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Faith and the National Academy of Sciences

June 27, 2010

According to the National Academy of Sciences FAQ on evolution:

“On the contrary, an important component of religious belief is faith, which implies acceptance of a truth regardless of the presence of empirical evidence for or against that truth.”

This might be common usage of the word “faith” in our post-Enlightenment culture, but doesn’t reflect the concept of faith/belief in Judeo-Christian scripture.

I don’t think the ancient Hebrew culture had the same concerns as ours does. First, faith/belief had strong connotations of loyalty and firmness, and less on agreeing with propositions or facts. We have still have the word “faithful” in English… in both the Old and New Testaments faithfulness is not really separated from “having faith”.

As preliminary examples, I’d say to look at Psalm 78 and Hebrews 3. Both look at the disobedience of the children of Israel in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus, Numbers) as the archetype of unfaithfulness/unbelief. Psalm 78, verses 7-8 represents the idea of faithfulness, in which
(a) People should hope in God.
(b) This comes from remembering his works
(c) Because people trust that God can save them,
(d) … they obey his commandments.
This, then is a specific relationship – the “faith relationship” – that is often described by “I will be their God, and they will be my people” in the Bible. It is a reciprocal relationship in which Israel’s trust and faithfulness (the two sides of faith) make sense in light of God’s faithfulness (See Heb 11:11).

If you are in any doubt that this is about “belief”, and that it is compatible with empirical evidence, take a look at verses 19-22, where the Psalms says that the people didn’t “believe” and “trust” that God would save them, because they “forgot” the last time he did so.

Now, I suspect that God’s works (e.g. redemption from Egypt) are the ground or evidence that support trust in God’s faithfulness, at least in the OT paradigm. (Whether these are, or must be “empirical”, is perhaps another question.)

But, the key thing is to continue trusting, and being faithful, in the face of suffering and adversity (Heb 12:12). Such faith is certainly compatible with empirical evidence, and even delights in recounting evidence of God’s faithfulness.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2010 12:59 pm

    Ah, I see we’re tackling similar issues coincidentally! Very good, glad you’re voicing against the mistaken definition of “faith.” As my wise friend Elizabeth put it, faith is simply trusting what you already know to be true. For ex., I have “faith” that when I get out of bed in the AM, gravity will still be working and I will not hover off the ground. Atheists have “faith” that there is no God, though they may not know the term applies to them. Cool post, nice analysis of the Scripture used.

  2. Ben permalink
    July 9, 2010 9:40 am

    Hi Jess, thanks! I’m glad to hear that other people are thinking about this too.

    I have recently been wondering why almost everyone (well, every Christian) responds to the above points about faith by saying that atheists have faith too.

  3. Stewart Thomas permalink
    July 9, 2010 3:27 pm

    Nice one, Ben. A couple things. A science blog I occasionally read was bashing an interview that Jon Stewart concerning faith and science. The quotes were:

    “The more you delve into science, the more it relies on faith.”


    “We need insights from religion.”

    that really got these people mad. I haven’t yet watched the video. The forums are teeming with posts screaming that in science there is no faith, etc. (see: ) The definition of faith they are using seems to be exactly the one you are using above from the FAQ. The word faith seems to stripped of its ties to trust, and really has two contradictory meanings — trust based on knowledge and previous evidence and [i]blind[/i] faith, based on ignorance, where the less you know the stronger faith you have.

    However, science does have more faith in it. Besides the faith of things like ‘my antenna will bathe me in radiation when I connect it to a power source, even though I can’t feel it (unless I stand there for a while with the power source too high)’ since I trust that the universe has not succumbed to some coup during the night and changed all of its laws based on knowledge from studying the principles and seeing the effects many times before. There is also a more general faith in the peer-review process, a great entity we are all slaves to and work for.

    I get what the people are saying, but I read your post this morning, and then this afternoon saw the article I linked to. It really \ made me realize how odd the definition of faith is. I liked how you pointed out ‘faithful’ retains the ideas of loyalty and trust and relationship.

    Maybe, though, science can learn from religion. The peer review system can be formed into a hierarchy with many layers of reviewers all leading up to a some Maximum Point or bridge.

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