Faith may be described briefly as
an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
H. L. Mencken, Prejudices,
"Types of Men"
In the Middle Ages, faith was not necessary. People knew that
Christianity was true. They knew it because God himself proved
it every day through the miracles and other wondrous events.
Furthermore, all educated people lent their authority to the
fact, because theologians could prove it using logical arguments.
By the time of the Enlightenment daily miracles and substantive
revelations started to dry up, and the logical proofs had started
to look less unimpeachable. Indeed the logical proofs of God's
existence were already largely discredited, although philosophers
like René Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried Leibnitz
(1646-1716) fought rearguard actions. Logical proofs of God's
existence had become largely untenable by the end of the eighteenth
Once all methods had proved the validity of Christianity, now
all of them had been discredited or at least become questionable.
A new approach was clearly necessary. The arguments used by
theologians gradually changed in character, away from conventional
reasoning. In the seventeenth century John Locke had already
noted that Christians were abandoning reason when it no longer
suited them*. In the eighteenth
century Immanuel Kant admitted that he "found it necessary
to deny knowledge in order to leave room for faith". Christian
arguments were no longer to be hard logical structures with
agreed premises and clear modes of reasoning that could be tested.
The languages of theology and philosophy, which had previously
been the common language of educated people, now diverged. The
language of philosophy developed into the language of science
and reason, while the language of theology took a different
Kant's reaction to the percieved problem
of knowledge not getting him to where he wanted to go.
Bertrand Russell noted that theologians" arguments had
been more and more affected by a kind of moralising vagueness*.
To many, these arguments smacked of intellectual dishonesty.
Theological arguments were beginning to look like linguistic
deceits designed to conceal the emptiness within. As a leading
contemporary theologian put it "In the eyes of philosophers,
the Christian faith has become intellectually disreputable because
it no longer asserts anything"*.
As they abandoned rational argument, many Christian apologists
took refuge in fideism the belief that religious knowledge
is not based upon natural or rational information but on faith
alone. According to this view, faith furnishes its own unimpeachable
proof. God reveals himself only to those willing to make a leap
of faith, providing them with a special sort of knowledge, which
is different from, and superior to, ordinary knowledge.
The mainstream consensus now is that God prefers faith. He
no longer approves of traditional proofs, and does not therefore
provide them any longer. Indeed it would be positively wrong
for him to do so. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(1906-1945) put it in No Rusty Swords "A God who
let us prove his existence would be an idol". On the face
of it this abandonment of reason seems to remove Christianity
from the realm of logical argument, and therefore from rational
criticism. God's direct revelation is seemingly beyond the reach
of logical investigation. In fact this is not entirely true,
and for several reasons, as we shall see.
"Faith must trample under foot all
reason, sense, and understanding" - Martin Luther
Faith, according to modern Churches, is the main condition
for salvation. Without it we are damned to eternal hellfire.
For Protestants, faith is not merely the main criterion for
salvation, it is the only criterion. So too for the Anglican
Church, as confirmed in Article 11 of the 39 Articles. But it
is not at all clear why a deity should set so much store by
human faith. There are many other human qualities that one might
have thought God would find desirable: gentleness, honesty,
loyalty, truthfulness, steadfastness, altruism, merciy, open
mindedness, and so on. That God should prefer faith over all
such qualities, and even to the exclusion of all such qualities,
is suspicious in the extreme, particularly since faith also
happens to be the quality most popular amongst false gods and
fraudsters. Also, if faith were such a desirable quality in
itself, why is it not good to have faith in Islam, communism
or tooth fairies?
Again, if faith is really so important, we are faced with some
difficult paradoxes as soon as we think about the implications.
Here is a thought experiment. Consider two children. Call them
for the sake of argument Christine and Diana. Christine is not
a reflective girl. She belongs to a large Christian family.
She is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of her parents"
faith. It never occurs to her to question what she has been
told. She believes firmly everything that her priest tells her.
She lives her entire life in ignorance of other religions or
of atheism. In due course, after a life of aimless vegetation
and absolute faith, she dies. Diana, on the other hand, is an
intelligent child. Her parents encourage her to find out about
all creeds, and after diligent research and long and careful
thought she becomes a Buddhist. She leads a blameless life.
She does good works, she gives alms to the poor, feeds the hungry,
helps the sick, clothes the naked, visits those in gaol, and
meditates deeply on the mysteries of life, until eventually
she too dies. Is it really credible that Christine's absolute
faith wins her a place in Heaven while Diana, with no Christian
faith, must be condemned to the outer darkness? Somehow the
idea seems unlikely. Furthermore, this is not merely a hypothetical
example. With little effort we could find numerous Christines
and Dianas around the world. To an objective mind it seems incredible
that faith could be the sole criterion for salvation, or even
the prime criterion. Indeed, it is difficult for an objective
mind to imagine why it should be a criterion at all.
Another difficulty arises from the various cases where people's faith has been assured by miracles. In ancient times God was
willing to perform miracles on demand to convince his followers
(e.g. Judges 6:36-40). In Christian times God was still willing
to perform to order. Consider St Thomas, the apostle who reportedly
missed Jesus" return after the crucifixion. Not having
seen the event he was doubtful about the reports of it. He would
not believe until Jesus returned again for the express purpose
of allowing him to examine his wounds. Thomas, having taken
full advantage of this opportunity, was convinced. In these
circumstances it is hardly surprising that he should have been.
Any agnostic given such an opportunity would surely be convinced
as well. Recipients of such favours could not fail to believe.
Those who witnessed miracles and believed were also favoured,
such as the Jews who saw the raising of Lazarus (John 12:11).
Down the ages many people have claimed to have experienced or
witnessed miracles. The witnessing of a genuine miracle must
provide strong grounds for belief. But is this not unfair? No
such miracles ever come the way of billions of unbelievers.
If Jesus would only appear to them in the flesh and let them
poke about in his nail holes they too would be convinced. Indeed,
just a small miracle would do. Why should millions in the Middle
Ages be given a free ride to faith through witnessing a miracle?
And why is the same free ride provided to far fewer today, while
billions are denied it?
For Roman Catholics there is also a difficult problem in deciding
exactly when it becomes idolatrous for people to require proof.
Faithful Christians had routinely been asking the Virgin Mary
for proof of her identity for centuries whenever she appeared
to visionaries. And she invariably complied. Right up to 1961
in Garabandal in Spain, she performed miracles almost on demand
to "prove" who she was. Already in 1961 many senior
churchmen were preaching that such proofs could not be real
not because they were beyond divine powers, but because
this sort of thing was idolatrous. Heaven simply did not provide
proof. Even to ask for it was blasphemous. Objectively, either
it is acceptable to ask for and receive proof, or it is not.
There is no doubt that it was acceptable before the twentieth
century, so if it is not acceptable now then the rules must
have changed at some time in between. So when exactly was this?
On what date did this previously acceptable behaviour become
Here is another difficulty. Some Christians lose their faith
because of some action by another Christian. For example, the
author Roald Dahl lost his faith as a schoolboy because of the
brutality of his headmaster, a future Archbishop of Canterbury*.
Was Dahl denied salvation because of the headmaster's actions?
Were thousands of Roman Catholics denied salvation when they
abandoned their faith following the Pope's behaviour during
World War II? Or thousand more after they abandoned their faith
in the early twenty first century following revelations that
their Church had been aiding and abetting international child
abuse for decades?
Disasters in Christian communities often trigger crises of
faith. People start to wonder why God should allow unfairness
and cruelty: terminal disease in the young, families wiped out
at a stroke, congregations killed by collapsing church buildings,
and so on. It seems clear that many Christians never consider
this problem until they are personally affected by a tragedy.
If they had thought through their faith then these crises of
faith would not occur, for the questions they raise would already
have been considered and resolved. Christians generally maintain
their faith simply because it is never tested. Many allied soldiers
lost their faith when they witnessed the horrors of the Nazi
death camps as they liberated them. Did they deny themselves
the chance of salvation? Were those on potato-peeling duty that
day more likely to get to Heaven because they did not witness
the same horrors?
Here is yet another difficulty. In the past, many of the faithful
had faith because they witnessed fraudulent miracles
annually liquefying saint's blood, exorcisms of pagan gods,
the healing of already healthy people, drug-induced visions,
and so on. What is God's position on Christians whose faith
is genuine, innocent and absolute, but based on a fraud? Again,
this is not merely an academic or historical question. Many
people are taken in by bogus Christian faith healers and conjuring
tricks. Is their faith real enough to win salvation, while sceptics
go to Hell for being more perceptive?
According to modern theologians, faith itself provides proof
of Christianity to those who possess it. Moreover, this "proof"
is of a much better quality than ordinary knowledge. It is quite
different in nature and cannot be compromised by ordinary reasoning.
Those who are prepared to take a leap of faith find themselves
in a new world where God reveals himself, and his truths are
known with absolute certainty. But there are a number of difficulties
with this too. As for the importance of faith generally, one
must wonder why theologians never mentioned it before their
other "proofs" were all demolished by rationalists.
A second problem is that the faith provided tends to correspond
to the recipient's existing beliefs. Is it really likely that
God would provide different types of faith to members of different
denominations? If God was really providing faith to people wouldn"t
he provide the same faith to all? A third problem is that of
doubt. If faith furnishes absolute proof, then there is no room
for doubt. Yet over the same period that faith has become so
important, churchmen have started to admit to having doubts
about God. Many, perhaps most, bishops will now admit to having
doubts sometimes only small ones, and only for a short
time, but doubts nevertheless. Some senior bishops (Anglican
and Roman Catholic) have claimed that doubt is important, and
even that one cannot have genuine faith without also experiencing
doubt. The problem here is that the two stories are incompatible.
According to the first, faith provides absolute proof of the
truth of Christianity, which precludes all doubt. According
to the second, faith can coexist with doubt about the truth
of Christianity. There is clearly something wrong when one can
still doubt unimpeachable proof. Perhaps the most charitable
explanation is that some churchmen do not really have true faith,
and that two camps within the Christian community are using
the word faith in totally different, and mutually exclusive,
Aquinas summed up the position, neatly
removing himself from the realm of reasoned argument
Yet a further difficulty is that people who have faith, even
the proof-providing type, can lose it again. How can one lose
one's faith when it has provided absolute, unimpeachable proof
of Christian truth? It is a most curious fact that a high proportion
of those who see the Christian light later lose sight of it
again. More curious still is the fact that the proportion is
much the same as those for other religions, or even higher.
It would appear that proportionately fewer Muslim converts relapse
than do Christian ones. This is truly a puzzling statistic if
we are to believe that Christianity is the one true religion,
while Islam is a mere pretender to the title.
One might have supposed that the grace of the Christian God
would be sufficient to ensure that converts remained converted.
Yet we do not need to look far to find defectors from the Christian
ranks throughout the world. There have even been cases of Christians
spontaneously adopting Judaism. A whole Italian village was
converted in this way in 1930*.
Young, intelligent and newly independent Christians are particularly
vulnerable to desertion. One chaplain has reported that among
first year university graduates the defection rate is over 90
per cent*. As we have already
seen, it is not at all difficult to find priests and other church
leaders who have discovered themselves to have been mistaken,
and who chose to leave their Church. There are hundreds of thousands
of them. Perhaps even more would leave the safety and comfort
of their Mother, the Church, if they were more employable. It
is a mysterious God indeed who chooses a particular man as a
vehicle for his word, who gives him absolute knowledge through
faith, who calls him to holy service, and then takes away this
knowledge and discards him for the dole queue. It is even odder
that God should have recently started calling women in this
way as well, and then discarding them too.
Historically, Christianity has suffered massive desertions
by the faithful. Whole countries that were once Christian are
no longer so. Many millions have gone over to the Muslim camp.
Almost all of the lands where Christianity flourished in its
formative years have turned away from it. In Roman times the
Christian Church was strong throughout Galatia and other parts
of Asia Minor. Now it is reduced to a few small pockets of exotic
minority Christian sects. Of the seven Churches of Asia ( Ephesus,
Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Laodicea and Philadelphia)
to which the Revelation of St John is addressed, not a single
one remains. All defected to Islam.
The Seven Churches of Asia - all disappeared,
despite their guardian angels
So too in Palestine and Syria; in Egypt and other parts of
North Africa; Yemen, Nubia and other parts of Arabia; Persia,
Mesopotamia and other parts of Central Asia. Many of the cities
that had been so important to early Christianity were lost.
To take another example of mass apostasy, huge numbers of Christians
in Albania defected to Islam after the Turks subjugated that
country in 1521. In short, Christianity has been all but eliminated
from many areas and countries where it once flourished. This
is all the more curious in view of the fact that, historically,
Muslims have been remarkable tolerant, allowing Christians to
keep their faith, their churches, their schools, and even their
own laws. God it seems is content to allow whole countries to
desert his one true religion in favour of a false one. More
curious still, God is prepared to allow Islam to become the
fastest growing faith in the world today. One might have thought
that he would support his own side a little more robustly. Mass
desertions are difficult to reconcile with the idea that faith
furnishes unimpeachable proof. No one who possessed such faith
would ever abandon it. Are we to believe that almost no one
in all of these areas had real faith? Were all these countries
full of pretend believers before the Muslims arrived? It does
not sound likely.
As we shall see later there are many other reasons for suspicion
about faith: anthropological (faith is largely cultural), sociological
(faith is related to age, class, education and intelligence),
psychological (faith is more common among certain personality
types), and even psychiatric (absolute faith in one religion
is often replaced by absolute faith in a series of others, following
successive divine revelations).