When it comes to understanding the nature of reality - how we got here, what the purpose of human beings is, etc. - I always used to think the world was divided between two camps: those who live by faith (religious people), and those who don't (secular people).
While the former group makes the proverbial "leap of faith" to make their conclusions and act accordingly, the latter group is careful to remain within the realm of reason and empiricism to form the basis of their worldview.
However, as I rigorously questioned my own beliefs over the past year, and investigated the various schools of thought and the history of ideas, I came to the surprising (to me, anyway) realization:
Everyone, everyone, lives by faith.
And while I'm no sociologist, I think that the more quickly we recognize (and admit) this, the more easily and effectively we can have conversations with those who believe differently than we do. If we understand that each and every one of us operates based on various faith assumptions, that will at least partially open the doors toward more fluid and respectful dialogue.
My goal in this article isn't to make a case for which belief system is correct, but rather to help "make visible" the reality that we all live by faith, and why understanding that can help us all better engage and understand one another.
The Undercurrent of Our Secular Age
Many (not all) people in modern Western society who don't believe in Christianity, or who slide away from traditional religion, don't necessarily turn to hard atheism (asserting to know that there's no God). Rather, what's more common is to form a position that's fairly skeptical and goes something like this:
"I'm just standing here in a neutral position of objectivity. I don't have a side, I don't claim to know all truth, I don't assert there is no God, but I also don't know enough to say that there is a God.....I'm open-minded, and I'm willing to hear Christians' arguments for why there's a God, but as of now I don't think there's enough (if any) evidence to convince me. I don't have any religious beliefs, I don't have any faith assumptions. I'm simply a rational person who lives by reason and empiricism."
I bring this up for two reasons. First, it's important for Christians to understand that not everyone who disbelieves in God necessarily takes the stance of claiming to know there is no God. On the chart below, they may fall in one of the boxes on the left-hand side, rather than the one on the top right.
Second, it's vital to appreciate the underpinning thought process of our culture because, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out in his large tome A Secular Age, our Western secular culture is probably the first culture in history that doesn't believe it has beliefs.
Western secular people feel (understandably) their viewpoints to be so self-evident and universally true, or backed by scientific evidence, that their positions are not even visible to them as what they are: beliefs.
The Invisible Belief Web of Modern Secular Culture
Taylor explains how nobody can function without some kind of faith or religious belief, it's just that Western people tend not to see it.
For example, everybody, from the religious fanatic to the stalwart atheist, has a worldview through which they determine how to interpret and live life itself. As Tim Keller explains in Every Good Endeavor, the term "worldview" comes from the German word Weltanschauung, which means the comprehensive perspective from which we interpret all of reality.
And any worldview consists of posing and answering three questions:
1. How are things supposed to be?
2. What is the main problem with things as they are?
3. What is the solution and how can it be realized?
Everybody has an answer to those questions - whether explicitly or tacitly - and lives their life accordingly.
Here are a few others:
- Where did human beings come from?
- What should human beings be doing?
- How do you determine right and wrong?
Can anybody prove, empirically or scientifically, any of the answers to the above questions? Can one determine the correct answers in a laboratory? No, of course not. So no matter what your answer is to each question, it's a belief. It's not self-evident nor empirically provable.
Taking it a bit further, can the atheist or agnostic prove there is no god, or, if there is a god, that it's a god who doesn't care how human beings live (and therefore won't execute judgement)? No, and since it can't be proven, what is that? It's a faith assumption. A belief. No less a belief than the theist who believes in a god. (This is different than discussing purple dragons, which I won't address here.)
Here's a final one: do you believe in human rights? That we should care for the poor? That stronger people shouldn't oppress weaker people?
Many secular people believe that since there's no supernatural, we arrived here by a process of natural selection: strong eating the weak. But, now we've reached the point where everybody should stop that. Even though that's how it works in nature, we shouldn't do that any longer. Strong people should not trample on weak people.
To hold a purely natural view of the universe, and yet believe in universal human rights and that people in power shouldn't stomp on the rights of those who are not in power, is a complete leap of faith, is it not?
[This was one of Friedrich Nietzsche's primary critiques, that to believe in an impersonal universe, and yet hold that all human beings should be treated with equal dignity, is actually not a very rational position, and in fact a rather large leap in the dark, as the conclusion (human rights) doesn't follow from the premise (a natural universe).]
I hope it's evident that what I'm not saying is that I think secular people should abandon their commitment to caring for the poor and standing up for human rights (!).
After all, there are many atheists and agnostics who do more for human flourishing and caring for the poor than religious people do. The point is that we all, to at least some level, think and act based on beliefs, rather than things that can be scientifically proven.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Science is great. I fully believe we should continue forward with the scientific method - formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses - to help us better understand the world and uncover more answers.
Also, I love deeply all my atheist and agnostic friends, and I continue to learn and be challenged as I engage in thoughtful dialogue with them.
However, while I don't think heated debates will die any time soon, there are a few things I think will at least help matters:
1. I realize these kinds of discussions aren't everyone's cup of tea, but a lot of great things happen when you're able to amicably engage in dialogue with someone who believes differently, ask them questions, and try to genuinely appreciate where they're coming from. We're not purely rational creatures - we're all shaped by our culture, our friends, and our upbringing - and it helps to know the background and the "why" behind the views of those we're close to.
2. Christians who make assumptions about what their atheist and agnostic friends and family believe/think, should genuinely dive into their world and see what they actually believe and how they operate. A lot becomes tangled and turned upside down because of presuppositions.
3. Secular folk can recognize the beliefs "hiding" in the foundations of their worldview, and, in the interest of fairness, demand as much proof for their own beliefs as they do for those held by Christians.
4. Everyone should acknowledge that no one has all the answers, and that we can all learn from each other. We're all bumbling along this path together, and it doesn't help to get in shouting matches. Critical, thoughtful, respectful dialogue goes a long way.
It's not "faith vs. reason," but rather, "belief and belief." And we can talk about the nature of things in a manner that isn't so different than how scientific theories are justified: asking ourselves "what has the most explanatory power to explain the data we have to work with in front of us?"