“Faith just means belief without evidence!”
A strategic response
Some atheists insist that “Faith just means belief without evidence.”1 This is perhaps the most common talking point made by New Atheists in particular, and their figureheads.2 When you encounter it as an apologist, consider the following strategy:
Step 1: Get the atheist to articulate his/her precise definition of faith.** Get this on the table, and they will appreciate you asking.
Step 2: Ask where they got their definition. They will likely admit it is just from personal experience.
Again, get it on the table. When possible, the purpose of getting them to admit that they get their definition just from their personal experience is to prepare them to see that you have the same thing (your own experience), and that it differs. You don't need to overwhelm them with a sophisticated case at first when they can just easily see that your understanding is the opposite of theirs, and that it should be intuitively obvious that your experience as a Christian should be considered more representative. That is to say:
Step 3: Before arguing, point out that you and your peers think of faith simply as trust. For example, say…
>“Yeah, the term faith is sometimes shorthand for blind faith, but when my Christian friends and I use the term, that's not normally what we mean. And when we do mean blind faith, the context makes it clear. By faith, we normally just mean trust. It can be blind, but it doesn't have to be. For example, we'd each say we have faith in our car, that it will start in the morning when we need it, and also in our ability to drive our car. We obviously don't mean blind faith here, though. So, when I say I have faith in God, know that I don't mean blind faith; I mean trust.”
Simply articulating what you mean in this way is sometimes enough, which can save a lot of time.
If they want to insist that faith means blind faith despite your clarification, then you can choose to use the WordA-WordB technique. Alternatively, if you have time, there is a whole accessible, yet rigorous, article devoted to this topic. Use it to go ahead and show them the overwhelming evidence that faith does not mean blind faith (the link also covers objections).
Step 4: Consider adding the comment that you disapprove of blind faith, as does your leadership. For example, say…
>“For what it's worth, I agree that blind faith is irrational and we should avoid it; my pastor criticizes it a lot too. It's like Paul says: 'Critically examine all things. Hold fast to that which is good'” (1 Thes. 5:21). I know a lot of Christians don't do this, but then again most Christians don't know their Bible very well either, right?
Question: What strategies do you use when encountering someone who says faith is automatically blind? Share them with us!
- Some atheists assert that they have no beliefs. If you encounter an atheist who says he has no beliefs, try this:
>You: “Do you not believe that the sun will rise tomorrow?”
>Atheist: “I don't believe it, I know it.” [This is what he will say]
>You: “Wait, those aren't mutually exclusive. I know the sun will rise tomorrow to, but that requires I at least believe it will rise. You just said you don't believe the sun will rise tomorrow... let that soak in! Surely that's not what you mean. I think you're using the word "belief" in a non-standard way, because on the traditional conception, to believe something is just to think it is true. Maybe you mean you don't have any religious beliefs, or maybe you mean you don't believe anything blindly.”
- For some examples:
• Richard Dawkins: “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.” [Edinburgh International Science Festival speech (1992)]
• Christopher Hitchens: “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals.” [Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (Season 3, Episode 5: "Holier Than Thou")]
• Sam Harris: “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” [Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage Books, 2008), 110.]