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Lectures on Doubt: What faith is

I once described faith as “the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities in the service of a belief for which there is no adequate evidence”. Not everyone likes this definition (strangely), so I thought I’d return to the topic of faith and refine it a bit.

You might think it’s strange for an atheist to talk about faith in the first place. Perhaps you’d say I couldn’t give it a fair treatment, since I don’t have any. Which is a typical faith-y thing to say: you don’t really understand faith (or you’re not qualified to speak about it) unless you’ve fallen for it completely. You have to take the leap, and then you’ll get it. However, if ‘faith’ means ‘fooling yourself’, then a person of faith would be the worst person to ask about it. Anyway, humour me. Treat me as a somewhat objective observer. Have a little faith.

On the other hand, you may take exception to my claim that I don’t have any faith. Of course I do, you might say. It takes faith to do anything! It takes faith to be an atheist, I’ve been told. My Uncle Richard used to say that it takes faith to believe that the floor will be there when you get out of bed in the morning. It takes faith for scientists to study a cure for cancer, since they don’t know that they’ll be successful. It takes faith to believe in, say, evolution. So I’ve been told.

I don’t believe it. When people use this reasoning, they’re stretching the definition of faith to encompass everything, which intrudes on other concepts that we already have words for. Defining ‘faith’ this way makes the word meaningless.

The key insight to what faith is hinges on an understanding of its relationship to evidence, and it’s this: If you have evidence for something, you do not need faith in that thing. You just need to open your eyes. For this reason, I describe faith as belief without evidence.

The Book of Mormon agrees fairly well with this assessment. (It’s not a source I think much of, but some people do.) It says that once you know something, your faith becomes dormant.

32:17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

32:18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

Faith is only necessary in the absence of knowledge, according to this author. I’d agree. Insofar as evidence brings you knowledge of a thing, there is no need for faith in that thing where there is evidence for it.

So with that in mind, let’s go back to those who think that everything requires faith. Does it require faith to put your feet on the floor, believing it will be there? No. I have a lot of evidence that the floor has been there on previous mornings, and I can infer with some degree of certainty that this morning will be like other mornings. There’s a very high probability that the floor will be there, based on the evidence. (If tomorrow morning I turn out to be wrong and fall through the floor, I’ll update accordingly.) I may have a ‘belief’ that the floor will be there, but ‘belief’ is not the same as ‘faith’. I have a ‘belief’ that I am sitting at a computer writing this, but since this belief is well in evidence, I don’t need to exercise any faith in it.

Does a scientist need faith to work on a cure for cancer? No. A scientist may have a reasonable expectation of success, based on (again) evidence, but this is not the same as ‘faith’. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe this situation as ordinary ‘reasoning under uncertainty’, the kind we engage in every day. Or perhaps ‘hope’.

Do we need to have faith in scientific theories, like evolution? Not at all. You can ask a scientist what evidence led them to that conclusion, and they can tell you. Even better, you can replicate those results yourself, given time, equipment, and expertise. Of course, I haven’t actually replicated many scientific results myself. Do I therefore have faith in the scientists? No. It’s true that scientists typically function in what could be called a climate of ‘trust’, but this is optional. People in science can review each others’ results — no faith required.

What happens in faith is something like this: You don’t have evidence for something, but you wish it were true, so your faith makes up the difference and allows you to keep believing. It’s not knowing something, but believing it anyway. In other words, it’s wishful thinking.

Things that you have faith in may not always turn out to be wrong, but they’re likely to be, since it’s kind of hard to get things right. To get something right, you have to observe, generate ideas about what’s happening, control the natural tendency to see what we want to see, and figure out what it would take to prove your idea wrong. Even after you’ve gotten it mostly right, your idea might need to be refined, or overturned entirely if the evidence demands. That’s the cost of making reality your guide. But if you have faith, and you are unmoored from reality, you just keep believing whatever you want! Isn’t that easy?

Well, no. Having faith is not easy, especially when contrary evidence is staring you in the face. That’s when it takes a lot of tenacity to hold on to faith by sheer force of will. I can see why people would consider it a virtue, since it does take a lot of effort. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people speak of ‘exercising’ faith.

But rather than exercise faith in things for which we lack adequate evidence, how much better it would be to find out the facts, and when facts are scarce, to keep an open mind. Faith needs to be thrown out, and where possible, to be replaced with knowledge.

5 Comments

  1. Re: On the other hand, you may take exception to my claim that I don't have any faith. Of course I do, you might say.

    I know exactly what you mean. Believers claim to cherish and revere faith. Yet they frequently try to project "faith" onto non-believers as an accusation. Naturally, non-believers have good reasons to want to clarify exactly what it is supposed to mean.

  2. Like most words faith has several meanings. One of them is simply "trust".

    I sometimes say that I have faith but not beliefs. It is true that "faith" can be used with much the same way as "belief", but the linguistic roots of the words are different.

    Faith may be evidence based, but the root of "belief" is the old word "lief", which means "wish" as in "I lief it were so".

    So belief means "be as I wish", you might say and to believe in some religion or other ideology is to devoutly wish that it is so and act as if you were certain that it is.

    "Faith" to me is more open. Yes we have good evidence that tomorrow will arrive if we can just live through today, but we can't keep revisiting that evidence every time we assume that we will be alive tomorrow. So I call that "faith", not that the world is some way that I devoutly wish it to be, but that it simply is, whatever that might be.

    I realize that religionists often pervert this word and try to make "faith" mean "belief", but they are two different words and we should try to claim "faith" back and make it our own again. To have faith is to be open to reality and accepting of whatever we learn about it.

  3. I was intrigued by your separation between belief and faith (or rather, defining faith as "belief without evidence")

    I know a guy on twitter who claims to reject the concept of "belief" entirely. I don't think I completely understand half of what he says (even though he says it a lot, to a lot of people). But if I had to summarize his position, I guess it would be that he rejects the concept of "belief" partially because he says it is too inconsistent/loaded to be of value, but also because of how he defines the core of belief: it is holding something to be true irrespective of whether any evidence can be found for it.

    If I understand his point, it's something that the word "belief" or "believe" is not meaningful because you can say "I believe in evolution because of reviewing the scientific evidence" just as well as you can say "I believe in invisible pink unicorns because I dreamt of one" and both are valid uses of the idea "belief."

    I don't really agree with this position, but the post reminded me of it, kinda.

  4. Andrew: Yes, the word 'belief' is polysemous — it could mean either 1) 'to hold an idea' or 2) 'to hold an unjustified idea'. I think that's why a lot of people don't like to say they 'believe in' evolution — is there an implication that it's not justified? I've sometimes said that I 'accept evolution as a well-supported theory'.

    So I think I get where that guy is coming from. I avoid that first sense of belief myself if I'm trying to be as unambiguous as I can.

  5. Here's what the Online Etymological Dictionary says about the origin of the word 'believe'. I thought it was interesting.
    – – – – – – –
    late 12c., replaced O.E. geleafa "belief, faith," from W.Gmc. *ga-laubon (cf. O.S. gilobo, M.Du. gelove, O.H.G. giloubo, Ger. glaube), from *galaub- "dear, esteemed." The prefix was altered on analogy of the verb believe. The distinction of the final consonant from that of believe developed 15c.

    Belief used to mean "trust in God," while faith meant "loyalty to a person based on promise or duty" (a sense preserved in keep one's faith, in good (or bad) faith and in common usage of faithful, faithless, which contain no notion of divinity). But faith, as cognate of L. fides, took on the religious sense beginning in 14c. translations, and belief had by 16c. become limited to "mental acceptance of something as true," from the religious use in the sense of "things held to be true as a matter of religious doctrine" (early 13c.).

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