Penn Jillette, the blustery half of the famous Penn & Teller magical act, is an avowed libertarian. And like most libertarians, he follows this through with a particularly outspoken and aggressive form of atheism. (Shh! Don't tell the Tea Party about their ideological relatives...they probably don't want to know.) Last month he wrote (as he often does) about how we need an end to religion, how love is great but religion is stupid, etc. It was a pretty typical rant, with poor reasoning and jumping from one talking-point to the other with no actual consideration of any. For example, as he typically does, he equates "theism" with "Young Earth Creationism"--despite the fact that only 11% of American theists believe in this.
In general his rant is silly and frankly trollish, so I see no need to link to it or provide a point-by-point refutation. Atheists whom I do enjoy debating with are much more thoughtful and logical, and getting drawn into an argument with Penn in which he will throw out every known logical fallacy is precisely what he wants. This is a textbook example of not casting your pearls before swine.
However, he does make one claim which is shared by so many atheists, even those who are reasonable, that this claim is worth discussing.
Penn flippantly makes the statement that only reason supported by evidence is valuable. We should outlaw "superstitions"--which he defines as believing in anything without overwhelming evidence. The manner in which he says this implies that he, like most atheists, take this aphorism as a given: we should all base all of our lives on reason and evidence alone.
The reality is, though, that Penn does not really live this way, despite his blustering. Nor does any other atheist. Faith (pistis), as defined by the Greeks and in Biblical terminology, is loyalty or trust in someone/something despite lack of absolute proof. And we all live like this, every single day of our lives. Penn does too.
I'm sure Penn has been to the doctor. He probably saw the doctor's diploma on the wall. Did Penn do what his doctor said? Probably so. And yet...was this based upon evidence that Penn had gathered? I can get any diploma you want online for about $15. So are we to believe that when Penn goes to the doctor, he takes steps to gather evidence to be certain that the doctor is truly medically licensed? Does he take the doctor's fingerprints to be certain he is no imposter? Does he request a transcript from the school? Does he contact the state medical board to ensure that he has not been disbarred? Did he then ask to see the studies upon which the doctor was basing his advice?
Of course not--he simply accepts as though it were evidence --completely by faith--that if the doctor were an imposter he would have been found out by the government or the university or the nurses or other patients. He takes it purely on faith...and puts his health and very livelihood in this stranger's hands. All based on no evidence whatsoever, but rather based upon faith in the community, Penn obeys his doctor.
I think there is an even better example.
When I was growing up in school, my parents and counselors and grandparents told me that doing well in high school and staying away from drugs/sex/alcohol would help me in life. I had absolutely no evidence of this. But I had faith in them and was loyal to them--based upon the love they showed me and the success I had seen in their lives. Because of my faith in them, I worked my tail off in high school. I didn't drink or do drugs or have sex. I didn't even go to prom (couldn't get up the nerve to ask anyone). I was moderately popular but not the coolest kid--but neither was I a nerd. I was invited to parties...I just rarely went.
Despite having zero evidence that all this hard work was worth it, I kept going on this route into college. I was told that hard work in college would help me land a good job. So I took a hard major. While others from my high school were going to frat parties, I was at Bell Engineering Center studying at 2 am. The same continued in grad school, making sacrifices while others had fun.
Others said that this was the "time of their life" and they didn't want to miss it. They focused on "finding themselves." I had faith in my elders, however, though all of the evidence available to me said that others were having a better life than me. They slept around--my wife and I remained virgins until we married (after college). They got together every summer and went on trips--I worked a summer job every year from the time I was 17 until I graduated college. They took an easy major and joined a frat--I took the hardest major I could stand and got a 3.7 GPA. They went to midnight shows--I went to the library.
For most of my life, based on the advice of elders, I made sacrifices to prepare for the future. I had no evidence that this would be helpful. In fact, I had a lot of evidence that seemed to contradict it, since others seemed to be having more fun and I could not see any ways that they were significantly behind me.
But something funny has happened these past 10 years. It turns out the elders were right...I just couldn't see it at the time, because the payback was measured in decades rather than in days.
It turns out that living by faith in my elders (as I did) instead of following the evidence of what my peers were doing worked out very, very well. It took 4 years of high school plus 7 years of college plus 10 years of working life for me to be sure...but that faith was well-placed.
Now, though still in my early 30s, I am one of the 30 highest-ranking members of an international, billion dollar alternative energy company. I have a job which is fascinating and fulfilling, and at which I am great. I have financial security and my family has gotten to travel the world as a result, living in Denmark and China. I have the best marriage I know of, and wouldn't trade our relationship for anyone else's. I have two kids who I adore and who amaze me. I have a rich faith and excellent study habits and (over all those years of work) have cultivated organizational skills and abstract thinking which allows me to run this blog and write a book and have my challenging job, and yet still be a more present father and husband than others I know.
Is this because of my works that I have been successful? No! The reality is that is was my faith in my elders which led to me having these blessings--my works were simply the natural outputs of placing faith in them. While my peers put their trust in the evidence they could see, I trusted the advice of those to whom I was loyal--and their advice did not steer me wrong.
The point is that I had never seen any direct evidence to support these choices...but I had FAITH that my elders knew what they were talking about. As a result I was loyal to them, and eventually saw the reward.
The flaw in Penn's logic is this: he seems to think that Christians believe our faith will never be proven--that we are saying, "I have faith because there is never any evidence to find." That's not what we believe at all. Christians believe that we have pretty decent evidence now, and will one day all people have complete proof--in fact, we believe that one day "every knee will bow" before Jesus. So it's not that we do not believe evidence is impossible--we simply believe our elders who have taught us that the evidence comes later.
For Penn to argue that "later evidence" equals "no evidence" is foolhardy--as shown by my high school experiences above. Oftentimes in life, we must live based on faith and the evidence of whether or not this was wise is only available later.
I don't know Christianity is true, empirically. I have not seen God face to face. But then I had also not directly experienced the benefits of working hard in school, gaining industry experience, and developing a loving (and not sex-based) relationship to base a marriage around. I simply had faith in those who loved me, that they were giving me good advice.
In the same way, though I have not seen God face to face and gained 100% evidence of the truth of Christianity, there is more than sufficient evidence in the lives of others, both past present and future (and even in my life) for me to conclude that my elders are onto something. There is more than enough evidence for me to have loyalty to them--that is, faith--and trust in their promises. In particular, there is more than sufficient evidence to have faith that Jesus and His apostles did in fact have something that I want, and a path for achieving it.
So when you hear someone say, "I believe in evidence, not faith," understand that the person is arguing against a straw man, not against Christianity. We too believe evidence will come. But we believe that by the time the evidence comes, it will be too late to be useful. As it was when we were getting advice as kids, and as it is almost always in life, if you wait on evidence it will be too late to go back and do the other steps.
You only live once. So live wisely--and wise living, it should go without saying, includes not getting your theology from magicians.