Defining Faith- Hebrews 11:1

I’ve recently been reading some material and watching some videos where the subject of faith comes up.  Many in the atheist community define faith a particular way and christians don’t like and don’t agree with that definition.

I think the most succinct definition of faith given in the literature is Peter Boghossian’s from his book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  He says that faith is “pretending to know things you don’t know” (p. 24).  In his interview on Phil Vischer’s podcast, Phil, as I’m sure many other christians do, took offense at this definition.

John W. Loftus, in his book The Outsider Test for Faith defined faith as “an irrational leap over the possibilities.  Because reasonable faith is an oxymoron. Faith is an attitude or feeling whereby believers attribute a higher degree of probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.  Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate confirming evidence and underestimate disconfirming evidence” (p. 207).  Although this is not as concise as Peter Boghossian’s definition, it gives us a little more to go with, and it gets into what I think is one of the more important aspects of the discussion: evidence.

I remember hearing in church most of my life that the best definition of faith was found in Hebrews 11:1.  I’ve heard many sermons on it.  In fact, one year at church camp when I was in my teens, the entire week’s sermons were based on Hebrews 11:1.  I memorized it and thought I knew what it said.  Now that I’ve grown out of my faith, I see it as saying something different than what I once thought.  It all seems so obvious now.

So let’s look at Hebrews 11:1.  It says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Merriam Webster’s Dictionary Online defines substance as

: a material of a particular kind

: a drug that is considered harmful and whose use is controlled by law or made illegal

: the quality of being meaningful, useful, or important

Without needing to address the second definition, we could easily paraphrase substance as the stuff.   This can be demonstrated in the movie title “The Stuff of Legend” or the Star Trek episode title “The Stuff of Dreams”.  We can see that the stuff means a material and also the inherent quality of that thing.  So when Hebrews says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”, we can understand that to mean that faith is the stuff or the inherent quality of things that are not, but we wish them to be.  The second phrase makes it more clear: “the evidence of things not seen”.  Faith is the evidence, or proof of something, that cannot be seen.  The Greek word for seen, as used in this verse, can be translated as to see with the eye, or to discern, but the most telling translations are to perceive by the senses, to feel and to discover by use, to know by experience.  In other words, faith is the thing that is proof of the things which we cannot perceive by our senses or know by experience; that is, the evidence for that which there is no evidence.  After all, you have to use your senses or know by experience in order to have evidence of something.  Interestingly, the definition for the word faith in this verse is defined as a conviction of the truth; the truth of god’s existence, or of christ’s messiahship, etc.  So, let’s put it all together in a lovely paraphrase: your conviction that god exists and that christ is his messiah is the stuff of what we hope for, your conviction of that is the evidence for that which we have no evidence.

So essentially, the bible admits there is no way to perceive god with our senses or to know him by experience, yet the fact that someone has a really strong feeling that he does exist is held up as proof positive that he does.  Am I missing something here, or is that all we have to go on?  The only proof that the best definition of faith I was offered as a christian has for god’s existence is a feeling that he exists… Wow!

As you can see, Peter Boghossian isn’t off the mark when he says that faith is pretending to know things you don’t, although I really don’t think christians are pretending.  I think they actually believe they know things that they actually don’t know.  But that could be chalked up to semantics.  And when John Loftus says that reasonable faith is an oxymoron, I get it that he is saying that faith cannot be by definition, reasonable.  But I think I’ll do him one better: faith, as defined in the bible, (reasonable or not) is an oxymoron.

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Generalizability of Scripture: You’re Doing It Wrong!

My sister likes a lot of conservative stuff on Facebook and it shows up in my newsfeed.  I usually try to ignore it, but every once in a while something piques my interest and I have to click on the link and check it out.

That happened the other day with this new Mike Huckabee promo:

As I was watching it, I started wondering whether that particular verse, 2 Chronicles 7:14, could be rightly applied to the situation Huckabee is applying it to.  So I started looking into it.

In the sciences, there is a concept called generalizability.  When a researcher runs an experiment or analyzes data to produce a new result, one of the questions that he or she has to answer is whether the results of that experiment or data analysis can be generalized to a larger population.  For example, say a researcher discovers in a survey of 20 men, a statistically significant portion of those men prefer blonde haired women over redheaded women.  Can we then generalize these results to say that men in general prefer blondes?  There are very specific reasons for or against being able to generalize the results of research onto a larger population.

It seems that Huckabee, as well as countless other christians generalize 2 Chronicles 7:14 to include themselves, and in this case, America into the promise god made in that verse.   I don’t think this is reasonable.  I’m always being told to read verses in context, so let’s give that a go, shall we?  Here is the verse in context:

2 Chronicles 7:11 When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, 12 the Lord appeared to him at night and said:

“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices.

13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.

I have taken the liberty to emphasize some important words in the scripture.  This shows exactly what the intent of the author of these verses was trying to say.  The promise was specifically for Solomon, the Jews of that time and place, and the land they lived in.  If you remain authentic to the intent of the passage, there’s no way it can be generalized to people other than the Jews and the city of Jerusalem, or possibly the entire land of Israel as it existed at that time.

But there is no way that an authentic reading of this passage can make someone think it applies to America, let alone Mike Huckabee.  That’s quite a stretch that is in no way supported by this passage.

So there it is: another case of christians using the bible out of context, using it to further their own political aims, and picking and choosing the verses they follow, as well as how those verses are interpreted.

I don’t think that’s how it is supposed to work.  I don’t think that’s how any of this is supposed to work.  You’re doing it wrong!

A Confrontation at Lunch

Yesterday afternoon I took my boys to lunch at Chick-Fil-A.  We were running around town doing some errands and decided it was high time to get some food in our bellies.

I happened to be wearing one of my favorite T-shirts.  It’s got the word READ across the front, but the letters are made up of little pictures of characters and elements from classic fiction.  After we placed our order I walked over to pick up napkins and ketchup when a man sitting at a table behind the napkin/ketchup area said something to me that I didn’t quite understand.  So I asked him to repeat it.

He said something about liking my shirt, and then started talking about the importance of reading the bible.  I think that him seeing my shirt set him off and gave him a reason to accost a complete stranger in public, as you shall soon see.

“Oh, one of these guys,” I thought.  He was probably in his sixties and sitting with another gentleman and two women, all of whom appeared to be similar in age.  He asked me if I had ever read the bible all the way through.  “Several times throughout my life,” I replied.  Then he goes on, telling me about how much he reads the bible and how important it is to him.  Then he starts talking about how he sees Jesus in everything.  And then he starts talking about geography: “California is like god’s right arm, and Michigan is like his left hand…”  And then I lost track of what he said after that.  Frankly, it was quite confusing.  His wife (I assume) then said to him “Let the man eat.”  That distracted him long enough for me to make my way to where my kids were sitting to wait for our food.

When our food arrived, I distributed the various items to their respective owners; sandwich to you, nuggets to you, sandwich for me, fries all around, and then proceeded to open my ketchup.  And that’s when this guy comes over to my table and starts talking again.  Apparently they had finished eating and were getting ready to leave and he decided to come spend some more quality time with a random stranger…  So before I could take one bite of my food, this guy starts back up about how important the bible is, and how he sees Jesus in everything.  He said something about the bible being the most important book, or some such and I replied “I don’t think it is.”

He asked what I meant, so I started in about how there are so many discrepancies, contradictions, and evil acts attributed to god in the bible that I didn’t think it was that great of a book.  He said something about it being perfect and having no contradictions, so I gave him a few examples: “The bible calls him the prince of peace” I said, “but he ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.  Christianity, in general, is against abortion, but god ordered unborn babies to be ripped out of their mothers’ bodies.  Paul and James couldn’t agree on whether faith is with or without works.  It’s full of contradictions and discrepancies and evil ordered by god.”

“Do you see the bible as the word of god?” he asked.  I told him that it was written by men.  So he said men wrote it after being inspired by a perfect god.  So I asked him why god wasn’t perfect enough to get the men to agree.

“But it’s the perfect word of god” he replied, “and god doesn’t lie.”

“God told the first lie ever,” I told him. “In the garden, god said that when they eat the fruit they would die that day, and when they ate it, they didn’t die.”

“They died spiritually,” He said.

“No” I replied, “he said they would literally die the day they ate the fruit.  It never even insinuates that it’s going to be a spiritual death.”

Then he changed his answer and said that they did die, but it took hundreds of years.  This seems to me to be a typical christian response to looking at evidence for fun little tidbits like this; they change their mind in order to keep their belief system together.  Position A has been soundly debunked, so I’ll switch to position B in order to keep believing what I believe.  Thinking about it now, it seems that may be why there is more than one explanation of so many theological subjects: so that when one is proven wrong, the believer has something to fall back on, except that position B makes less sense than the original position.

We went back and forth for a little while on the same line of reasoning when he brought up Abraham and how he was so faithful.  So I asked him if he had a son.  He said he did, so I asked his son’s name.  It was Mark.  So I asked this guy “If god told you to sacrifice Mark, would you?  He actually said that he would.  So I clarified, “If god told you to kill Mark, you would take a knife and slit his throat open… You would murder your own son because you heard a voice?”  Then I brought my own kids into the scenario. “I would never do anything to hurt these two” (pointing to my kids, who are still sitting here, trying to eat while their dad is trying to destroy their own religion).  “I love them too much to hurt them.  They mean the world to me… But you just said you would murder your son.  That is sick and disgusting!  What kind of person are you?”

He thought for a second and said “Well, I didn’t mean I’d do it in this day and age, but if I was back then, I would have.”  He did the whole switching thing again: position A, position B…

“You just told me you would murder your son,” I said.  “That says a lot about who you are as a person.”

He waffled a bit more and then went back to his original proposition: telling me about how great the bible is and how great god is and how Jesus’ head is somewhere up in Alaska and etc., etc. He seemed to not get it.

Somewhere along the way, he told me about how he was saved in 1973, then he “walked away from the lord”, but now he was back and more sure than ever.  He invited me to First Assembly of God.  I told him that I had been there several times, but that didn’t change my mind about the bible.

Anxious to eat my lunch, I told him he needed to check out the website truth-saves.com.  I repeated it several times, and then told him I was going to eat my lunch.  He told me to have a blessed day and then reluctantly left.

When I looked back at my sons, one had gone to another table to eat in peace, and the other (the slow eater) had already finished his food and was eating an ice cream cone.  Considering that I have paraphrased the preceding conversation and cut out a lot (obviously I don’t recall everything), that was a long discussion.  So, I finally ate my lunch and went about the rest of my day.  Fun stuff!

Everyone’s “Right”, but Everyone’s “Wrong”…

I remember wondering at several points in my life why it was that I was born into the right religion, or version of christianity, and not into the wrong one, or the version of christianity that had their theology wrong.  When I was in elementary school, I remember a girl on the playground making a comment about how she had been saved that Sunday at church.  I remember thinking something to the effect of, “You couldn’t have been saved.  You don’t go to my church.”  This thought reemerged many times over the years in many different situations.

One particular situation that always made me have this thought was when I would watch television preachers.  They always seemed a bit odd in their theology to me, and I could never quite specify why that was.  Well, except for the obvious examples like Benny Hinn.

This week my family was on vacation, and while staying at the hotel we were at the mercy of cable TV with no menu to look through and choose what to watch.  So while I was sitting there one evening flipping up to the next channel and watching for a moment to decide if that’s the program I wanted to stay on, I came across a TV preacher and for some reason I let it stay there and watched for a few minutes.

This TV preacher, pastor Bob, or Bill, or something like that was talking about prayer.  He mentioned that he had prayed for some lady in the hospital and now she was able to sit up in bed for a minute at a time.  I wondered why she wasn’t completely healed, if prayer had any power.  But that’s another issue altogether.  He also asked for the viewers to call in and make a donation, to “sow the seed into this ministry” so that they could stay on the air.  I wondered why, if they were in the will of god, didn’t he “just make a way.”  But that’s another issue as well.

While watching, these thoughts of why I was born into the right version of christianity popped up in my mind.  Except this time, it was from the outsider’s perspective.  It was a completely different version of this thought.

I realized that everyone who is a christian must have a version of this thought at some time in their lives.  After all, why would you stick with a particular belief if you didn’t think it was correct belief?  So essentially, everyone who believes has to discredit in their own mind any number of others’ beliefs.

It reminds me of the statistic that there are over 40,000 different versions of christianity.  Many of these versions are mutually exclusive, meaning that if you adhere to, for instance, baptist theology you cannot accept the adherents of catholicism as true christians.  The one I know personally is that if you adhere to oneness pentecostalism, you have to think all christians from other sects are going to hell.  Essentially, every christian thinks they are right while at the same time thinking there are myriad other christians who are wrong.  I was not the only one thinking this.  I would venture that if you got an honest answer from 99% of christians they would tell you this is true, although there are some that are more accepting of other sects, but most are a little more tight on the reigns.  So while I was watching this TV preacher thinking he had his beliefs wrong, if he really knew me (when I was a believer) he would think the same thing about me.

The big picture shows a more telling story than the individual picture.  Get out of yourself for a moment and imagine the 2.4 billion people who claim to be christians.  Every single one of them think that they are absolutely right and a large percentage of the rest are absolutely wrong.  Yet they base these views on the exact same texts (with a few exceptions).

Now imagine this scenario from god’s point of view.  Which ones are right?  Which ones are you going to let into heaven?  They all claim to be following your will.  But at the same time they think most of the rest of them are not.  And why didn’t you, as the “omnipotent”, “omniscient” creator of not only them, but of the very texts that lead them to you, be a little more specific as to how to get to you; how to be the right kind of christian?  But alas, I don’t think we are ever going to be able to answer these questions from within the context of christianity.

From the outside, where I sit now, it all makes perfect sense.  That TV preacher’s message seems a bit off for the same reason that my own previous theology seemed a bit off: they are both based on beliefs that have no grounding in fact, common sense, or reason: thus, the cognitive dissonance that I have felt all of my life when relating to others who had a different perception of what the christian faith entailed.

I once had a boss who like to say that “perception is reality to the perceiver.”  In customer service that is true.  But in the christian faith it is only true on an individual level.  When you look at the big picture you see that perception is a set of blinders that keeps believers from seeing their faith for what it really is: individual opinion of what is right and wrong, subjective reality that keeps the christian faith segregated into mutually exclusive denominations.  Now that I see the big picture, I am glad I am out of it.  This side of reason makes so much more sense.  Not only that, this side of reason lacks the cognitive dissonance that I had to deal with for most of my life.  This side of reason is much nicer on the brain!

Morality Comes from God…

Last night while my wife and son were at church, I started watching Richard Dawkins’ Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life on Youtube.  After watching the first episode, I looked for the second but couldn’t find it.  So I started watching the third episode.  About half-way through, My wife got home.  After changing into her PJs as she does every night when she gets home, she joined me on the couch.  She sat down at about 38 minutes into the above linked video, just about the time when Dr. Dawkins starts talking to Ricky Gervais.  A few minutes later, she said something about “When this is over remind me to tell you something about that…” whatever comment one of them had just made.  So I stopped the video and asked her to say what was on her mind.

“Where does morality come from?” she asked me.

“From what I understand, it’s partially genetic, but mostly cultural.” I replied.  “I mean, most higher animals have some sort of rudimentary morality.  Look at the bonobos who protected the dead body of a member of their group from the human gamekeepers.”  I referenced a video I had watched a while back depicting this scene at a game preserve.  Then I continued, “Morality is mostly cultural.  People decide how they want to be treated and they treat others that way.  It’s been evolving like that for millions of years.”

Then she got to the real reason she was asking.  “Pastor J… said in his sermon tonight that morality can only come from God.”

“Oh really,” I replied.  “I know plenty of moral people who don’t believe in god, not to mention the many immoral acts god is recorded as doing or condoning in the bible.”

She actually agreed with my first point.  “Yes, I know a lot of people who were raised in non-religious homes, and most of them are just as moral as a lot of christian people I know.”

Just then, I recalled Sam Harris’ TED Talk about science being able to answer moral questions.  Since we already had YouTube pulled up on the TV, I brought it up and we watched it together.  She didn’t say much. She did say “Hmmm” every once in a while during the video, however.   Afterward, I was going to bring up Sam Harris’ debate with William Lane Craig, but she was starting to nod off.  So we went to bed without much conversation about it.

I thought it was a pretty successful evening.  I’m glad we can have conversations about our differing ways of believing, and more so that she is actually questioning what she believes.  The pastors I’ve had have always said not to take their word for it, but to go study it for yourself.  It appears she is starting to do that… but not in the way they have always intended.  An open, reasoning, logical mind is always the enemy of faith.

Coming Out as a Non-Believer to my Brother

I had a great visit with my brother and his family this weekend.  He came through town and spent the 4th with us.  The next morning, he and I were the first up, so we sat on the deck with our coffee and had a conversation about the way things are.

He’s actually the one who started it.  Since it was a Sunday morning, and my wife had already left for church, I think that’s what prompted him to talk about it.  He mentioned how much more time he has now that he doesn’t regularly go to church.  A few years ago, he moved from the west coast to the northern limits of the South and started attending my uncle’s church.  My uncle is a dyed-in-the-wool oneness pentecostal who still holds to the “holiness standards”, while my brother is a pretty normal guy.  They had a falling out over a lot of things, but mostly my uncle’s attitude toward other people, especially other christians.  The easiest way to describe it is that my uncle’s stance is “they’re all going to hell because they don’t believe the way we do.”  That didn’t sit well with my brother who is a lot more willing to let all kinds of christians into heaven.

After that, they started going to a small independent church that used to be baptist, but some of the ministers there made my brother reconsider.  My brother got into this “hyper grace” movement (I think as a result of the spat with my uncle), and some of the ministers at the new church didn’t teach that.  My brother finally stopped going regularly about the same time that I finally realized I was no longer a believer in the supernatural.  His wife decided to continue going until the current season of AWANA is over, since she is in charge of it.  The last he told me about his situation is that they are thinking about just having a small circle of friends start a house-to-house fellowship on Sundays instead of doing traditional church.

But in the midst of this conversation, I started talking about my own journey.  I reiterated a few points I had already told him about in phone conversations in the past.  I mentioned the archaeology issue and some of the scriptural non-agreement issues.  Then I started talking about John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith and it’s inherent points.  I then told him that this lead me to the point thatI needed something to hold onto about the faith that would make it real.  “The prophesies of Jesus as messiah in the Old Testament” I told him “were the only thing that would keep it real for me.  But when I started studying them, they broke down too.”

Then I told him that I no longer believe any of it.

He almost didn’t react at all.  He just kind of nodded and kept on talking, as if he had already figured that out about me.  No fireworks, no “A-Ha!”, no crazy shenanigans.  Just my brother and me having a conversation.

I really think it’s kind of dead for him too, but he just doesn’t want to go as far as I have.  He still holds on to the love of god.  His Facebook feed is full of posts from Danny Lee Silk, who is all about loving others, and a couple of other hyper grace preachers, who are very similar to universalists.  Back in April he even posted an article about why homosexuals are good for the church, and it’s a positive slant on that issue.  In our conversation he said that he just wants to make the world a better place by being a good person to everyone he meets.  But he didn’t even relate that to being good because of god or religion.  I really think he’s lost his faith in christianity, but hasn’t seen enough evidence in the right places to make his give it up entirely.  As John Loftus says, “Most people won’t find their faith improbable until they find it impossible.”  I think that’s where he is.

The evening before, he mentioned off-hand that while they were living on the west coast they had gone to a market night and were sitting in front of a cafe having a cup of coffee.  While they were sitting there an atheist group started setting up their awning and display for the market night.  My brother said that he got up and helped them finish setting up.  Afterward, one of them asked if he was an atheist, and he said, “No, but you looked like you needed help.”  After a bit more conversation he started to leave.  He shook they guy’s hand and said “God bless you… Just kidding.”  I’m not sure why he brought that up, but I’m sure it had something to do with our conversation the next morning.  I’m still processing it all.