How Can Those Without Faith Understand Faith?

The Big Questions (Templeton)

My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was an atheist, quite a passionate atheist I have to say. But I learned a great deal from him as an atheist as to what faith actually means even if you’re an atheist.

What fascinated him was the story of the painter, Gauguin. Paul Gauguin gave up everything, his life as a Parisian stockbroker, to go to Tahiti and become an artist. Now, what Bernard Williams pointed out is: there were no facts that Gauguin could have established at the time when he made the decision, that would have justified the decision. He didn’t know, when he was thinking, ‘Shall I go to Tahiti?’ whether he would become a great artist or not.

It’s clear that Gauguin made his decision on the basis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith nonetheless. He had faith in himself. And religious faith, I define as: faith in God’s faith in us.

So I think there are ways in which a non-religious person can understand faith. To put it slightly more concretely, we have always, as human beings, sought that point just beyond the visible horizon. That’s what led to the great pursuit of scientific advance. The sense that there was an answer just beyond the horizon. It’s what leads to great creativity in any field. And when human beings reach beyond the physical horizon, the horizon of the strictly material, they reach out to a transcendent God.

So I think science and art are built on a kind of secular version of religious faith.