Why is it that Christianity’s critics often don’t seem to bother to understand what Christian belief actually is, but mistakenly assume they already know?
It’s fascinating to me that the New Atheists have roundly attacked the word “faith”, because faith is critically important for making any spiritual progress in life at all. The Bible teaches that the only way we can come to the real and true God, is by faith. Faith is the condition of salvation, you can’t be a saved human being without faith. The experience of the Christian is grounded in their faith in Christ.
But is that the faith that is under fire, here? Daniel Dennett has said:
“There is a big difference between religions faith and scientific faith: what has driven the changes in concepts in physics is not just heightened skepticism from an increasingly worldly and sophisticated clientele, but a tidal wave of exquisitely detailed positive results.”
So scientific faith, to him, is evidenced and based on results. Religious faith is not at all evidenced. Rather, it involves arrogantly claiming knowledge we do not actually know. And worse, the claim to know ALL the answers.
“I, for one, am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasonable certainty that you have all the answers.”
Dennett seems to caricature Biblical faith, and attack a poor straw man of Biblical faith.
What Is Biblical Faith?
Faith as defined in scripture is about expressing our trust. The Latin phrase “Fides qua Creditur” is translated “the faith by which (it) is believed.” It’s about a subjective expression of trust, and this expression is the very thing of belief. When talking about faith, the New Testament often uses the Greek word “pistis,” meaning persuasion, to come to trust.
The Bible’s understanding of faith is an all-encompassing one. It involves our intellect, as we understand what to believe and why. It also affects my will. It is about choosing to trust the person of Jesus Christ, to appropriate him as our saviour. And it also involves our emotions. It is important to understand that the Bible’s understanding of true saving faith encompasses all of these facets, our intellect our wills and out emotions. If trust is merely intellectual, then it becomes intellectual assent. I am intellectually convinced that there is a God, but I am not engaged in any form of relationship with him. The demons have this sort of faith. They know God exists. They hate and fear him.
How can we cause ourselves to engage in Biblical faith? Well – we cannot. Faith is a gift from God. It has been granted by God that we believe (Philippians 1:29), it’s a gift so that no one can boast of their own achievement of faith (Ephesians 2:8). God enables us to place our whole trust in him, it is a glorious gift from him to us. God commends us for being people who live as faith filled individuals. That’s apparent in Hebrews 11. It pleases him when we put our hopes in him, and live in a way that we are assured that God will keep his promises. This is Biblical faith, a whole and complete trust in God.
What’s Wrong With Dennett’s Attack?
So Dennett’s attack on “religious faith,” is not an attack on the Bible’s understanding of Christian faith. Whatever he’s railing against, it’s not Christianity. He assumes religious faith to be lacking in any evidential component only. Yet Biblical faith involves the intellect. We must understanding the facts of God’s revelation in his words of scripture and in the world. And, we must understand why we should believe. Faith is not belief in what we know ain’t so, it is a whole trust placed in the God we know.
Dennett claims religious faith to be arrogant and unreasonably certain. But surely this is a matter of individual perspective. Someone that has placed their whole trust in a firm and secure saviour, who knows the promises he has made, and who has experienced his activity in our lives, this isn’t arrogance. It is simply a degree of confident trust. Perhaps Dennett is saying – “I don’t have that sort of experience of God working in my life, so you shouldn’t presume that you have this experience in yours. How dare you be more trust filled and confident than I am!!” This is just logically incoherent. And, it’s bad manners. How can he logically assume his subjective view is identical to ours? He cannot reasonably impose his subjective experience onto ours to replace ours. No – faith is a personal and subjective way of living life. Rather than criticising believers for having confident assurance, perhaps Dennett should be asking God to give him Biblical faith so that he can live with the same confidence and trust that Christians have access to?
I think Dennett is comparing apples and oranges when he compares scientific and religious faith. Yet ironically, both are grounded in an epistemology that assumes an order and behaviour of nature that cannot be explained by nature itself, and points to a divine creator.
 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, (London:Penguin Books, 2006), 233.
 Dennett, 51.
 Richard A Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 122.