by Alister McGrath
Let's begin by looking at that definition of faith, and ask where it comes from. Faith `means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.' But why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition? What is the evidence that this is how religious people define faith? Dawkins is coy at this point, and adduces no religious writer to substantiate this highly implausible definition, which appears to have been conceived with the deliberate intention of making religious faith seem a piece of intellectual buffoonery. I don't accept this idea of faith, and I have yet to meet a theologian who takes it seriously. It cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination. It is Dawkins' own definition, constructed with his own agenda in mind, being represented as if it were characteristic of those he wishes to criticise.
What is really worrying is that Dawkins genuinely seems to believe that faith actually is `blind trust', despite the fact that no major Christian writer adopts such a definition. This is a core belief for Dawkins, which determines more or less every aspect of his attitude to religion and religious people. Yet core beliefs often need to be challenged. For, as Dawkins once remarked of Paley's ideas on design, this belief is `gloriously and utterly wrong'.
Faith, Dawkins tells us, `means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.' This may be what Dawkins thinks; it is not what Christians think. Let me provide a definition of faith offered by W. H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924), a noted Anglican theologian who was one of my predecessors as Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. The definition of faith that he offers is typical of any Christian writer.
[Faith] affects the whole of man's nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.
It's a good and reliable definition, synthesising the core elements of the characteristic Christian understanding of faith. And this faith `commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence.' I see no point in wearying readers with other quotations from Christian writers down the ages in support of this point. In any case, it is Dawkins' responsibility to demonstrate that his skewed and nonsensical definition of `faith' is characteristic of Christianity through evidence-based argument.
Having set up his straw man, Dawkins knocks it down. It is not an unduly difficult or demanding intellectual feat. Faith is infantile, we are told - just fine for cramming into the minds of impressionable young children, but outrageously immoral and intellectually risible in the case of adults. We've grown up now, and need to move on. Why should we believe things that can't be scientifically proved? Faith in God, Dawkins argues, is just like believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. When you grow up, you grow out of it.
This is a schoolboy argument that has accidentally found its way into a grown-up discussion. It is as amateurish as it is unconvincing. There is no serious empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was about six years old. After being an atheist for some years, I discovered God when I was eighteen, and have never regarded this as some kind of infantile regression. As I noticed while researching The Twilight of Atheism, a large number of people come to believe in God in later life - when they are `grown up'. I have yet to meet anyone who came to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy late in life.
If Dawkins' rather simplistic argument has any plausibility, it requires a real analogy between God and Santa Claus to exist - which it clearly does not. Everyone knows that people do not regard belief in God as belonging to the same category as these childish beliefs. Dawkins, of course, argues that they both represent belief in non-existent entities. But this represents a very elementary confusion over which is the conclusion and which the presupposition of an argument.