Science, Faith and Semantics


Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist and author, debated John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science, in 2010.  This was the first of the Dawkins Lennox debates. Both men were both well-spoken and well-suited for the task.

Aside from the usual issues and points that are made in these sorts of debates about faith and science, some nuances emerge that I thought were interesting to consider. I highlight one particular interchange in particular.

Dawkins asserted, like an axiom, that faith is belief with no evidence (implying that faith is the antithesis of reason). Not surprisingly, Lennox disagreed. With a such a fundamental disagreement on the definition of faith, it seems to me, the focus should have been on the definition of “faith” – but it wasn’t.

Dawkins claimed that faith would not be faith if it was rational and evidence-based. In other words, Dawkins defined faith, in its very essence, as the absence of reason and evidence.

Lennox, on the other hand, described faith as the willingness to repose belief, trust and commitment in something for which there is evidence, but no “proof” (as in mathematical proof). In other words, Lennox describes faith as confidence in reason and evidence.

The way Dawkins defines faith it is the opposite of reason, while Lennox harmonizes them so that one (faith) emerges from the other (reason). Who is right?

Note that the Dawkins doesn’t suggest what the quantum of proof is that is necessary to make faith rational or reasonable; Dawkins assumed that faith, on its face, is irrational. Lennox does address the quantum of proof necessary to support faith (generally), but Dawkins accused Lennox of semantics.

Dawkins is right, of course, but semantics is always in these kinds of discussions involved. Appealing to semantics hardly settles the matter. Let me explain.

“Semantics” is defined as “the study of meanings of words. Every argument requires the terms supporting the argument to be defined… and there is the rub.

Dawkins defined the term “faith” by equating it with a lack of evidence/reason. By doing so, he stacked the deck in support of his conclusion (that faith is irrational). Lennox defined faith differently. Call it semantics, or whatever you will, two people using the same word to mean different things will not arrive at the same conclusions – ever!

When two people ascribe different meanings to the same word that frames their arguments, they will necessarily disagree about the conclusions they reach. If Lennox is to be accused of “semantics”, Dawkins is just as guilty.

We often use definitions and applications of words in subtle ways to advance our positions. The Dawkins/Lennox debate is a case in point. They way each of them defined faith led them to different conclusions.

Dawkins defines “faith” to mean belief that is unsupported by evidence. From that starting point his conclusion flows. Lennox fundamentally disagrees on the starting point, and he naturally ends up in a different place.

While Dawkins seeks to maintain a separation between faith and evidence, and Lennox seeks to marry faith evidence.  This is where they fundamentally disagree. Dawkins defines “faith” in a way that supports his position that faith and science are mutually exclusive, while Lennox defines faith in a way that harmonizes the two.

As with any argument supported by a premise, the premise determines the conclusion. In this case, the definition of the word “faith” determines the ultimate position of each man.

Further, to the extent that they each define the word differently, they are arguing at cross purposes. In one sense, they are both right (if we apply each man’s definition of faith to each man’s position), but they could never come to any agreement because they start from different meanings of the word, faith.

The definition, then, is where the argument starts and ends. Semantics it may be, but the semantics determine everything.

Are faith and evidence mutually exclusive as Dawkins suggests? The answer, clearly, is that faith and evidence are mutually exclusive if they are defined to be mutually exclusive! But what if we started with a more “neutral” definition of faith?

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a simple definition of faith is “strong belief or trust in someone or something”. Faith, as it is commonly defined, may or may not involve evidence; whether evidence supports “faith” is not inherent in the definition; neither is it exclusive.

Turing back to the debate, Lennox agreed with the statement that faith that is not supported by evidence is irrational. On the other hand, I don’t think Dawkins would ever agree that faith of any kind, even faith supported by evidence, is rational. His definition of faith precludes that possibility.

Lennox clarified that Christian faith, in particular, is supported by evidence. If there is any evidence to support Christian faith, it is rational. That statement, on its face, is true. In essence, what Lennox is saying is that Christian faith has evidence to support it; therefore, it is rational.

Dawkins doesn’t say it, but his position implies that he has already decided there is no evidence in support of Christianity. His definition doesn’t allow even the possibility of evidence or reason in support of faith.

People may disagree on the quality or extent of the evidence that exists in support of Christianity. Whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant the belief, trust and commitment attendant with faith, is a matter of opinion and personal assessment, but the statement is undoubtedly true that there is evidence and reason in support of Christianity.

Dawkins’ attempt to win the argument by imposing his definition of faith on the dialogue, a definition with which there is no agreement, is disingenuous.  I could define the color black to describe the color white and disagree with everyone who uses the common definition for the color black. The argument, however, would be meaningless.

Dawkins does not want to allow faith and science to coexist. He is not arguing so much over whether they can coexist harmoniously, but arguing against the possibility of them coexisting harmoniously by using a loaded definition for the word, faith. He defines “science” and “faith” to exclude the possibility of harmonious coexistence from the outset.

Indeed, this is nothing but semantics. The semantics, however, is the most important thing in this argument, and (truth aside) it determines everything.

One thought on “Science, Faith and Semantics

  1. Pingback: Evidence, Love and Faith | Navigating by Faith

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