When faith won’t fit in the pagan pigeonhole.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 November

’Cause skeptics hate it when you inform ’em you don’t believe in wishful thinking either.

When Christians define the word faith, we go with the definition found in Hebrews. “The solid basis of hope, the proof of actions we’ve not seen,” is how I usually put it. He 11.1 We haven’t seen something, but we believe it anyway—for solid reasons. Usually ’cause we’re taking someone’s word for it, like Jesus’s.

When pagans define it, they either go with wishful thinking, blind optimism, or the ability to believe imaginary things without evidence. You know, stuff we shouldn’t believe. And to be fair, some Christians do think of faith that way, ’cause they haven’t read Hebrews, or their leaders did a sucky job teaching ’em about faith. It’s not like they got their false definition from nowhere.

Yep, I read Hebrews, and my church leaders were pretty good about defining faith accurately. So when skeptical pagans start to mock faith—“Oh, you Christians only believe that rubbish because you want so bad for it to be true”—I correct ’em. Christian faith is based on evidence, not wishes. Based on the testimony of those who’ve seen stuff and shared it. 1Jn 1.1-4 Based on trustworthy, knowledgeable people, like Jesus. Based on the scriptures, which were written by such people. Wishing doesn’t make it so; wishing makes nothing so.

In Christianity, faith ultimately takes Jesus’s word for it. In the rest of life, we tend to take other people’s word for it. When reporters present the news, we take their word for it. When a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other reference work says something’s so, we take their authors’ word for it. When a scientific journal makes a claim, we take the researcher’s word for it—or we do the research ourselves and debunk ’em, but more often it’s easier to just presume they did the research properly and do take their word for it. In every last one of these areas, we’re practicing faith. ’Cause like Hebrews describes it, these are actions we’ve not seen. But we have a solid basis for believing ’em anyway.

Now. When I explain it to pagans that way, you’d think they’d respond, “Oh! That’s surprising. I didn’t realize you guys thought about faith that way. I’m still not sure I’d reach the same conclusions about God as you, but it’s good to know you put some intellectual rigor into your belief system.”

Instead it’s more like, “…No that’s not what you people mean by faith. It’s the ability to believe imaginary stuff as if it’s real. You’re trying to pull a fast one.”

And sometimes it’s outrage. “How dare you compare my trusting a scientist in any way with your religious belief in God. What I’m doing isn’t faith. Faith is a religious thing. It has nothing at all to do with what I practice.”

Either way, pagan skeptics absolutely hate our definition. They imagine they have religion all sorted out. When they’re told otherwise, they lose their cool: Their worldview is based on the idea faith is purely a religious practice—and a dumb one—which has nothing whatsoever to do with the real, material world of facts, evidence, logic, science, and reason. Faith is for the religious; they’re not religious; ergo they don’t do faith. Period. Don’t you dare use the F-word on them.

Why does it freak ’em out so much? Well they‘re gonna hate this explanation too: They’re really fond of the idea religion is intellectually pathetic. Makes ’em feel good about themselves for being irreligious. Finding out they’re wrong—that they never made the effort to find out what religion actually has in it; that their dismissive attitudes are actually based on prejudice and presumption—shakes their faith in their skepticism. Getting your faith shaken tends to freak anyone out, Christian or not.

Yep, I used the F-word to describe ’em again. Hey, if the word fits.

The bad examples of faithless Christians.

Like I said, pagan skeptics didn’t get their false definitions of faith from a vacuum. Plenty of Christians are doing faith wrong.

These folks base their beliefs—whether religious, political, economic, or what have you—on wishful thinking. They believe stuff about Jesus because they hope it’s true, vote for their party because they hope it’s right, go deep into debt or buy lottery tickets because they hope they’ll do better someday… and none of this stuff is gonna pan out, and they have no evidence whatsoever it will. But they’ve convinced themselves if they just believe hard enough, it might.

Y’know, if skeptics wanna mock this kind of thinking, I say let ’em. Have at it. Go to town. ’Cause it’s stupid. The writer of Proverbs had no qualms about mocking foolish ideas. Or even fools themselves, though I’ll be kinder than that.

It’s really hard to be kind, though. Christians who practice wishful thinking are really annoying. From time to time I get ’em in my classes. They’re nearly impossible to teach. I try to explain how the things they believe have absolutely no basis in scripture, Christian history, logic, fact, anything… and they don’t care. They believe it anyway. They know all, and know best. They won’t even let the Holy Spirit correct ’em. Their “faith” (really, their treasured beliefs) is a precious thing they possess; an object, an idol.

So I get why skeptics have nothing but contempt for such people. I’d share their contempt… if I lacked compassion.

Anyway. Just because some Christians get this way, of course doesn’t mean we’re all like that. It‘s a common fallacy to take one or two experiences and presume every Christian is a stubborn know-it-all who has no idea how little they truly know. Same as if you met a really generous, patient, kind Christian (you know, like we’re meant to be) and assumed we’re all like that; or of course a really stingy, angry, rude Christian. I totally understand if you’ve experienced good Christians or bad Christians, and are stereotyping. It’s still faulty logic though. Like shaking one pink marshmallow Lucky Charm out of an empty box of cereal, and concluding from this they’re all pink marshmallows.

So when I talk with pagans about faith, I need to define it properly right away. Fairly early in the conversation.

I’ve made the mistake of not doing so. At one point, when I was talking about one of the more-difficult-to-believe ideas in Christianity, the pagan replied, “Oh, you believe in such things because you have [scoff] faith.” In other words, “You believe in such things because believe in fairy tales. Whereas I outgrew unicorns and leprechauns in the second grade.”

In other words, this particular pagan had presumed all my statements thus far were based on imaginary wishful thinking. And of course taken none of it seriously. So now I had to back up and explain what faith actually is. Problem is, when you explain your definitions in mid-conversation, people will accuse you of changing your definitions in mid-conversation. It’s messy.

So like I said: Fairly early in the conversation. Which they’re gonna hate because it turns faith into something they can’t easily dismiss. It means they’re dealing with thinking, reasonable individuals, not easy-to-defeat religious loonies. It means they gotta deal with their trust issues… you know, the same trust issues which made them skeptics in the first place.

It means might have to deal with the very real likelihood God exists in the real world. And interacts with it. And can no longer be avoided.