Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About Faith

As spring semester is wrapping up here at Vanderbilt, I have taken to one of my favorite pastimes: watching Youtube debates on the existence of God. I am not sure exactly what it is that captivates me so much about these debates, which usually include notorious atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins. Perhaps it’s the biting yet entertaining tone with which British atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens speak. Perhaps it’s my long-standing love for debate. But, mostly, I think it has to do with the fantastically bad arguments used by these atheists, and the reassurance these debates give me that what we believe as theists and as Catholics really is true.

One of the most interesting arguments made by these atheists is the one that Richard Dawkins articulates against the idea of faith. He echoes the thoughts and frustrations of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics alike, saying, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” This argument is one of the best of Dawkins’s atheistic arguments, but at the same time is one of his worst, because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what faith is on his part.

I say that this is Dawkins’s best argument against faith because, given his definition of faith, it is a completely valid argument. “Faith” in the eyes of Dawkins, as well as many Christians who have a less than perfect understanding of faith, is believing something to be true without any justification. It involves the intellect assenting to something not because it is perceived to be true, but because there is some benefit to be derived from believing this thing. Too many Christians understand faith in this way, and if this were the real definition of faith, I would be the first to join atheists in their condemnation of faith as irrational and even immoral. The intellect is oriented toward the truth, and the only reason we should ever believe something is because we know it is true. For this reason, to believe something without evidence is not only unwise, it is also a sin against the truth. And if we understand faith as unjustified belief, or simply as a feeling we get that prompts us to believe something without evidence, then faith is the enemy of truth and reason, and a sin against our better nature.

Thankfully, however, Dawkins’s definition of faith is grossly inaccurate, and for this reason, his argument is one of the worst arguments against faith that could be made. Faith, far from being irrational or based on feelings, is a deliberate and conscious assent to something as true based on another person’s authority. It is a way of knowing that takes us beyond the narrow recesses of our own individual reason and opens us up to the possibility of receiving knowledge from another. But we must not forget that it is, in fact, a way of knowing. We do know everything we believe to be true, and there is real evidence that leads us to believe the articles of our faith. As Hebrews 11: 1 describes it, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s right, faith is the evidence of things not seen. Much to Richard Dawkins’s chagrin, faith is a form of real knowledge based on real evidence, namely the authority of God who has revealed to us the truths of our faith. As people of faith, we refuse to restrict ourselves to scientific or observational evidence only, as many atheists claim to do. Rather, we accept all legitimate evidence, in whatever form it may be.

With this more accurate definition of faith, it is a lot easier to see how faith can be properly seen as reasonable, and even as a virtue. Through baptism we are given this gift of faith, this supernatural virtue, which the Catholic Encyclopedia calls “a supernatural habit by which we firmly believe those things to be true which God has revealed.” It helps us trust without hesitation the things that God reveals to us, knowing that it is impossible for Him to lie. It helps us overcome the worrying hesitation that we so often exhibit before believing something, even when we know it to be true. We must cling to this gift of faith. Not because it makes us feel good or because it makes life easier, but because it helps us adhere to the truth. The truth, which is Jesus Christ Himself, should guide all of our decisions in life, and I thank God for the gift of faith, which allows us to do exactly that.

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PJ is a proud Catholic, born and bred in Huntsville, AL, where he gained a great love for baseball, good Southern food, and his Catholic faith. He attends Vanderbilt University majoring in mathematics and economics with a minor in computer science. PJ's great passions in life include math, philosophy, theology, good conversations, and using all of the above for the greater glory of God.

3 Responses to “Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About Faith”

  1. avatar Spencer Kashmanian says:

    Well said! And let me just second you on how deceptively fun a pastime that actually is…

  2. avatar ZachsMind says:

    You say in your title that Richard Dawkins is wrong about faith, then you ramble on for several paragraphs, and eventually redefine faith to suit your purposes. “Faith, far from being irrational or based on feelings, is a deliberate and conscious assent to something as true based on another person’s authority.”

    By the way, this is something I call “moving the goal posts” and apologetics are notorious for doing this. You can’t argue Dawkins on the actual definition of faith, so you change the definition and then argue from a position you think you can defend.

    Evidence from a second hand source is not faith. That’s second hand knowledge, which is potentially biased and certainly unreliable if it can’t be confirmed through multiple sources, or replicated under objective and unbiased conditions. Second hand knowledge is not faith, but one must use faith if they are going to accept this knowledge without confirming it objectively.

    Joe tells me his god is real. If I just accept that and start following Joe’s god without any confirmation, there are many variables here and even more outcomes. Joe could be lying to me for selfish purposes and motives. Joe might believe in the god himself but what he experienced was a hallucination. Perhaps there actually is a supernatural entity involved but it told Joe it was a god when its really something else. And so on.

    That Joe is telling the truth is only one possible ‘truth’ and you can’t know he’s telling the truth without objective, verifiable and repeatable confirmation.

    Faith closes the door on asking questions that would lead to actual knowledge. You pretend all those other possibilities can’t possibly be true, with no justification for this presumption. Faith allows ppl to believe in lies as if they are true.

    And maybe this time you happen to be right and of all the unsubstantiated beliefs out there that have been proven wrong, you just happen to be right. If that were the case, you should not fear using the scientific method to corroborate and verify your assumption. Investigation of said belief through scientific observation and discovery would only confirm your presumptions based on faith. Then, you wouldn’t need faith. Then, you would know.

    So far, that’s never been what science finds when it seeks to confirm unfounded belief systems, and even if it did, that would be coincidental, because you never had objective verifiable reason to believe what you do, in the first place. You just had a hunch, or an emotional investment in being right in the face of no evidence or conflicting evidence.

    Even a broken clock is right twice a day. That doesn’t mean it’s working.

  3. avatar Mike K. says:

    I apologize in advance for being not quite as “nice” as your typical Christian.

    Let’s start at the beginning. The very first thing you attempt to do in your comment is to belittle and dismiss PJ’s rather well written argument. You do this using two fallacies. The first of these is your accusation that he is “rambling on for several paragraphs.” This is not true in the least, PJ had a pretty consistent progression of logic, but of course you did not make this accusation because it was true, you made it because you wished to dismiss and discredit the writer rather than make an honest intellectual argument. The second fallacy is your accusation that he merely redefines the meaning of the word “Faith.” Well in case you failed to notice, that is what he set out to do to begin with. Generally when you say you believe somebody is wrong about something, you are expected to offer a deferring point of view that contrasts with theirs. (On the side, I think the definition he gave is technically the correct one…) Rather interesting how you accuse us “apologetics” of doing things to avoid a standup fight, when that is how you started off.

    Now that is out of the way, let’s move on to the substance of your “argument.”

    You say evidence from a second hand source is not faith. True, that is why you call it evidence, not faith. In addition, I question whether you are actually responding to PJ’s article, or just venting your general frustrations, because I fail to see where PJ advocated blindly accepting second hand evidence. But you are also wrong in how you define whether or not evidence is acceptable. The ability to corroborate or replicate something does not affect whether or not it is true. There are many things that can be corroborated but are not in fact true, and there are many things that are true that cannot be corroborated or replicated. If you really want to get into logical arguments, almost all of your knowledge is second or third hand. You have never actually directly observed the surface of the moon or measured the distance between it and the earth, yet you still know it is a round object orbiting the Earth in space, because with the constellation of facts around you in the world it would seem to make sense. The fact still remains that you, my friend, believe a great many things you cannot personally observe or corroborate, whether or not you want to admit it.

    As for your follow up point, if you cannot know somebody is telling the truth without outside confirmation, you cannot possibly ever trust another human being ever without extensive investigation. This leads to a great deal of bitterness and broken relationships. At some point or another, in order to have a healthy relationship with other human beings, you have to trust them when you cannot verify their honesty. Even anti-theist psychologists agree on that.

    And here is the punch line. You, my friend, are the one advocating blind faith. Blind faith in what you call “science.” What exactly is it? You throw around the word science and say “science says this” and “science says that” but I have to ask you what gives you the authority, the omniscience, to know what “science” says about anything? There are hundreds of opposing theories in science, and yet you speak as though you are the final authority on what “science” proves about the world. In the end, you are merely placing complete blind faith in second and third hand scientific evidence. Scientific theories change like clothing fashions, the ideas and theories once thought fact just fifty years ago are now under question, some having even been disproven outright. In fifty years, all the things you believe to be solid irrefutable fact may well turn out to be nonsense.

    Because of all this, from a logical perspective, you are a couple notches down from us “apologists.” Apologists know they are following a faith, they know they may be wrong. Part of having faith is recognizing the possibility of being incorrect. But you, my friend, do not know you are following a faith; you smugly assume you are unbiased and uncommitted, you do not recognize the fact that you are following a belief system of your own, and because of this lack of self awareness you are far blinder than any religious fundamentalist. You hide behind the word “science,” which actually means your blind faith in science, when science is even more fluid and inconsistent than the things upon which Christians base their faith. In addition, despite your assertion that having faith closes off doors and ends curiosity, the rational Christian has the open mindedness to incorporate science into his or her beliefs. Your irrational devotion to the rational sciences, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a faith that causes you to close doors on curiosity because of yourself righteousness.

    Your own arguments can all be turned back upon themselves. See, we apologists have little or no problem facing truths in the world, your assumption that we do is your first downfall. Your second downfall is your assumption that you do not have a problem facing reality and truth. As for your belief in Science as an ultimate authority, well, let’s just say even a broken clock is right twice a day.

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