The Problem of Assuming Faith Means to Have Absolute Certainty

I have been reading the book The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to a Lifelong Faith In a Culture Abandoning Christianity by John Marriot. In the book, he makes the following comments about the relationship between apologetics, faith, and certainty. He says the following:

” Former believers who were heavily into apologetics reveal that they assumed a particular definition of what it means to “believe,” and they depended on apologetics to provide them with it. And who could blame them? One needs only to glance at the titles lining the shelves of any Christian bookstore to see why. Without a Doubt, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Evidence That Demands a Verdict give the impression that the case for Christianity is overwhelming. Yet, when they encountered counter-apologetics, their belief was undermined, and they concluded that they were no longer believers. Why is that? I think the reason lies in the confusion they had over what it means to be a believer. Often, the Bible uses the English words believe and faith interchangeably. While there is a slight difference between the two, both words share the same root and indicate a range of meanings. But the primary meaning of both is to trust in someone or something. Consequently, what the Bible calls individuals to is to trust in the person and work of Jesus.

But when former believers encountered atheist apologists who undermined their confidence, they concluded that they were no longer believers because they equated real belief with being certain, or at least nearly certain. Naturally, then, if, to be a believer, one has to be near certain of what they believe, former Christians equated their doubt as a sign they had lost their faith. It’s at least conceivable that if former believers, who depended so heavily on apologetics to underwrite their faith, had a more biblical understanding of both apologetics and faith, they could have avoided their crises. Biblically speaking, as mentioned above, to believe is not to have certainty or necessarily a high degree of psychological confidence. Instead, it is to be persuaded enough that the claims of Christ are true that one adopts the Christian story as their own and lives under the lordship of Christ. This does not require certainty. It is, like every other kind of meaningful decision that one will make in life, fraught with a level of uncertainty.

Marriot gives a marriage analogy. When we get married ( I am married), we do take a risk. We have gaps of knowledge, some level of uncertainty, perhaps unanswered questions. Obviously, we assume everything will work out. But we still take a step of faith or trust. Thus, we commit to the other person. Yes, it can be a risk. To build on this, here is a biblical definition faith:

“These terms refer to the value of reliability. The value is ascribed to persons as well as to objects and qualities. Relative to persons, faith is reliability in interpersonal relations: it thus takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The nouns ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness,’ as well as the verbs ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe,’ refers to the social glue that binds one person to another. This bond is the social, externally manifested, emotionally rooted behavior of loyalty, commitment, and solidarity. As a social bond, it works with the value of (personal and group) attachment (translated ‘love’) and the value of (personal and group) allegiance or trust (translated ‘hope.’) p. 72 Pilch and Malina Handbook of Biblical Social Values.

Whenever I teach an apologetics class, I always clarify the relationship between faith, doubts, and questions. It is important to remember that asking questions about what you believe is not necessarily the same thing as doubt. For example, when I was a new Christian, I had all kinds of questions. And I still have questions to this day.

But when it comes to faith, there is no need for exhaustive knowledgeAs Paul Copan says in his article, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? A Response to SkepticismBeing less than 100% certain doesn’t mean we can’t truly know. We can have highly plausible or probable knowledge, even if it’s not 100% certain.”

In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:

(1)  It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

Remember, a judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

How many of our claims past the test of certitude? Not many! Does this mean we are left to blind faith? No! There are two kinds of defeaters: rationality defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the rationality of a basing a belief on certain grounds) and knowledge defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the legitimacy of a claim to knowledge on behalf of a belief based on certain grounds). The two kinds are not mutually exclusive: some defeaters function at both levels, including those that challenge the objective alethic reliability of one’s actual grounds (see Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, Epistemological Objections to Materialism in The Waning of Materialism).

Whenever I encounter skpetics on our campus, they will assume their worldview has no gaps of knowledge. I mention the following from author Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With Religion Than Without.  He says the general atheist scenario is the following:

Human Life = Laws of physics X chance + randomness+ accidents+luck X 3.5 billion yrs. In other words, the laws of physics for our present universe arose by chance (from a multitude of possible universes); the first forms of life developed by chance (arising by primordial soup combinations that resulted from the laws of physics plus accidents); the first concept of life developed purely by chance (genetic mutations and environmental occurrences).

Sadly, many students do concede that Sheiman’s scenario makes perfect sense. My response to them is, “How much certainty do you have for this scenario here?” or, “How much evidence can you provide that this is really true?”

Remember, if  we had a 100% doubt free belief system, there wouldn’t be any room for faith/trust in God. Any Christian that thinks they have a perfect, doubt free faith are setting themselves up for disappointment. Also, anyone who assumes apologetics is supposed to answer every single question exhaustively has misunderstood the limitations of apologetics. Thus, we if tell people faith/trust is equivalent to having absolute or almost prefect certainty, people will keep having a crisis of faith. It would also be helpful to know the basics of religious epistemology. Hopefully, we can correct this problem.