Why Faith? Reviewing Mittelberg's Book "Confident Faith" Part 3

Mark Mittelberg is a bestselling author, sought-after speaker, and the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic Evangelism, in partnership with Houston Baptist University. He wrote the book Confident Faith: Building a Firm Foundation for Your Belief (2013)—which won the Outreach Magazine's 2014 apologetics book of the year award. Yet, it appears his book has been flying under the atheist radar—so far. I aim to rectify that with a few posts offering my thoughts and criticisms of it.

The third important matter that comes to mind is to wonder what Mittelberg was thinking when he defined faith? He defines faith as "beliefs and actions that are based on something considered to be trustworthy--even in the absence of proof" (p. 2). According to Mittelberg then, if your conclusions (i.e., beliefs) and actions are located above the threshold of what is trustworthy, you have a reasonable faith. If they are located below that threshold, you have an unreasonable faith. His main polemical point is that everyone has faith. For if we base our conclusions on anything less than absolute proof we do so on faith.

Mittelberg brashly tells readers Richard Dawkins has faith because on his 1-7 spectrum of atheist probability Dawkins is only a 6.9! Dawkins's conclusion, he says, "is a belief that he holds in the absence of real proof...one that goes beyond what can be known with certainty." (p. 4) "Dawkins doesn't know there is no God...Rather he takes it on faith there is actually no God" (p. 4, italics from Mittelberg). Dawkins "exhibits what might best be described as a religious faith" Mittelberg says, because he can only say God "almost certainly does not exist" (p. 141, italics from Mittelberg).

What does the word "faith" describe at this point? It doesn't just describe Christian beliefs about invisible beings and supernatural forces beyond our sight. It describes every conclusion we have, up until there's absolute proof. When can we say we are in possession of knowledge? Mittelberg doesn't say. It's unclear, since he says Dawkins doesn't know a god doesn't exist until he can say with certainty that a god doesn't exist.

In this book Mittelberg doesn't talk about knowledge in the context of faith. There's nothing comparing and/or contrasting faith with knowledge. So I can't tell when we have knowledge according to him. At all. He's exclusively talking about beliefs. So long as one's beliefs are based on that which is trustworthy, believers have a confident faith. If one's beliefs are not based on that which is trustworthy, believers have a less than confident faith. But if one's beliefs are not based on anything trustworthy at all, believers have a blind faith. And we're all believers!

Why would Christian apologists want to argue we all have faith? It's because they are stuck with that word. It's in the Bible. If to have faith is to have less than adequate evidence for a conclusion or action, that word must be redefined in an era where evidence and reasoning are valued above the risk or leap of faith. That redefinition process must take place so it doesn't sound strange for apologists to defend faith as a virtue. Just say we all have faith. It's one of the biggest examples of Orwellian doublespeak I can think of. Doublespeak is changing the definition of a word to mean the opposite as the truth. Doublespeak distorts words in order to obfuscate the truth. Faith is no longer to be considered as "walking by faith not sight" (II Corinthians 5:7) but rather to to walk according to sight, which is the same thing as faith!

Christians speak as if it's virtuous to have faith. The Bible certainly does since God and Jesus require it. And it's required in prayer, even the challenge to have faith as great as a mustard seed. But why? Why should it be virtuous to believe on that which is probable, if a confident faith is a probable faith based upon a high degree of trustworthy evidence? To the degree something is probable is the same degree I can't help but accept its conclusion. So no reasonable person should be rewarded for accepting a probable conclusion based on good strong evidence. It's what is expected. The only way faith could be considered a virtue is when someone accepts a conclusion (and/or acts on it) with less than convincing evidence. God is pleased with that kind of faith, one that takes risks and leaps into the unknown. Hebrews 11 is the faith chapter where ordinary people did great things due to the risks, yes the risks of faith. Without any risks why are these people considered heroes? Peter is another example. He leaped out of the boat to walk on water. That's what biblical faith is about. It's not staying within the safety of the boat, as I preached, and as others do from pulpits around the globe.

Giving financially beyond one's means that god will provide is another leap of faith example, asked in Malachi 3:8-11. What if every time believers gave financially beyond their means they were divinely rewarded with money? Every single time. Then it would no longer be a risk of faith to do so. What joy would Mittelberg's god get out of that? God would be viewed like a bank. "I need some money," a believer says, "so I'll give my seed faith to my god because he'll double it." I don't see how that would show god anything to be rewarded. Is Mittelberg's god really pleased if person x only acts when the evidence is overwhelming on behalf of said action? What if person x never takes a risk, a leap of faith? What pleasure would his god get out of that? Faith by definition must involve a risk. The greater the risk the greater the biblical god is pleased.

If however, faith is probabilistic in nature (i.e., either above and below the trustworthy threshold) and Mittelberg's god rewards probabilistic thinking, then his god would end up rewarding smart people, educated people who could properly assess the probabilities of the evidence. And if that's what he's rewarding why didn't he just say so? I can hear his god now, saying, "I'm pleased with reasonable people who proportion their conclusions to the strength of the evidence." Oops, but then his god would sound like David Hume, since Hume said that. Is that what confident faith is all about? To follow the wise man in chapter 10 of Hume's Essay Concerning Human Understanding?

In between the extremes of certainty and impossibility there are a lot of different probabilities for something, stretching from extremely improbable, very improbable, improbable, and slightly improbable to even odds, slightly probable, probable, very probable, and extremely probable. As I have said, we should think exclusively in terms of probabilities. We don’t have a word to differentiate between the odds on that continuum stretching from virtually impossible to virtually certain. But does anyone really want to suggest the word faith applies to these different probabilities such that there is the same amount of faith required to accept any one of them? If so, that is being irrational. If believers want to say that more faith is required to accept something that is virtually impossible and less faith is required to accept something that is virtually certain, what can they possibly mean? What is faith at that point? Faith adds nothing to the actual probabilities. Having more of it or less of it does not change anything.

When we compare the assured results of science to the assured faiths of believers in extraordinary supernatural miracle claims that are virtually impossible within the natural world (for example, virgin births, fulfilled prophecies, resurrections, and miraculous healings), if science is based on faith there is a gigantic difference between scientific “faith” and religious faith. At their very best, miracle claims are extremely improbable, as they concern rare, nonrepeatable, and nontestable events. At their very worst, scientific claims are extremely probable, regular, repeatable, and testable. There is simply no epistemic parity here at all. If I have faith then there is a gigantic difference between scientific "faith" and religious faith. At best, miracle claims are extremely improbable rare non-repeatable non-testable ones. At worst, scientific claims are extremely probable regular repeatable testable ones. Q.E.D. [Click on Chart]

Since the English language has the words belief and faith in our dictionaries we instinctively use them when other words would be better. No scientifically minded person should say, “I believe the earth is round” or “I believe our universe began with a big bang,” or “I believe two parallel lines do not intersect.” That is a misuse of the word, a word inherited in the Christian Western world. We know these things to be the case. When someone says, “I believe it will rain tomorrow” or “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning,” these are predictions. Predictions are either based on good evidence or they are not. So the proper way to speak would be: “I predict it will rain tomorrow.” When it comes to the sun rising we should say: “I know the sun will rise tomorrow.” The same thing goes for the sentence, “I believe that the accused is innocent of the crime.” One could be intending to say “I hope” or “I trust” or “I desire that he is innocent of the crime.” If the person has solid evidence to back it up then he can say, “I know he’s innocent.” Then we can evaluate the evidence.

David Eller explains, “Most of the time when we say that we ‘believe that’ something, we are really engaging in some other activity than belief.” Eller writes that in “situations where the evidence is inadequate and the question is unsettled, it is wise for us to neither believe nor disbelieve but to wait for more information . . . if the evidence warrants a positive conclusion, accept it as true; if the evidence warrants a negative conclusion, reject it as false; if the evidence warrants no conclusion, postpone arriving at a conclusion while pursuing more information. But at no point is belief warranted, necessary or helpful.” He continues, “Belief can never be anything better than premature arrival at a conclusion (figuratively ‘jumping to a conclusion’) and can often be much worse, like accepting an unjustified and more-than-likely false conclusion.” Eller concludes, “There is knowledge and there are other kinds of things—opinions, hypotheses, theories, preferences, predictions, hopes, values, and wishes—but belief quite emphatically and thoroughly has no place in our mental world.” [Quoted on pages 215-216 in Loftus The Outsider Test for Faith]

I suspect Mittelberg and other Christian apologists just cannot stomach the biblical examples so they have to make something up that sounds more reasonable. In the process there's a whole lot of double-speak going on when it comes to faith.

Take the story of doubting Thomas, who supposedly saw the resurrected Jesus and believed in the Gospel of John chapter 20:
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This was written so that those who merely hear of the tale would believe even though they did not see it for themselves. Faith isn't seeing. It's believing. This echos Paul's saying in II Corinthians 5:7: "For we walk by faith, not by sight."

Look also at Hebrews 11 verse 1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." In Albert Barnes's Notes on the Bible he comments on the word "substance":
The word "substance" properly means “that which is placed under” (Germ. Unterstellen); then “ground, basis, foundation, support.” Then it means also “reality, substance, existence,” in contradistinction from what is unreal, imaginary, or deceptive (täuschung ). “Passow.” It seems to me, therefore, that the word here has reference to something which imparts reality in the view of the mind to those things which are not seen, and which serves to distinguish them from those things which are unreal and illusive...As long as the faith continues, whether it be well-founded or not, it gives all the force of reality to what is believed. We feel and act just as if it were so, or as if we saw the object before our eyes. This, I think, is the clear meaning here. We do not see the things of eternity. We do not see God, or heaven, or the angels, or the redeemed in glory, or the crowns of victory, or the harps of praise; but we have faith in them, and this leads us to act as if we saw them. [Emphasis mine]. LINK.
On the phrase "the evidence of things not seen" Albert Barnes Notes tells us this:
The evidence of things not seen - Of the existence of God; of heaven; of angels; of the glories of the world suited for the redeemed...“Faith in the divine declarations answers all the purposes of a convincing argument, or is itself a convincing argument to the mind, of the real existence of those things which are not seen.”

In like manner the Christian believes what God says. He has never seen heaven; he has never seen an angel; he has never seen the Redeemer; he has never seen a body raised from the grave. “But he has evidence which is satisfactory to his mind that God has spoken on these subjects,” and his very nature prompts him to confide in the declarations of his Creator. Those declarations are to his mind more convincing proof than anything else would be. They are more conclusive evidence than would be the deductions of his own reason; far better and more rational than all the reasonings and declarations of the infidel to the contrary. He feels and acts, therefore, as if these things were so - for his faith in the declarations of God has convinced him that they are so. LINK
I know, I know, I know this is just one commentary. But look what Barnes admits about the New Testament definition of faith. Faith is the foundation for the things hoped for. What's hoped for is based in one's faith. What's that again? You hope for the return of Jesus? Based on what? Faith! Praise Jesus! What does evidence got to do with it? Not a thing. Faith is the only evidence needed for the things unseen.

And to think, the writer of Hebrews states, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6, NIV). Well, then I'm out, as should be every reasonable adult.

Now I know Christians might sill disagree with what I've written here. They still think faith is a virtue. So let’s just put it a different way and see if we can agree. In his book Atheism: The Case Against God, George Smith argued against “faith as an alleged method of acquiring knowledge.” He wrote: “faith as an alleged method of acquiring knowledge is totally invalid—and as a consequence, all propositions of faith, because they lack rational demonstration, must conflict with reason.” (p. 120) What I want to know is if any given Christian agrees with this. If he of she does then there is not much else to discuss. If not, then Christians needs to explain how faith provides any objective knowledge about matters of fact, that is, about the nature of nature and its workings.

For an earlier post on "faith" from which I drew upon here, see this.