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Is Faith Conjuring a Make-Believe Reality?

Many “religious nones” have settled as atheists on their spiritual journey. Christians do not often respect this decision. Yet there is often more intellectual honesty and emotional health in these emerging unbelievers than is common among the average member of the evangelical church. Many are dealing with their wounds, asking hard questions, and rightfully embracing doubt. Believers must respect this as a legitimate landing place in one’s spiritual journey. C.S. Lewis himself spent many years right here. Christians obviously disagree with atheists, but they also tend to add a negative suspicion to their disagreement. They don’t give atheism the respect it deserves as a location on one’s spiritual or more appropriately non-spiritual quest.

Consequently, many of our conversations with atheists are exercises in miscommunication. Our divergent frames and assumptions shortchange the accomplishment of genuine disagreement. And these miscommunications are rarely expressed with emotional neutrality. Passion reigns. And the cycle of mutual distrust is compounded.

Both sides can do better. Sadly, the communication problems too often stem from the Christian side.

With the exponential rise of “religious nones” and the “religiously unaffiliated” these problems cannot be ignored. In general, “nones” are not the run-of-the-mill atheists. Most have grown up in the church and have consciously journeyed away from the faith of their fathers. Three-quarters of religious nones today come from churched backgrounds. Their unbelief is mixed with damaging personal experiences with Christians and the church. Our conversations with them must take this into consideration. There is a great deal of toxic religion for which the church needs to repent.

I recently asked an evangelical seminary professor whether they were preparing pastors to address the needs and concerns of the growing number of “ex-evangelicals.” He said, “No.” The church leadership is thus unprepared for addressing a growing audience. Christianity Today reports “Americans who know religion best hold the worse views of evangelicals.” Many of these would classify as “religious nones.”

On Facebook I recently engaged via text with a high school classmate and friend who like me grew up the son of missionary parents, but has now adopted atheist beliefs. This shift is not uncommon for MKs. I haven’t seen him in many years and I plan to buy him a beer on my next visit to his hometown to rekindle the friendship. We have a checkered past history—such as we ran against each other for student body president in high school (he won)—so I’m reluctant to get too deep into his disagreements about religious belief and faith via text messages. Such conversations are handled much better over Scotch and a cigar. But his FB text questions did get me thinking and hard about how far we need to step back with modern unbelievers to make sure that we are really communicating. It requires listening, mutual respect, and a careful use of terms.

This interaction started when I posted a quote from Corrie Ten Boom, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off, you sit still and trust the engineer.” Joe McKeever attached this quote to an article. He explained that when we stop trusting in the Lord, we tend to act out of fear. A lot of our actions and attitudes in public towards others seem to come from this place. We are witnessing in public the inverse of “Perfect love casts out fear.” Something more like, “Perfect fear casts out love.”

This quote and article both assume the existence of God. But the word “fear” struck a chord with my friend. He wrote, “Religion is all about the fear of the unknown.” This is not exactly the way the word “fear” is used in this article, but his point stands. It has long been assumed by atheists that the psychology of religious belief is based on a fear of death or of the unknown. Influential Yale anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski argued that religion itself had its origin in relation to death by introducing a belief system that helps to reduce the fear of it. That there is a psychology of belief is not to be denied. We all want some things to be true. (There is also a psychology of unbelief, but that is a conversation for another day.)

Wanting to encourage a measure of intellectual humility, I responded, “Maybe it is also the humility to acknowledge the unknown.” There is more to reality than we will ever know.

To which my friend rightfully pointed out, “Acknowledging the unknown and conjuring make-believe realities are certainly two very different approaches.” He conceded my point, while simultaneously suggesting that religious belief is “conjuring a make-believe reality.”

Two points to my interlocutor. I responded in agreement. “On this we are in total agreement. Conjuring a make-believe reality is irresponsible.”

To this my friend, made an observation that is assumed by most moderns and sadly lived by many Christians: “So why does religion insist on it?”

Faith, for my old friend, is “believing what you know is not so.” Or to quote Archie Bunker in All in the Family, faith is “what you wouldn’t believe for your life if it wasn’t in the Bible.” My text responses slowed, for here is needed a further clarification of terms least we talk past one another.

If I understand my friend correctly, he does not assume that faith can ever be based on knowledge. Faith assumes some form of intellectual suicide. To be fair, there have certainly been Christians who have suggested this, incorrectly interpreting passages such as I Corinthians 1. Philosopher Dallas Willard warns, “Here knowledge is classed as ‘works’ or as the result of merely human effort. It was opposed to the miraculous work of ‘grace,’ which was supposed to produce belief (‘faith’) without human knowledge or even in opposition to it.” If faith and knowledge are separated, then my friend is right and his atheism justified. But before we jump to this conclusion, let’s examine our terms more closely. The operative words in need of clarification are “knowledge,” “belief,” “commitment,” and “faith.”

Knowledge is an understanding of objective reality based on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. It involves truth and depends on adequate evidence or insight. It confers upon its holder a measure of authority based on its alignment to reality. Knowledge is about reality.

Belief, in contrast, is a conviction that does not necessitate truth or evidence. It is a statement about the believer not the object of the belief. Belief is evidenced by a tendency of the believer to act in a certain way consistent with the belief. Belief always includes an act of the will, but it is not dependent on knowledge. That I believe something certainly does not make it so.

Commitment is a matter of taking a course of action, in effect acting as if something is reliables. It too is not necessarily based on knowledge.

Faith is a combination of knowledge and commitment. Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation. Faith must not be separated from knowledge. “Blind faith” is not something that is found in or condoned by the Bible. Many continue to think of religion as mere belief or commitment. If all religions are devoid of knowledge then all are equally irrelevant to life, for life depends on knowledge—and in particular, knowledge that is aligned to reality.

Before one repels off a 200-foot cliff, one generally has a few questions. The first one is, “Will this rope hold me?” The climbing instructor will patiently explain that this is a dynamic rope that will expand to one-forth its length to absorb the shock of a fall and that it is rated to hold 4,000 pounds or a factor 4 fall. This is comforting knowledge, but it doesn’t turn into faith until one weights the rope and steps over the edge. Here knowledge is combined with commitment.

Faith ≠ Belief

Faith = Knowledge + Commitment

Now this certainly doesn’t answer all the questions that my friend will have. But it reframes the next series of questions back to the realm of knowledge. For if faith is mere belief, or as my friend stated, “conjuring a make-believe reality,” then all religions should be rejected and atheism is the only logical choice. Moreover, if this is true than religion should stay away from the arenas of public social life where alignment to reality makes a difference.

So not all religions insist on belief without knowledge. Once this is accepted, then we can go on to discuss the character of knowledge and how we know what we know. We may disagree on what constitutes knowledge and the method of arriving at knowledge and the limits of our knowledge, but at least we’ll be talking about knowledge as understood through a shared frame.

We may discuss the role of science and its limits. We may then engage with 2019 Templeton Prize winning agnostic astrophysics Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. There is much more to discuss.

There are certainly anti-intellectual Christians who operate on the basis of bad faith, “conjuring a make-believe reality.” There are certainly forms of toxic religion. Experienced together these would make any sensitive thinking person want to move away from religion or talk of “faith.” All of this is true. Acknowledging this, however, is not the end of the conversation or a spiritual cul-de-sac, but the beginning of an ongoing search for meaning, justice, beauty, and love. This is the path of spiritual pilgrimage that I haltingly trod.

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