Faith: its Meaning in a Secular World

The so-called New Atheism, and its most popular, public promoters (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Susan Blackmore and others), all seem to agree on one point.  Religion, they claim, is faith; and faith is intellectual agreement to any number of unproven (and mostly ludicrous beliefs).

It is unfortunate for the New Atheists that their religious vocabulary – and implictly their religious knowledge – is so limited.  In this, the blame is mostly theirs, but not entirely.  Western culture is immersed in uncritical, popular notions about religion, and as partakers in Western culture, the New Atheists are also immersed.  However, especially since they claim to be reason-and-fact-driven, they have a self-imposed duty to present their conclusions only after adequate research and self-education.  In this they have failed.  Their main claim – phrased in terms of reductionism’s “nothing but” terms – that religion is nothing but faith / and faith is nothing but ludicrous intellectual assent, is itself “nothing but” a testable claim – a claim that fails the test.  Take, for example, their primary definition of religion as “faith,” “belief,” “intellectual assent to unproven and usually ludicrous” propositions.  There are two problems with this.

First, as with the popular understanding of religion, the New Atheists identify religion narrowly with Christianity, and even more narrowly, with popular Christianity, and even more narrowly, with fundamentalist Christianity.  However, based on their claims to scientific objectivity, they should know better than to do this.  Religion, a world-wide phenomenon, is obviously – and demonstrably -a  much broader category than mere Christianity.

Second, again sharing a popular understanding, the New Atheists seem primarily to identify religion simply-and-only-as faith – faith as an irrational, intellectual belief in absurd things.

However, even a minimal amount of research reveals that religion – even Christian religion – cannot be reduced to the New Atheists’ two prime categories.  Take the “Faith issue,” for example.  New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg has isolated at least four separate types of “faith” pre-embedded in Christianity and “available for public viewing,” which the New Atheists either ignore or are blissfully unaware of:

1)  Faith as Assensus:  faith as belief in a truth claim (vs. doubt or disbelief).  This is the New Atheists’ only definition, as we have seen.  However, they seem unaware that this kind of faith – “propositional” faith, belief as a “head” matter – is very recent to Christianity, resulting  1)  from the Protestant Reformation’s competing denominations needing to declare what they “believed” in opposition to what other congregations “believed,” and  2)  from the Enlightenment’s insistence that factualness equals truth.  In the Enlightenment sense, truth is (only) that which can be verified (measured, quantified) as factual.  Since the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean belief in “iffy” propositions, whether biblical (a six-day literal creation) or cosmological (the earth is flat and the center of the universe).  After the Enlightenment, religious belief – “faith” – has been secularly defined as believing in notions contrary to evidence –  contrary to what reasonable people and institutions know. This of course is the New Atheists’ primary definition of faith – one they frequently cast against people of faith.

Borg comments:

That Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it.  It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if “believing the right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” will save us…  Moreover, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless.  You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage…and miserable…  Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power…  [Faith is] not very much about believing.  Instead, faith is about the relationshiop of the self at its deepest level to God.

Obviously, even when considering “faith as belief,” the New Atheists are unaware of the relative youth of this faith-category in Christianity, and they uncritically assume the reductionistic secular “Enlightenment” perspective on faith.  It is very important to keep present in the mind’s eye the simple fact that reductionism, rationalism, and materialism are not givens.  They are philosophies, and the New Atheists need to remember this, just as Christians need to remember that religion is not a source of scientific knowledge and does not consist of simple intellectual assent.

2)  Faith as Fiducia:  radical trust (vs. suspicion, mistrust, anxiety).  Sometimes described  (e.g., by Soren Kierkegaard) as a state of a person being “immersed and floating in an ocean of radical trust,” Fiducia is faith as a metaphorical sea – trust in god as an infinite ocean in which one – unless one thrashes around, struggles, and “sinks” – exists in an almost womblike environment, unified with Spirit.  This type of faith is a perceiving – a seeing – and an experiencing of Being as cosmic generosity.  Its prime attribute is serenity derived from trust. Its opposite is anxiety, as Borg says:  Little faith [i.e., little Fiducia] and anxiety go together.  If you are anxious, you [may] have little faith.

Faith as Fiducia – as radical trust, immersion/union with Spirit – is seldom if ever considered in the New Atheism’s faith definition.  It needs to be added into the mix if objective discussion is the goal.

3.  Faith as Fidelitas:  “Heart-allegiance”, paying attention to one’s personal immersion in, and relationship to, the Spirit (vs. idolatry, adultery, unfaithfulness).  Borg:

Faith as fidelitas does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal.  Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the Bible and creeds and doctrines point.  Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.  Its opposite is not doubt or disbelief, [but rather] infidelity, being unfaithful to our relationship with God…centering in something finite rather than on the sacred, who is infinite and beyond all images…  Fidelitas means loving God and loving your neighbor and being faithful, above all, to these two great relationships.

One is, again, struck with the paucity of attention given by the New Atheists to “faith as Fidelitas,” especially where that kind of faith creates and supports “neighborly/brotherly-sisterly love” and imitation of the divine Compassion.  Dawkins et al are only too happy to excoriate bad religionist behavior based on “religious beliefs,” but are frquently  uncritically selective in editing-out the beneficial social implications of Fidelitas-faith.

4.  Faith as Visio:  Seeing/perceiving/experiencing life as gracious (vs. seeing life as hostile, “stingy”;  vs. being excessively self-preoccupied and defensive).  Faith, as Visio, goes beyond faith as belief-Assensus and faith as radical trust-Fidelitas:  it is direct experience of spiritual grace and sacred graciousness.  According to Borg, Visio

…leads to the kind of life that we see in Jesus…  Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.

To some, this way of seeing may seem naively optimistic.  But… [t]he point is not that reality is simply “nice,” or that one can demonstrate that it is gracious.  Rather, the point is that how we see reality matters, for how we see “what is” profoundly affects how we experience and live our lives.

Borg comments that Visio leads back to Fidelitas and Fiducia, and Fidelitas and Fiducia lead back to AssensusThat is, Visio – as the direct experiencing of divine grace and graciousness – creates and then nourishes the other three types (by degrees, somewhat less experiential) of Christian faith-types.

If the New Atheists should ever become more concerned with authentic dialogue than with narrow-minded attack, they might acknowledge that there is more than one definition, type and function Christian “faith.”  And Christians, too, might re-familiarize themselves with their religion’s rich supply of faith-categories, dropping the narrow, popular focus on “faith as intellectual assent.”  If this could be made a reality, both parties would have educated themselves more fully about faith, and about faiths generally, and could therefore move the discussion forward into non-Christian religions and their faith-definitions.  If that ever happens, real discussion – and even some surprising compromises from both sides – might develop – to the world’s edification and humankind’s benefit.

Marcus J. Borg citations are from his book:

The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith. Harper: San Francisco: 2003, pp. 26, 28-37.

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