Friday, July 13, 2012

Belief in a logical impossibility is not faith

This post, Christianity's New F-Word, claims that some Christians have become so obsessed with using "reason" to defend Christianity that they are losing touch of "faith." I think the author is correct in saying that evidence and explanations aren't the most important thing in the world, but I disagree with most of the rest of it.

Or rather, the author's message could be interpreted several different ways, depending on one's definition of "faith." So I'll just examine a few different definitions here:

Sunday School answer definition: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1"

Yeah, this is "the right answer" that Christians are supposed to give when they have a discussion on "what faith is." But I don't think this definition is any good. "What we hope for"? So, what would that be? Just pick something that you hope will happen, and have faith that it will? That makes no sense.

If you read the rest of Hebrews 11, it's about a lot of people in the bible who obeyed God, even though they might not have understood why and the rewards didn't come in their lifetime. So perhaps Hebrews 11:1 is saying "Faith is believing that God will do what he promised you, believing that obeying him is the best course of action, no matter what the situation currently looks like."

Atheist definition: "Faith is belief without evidence, or belief despite evidence to the contrary. Faith is blind."

And I hate the fact that I've heard this same idea from Christians. That somehow it's GOOD to believe things for no reason.

I hate the idea that "faith" and "reason" are somehow opposed. As if there are some things I believe that make sense- that's the "reason" part- and some things I believe that make no sense- that's the "faith" part- and you need to have a balance. No. Absolutely not.

Because logic is, by definition, true. There's no "balance." If you have proven something is true using logic, then it IS TRUE. There is no room for other interpretations, or your feelings, or whatever.

I have a degree in math so I know what logic is. And I get so angry when I hear Christians say, after being unable to provide an answer to someone's criticism of Christianity, "well... that's what faith is." Or even worse, when it's all like I'm-better-than-you, when people proudly claim "It's called FAITH [with an implied 'duh!']."

No. If someone asks you a question about Christianity, and you don't know the answer, you DO NOT say the answer is "faith." No. You say you don't know the answer. There IS an answer though. If Christianity is true, then all parts of it have an explanation. NOTHING exists outside the reach of logic.

And it may be that it's an answer no one knows, or no human could understand. It's okay for me to not have an answer. I believe in God for a lot of reasons, and your question about free will or pi being equal to 3 is definitely not shaking my entire belief system to its core, even though I don't have a good answer to give you right at this moment.

"Mayday, mayday! Someone asked me why God made mosquitoes!" Image source.

However, I want to be careful about the difference between something that "doesn't make sense" and something that's logically impossible. For example, I like to say that "God, in his unreasonable mercy, rescued me when I didn't deserve it." Yes, I believe God's mercy is unreasonable. Because I didn't deserve it. That's not the same as saying it's completely impossible or easily disproven by logic.

Because a lot of things happen that are "unreasonable." That is why rage comics exist.

Just because a statement is mind-bogglingly stupid doesn't mean someone didn't say it. Image source.
I remember one time I was with a group of people about to eat cake, and they started handing out empty plates. I was like, "Shouldn't you put cake on the plates before you give them to everyone?" and then everyone was like "...oh."

Just because something "doesn't make sense" doesn't mean it didn't happen.

If God does exist, it's totally possible that he loves derpy people like me. It's pretty weird, but I have a lot of reasons for why I believe this.

And that's just it. If something seems too bizarre or has a lot of evidence against it, well, you better have a pretty good reason for believing it. And, for those of you just joining us from the Kansas City/ San Francisco game, "oh I have faith" is not a good reason.

And if something is a logical impossibility, and I hear you say something about "well you have your logic, I have my faith" I will probably hit you with the nearest stick-like object.

In a very loving, Christian way, of course. Image source.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: 

perfectnumber628's definition: "Faith is believing something that SHOULD be true, based on logic and your original axioms about the world, even though emotionally it doesn't FEEL true. Faith is acting on it like it is true."

(Disclaimer: No I haven't included bible references to back this up. Sue me.)

(Okay just kidding, that actually is a legitimate objection. It would be a really good idea for me to do a post on what the bible says faith is.)

Here's an example: During the past 2 years, as I've been studying Chinese, I've been thinking about whether God understands Chinese. So, let me show you what faith is in this case:

Axiom: God knows everything. (This is unprovable, but I believe it for a bunch of different reasons. For example, I believe God made everything in the physical world (yeah I know, also unprovable), so it seems reasonable that he knows how it all works.)
Fact: Mandarin Chinese is a thing that exists in "everything."
Conclusion: Therefore God understands Chinese.

My reaction: "真的啊?太奇怪了..." ("Really? That's too weird.") Because Chinese is this crazy new thing in my life- surely it's new to God too, right? I only ever heard about God in English, in a church full of white people. Surely God is sheltered and ignorant like me. I've just always thought he was an American. Of course he's been to all the other countries, but he didn't like them that much. His headquarters is in the US.

And this is where I need to have faith. That yes, it is true that God understands Chinese. And guess what, tons of people talk to God in Chinese every day. (I do sometimes.)

God (and, you know, 1.3 billion people) can read this. Image source.
But my feelings say that's just too crazy! I've never thought of God like that! No way! But this is where I have to have faith.

Perfectnumber, you believe God knows everything, right?

Yes, I believe that.

So it follows that he understands Chinese. I know it sounds crazy, but it's totally true.

Yes, but...

You can't argue with the logic.

And this is really important to me, because I really really like speaking Chinese, but on some level I still believe "Oh this can't possibly be God's plan for my life. Surely it's never even occurred to God that white people can learn Chinese." But I only think that because it had never occurred to ME.

And there are a ton of other examples of this belief-in-a-completely-logical-conclusion-that-just-doesn't-feel-right faith. For example, I can say I trust God, but then worry about what if he doesn't understand some concern in my life. Faith is knowing that he DOES understand, even if it doesn't feel like it.

To recap: Christians' faith should not be blind. There's nothing virtuous about arbitrarily believing something for no reason. Faith is understanding the implications of what you claim to believe, and living as if they are 100% true.


  1. Can you define 'logic'?

    I have an instinctive knee-jerk reaction when you say 'nothing exists outside the reach of logic'. I think this is because I interpret the statement as 'nothing exists outside the reach of human understanding'. But then you go on to say that it's possible that logic encompasses things that no human could understand. However, I'm not sure how to understand the concept of 'logic' if it includes things outside the bounds of human thought.


    1. Wow that is a good question. When I say "nothing exists outside the reach of logic" I mean things like "A and not A cannot both be true", "if P implies Q and we know Q is false, then P must be false"- the most strict math-y definition there is.

      (As far as "including things outside the bounds of human thought"- people have debated about whether mathematicians are "discovering" or "creating" math. Like, those principles about number theory or whatever have always been true, it's just that nobody had thought about them yet. I guess I'm kind of saying the same thing here. There are facts about God that no one knows- but those facts are logically consistent.)

      In the real world, stuff isn't so absolute and easily categorized like that ("A and not A"), so you can't really "prove" anything in a math sense in the real world. So... what's the point of defining "logic" like that if it would never be useful in a practical way? Hmm yeah, I don't know.

      How about I say this: You will never be able to reason your way, with 100% certainty, to God (or lack of a God). But that's not the same things as saying there are aspects of God that are logically impossible, aspects of God that are both "A and not A." So I don't like it when people say that belief in God must contain an element of abandoning/hating logic.

  2. Mm okay. Is this a good way to put it? Biblical truths, our experiences with God and our understanding of things in the world (people, nature, etc) can be logically consistent.

    I understand what you mean about defining logic becoming a moot point. I brought it up because I see a lot of people who use logic or experimentation via the scientific method as determiners for truth. In other words, something is fact if and only if it can be logically deduced or experimentally verified. However, these days I think of logic more as a framework or a helpful language for understanding the world, communicating with others, and getting things done, but not as a truth unto itself. Do you think this way of thinking also a cop out to abandon honest and rational thought or that it's dangerously relativistic?


    1. Yes- this is a good point. I hear people say "I don't believe in God- I only believe things that are actually supported by evidence" which I think has a lot of things wrong with it. You summed it up well- the idea that "something is fact if and only if it can be logically deduced".

      For your other question about is it a "cop out" to see "logic" as a means to understand the world/ communicate- hmm that's a deep question. For one thing, sometimes it's more important to get along with other people than to be "right." And for some issues there isn't a "right" answer- it will depend on context and a lot of other factors...

  3. I would like to begin by commending you for not outright rejecting rationality, that is a brave step that most Christians do not take.

    You said "God knows everything" is axiomatic. I disagree.

    First, it assumes the existence of a God. Why assume God exists? Remember Occam's Razor. "The universe exists" is simpler than "God exists, then God created the universe". The existence of God is unnecessary to explain anything that I am aware of, and instead creates many complications like the Epicurean paradox. Never mind how hilariously specific the Christian god is, making the axiom actually look something more like "God exists, then he created the world in the specific way described in Genesis, including creating light before the sun, and taking an entire six days to create the world, but then only needing one day to create the entire rest of the universe".

    In light of how ridiculous Genesis clearly is (which is just one example of ridiculousness from the Bible. As you know, there are many more), I would like to suggest using your tools of rationality, which are clearly quite well equipped, to decide if the Bible is actually worthy of the prestige awarded it by Christians. Why do you believe every word of that book, but not any of these:

    What does the bible have that they don't? I truly don't understand it.

    In short, I greatly respect what you are doing, but maybe you should take a little time to use your powers of rationality to deeply examine those things which you currently hold as axiomatic. I wish you all the best.

    1. First of all, thanks for being respectful in your comment- I was expecting some responses like "ughhh everyone who believes in god is stupid and faith is blind arrrrr trolling" after I wrote this post. Thanks for addressing me like I'm an actual intelligent human being.

      And yes, Christians should totally question their faith. I've done that- doubting, reading through atheist arguments, questioning whether the bible is reliable. You brought up some good points about "why trust the bible but not other religions' books", etc.

      And yes, there is a ton of weird stuff in the bible, and I have a lot of unanswered questions about the weird stuff and the cultural context and the author's intended meaning- I'm using "my powers of rationality" to try to understand that more and more. Also I know I have a lot of misconceptions about God, because, everyone does- God is really complicated- so I'm trying to figure out what makes sense about that.

      I guess that's not what you wanted me to say- you want me to reevaluate my belief that God exists- but I've already been through that and concluded that I have a lot of reasons for believing in God, and it's not anything like 100% certainty (haha, as if) but I've decided this is what I'm going to believe.

      But yes, logic and rationality will always be useful to me for understanding more about God and the world and what I think about things.