Are Atheists Right? Is Faith the Absence of Reason/Evidence?

by on
Share:

Atheists often accuse Christians of believing things or having “faith” without evidence and like to remind them of the old adage: “faith is believing what you know is not true.” In the eyes of many atheists, “faith” has become a buzzword for putting your intellect out of gear and for believing something without any reason or evidence for it (i.e., blind faith). For example, atheist and scientist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, argues that faith is separate from reason and is the absence of evidence:

Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. . . . When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths.1

On a more popular level this argument is used by the atheist activist Aron Ra, best known for his YouTube videos, who defines faith in a similar fashion to Harris:

Sometimes I say that faith is an assertion of unreasonable conviction which is assumed without reason and defended against all reason. By that I always clarify that evidence is the only reason anyone should believe anything. I cite apologetics as the practice of systematically making up excuses to dismiss any and all counter arguments in order to rationalize how one could still hold an unsupported and thus unwarranted position, and I cite the ‘statement of faith’ posted by so many fundamentalist organizations to demonstrate how faith is assumed independent of evidence and regardless of it.2

Ra previously described himself as an “apistevist,” someone “who rejects faith as being the most dishonest position that is possible to have.”3 So, not only does Ra claim not to have “faith” but also he argues that those who do have it are being dishonest (even though he misrepresents faith as being without evidence).

A favorite proof-text by atheists (including Ra) to argue that Christians believe without evidence is the apostles Paul’s words: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). However, Paul is not suggesting that Christians take a blind leap of faith. He suggests that they base their lives on what God has revealed to be true about the world, as Guthrie explains:

When Paul says that we walk “by faith” . . . he insists that his pattern of life is governed by what God has revealed as true about life: in other words, he trusts God, based on revelation. This faith, moreover, contrasts with walking “by what can be seen” . . . At present Paul cannot see Jesus, or God the Father, or the Spirit, or the spiritual realm, but he trusts God in any case. His focus of life rests on the unseen, eternal realities, known through God’s revelation, even though he cannot physically see those realities (4:18). This is what it means to walk by faith—to trust God on the basis of what God has revealed to be true.4

Although these atheists may have heard sincere Christians wrongly say things like, “oh, you just have to have faith” as if they didn’t need evidence for their belief, this is not supported by the meaning of the words faith or belief that is found in the New Testament.

What Is Faith?

The writers of the New Testament never place “faith” or “belief” against reason, evidence, or truth but rather they use it to refer to a conviction or confidence in something.

In English translations of the New Testament, the most common word for “faith” is the Greek noun πίστις (pistis), and “believe” is the Greek verb πιστεύω (pisteuō). The leading Greek lexicon today lists a range of meanings for pistis, from subjective confidence to an objective basis for confidence, and it shows that it can refer to “that which evokes trust and faith” or a “state of believing based on the reliability of the one trusted, trust, confidence, faith.” Pisteuō refers to considering something “to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust” or “to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence.”5 In its classical usage, even before the writing of the New Testament, pistis referred to “conviction,” “certainty,” and “proof” that can be relied on.6 The writers of the New Testament never place “faith” or “belief” against reason, evidence, or truth but rather they use it to refer to a conviction or confidence in something.7 The apostle Paul’s explanation of the content of Christian belief confirms this:

[B]ecause, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe [pisteuō] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

According to Paul, the object of our “faith” is the risen Christ. This “faith” is created through the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:17). The faith Christians have is grounded in the truth of the supernatural event of the resurrection, and their acknowledgement and acceptance of it is the reason we are to confess that Jesus is Lord. This can be seen in Thomas’ confession of the risen Jesus when he appeared to him. Before this point, Thomas refused to believe the disciples’ testimony that Jesus was risen unless he saw the risen Lord for himself (John 20:25). After Jesus showed Thomas his wounds from the crucifixion, Thomas responded: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).8 Thomas believed in Jesus after seeing the evidence. Yet, Jesus goes on to compare Thomas’ belief with those who would not have the advantage of seeing the risen Christ:

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed (>pisteuō). Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (pisteuō)” (John 20:28¬29).

Atheists like to use this verse to suggest that people believe without evidence. But does this mean that those who believe without seeing the risen Jesus are doing so without evidence? No. Even though they do not see what Thomas saw, they can read of what he experienced. Those who would later come to believe would do so through the witness of believers through the Word of God (cf. John 17:20). This was the primary reason that John wrote his Gospel (John 20:31). When Thomas believed, it was through observing and touching the evidence that was before him, the risen Jesus (John 20:27–28). Contrary to atheists claims, “believing” or “having faith” is not, by definition, thinking something is true without any evidence.

When the apostle Paul spoke to the Athenian philosophers (Epicureans and Stoics) on Mars Hill, he did not tell them to believe without any evidence. But he proclaimed that there was a day of righteous judgment coming and the proof (pistis) of that was the physical resurrection of Jesus:

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof [pistis] to all men by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30–31, NASB).

The reason the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill rejected Paul’s message was not because of the evidence but because it did not fit their worldview. The Stoics had a pantheistic concept of God and believed reason “as the principle which was inherent in the structuring of the universe and by which men ought to live.”9 The Epicureans, however, had a similar worldview to today’s atheists in that they were materialists, believing in the atomic theory and so “for them either the gods did not exist, or they were so far removed from the world as to exercise no influence on its affairs.”10 The idea of “rising” (anistēmi) from the dead was literally “to raise up by bringing back to life.”11 This view was incompatible with the Athenian view of life as they believed that “once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.”12 This is why many of them mocked at the resurrection: by the cultural standard of wisdom, it was foolishness to them (Acts 17:32; 1 Corinthians 1:23).

Despite the naturalistic and materialistic worldview that rejects the resurrection of Jesus, the evidence for it is verifiable. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is one of the best-established facts of ancient history, something even atheist scholars admit.13 We know Jesus was alive after his death because his many post-resurrection appearances proved he had risen from the dead. It did not happen in secret. There were numerous eyewitnesses to it and trustworthy pieces of evidence to support it, such as the conversion of skeptical witnesses, the empty tomb, etc.14 In 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, Paul even makes use of an early credal statement from the eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus that predates the writing of the letter (AD 55) by a number of years, with some scholars placing it’s formulation to within almost months (some scholars say 2–3 years) of the actual event of the crucifixion.15 What is more, even atheist scholars recognize that Jesus’ disciples were convinced that they had seen Jesus alive after his death.16 Given the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, it would seem the reasons to reject it would either be a prior commitment to naturalism (an incoherent worldview: see below) or the implication that we need to listen to what he says when it comes to sin, judgement, and salvation (see Mark 8:34–38).

The writer of Hebrews also defines faith as, “Now faith (πίστις) is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it, the people of old received their commendation” (Hebrews 11:1–2). Faith, in this context, is a settled confidence of something as yet unseen but promised by God to his people. This is not “faith” without evidence, as the “faith” of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 was based upon knowledge of God’s Word. Take Abraham (Hebrews 11:8–12) for example: “God told Abraham that he would have a son, but that didn’t appear possible since Abraham and Sarah were far too old. Yet he believed anyway (Romans 4:19–21). His faith was based on knowledge of God’s promise. But until Isaac was born, he didn’t see the fulfillment of the promise.”17 This is why without faith in the promises of God, it is impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6). The author of Hebrews goes onto give a further example of faith from the life of Abraham:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Hebrews 11:17–19).

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac because he knew that God had already made covenantal promises to give him numerous descendants (Genesis 15:5; 17:1–10). So, Abraham “considered” (logizomai, reasoned) that even if he killed his son at God’s command, God would bring him back from the dead (cf. Genesis 22:5). Abraham had faith that Isaac would be raised because he knew that God kept his covenantal promises. Therefore, not only did Abraham have faith that God would give him a son, but that God could even raise that son from the dead.

The use of the words faith and belief in the New Testament is contrary to the atheists’ claim that “faith is a belief that is not based on evidence” or “pretending to know what you don’t know.”

What About Reason/Evidence?

How should we respond to the demand from atheists that in order for them to believe something they need evidence or reason for it? The reality of the matter is that for many atheists no evidence will ever be enough to convince them of God’s existence or the truth of who Jesus is, as they will always explain it away because they have a prior commitment to the philosophy of naturalism.18 However, what they don’t seem to realize or want to acknowledge is that naturalism itself is a self-defeating worldview as it undermines the very facilities it takes in order to affirm reasoning. If humans are just the result of random, chance evolutionary processes, and our brain is also the product of random chemical reactions, then there is no basis to trust our reasoning facilities (as the brain would be controlled by physics and chemistry). C.S Lewis recognized this problem many years ago regarding the hypothesis of evolution:

. . . the [evolutionary] Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational. . . how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution?19

From a naturalistic evolutionary perspective “our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth,”20 which means that a person’s beliefs do not have to be true: they just have to grant survival value. If atheistic naturalism were true, then there is no objective reasoning and freedom to our thoughts and therefore no reason to trust the thoughts that our brains produce because they were not designed to obtain truth. In fact, if the brain is not designed, then for the atheist all their thoughts and beliefs become rationally unjustified when it comes to asserting or evaluating truth claims. Therefore, if naturalism were true, how can atheists call on Christians (or anybody) to be reasonable or rational?

Ultimately, the atheist who wants to be rational has departed from their philosophy of naturalism.

Atheists are emotionally committed to an underlying worldview that undermines the very reasoning processes that they need to account for intelligibility. Under atheist presuppositions, you cannot intelligibly account for reason. In other words, atheists may believe in reason, but they have no foundation to support that belief. Atheism is an arbitrary and irrational blind faith (i.e., without evidence) all the while dressed up as being reasonable. Ultimately, the atheist who wants to be rational has departed from their philosophy of naturalism. In the Christian worldview reason and rationality are understandable because they reflect the nature and character of God, but if the history of the world is just “. . . full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing”21 as some atheists claim, then there is really no reason to be rational. The Christian worldview is the only one that can give an account for faith and reason as all reasoning itself depends upon faith.

Footnotes

  1. Sam Harris, “Science Must Destroy Religion,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/science-must-destroy-reli_b_13153.html.
  2. Aron Ra, “What is faith?” August 15, 2016 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2016/08/15/what-is-faith/.
  3. Aron Ra, “Theism Is Not Rational,” October 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvg3mRZXut4.
  4. George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2015), 286.
  5. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 816–820.
  6. Rudolf Bultmann and Artur Weiser, “πιστεύω, πίστις ...” in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume VI, Eds. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 177.
  7. In the book of Acts there is a whole content to “faith” in Jesus that apostles preach about: death and resurrection (Acts 2:22-35; 4:8-10, 10:40–42, 17:31), suffering according to Scripture (Acts 3:18, 26:22–23), and the need for our sins to be forgiven through repentance (Acts 3:19, 8:22, 20:21, 26:20). The acceptance of the message concerning who Jesus is, what he has done and the prophecy he fulfilled (Messiahship, death, and resurrection) are all part of the content of our “faith”. Why are these things important? Well, before we can ask Jesus to be our Savior, we first need to know that we need a Savior. If we do not know that we have sinned and broken God’s law and that sin separates us from God leaving us exposed to his judgment, how will we ever reach out for a Savior?
  8. A clear confession of the deity of Jesus (see John 1:1; Revelation 4:11).
  9. I. Howard Marshall, Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 284.
  10. Ibid., 284.
  11. This is the meaning of ἀνίστημι (anistēmi) See Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 83.
  12. F. F. Bruce, The Book of ACTS: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 343.
  13. Atheist professor of the history and literature of early Christianity Gerd Lüdemann admits: “Jesus death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” Gerd Lüdemann The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004), 41.
  14. Tim Chaffey, “Resurrection—No Doubt About It,” Answers in Genesis, April 1, 2014, https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/resurrection/resurrection-no-doubt-about-it/.
  15. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn says of the credal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7: “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.” See James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 825.
  16. Gerd Lüdemann admits: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection (John Know Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1995), 80 Lüdemann believes these events were the product of hallucinatory experiences probably brought about by guilt-complexes. However, after his resurrection Jesus not only appeared to numerous individuals but he also appeared at least three times to groups of people (Matthew 28:16; Luke 24:13–15; 36–39; John 20:11–23; 21:1–14). Generally, groups of people do not hallucinate at the same time as it is not contagious but is a personal experience. Moreover, hallucination does not account for the empty tomb or the conversion of Paul (Saul) as he was not grieving but trying to destroy the church (Acts 9:1–5; Galatians 1:13).
  17. John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Group, 2013), 955.
  18. In a conversation with fellow atheist Peter Boghossian, Richard Dawkins admitted that no evidence would convince him of God’s existence as he could always explain it away (relevant section 12:30–15:27), ‘Richard Dawkins in conversation with Peter Boghossian,’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoQurwEZmmQ.
  19. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 89.
  20. This is the view of atheist professor of psychology at Harvard University Steven Pinker, Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, (New York, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 305.
  21. See Atheist philosopher at Duke University Alex Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, (New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 3.

Newsletter

Get the latest answers emailed to you or sign up for our free print newsletter.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390