There are many charges atheists level at Christians, but one of the most common is that their faith is blind—that is to say, faith is belief without evidence. Leading atheist voice Richard Dawkins writes, “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion” (“Is Science a Religion?”, The Humanist, Jan-Feb 1997). Julian Baginni, British atheistic philosopher and editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, concurs: “Belief in the supernatural is belief in what there is a lack of strong evidence to believe in” (Atheism: A Short Introduction, 32).
Jesus and blind faith
Such digs seem justified with regard to Christianity, since Jesus said, “Blessed is he who believes and does not see” (John 20:28). It is this text that led Baginni to think Christianity endorses blind faith (Atheism: A Short Introduction, 33). It also caused confusion for a recent inquirer who called our radio show, Catholic Answers Live.
So, is Jesus endorsing blind faith? Or is that a misinterpretation? I argue the latter.
Won’t believe unless I see
Jesus is not emphasizing belief without evidence but belief without physical sight and touch. Recall that Thomas said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). As Christian apologist John Lennox argues, such empirical verification is just one kind of evidence (Gunning for God, 44). Therefore, it doesn’t follow that from Jesus’ praise of belief without physical sight we must believe without evidence (blind faith).
So what other kind of evidence is there? The narrative itself tells us. Notice Thomas’s doubt is in response to the testimony of the apostles: “We have seen the Lord.” Although Thomas’s belief would have been without sight if he had believed the apostles, it would not have been without evidence, since the testimony of the apostles is a kind of evidence. This provides a rationale behind Jesus’ rebuke of Thomas—namely, the apostles’ testimony was sufficient for rational belief.
No blind faith allowed
This is how St. John the Evangelist views his own Gospel and epistles. With regard to his Gospel, he writes, “[Jesus’ signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). John sees his testimony of Jesus’ miracles (“signs”) as sufficient evidence to merit rational belief by those who couldn’t see him perform the signs.
He writes in a similar way in his first epistle:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us (1 John 1:1, 3).
John makes it clear he doesn’t intend nonbelievers to become members of Christianity with blind faith. He is offering his testimony, along with the testimony of the other apostles, as evidence reason would demand for rational belief. To the nonbeliever who questions, “Why should I believe?”, John is saying, “Because we saw him risen from the dead, we talked to him, we touched him,” etc. This is a far cry from Christianity endorsing blind faith.
“But,” a nonbeliever may retort, “we would need to assess whether John’s testimony is credible.” Sure we would. Many questions would abound: Is he lying? Did he hallucinate? Did he have a vision? But because John’s testimony is embedded in a historical context—there was a man named Jesus, he died, his tomb was empty three days after his death, and many people thereafter saw him, talked to him, and ate with him—we have something to test that if proven worthy it could merit rational belief.
It would be different if John were saying, “I proclaim to you, Jesus, whom I, and everyone else, have never seen or touched. You just have to believe!” In this case there would be nothing to test, and thus one would have to make a blind act of faith. But this is not what John is requiring of nonbelievers.
In a pickle
Now, not only do Baginni and others like him falsely accuse Christianity of endorsing blind faith, Baginni puts himself in a pickle by suggesting belief without physical sight is belief without evidence. Would he say a scientist’s belief in gravity and subatomic particles is not evidence-based, since scientists can’t physically see these things? Would he say a historian’s belief that Napoleon fought the battle of Waterloo is not evidence-based if that historian never saw Napoleon fight the battle? I assume Baginni personally wouldn’t want to conclude such things. But if he were to be consistent with the logic of his critique of Christian faith, then he would have to make such conclusions.
A rejection of science?
If Baginni and Dawkins were to apply their aversion to blind faith to science as they do to the Christian faith, then they would have to reject science also. For example, the practice of science presupposes belief in scientific conclusions. But not every scientist can empirically verify every scientific theory for himself. If Baginni and Dawkins were to be consistent, they would have to reject all scientific theories they had never personally verified.
Furthermore, the logic of Baginni and Dawkins undermines science, because science presupposes belief in the rational intelligibility of the universe. As Paul Davies writes:
Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us (1995 Templeton Prize Address).
Science is not a matter of imposing on the universe our sense of human order. It is a matter of unveiling and discovering the order and intelligibility already present. But that presupposes certain beliefs: that order and intelligibility are inherent to the universe; and that our minds are capable of discovering such order and intelligibility. If belief were as bad as Baginni and others argue it is when criticizing Christian faith, then science would never get off the ground.
The faith Christians are called to have in Jesus is not belief without evidence but a response to the evidence. It is not “a blind impulse of the mind,” because there are “motives of credibility”—e.g., miracles, prophecies fulfilled, the Church’s growth, the Church’s holiness, and the Church’s stability (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 156).
Even belief in God is not a blind impulse of the mind, for there are many good arguments that make God’s existence more reasonable than not—even some that demonstrate God’s existence (e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas’s Second Way). Unfortunately, many atheists fail to distinguish warranted belief and unwarranted belief, thinking all belief is unwarranted. As a result, some Christians think they have to leave reason at the door of faith, but nothing could be further from the truth.