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Why chairs are a poor metaphor for faith


Every so often in discussions of faith and reason, the metaphor comes up that I exercise faith by having confidence to sit down in a chair.

What if the chair were to break? Bet you didn’t consider that one.

As the idea stands, it depends upon a simple claim that faith and confidence are one in the same.

Does the certainty we have in chairs demonstrate that we have faith in general, and thus undermine by ad hominem the atheist’s claim that faith is irrational?

No, because it ignores an important distinction in the objects of faith in each scenario. In the first scenario, the reason I exercise such confidence in chairs is that I have observed in the past that they hold strong. My mind quickly estimates the probably of a chair breaking as the same as the number of times it has happened to me before divided by the number of chairs I’ve enjoyed. In this case, my faith depends upon the law of cause and effect.

In the case of God or more generally the supernatural, the faith exercised depends upon that which by definition exists external to the five senses. While you have observed the chair many times, you have not observed the supernatural many times. In fact, you have never observed the supernatural, because any interaction between the supernatural and natural is, from our perspective, natural. We don’t see the supernatural hand of God in rearranging human circumstances, we only see the circumstances themselves.

Notice that faith is the evidence of things not seen, per Hebrews 11.

But more generally than this ignored distinction, the real problem is in the equation of faith with confidence. Faith does not equal confidence. For far too long the concept of faith has been hijacked by fundamentalist streams of anti-modern Evangelical thought originating in the 1920’s which wholly posit the Christian experience as an intellectual one.

Yet the scriptures are absurdly clear that faith is not belief. James writes that “even the demons believe, and they shudder,” meaning that being convinced of an idea is not equivalent to faith in it. Supernatural beings like the demons are, I assume, explicitly aware of the existence of God. They are explicitly aware of his power and the metaphysical imperative to submit to his authority. Why do they not follow him?

Faith is a composite term for three distinct convictions. First, that a person believes that something is true. Then, that a person believes that thing is morally good and therefore worth acting towards, rather than against. Finally, that a person acts towards it.

The final step of action is what distinguishes faith from belief. A way to formulate this would be to say that Belief + Desire + Action = Faith. So to say that faith is confidence is to ignore the second and third steps.

Stop using this metaphor. It reduces faith.


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