Disambiguating Faith: Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

David Crowther raises a crucial point of contention:

What I really want to do, is get back to the question of whether atheism is necessarily a “faith position”. If we generalize the term “faith” to mean believing or relying on something without absolute proof, than I think it is true to say that every possible idea or belief or even fact we acknowledge is taken on “faith”; whether it be ludicrous, illogical fanaticism, or the “law” of gravity. You have explained it best yourself (was it the above post?) when you laid out your “reasonable certitude” that you have parents. Even something as necessary to our existence as it stands and as verifiable as gravity, can only be said to be a law, in that it has never been proven not to occur.

Therefore, we must make the assumption that many of the things we understand as proven day in and day out are only reasonably certain. I would call this faith: believing or relying on a concept or idea that is not 100% proven.

This to me says something about our ability to know anything. How do we know what we know; or how do we know what we know is true?

Dan, I am compelled by your explanation of your own “search for truth” (if you will permit me use the term in that way), because I believe (with all the baggage of the term) that I do what you do: I also “do not worship any alleged certainty that some day I will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.” I also test what information or opinion or belief comes my way, with all the faculties I have available to me. I think it is unfair and untrue, as some of your posters (people who posted) have implied or said, that to hold to a religious faith or belief is to hold to ignorance (BUffy posts above: “The problem is that most religious people look at any question and say “goddunnit” rather than seeking actual answers. To make matters worse, they ignore any answer that discounts their “goddunnit” notions”; or your own comment, that “faithful believers think that aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy”: I certainly do not!) I fully acknowledge that there are many many people who cling dangerously and fruitlessly to faith or beliefs with no rationality and with a fear that it will, in fact be proven to be irrational, false, etc., to the point where they kill and hate, etc.

The problem with equating faith with any belief that is not 100% certain is that to do so would blur from our language important distinctions.  When our words do not make as many discriminations between similar kinds we are far more prone to equivocation.  If we constrain our language to have only two kinds of assent to propositions: non-100%-certain assent (faith) and 100%-certain assent (knowledge) then our conceptual thinking becomes impoverished.  We start lumping together all sorts of beliefs which are radically different in their degree or kind of evidential warrant and their degree of actual verisimilitude (their ability to approximate reality truthfully, or we might say, attain “truthlikeness”)  such that we confusingly refer to them all by the same misleading word term, “faith beliefs”.

And you make clear that you understand this implication of your use of language when you say, “If we generalize the term ‘faith’ to mean believing or relying on something without absolute proof, than I think it is true to say that every possible idea or belief or even fact we acknowledge is taken on ‘faith’; whether it be ludicrous, illogical fanaticism, or the ‘law’ of gravity.”  I couldn’t (and don’t think I just did above) put the point better myself.  So, let me ask you, does it make our language clearer and our distinctions more truth-conducive if we use the same word to describe the relative knowledge-status of beliefs that come from “ludicrous, illogical fanaticism” that we use to describe the relative knowledge-status of beliefs about the law of gravity?

When you say that we can make no discrimination in kind between ludicrous, illogical beliefs and the law of gravity, you are, in essence saying, that the defining and most important feature of all beliefs is that they are held by fallible human beings such that even the very best of them might have even a faint and infinitesimal possibility that they are wrong.  And you are saying that this bare possibility means that we should call all of them alike equally faith beliefs and not make any qualitative distinctions between them such that some are actually knowledge and others not.

You are in essence saying that the language is better off highlighting the similarity, rather than the extreme difference, between ludicrous, illogical beliefs on the one hand, and, on the other hand, scientific beliefs so incredibly successful at describing the world that they account for nuclear bombs, trips to the moon, i-pods, vaccines, and the very computer through which you and I are communicating across a couple hundred miles.  I think, to be honest, that you are calling for greater, more counter-productive, and confusing uses of language.

The level on which both the ludicrous and illogical belief and the logical and philosophically or, better, scientifically powerful belief are the same is the level at which they happen to be propositions assented to by human beings.  We acknowledge this bare similarity by calling both the ridiculous and the most profoundly true human “beliefs”.  But to call them both faith beliefs or to say that the inherent fallibility of the human mind precludes any being worthy of being called true beliefs, i.e., knowledge, is to deny both reality and, more specifically, the reality of greater human epistemic success and lesser human epistemic success.

Both in the quoted portion above and in what follows it you say more that is worth parsing out, but in the interest of occasionally trying to keep my posts a bit shorter, I will save the next important distinctions we need to make to answer you for another post.  The next key questions will be, even if we are going to make distinctions between some beliefs as faith beliefs and others as not faith beliefs, why draw the line between faith beliefs and other beliefs precisely where I do and am I justified in saying that “faithful believers think that aspiring to the attitude of certainty without the warrant for certainty is praiseworthy“.

ON EDIT:  A Facebook friend dismissed this post as merely “antics with semantics” and received from another Facebook friend this perfect reply I just had to share:

Oh… and as for the ‘antics with semantics’ comment. I like that… it is salient because it rhymes. But it is essentially tautological… we already know that the controversy is about the meaning of words and just stating that someone holds a different definition than you does not further the argument. It’s like you were served a tennis ball and instead of volleying it back you tossed it over the fence.

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

How to Criticize Religion. Part 1: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice
The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • david crowther

    “truthlikeness”: I like this term that you use. I agree that I am using word-play to point out the similarities in types of certainty and “truth”. However, I gut the intended meaning of your use of the term “faith belief” (I think that’s the term), to point out a similarity in the reliance on reasonably proven facts and on what you may term faith beliefs. You use the term “epistemic success” I assume to mean that some truths have been more successful at being truths than others (i.e. the “truth” of gravity as opposed to the “faith belief” in “god”); by success, I assume you mean the utilitarian value of the idea- in other words, those “beliefs, so incredibly successful at describing the world that they account for” advances in science, technology, etc. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that where certitude cannot be gained 100% (and I think we both agree, at least philosophically, that it cannot), there has to be a utilitarian attitude to what is believed and whether to continue to believe it. I do not contend that scientific truths, such as gravity, as I used above, are valuless or untrue, merely because there is no 100% certitude; I just mean to point out that our ability to access “truth” in the world is limited, whether it be about technology and science (by which I mean anything that is not considered magic or metaphysics), or about magic and metaphysics. I appreciate your ability to point out that I have argued with word play (it’s helpful to hone your own ability to discuss, with that kind of critique), but I don’t mean merely to play a word game. I think it comes down to what value an idea with less than the “scientific” amount of certitude may or does have in the real world (read HOPE).

    I’ll try to follow the current and ongoing strings of these discussions so that we can keep our discussion relatively narrow- it is way too easy to broaden and broaden, until it’s nearly impossible to continue to track the conversation. thanks again

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, I saw that you really are talking about hope and was planning to note that transition in your use of terms. Essentially now you’re asking, if beliefs are for the service of life, and some beliefs make life go better even though they are less evidentially grounded, why not allow them for pragmatic reasons? Here I do not want to go as far as you do, but am more understanding of what you’re saying than you might expect. Hence, I wrote this post, which you should read next, while I work on my next post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/06/21/disambiguating-faith-why-faith-is-unethical-or-in-defense-of-the-ethical-obligation-to-always-proportion-belief-to-evidence/

  • david crowther

    great! will do! onward!

  • mikespeir

    No. Chambers has as its first definition of “Faith,” “Trust or confidence.”

    I know we’d love to have it such that “faith” applies to religion only, as discrete from our own, atheistic trusts or confidences, but the English language won’t back us up on that. It isn’t wrong to say that I have faith that the sky won’t fall or that I have faith the floor will hold me up.

    Religion doesn’t own the word, and it doesn’t only apply to religious matters.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I’m explaining in my next post why Chambers should modify its definition to account for reality more specifically, hold tight.

  • http://sapblatt.wordpress.com Michael Saporito

    Dan – outstanding piece – I have always had issues with the notion of atheism equating to mean I believe in something. Faith to me is a belief in the improbable at best, and more likely, a fairy tale. Belief, or faith in gravity is a completely different concept and is a misuse of the word faith in my book. The preponderance of evidence and human experience points to gravity being real.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks, Mike. It IS possible for atheists to have faith, nonetheless, but that’s an idea to develop another day. At minimum, it is equivocation to refer to confidence in the law of gravity and Christian confidence in transubstantiation with the same word with the hope of implying they have the same epistemic status when they. just. don’t.