Victor J. Stenger asserts: 'Faith is always foolish...Science is belief in the presence of supportive evidence...faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence.' Christopher Hitchens portrays all religion as 'a surrender of reason in favour of faith.' A.C. Grayling states: 'Faith is a stance or an attitude of belief independent of, and characteristically in the countervailing face of, evidence. It is non-rational at best, and is probably irrational given that it involves deliberate ignoring of evidence, or commitment despite lack of evidence.'The examples continue, but you get the gist according to these opinions: Faith is a belief absent of evidence, often in the face of contrary evidence. So some say.
While it is true these authors' propensity for high-flown bombast may betray the assertion of rationality proposed by these same authors, perhaps a less-dramatic skeptic or other layperson may still wonder whether or not faith is something necessarily lacking "evidence."
As always, this blog focuses on explanations of Catholicism. It is worthwhile to demonstrate whether or not the Church, when referring to faith, is asking souls to believe in the absence of evidence or in the face of contrary evidence.
So "that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit." Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability "are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all"; they are "motives of credibility" (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is "by no means a blind impulse of the mind". (CCC#156b)You see here that the Church does not ask for belief in the "absence of supportive evidence" as one of the above-mentioned critics asserts. And the Church proceeds to cite examples of evidence such as miracles, prophecies, holiness, and fruitfulness.
Let's take a look at a few examples of just a few characteristics: miracles, holiness, and prophecies.
Certainly, the idea of Christ's resurrection from the dead is a foundation of Christianity. St. Paul went so far as to say, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile..." (1 Cor. 15:17) Miracles in Scripture are manifold. And the account of believers described therein were often compelled by such evidences among others. But let's also take a look at a few modern examples, which occurred in an age where scientific advancements allow for empirical scrutiny.
St. Edith Stein
In 1987, two-year old Benedicta McCarthy "accidentally ingested 19 times the lethal dose of acetaminophen," or Tylenol. As Benedicta lay "near death from total kidney failure and a deteriorating liver," the family asked others to pray to a deceased nun and the child's namesake, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who was born Edith Stein.
Recounting what happened as an adult, Benedicta explained her healing: "Like there was no gradual recovery. When they looked back at the doctors' notes, one of the doctors that had seen me that morning had wrote in the notes, this child has made a remarkable recovery."
The Church held tribunals to investigate the validity of this phenomenon as a potential miracle. Dr. Ronald Kleinman, the doctor who had tended to young Benedicta, explained, "I expected she would die..." and spoke of the human body's "hidden capacity to survive and when it comes it's for reasons we don't understand."
Additionally, Kleinman, said, "I don't believe in miracles in the Catholic sense. I don't believe in saints or intercession. I was blunt in saying that to the tribunals. But I said that I'm enough of a humanist and a scientist to feel that miraculous things happen beyond my understanding."
St. Marie-Marguerite d'Youville
Another modern case involves the intercession of Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, who would later be canonized a saint. A young woman was dying of acute myeloblastic leukemia. Her aunt had encouraged the girl to pray for the intercession of Marie-Marguerite. The girl was healed. This occurred in the 1970s.
In 1986, as part of the investigation as to whether or not this healing was miraculous, one of the scientists consulted was Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and atheist. Without being told details of the patient's record, Duffin was given laboratory slides from the 1970s and asked to report on what she saw.
Duffin explained, "I reasonably imagined that this woman was dead," and said that this type of cancer was "the most aggressive leukemia known." When she continued to review more slides of this patient over time, she was dumbfounded that the patient had gone into remission, relapsed, and gone into remission a second time, something Duffin perceived as most unexpected.
Dr. Jeanne Drouin, who had been treating the patient, told Dr. Duffin that the patient was still alive those many years later. Duffin recalled, "I was like thunderstruck that the woman was alive. But I was not going to say this was a miracle." Although skeptical of supernatural intervention, Duffin testified to a panel of investigating bishops and priests. Duffin described the inquiry:
"They never asked me to say this was a miracle. They wanted to know if I had a scientific explanation for why this patient was still alive. I realized they weren't asking me to endorse their beliefs. They didn't care if I was a believer or not, they cared about the science."Of her life experiences in the face of what she had seen, Dr. Duffin said, "I'm an atheist, but one who believes in miracles."
Eucharist in Buenos Aires
Another inexplicable event in recent history occurred in Buenos Aires. On August 18, 1996 a consecrated Eucharistic host was found dirty on the floor after the liturgy. The priest placed it in water in the tabernacle and waited for it to dissolve to later water a plant with it. Instead, after several days, red stains formed on the host. Over time, it appears to have transformed into human tissue and blood.
At a 2008 faith and science conference, Dr. Ricardo Castañón Gómez explained his examination of this host, which remains without decomposition to this day. Gómez testifies that he had the tissue sample sent to a laboratory in California, asking them to examine it. He "did not tell them this came from a host." They told him that the tissue was "muscle from the heart; muscle from the myocardium of the left ventricle." He later took the sample to Dr. Frederick Zugibe, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner whose expertise includes determining cause of death based on forensics of the heart. Zugibe told him that the tissue indicates the person whose heart tissue this was had suffered many wounds. Catholics, of course, believe the Eucharist is truly the sacramentally veiled but true body of Christ, who underwent many wounds in his Passion. Gómez notes that Zugibe "didn't know this was a host" when he examined the tissue. Zugibe also asked Gómez how the latter was able to provide a tissue sample that was "alive."
Gómez, once an atheist, since converted to the Church as a result of his studies. Also of note in this incident is that in 1996, when the miracle first occurred, it was Bishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who helped initiate the investigation into the phenomenon.
A recent article at ScienceNordic examined the Church's propensity of applying scientific scrutiny to miraculous claims:
When a potential miracle is reported to the Vatican, the report includes testimonies from astounded doctors who cannot find a natural explanation for the phenomenon in question.These inexplicable stories by no means come close to exhausting the hundreds of inexplicable testimonies throughout the centuries that have been understood as miracles, including those which have mystified science, even according to skeptical scientists. In light of the original critics' claim that "faith is belief in the absence of evidence," a number of questions arise in the face of these unexplained phenomena. Why, if faith is belief in the absence of evidence, does the Church bother to consult evidence? Why would the Church call on the scrutiny of skeptics? Why should these stories and testimonies not count as 'evidence'?
The cardinals then pass these testimonies on to the miracle commission, which then sends a delegation to the location where the unexplainable event took place. If the delegates fail to find a satisfactory scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon, they can call in external experts.
For the purposes of these examples, it is not critical to demonstrate that these inexplicable results were caused in some sense by a particular heavenly saint. Suffice it to say, it does not seem reasonable to dismiss such case studies as "non-evidence" with regard to the supernatural. The skeptic dismissing the evidence merely as something that has a natural explanation which has not yet been discovered must himself resort to a view that is itself speculative and absent of evidence.
St. Maximilian Kolbe
During World War II, the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe arranged for the shelter of some 3,000 war refugees, including 2,000 Jews, lamenting that they had been deprived of "even the most basic necessities." In early 1941, he was arrested by Nazi forces and was imprisoned at Pawiak prison in Warsaw. After enduring beatings for his faith, he was transferred to Auschwitz.
During his imprisonment at Auschwitz, three other prisoners escaped. To deter further escape attempts, 10 prisoners were chosen to starve to death. At hearing his name selected, one prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out for the wife and children he would never see again. Kolbe, who had not originally been selected for death, stepped forward and offered to take the man's place.
The guards accepted the exchange. Kolbe and the others spent their final days in a starvation bunker, known as the "death block." The priest led prayers and songs, emboldening the other prisoners. It signaled that his act of heroism was not merely a humanistic gesture, but rooted in the faith he lived. Kolbe was the last surviving selected prisoner. An interpreter and assistant janitor in the bunker, Bruno Borgowiec, described how Kolbe was given "an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr. Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner."
Another prisoner, Jerzy Bielecki, testified that the aftermath of Fr. Kolbe's martyrdom was "a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength. ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp."
St. Thomas More
In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII sought a declaration from Pope Clement VII that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null, i.e. that it had never been a valid marriage. Henry and Catherine had no son and, according to the custom, could not maintain succession without a male heir. A 1530 letter from Henry's delegates to the Pope makes, not a theological appeal for an annulment, but a political one. It reads in part: "[Henry] will surely guarantee stability to the kingdom if he will be able to entrust its government to a male heir." At Catherine's request, the Pope authorized an investigation into the king's demand and did not grant the decree of nullity the king desired.
During this time, Sir Thomas More served as English chancellor and held much influence. Henry tried several times to obtain More's favor that the king's marriage to Catherine was null. More consistently refused. After much effort to acquire his decree of nullity from the Church, the king usurped for himself religious authority and also secretly "married" Anne Boleyn in 1533. In 1534, he issued an Act of Succession, which described valid succession of the throne through the king's "lawful wife Queen Anne." Soon after, the king issued the Oath of Supremacy, which declared the king "supreme head of the Church of England." All nobility and even clergy were called to take this oath. More was one whom refused to take the oath, insisting on a position of silence.
Eventually, More was imprisoned for over a year for treason. At the trial of Thomas More, the prosecuting attorney, referring to More's refusal to take the oath, said, "we have your silence, which is an evident sign of the malice of your heart: because no dutiful subject, being lawfully ask'd this question, will refuse to answer."
Aware of his fate if he refused to consent to the king's usurpation of religious authority over the Pope, More replied, "As to the principal crime objected against me, that I should say upon my examination in the Tower, that this law was like a two-edged sword; for in consenting to it, I should endanger my soul, and in rejecting it should lose my life."
It is this reckoning which More considers. He can preserve his life and gain high favor with the king if he simply complies with the king's decree. Yet More bears witness to a higher prize by accepting the ultimate temporal penalty when he could have easily obtained temporal glory. More was eventually found "guilty" and beheaded soon after the trial.
Another feature of the strength of Christian truth is the fulfillment of prophecy. Skeptics may insist that prophecies are too "vague" or some such, but this form of evidence does not stand alone, as we will review later. For now, let's look at a few examples:
The expected Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)If the Jews recognized that Jesus was from Bethlehem, as the record states, his fulfillment of the Mican prophecy would be strengthened. To this day, it is almost poetic for someone from a "little" town to rise to some degree of fame. Of course, a number of persons came from Bethlehem, but Jewish and Gentile converts didn't just follow any of them. This was merely one characteristic they expected their leader to have. It is evidence.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king... (Matt. 2:1a)
The expected Messiah would die by crucifixion.
Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet -- I can count all my bones -- they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots. (Psalm 22:16-18)Here we see some specifics that Christ's followers considered compelling evidence. The Gospels' account of the crucifixion reflects all this. Christ, surrounded by murderers, was crucified (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34-35), was mocked and put on display for staring (Matt. 27:37, 40ff; John 19:37), and had his clothing divided by casting lots (27:35). John also specifically describes the nails that pierced Christ's hands (20:25, 27), and in Luke, the resurrected Christ reveals his identity by showing his hands and feet to the disciples (24:39). What is worth noting is that there were prior attempts to murder Christ, such as by stoning him (John 10:31), but Christ escaped.
John, who was at the foot of the cross, also notes additional features of the crucifixion consistent with prophecies. Pilate had ordered that the legs of the crucified Christ and the two thieves be broken. But John recalls how the legs of the two thieves were broken, but they did not proceed to break Christ's (19:33). Why? Because Jesus already appeared dead and to test that diagnosis, one of the soldiers pierced him in the side with a spear (19:34) instead of breaking his legs as was originally ordered. In these two characteristics of the event, John recognizes two other prophecies of the crucifixion:
He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. (Psalm 34:20)Incidentally, John also recognizes theological fulfillment in that Christ's bones were not broken, because he both recognized Christ as the fulfillment of the Passover lamb (John 1:29, 36) and that the Jewish custom of celebrating the Passover specifically called for a lamb with no broken bones (cf. Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12).
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. (Zech. 12:10)
The Gospel writer John asserts that he saw this incident with his own eyes (John 19:35). These features of the crucifixion prophecies constitute "evidence" that the Apostles and subsequent Christians have considered when measuring the identity of Jesus Christ.
Old Testament prophecy said the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem as a king, yet humbly on the back of a donkey (Zech. 9:9) which occurred (Matt. 21:1-11). The crowd reacted accordingly, crying out "Hosanna!" (i.e. "save us"). Matthew 21 also records the crowd shouting "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" This signals such Old Testament texts as Psalm 118 sung during the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast includes a procession of palms (also recorded by Matthew), which are offered for the saving Lord (cf. Lev. 23:40; 2 Macc. 10:6-8). Matthew records them laying branches on the road for this man on the donkey. In the context of these Old Testament texts, we can better see why the crowd reacted as they did for a humble man riding into town on a beast of burden. It was hardly the image of nobility, but they recognized what many of these details signaled.
Many other articles about Biblical prophecy could be discussed here. Some include:
Fish Eaters: Palm Sunday
The Sacred Page: Jesus' Triumphal Entry, the Descent into Hell, and the Coming of the Messiah (Palm Sunday, Year A)
The Sacred Page: Luke 1-2: 490 Days and Daniel 9
Jimmy Akin: Who says Jesus couldn't predict the fall of Jerusalem
CatholicApologetics.Info: How Christ Fulfilled the Prophecies of Scripture
Dr. Brant Pitre: The "Ransom for Many," The New Exodus, and the End of the Exile (PDF)
Joe Heschmeyer: Three Prophecies About Christ That Could Not Have Been Made Up
Joe Heschmeyer: Daniel 2's Proof for Jesus Christ and His Church
Now, while many prophecies have the character in the form of a "prediction," that is not the only form. For example, taking a panoramic view of the Old Testament, we see the account of a certain rhythm of "two brothers," in which the firstborn or elder brother has high expectations. Examples include Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, or Esau and Jacob. In each example, the historical account of these firstborn sons describes how they ended up disinherited for one reason or other. This pattern, which finds its way into divine revelation signals the two covenants: The Old with Israel (the firstborn, cf. Ex. 4:22) and the New with Gentiles also (the younger son.) Christ is thus seen as the "firstborn" (Luke 2:7) son who finally succeeds and delivers the due inheritance of the Father. Parallels like these are manifold in Scripture and lend to the Christian faith a certain coherence and also prophetic magnanimity.
I will merely give one more example for the sake of brevity. The account of Matthew 12:40 records Jesus responding to a Pharisaical interrogation. He says, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Not only does Christ predict his burial for three days,1 but the reference reveals the mission of Christ. For he follows the statement with "they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here." (v. 41) The story of Jonah is thus not only historically prophetic in the story of "three days," but for identifying the importance of the coming prophet as one calling for repentance. As with stories of "two brothers," this is a theological prophecy which gives a certain credence, a certain coherence and consistent trajectory even from the Old Testament, and examples of evidence to the accounted record of Christian salvation history.
It is not uncommon to hear skeptics respond to any of the above arguments, or similar arguments from Christian apologists throughout history, by offering counter-explanations for each individual bit of "evidence" the Christian may posit.
For example, a skeptic arguing against martyrdom as evidence for the truth of a religion states:
The willingness of someone to die for a belief is not proof of its truth. For example, terrorists who blow themselves up or die in battle do not establish the truth of their beliefs. And believers of all religions have been martyred.As it is stated, this conclusion is reasonable. However, I would submit at least the following two responses to this reaction.
First, this objection actually confirms that there is "evidence" to be assessed with regard to Christianity or even a different religion. The evidence is the reality of martyrs for a belief. But remember, our skeptics quoted at the beginning of the article insist there is "lack" of evidence or even contrary evidence. However, there is a difference between assessing the evidence in question and coming to a different conclusion than insisting there is no evidence to even examine with regard to this or that religion.
Second, the notion of trying to debunk a characteristic of Christianity or another religion by offering alternative explanations for the evidence is not compelling if one attempts to debunk each piece of evidence one at a time. In CCC#156 quoted above, the evidence for the faith includes the endurance of the Church, miracles, holiness in faithful members, signs in divine revelation, or other "external proofs," etc. The skeptic might react to this by arguing that there is also evidence of endurance in Religion A, evidence of miracles in Religion B, evidence of holiness in Religion C, and so on. Therefore, concludes the skeptic, the case for Christianity is equally convincing or unconvincing as any religion, and thus, none of them are compelling.
However, what is the problem if a skeptic rejected Christianity on the grounds that martyrdom is not unique to it? I submit the problem with this reaction can be seen in the notion of irreducible complexity. The term irreducible complexity has found its way into the vernacular with regard to evolution (see IdeaCenter.org and Discovery.org). In short, the idea says that an incremental notion of evolution, which says an organism naturally develops piece by piece over time, cannot explain the existence of an organism which ceases to function if any single piece is removed. In other words, a foot doesn't develop of its own accord, followed by a leg, and other parts later. These parts function as part of a complete system. This post is not to get into the details of that argument, but I bring up the term irreducible complexity because its principle relates to this subject of religion and evidence.
Permit me to offer an illustration of why it is specious to claim to debunk evidence for a religion by offering alternative explanations for each evidence one at a time.
Let's say you are a detective investigating a crime. After interviewing the witnesses, you determine that the suspect is a male caucasian, six feet tall, with brown hair, and a tattoo on his left arm. Eventually, several candidates are brought in for a police lineup. Let's take a look.
As we examine our suspects here, we can see that suspect #2 has all 5 characteristics described. However, shall suspect #2 be dismissed on the grounds that #1 is six-feet tall and male? Shall suspect #2 be dismissed on the grounds that #3 is a caucasian male with brown hair. Suspect #4 is a male with brown hair with a tattoo, although on the right arm. Suspect #5 likewise has some of the characteristics of the description. She is caucasian and has a tattoo on her left arm. Shall suspect #2 be dismissed as the culprit on the grounds that all the other suspects have some characteristics that match his?
Of course, suspect #2 is the most likely culprit in this lineup because he has all the characteristics at once. The witnesses' description of the suspect is "irreducibly complex." Having only one or two of the characteristics falls short.
Now, let's return to the matter of faith. Should Christianity be rejected on the grounds that there are holy people in other religions? Should Christianity be rejected on the grounds that other religions also have martyrs? You see the parallel here. What is a compelling sign of the truth of Christianity is that it contains all the signal characteristics at once. Miracles. Prophecies. Holy followers. Martyrs. Historicity. Spiritual experience. Etc. The more characteristics a particular faith has that reasonably signal its truth and divine pedigree, the more compelling a case for that faith.
Thus, it is imprudent to reject Christianity, for instance, because other faiths have martyrs because to dismiss Christianity on these grounds is to dismiss suspect #2 in our above example on the grounds that he shares a characteristic with others.
Faith, even in the eyes of the Church, is not "blind," which is to say, something followed without seeing due cause. There are a number of evidences for the truth of Christianity. If someone were to reject the faith, or even embrace the faith, it would be prudent to do so in such a way as to confront these evidences as an irreducible total native to the Church. No doubt, the persistent quality of the Church throughout the centuries includes these compelling evidences among those who say with St. Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)
1It is not uncommon to hear an objection that this prophecy did not come true in accord with the language of Matthew 12:40 on the grounds that Christ rose Sunday morning, and thus, three "nights" had not transpired. However, the phrase "day and night" is a Hebrew idiom in which part of a day encompasses all other parts of a day. The term is not necessarily understood in the same sense as a modern English speaker might insist. For an analysis, see Dave Armstrong's Jesus' Three Days and Three Nights" in the Tomb: Is it a Biblical Contradiction?