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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