A Question of Faith?

Faith is a central pillar of most religions. But what does it really mean?

There are those who argue that faith is not a function of evidence or proof. For want of a better description, we could call this ‘blind faith’. There are proponents of this kind of faith in most religions.

‘Blind faith’ is a curious approach. It requires absolute belief that something is true, without any evidence to support that belief, then uses the thing believed in as ‘evidence’ of the claims it makes.

We find such an approach in Islam, for example. The starting point is the statement of faith, the ‘Shahada’, which must be recited by converts to Islam. It declares that there is no god but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet. From that follows a belief that the Koran is the word of God as revealed to Mohammed. The Koran then becomes the ‘evidence’ of the claim that Allah is the one true God, and that Mohammed is his prophet.

This kind of approach does not begin by examining the claim that the Koran is the word of God to determine whether there is any evidence to support that claim, and then forming a view on the evidence. It does it the other way round. It makes the claim, then uses the book as evidence to support the claim. In other words, you begin by believing, without any evidence, that the book is the word of God, then point to passages in the book as ‘evidence’ of the claim.

However, the approach is not unique to Islam. We find a similar thing in Christianity and Judaism.

Few people, I suspect, who convert to Christianity or Judaism, do so because they have examined the evidence and concluded that the evidence justifies their belief in the claims made by those religions.

Of course, there have been those in all these religions who have sought to provide evidential support for the claims made by their respective religions. But mostly, they have sought to identify the evidence to support their already held beliefs, not formed their beliefs following an examination of the evidence. Although there are exceptions.

That raises the question of whether faith can, or should, have any role in determining what we believe, and how we conduct our lives as a consequence of what we believe.

In recent times, people have been conditioned to believe that if something can’t be proved, then it is simply untrue, or not worthy of further consideration. That has one of two broad effects. Either, people simply reject religion entirely, or they resort to something closely resembling blind faith.

But the conviction that faith is incompatible with proof is an entirely false distinction. In fact, without faith, every system of justice on the planet would cease to function.

That statement may appear counter-intuitive, because most people associate justice and the courts with evidence and proof. But that is not the whole story.

As any litigation attorney would acknowledge, there is no such thing as an open and shut case. And that is in spite of the fact that no case has to be proved with absolute certainty.

There are two broad standards of legal proof in the Anglo-American legal tradition: ‘on a balance of probabilities’ for civil cases; and ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ for criminal cases.

As a consequence, in a civil trial, for example, a judge or jury has to decide whether it is more likely than not that the evidence supports one or other party to a dispute. To make that judgment, they have to weigh up the evidence, and that includes making assessments as to the truthfulness of witnesses. But making such assessments is a subjective process. One person may find a particular witness entirely credible, while another person will find that same witness entirely shifty and unreliable. In the end, it is for the judge or jury to make a decision. However, as convinced as they may be that the evidence supports one side or the other, their decision still comes down to a question of belief – whose case they believe is more persuasive. That means that their decision is really a matter of ‘faith’. They cannot know for certain that their decision is right.

In the criminal courts, the situation is the same. Although the standard of proof is the higher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, that does not mean beyond a shadow of a doubt, or with one hundred percent certainty. Even where DNA evidence, for example, shows that the defendant must have been responsible for the crime, there are other questions. Were the DNA samples contaminated or inadvertently substituted with other samples? Was there deliberate tampering with the DNA evidence?

The same applies to what some would consider absolute proof. What if there is video evidence capturing the defendant shooting the victim dead? The problem with that evidence is that it only goes to one element of a crime, the act itself, which lawyers call the actus reus. The prosecution also has to prove that the defendant possessed the appropriate mental state (mens rea) to commit the crime. And there is an array of defenses in respect of the mental element, from lack of intention, insanity, self-defense, provocation etc.

The point being that however convincing a case may seem at first, any half-decent litigation lawyer can raise any number of doubts in the minds of the judge and jury. And it doesn’t matter how convinced one person may be, others may harbor substantial and well-founded doubts. So again, it comes down to belief. And the law recognizes that fact by setting standards of proof that do not require absolute certainty.

The final judgment of the judge or jury, which may cause another human being to be cast into prison for the rest of his life, or even terminate his life, is simply a matter of faith that they have made the right decision on the evidence. In fact, the whole judicial system rests on faith that ‘justice will be done’.

Faith is therefore the cornerstone of justice. Without it, the legal system would simply grind to a halt. And those who have to exercise this kind of faith carry a heavy burden. The consequences of exercising their faith can be extreme; a matter of freedom or incarceration, even of life and death.

So faith is not just some feeble excuse to believe something in spite of the evidence. It is an essential element of human behavior. It is integral to the human character. It reaches into every human activity, from who we choose to marry, to where we choose to live, to our careers, jobs, car, and to everything else we do in life.

The important thing is that we exercise faith after careful consideration of the evidence. But in the end, every decision is a matter of faith. And religion is no different. Faith should follow a careful consideration of the evidence.

That is why I employed a rigorous legal methodology to evaluate the evidence of God in my latest book, A ‘Final Theory’ of God. The legal method is tried and tested, and has endured the ravages of time and history. It is the only really workable approach when there are limits to human knowledge.

So faith and proof are not diametrically opposed concepts. They are inter-related and inter-dependent.

But in the end, after careful consideration of the evidence, we always have to apply a measure of faith.

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Joseph BH McMillan is the author of A ‘Final Theory’ of God.

A Final Theory of God

Copyright © Joseph BH McMillan 2015 All Rights Reserved

http://josephbhmcmillan.com

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