this evidence is the witness of the Holy Spirit, in his heart, which he calls “a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence.” Unfortunately, Dr. Craig’s personal experiences and revelations cannot be demonstrated to any other person, nor can they be tested in any way. Neither is there any way to differentiate Dr. Craig’s personal revelations from those of a Muslim who claims to have felt the will of Allah; nor from the Asatruar who claims personal relationships with Odin, Freyja, and Thor; nor from the Voodoo priest who has communed with Baron Samedi; nor from the pantheist who claims to know the unity of the cosmos. Et cetera, et cetera. Worse yet, there is no way to differentiate the witness of the Holy Spirit in Dr. Craig’s heart from a complete delusion. These experiences could very well serve as powerful evidence for a person– powerful enough to convince them that their faith is justified; but they can never demonstrate that justification to anyone else. That makes such evidence very poor, epistemologically. So, if a non-believer is to be convinced of a religious person’s position, we are going to ask for something other than personal experience or revelation. We will need to see evidence which is epistemologically strong. While many other apologists do not recognize this, Dr. Craig seems to acknowledge this fact, and has spent his career attempting to find this demonstrable, strong evidence.
Dr. Craig is right to chastise atheists for misappropriating the word “faith.” If we find such a tactic fallacious when used against us, it does not suddenly become sound argumentation when used against claims we oppose. Worse yet, it creates a semantic firestorm which distracts the discussion from its true and intended goal. We should allow those who are making claims based on faith to define what they mean by the word, just as we should allow those who call themselves “atheists” to define what they mean. It’d be nice if we could start addressing the actual positions held by an opposing point of view, rather than harping on about the dictionary that they are using.