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

Goeff has an interesting reply to my post about how faith poisons religion.  In that post I talked about how religion is a vehicle for many people to get many good things.  Then I put the blame on faith for making it so religion does an inadequate job of providing those goods the best it can and so that sometimes faith-driven religion leads to sabotaging the goods it aims at.

Part of this discussion meant pointing out that many things now associated with religion can be salvaged for good if only they stop being poisoned by faith.  Geoff though wants to know why I don’t make any room for salvaging faith itself also:

I have to admit that I didn’t get through the entire piece. A former Baptist
churchgoer in my youth, I witnessed the pitfalls of faith-based devotion to
antiquated morals first-hand (and I continue to note their prevalence today). The arguments you pose seemed, in part, a reiteration of things I’ve
understood–if not expressly stated–so I found myself longing for some counter argument FOR faith.

I’ve since done away with religion, but I, like you, believe that there are
undeniably positive things about it; faith, in my opinion, being one of them.
To this day, I credit my experience in Christianity for instilling a faithful,
optimistic quality to my life. I glanced through the titles to your series on
‘Disambiguating Faith’ hoping to find a more optimistic view of faith–maybe one that explains how it can be valuable to those without religion, rather than all the ones that seem to demonstrate how damaging it is to religion.

One thing to clarify about my Disambiguating Faith series is that if you read through the titles, you will see that I defend the value of many things people call faith. To repeat, with links to articles distinguishing things confused for faith from faith, a list I gave in the following post: I talk about the proper understanding of the value of “rationally justified confidence, proper trust, proper loyalty, holding probable beliefs which nonetheless have some uncertaintyeducated guessinggut feelings, epiphanies,  brainstorming, hypothesizing, counter-intuitive reasoning, [and] trusting one’s subconsciously formed intuitions“.

I also could add that self-confidence and optimism or a number of other good things that people regularly call faith are great things worth encouraging.

The key issue to me is that none of these things are good when having them involves a will to believe what one perceives to be undersupported or outright undermined by evidence.  This is the distinct thing that faith demarcates that is not covered by the other good words for good things.  I would never suggest anyone should abandon all those other good things.

What I am trying to make clear in post after post is

(1) that when those other good things are mixed up with willfully believing more strongly than the evidence warrants or believing against what the evidence indicates, then those otherwise things are corrupted

(2) just because these other good things are sometimes called faith, we cannot let people equivocate and have us think that therefore willfully believing more strongly than evidence warrants or willfully believing despite refutation are themselves acceptable (either rationally or ethically)

In other words, if the word faith is allowed to ambiguously cover all the good things I listed above (and more) then that hides the morally and rationally crucial distinction.  If the same word is used for the good and for the bad, then people are not adequately instructed about the clearly isolatable vice of faith and so they can confuse instances of the vice faith for just more instances of the virtuous things (wrongly and misleadingly) also referred to as faith.

I want to make clear, the target “faith” is not any of those good things, it is this specific bad thing.  Others want to keep things ambiguous and say, “well if you want optimism, beliefs which are only probable, loyalty, trust, deference to experts, then you have to accept that faith is legitimate and that means accepting that it is good to have beliefs stronger than evidence warrants or beliefs which disregard counter-evidence”.

I want to say “No, I can have all those good things and still reject willful belief that disregards evidence because those good things, properly understood and practiced, are completely separable and distinguishable from that kind of faith-based believing.”  And the most decisive way to send that message that is to clearly as possible specify that faith is a word only for this specific intellectual and moral vice and not a word for the various intellectual and moral virtues which it is misleadingly lumped in with.

All that said, I do think there is at least one exception to my ban on faith (defined as I define it.  You can read about that in this post: “Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons”.

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

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 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

Texas GOP Comes Out Against Critical Thinking and "Challenging Students' Fixed Beliefs"
Why I Define Faith Philosophically As Inherently Irrational and Immoral
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
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.

  • Goeff

    Thanks Dan!

    Yes, this helps clarify things immensely, and might help clarify things for other laymen in the world of philosophy.

    I think I’ve realized one of my issues (I won’t say problems) with philosophy while reading your ‘Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons’ post. As you expound on topics, my curiosity piques–which is a testament to the selection of your subject matter and writing–but I realize that exploring these topics in the detail required to have a firm grasp of the concepts and provide worthwhile discussion would necessitate more time than I have. A sad realization, really. :P

    Case-in-point: I noticed that rationality is the foundation for most of what you argue. It’s the lens through which you see the world, it seems–which is entirely logical. But what about those things that are beyond our rational understanding?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Goeff. I hope you do not get discouraged by the enormity of philosophical problems but instead get inspired to just keep working at them and reading more about them.

      As to the question of things that are beyond our rational understanding, there are a couple of quick points to make. One is that some things are only temporarily beyond our understanding. Sometimes the issue is that we have not yet developed the right tools or empirical methods for exploring questions. Sometimes, we just have not worked out the right conceptual distinctions that make a certain truth available to us.

      We are free to speculate about what may be true, even when we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant knowledge claims. As Eric is demonstrating today on this blog with his excellent survey of different metaphysical explanations for the universe, there can be a range of rationally defensible ways to speculate about difficult metaphysical questions. Sometimes metaphysical proposals turn into scientific hypotheses and, even, scientific theories and facts. Sometimes, while not leading to such empirical results directly, they can inspire such productive results.

      There is nothing wrong with saying, “I think speculative metaphysical hypothesis x might be true” or giving an argument for it even though the means of conclusively deciding its truth are still beyond us (or may always be beyond us). The only problem is asserting more confidence in a speculative proposition than it warrants, holding to it if is refuted, holding to it if it contradicts much better established scientific or philosophical or logical truths, or overly-basing one’s identity or policies with implications for others based on an excessive confidence in its supposed truth.

      So speculation, tempered by tentativeness and humility is a vital contributor to the advance of knowledge, very intellectually satisfying, and can be kept distinct from the overreaches and misological tendencies of faith.

      Some things may always elude our understanding because of the limits of our bodies and/or our conceptual capacities. About those things we just may never know. But, as the atheist and skeptic often points out, just saying “God” gets us no closer to knowing those things either.

  • Goeff

    Ah, and here is the perfect opportunity for a discourse on the need for understanding… :)

    I’d like to believe I have the capacity for philosophical understanding and discussion, but I also wonder about its necessity. Mind you, I’m not disputing the merit of these endeavors. The goal is respectable and the pursuit of knowledge alone, as you suggest, may lead to further acquisition of knowledge: advancement of technologies, morality, etc. But, to get back to my main point, I sometimes wonder “What for?”

    Maybe a dangerous thought to entertain, it does offer a freedom of sorts. I think we could agree that we will never know everything there is to know. Throughout the course of human existence (or whatever form might evolve next), I would posit that our wealth of knowledge will never include all there is to know. And yet, we will endlessly seek this goal; if there is a thing to know, we seem to be intent on knowing it.

    Can there be things that we don’t know, and be okay with that? Could our quest for knowledge be likened to an addiction? Are we insatiable? Never content or feeling complete?

    *Disclaimer: I offer this more as discussion than an affront to your values. Some of my values have been influenced by eastern thought (read: Taoism and Buddhism) and I’m curious about how you’d approach this perspective.*

    • Daniel Fincke

      Well, if I ask you about any human activity and you tell me what it is for, I can be like the 4 year old who asks another, “but why?” question and then another “but why?” to your next answer.

      Where I think the “but why?” questions terminate is in the answer: because a human being excellently functions by doing this and by excellently functioning as a human being one most instantiates one’s full being.

      And since rational inquiry is an essential and highly important human functioning, doing it is an end in itself for us, it is a route to excellent realization and fulfillment of what we are that brings us more thoroughly into being as what we can be at our best.

      To explain what I mean by this, start here http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/01/23/goodness-is-a-factual-matter-goodnesseffectiveness/ and keep reading the posts at the end of that post.

      Or, go study the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html (whose ideas I am essentially adapting and expanding upon in my own thought)

  • Goeff

    It seems you’ve been annoyed by my comment, likening my inquiry about the purpose of man’s quest for knowledge to a 4-year-old immaturely demonstrating their newfound knowledge of how “Why?” works.

    For the record (and to speak more along the terms you presented in your most recent reply), I’m more concerned with the concept that while, yes, human beings function excellently by answering questions (or acquiring knowledge), I would consider it a stretch to assume that is what most instantiates one’s full being. I’ve practiced meditation and could offer testimony that THAT (sorry for the caps, but I have no italics or bold to offer less offensive intonation) provides a better opportunity for excellently functioning as a human being. I might even go so far to say, as you have about rational inquiry, that meditating “is a route to excellent realization and fulfillment of what we are that brings us more thoroughly into being as what we can be at our best.”

    I read your goodness = effectiveness post and I absorbed a fair amount of it–just as a matter of personal preference, I learn better with concrete examples of abstract concepts, although your writing is clear-cut and relatively easy to digest for a layperson, I think. However, it seems you’re making an assumption that answering the why and constantly seeking new knowledge is “what best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest”. I wouldn’t dare refute that this process is an objective good, but I am disputing that it is THE objective good.

    There are well-documented cases in history where scientific discovery and man’s quest for knowledge brought about unprecedented amounts of suffering. One only need look at military technologies for evidence. I’m suggesting the possibility that cultivating one’s self is the objective good (Not asserting it, as I have no grounds to do so–I am no authority on what best adds to the value of a person). Developing compassion, empathy, and even temperament seem, to me, the more rational endeavor.

    To try to bring everything full circle, this is what I was talking about in my posts: our quest for knowledge creating the myth that an answer outside ourselves will solve mankind’s problems. We squabble over the things we don’t know, we seek to answer the things we don’t know, and we don’t consider the possibility that the answer doesn’t matter. Some things we will never know. God stuff, for example. If everyone could just let go of it, we could make leaps and bounds in the process of compassionate life together (A utilitarian good, yes?).

    This might be outside of the realm of things you like to discuss, which might explain your perceived frustration with my replies. If so, feel free to delete this thread.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Forgive a brief reply but I want to quickly apologize if I gave the impression you were annoying me when I made the reference to the 4 year old. I fully support 4 year olds’ inquisitiveness and think of them as little philosophers. And I don’t mean to imply your question is of the immaturity of a 4 year old little philosopher’s either. I just meant to allude to them as a familiar paradigmatic case of constantly pushing the why question further and further back incessantly.

      See, that’s what happens when I try to write colorfully, using examples and not with bare-bones abstraction! I admit to deliberately avoiding examples much of the time since people seize on the examples and ways they may not illustrate what I am saying rather than focus on the bare logic of what I was saying. Nietzsche, on whom I wrote my dissertation, often would cite some controversial historical figure as positively embodying some ideal and then all people could focus on would be—he praised so and so, rather than examine the nature of the ideal Nietzsche thought was important and was only trying to illustrate by bringing in that character.

      But, yes, it would improve my writing to add ambiguity free examples, even though they are tough to write.

      As to your substantive point, it does interest me. It’s a major theme in Nietzsche that truth might not always be the highest good and in my dissertation and on the blog, I argue this point. For example On the blog, I once wrote:

      Just as we would blame Atheist Bob who is truthful but lacks mercy and self-discipline, so we must blame Religious Sally who is merciful and self-disciplined but lacks truthfulness. Maybe Religious Sally is, on net, a better person than Atheist Bob since she has 2 virtues and he only has one.

      In my dissertation I argue that it is possible for certain people to be conceived about the true nature of the good and yet live more excellent lives than others with a correct abstract understanding of the good. I use the example of a hypothetical deceived knight who mistakenly believes serving the queen’s honor is the highest good in life and is thus driven to acts of indisputable courage, perseverance, and nobility. I argue that he is a better human being than some other person who is a coward but a more accurate philosophical system describing for understanding what goodness is.

      So, yes, rational inquiry is not always the highest good.

      However, I would argue that the highest good (for us humans) is the most flourishing human community, comprised of the most flourishing human individuals, each actualizing the maximum number of complex human virtues in the most maximally effective combinations. This is what our utilitarian calculi should aim at—creating the best humans, not just states of pleasure.

      And in that context, I think the ideal would be the day that we can actually discuss metaphysics NOT to the exclusion of the other virtues and goods you fear that God debates might make impossible. It would be the situation where fulfilling our rationality to the fullest would be possible consistent with fulfilling all our other virtue possibilities to their fullest as well.

      In the short term or in a different cultural situation, maybe the abandonment of such debates could create a certain kind of advance in overall human flourishing, that’s fine. But the long term goal is the full realization of all that we are and reason is a major part to be promoted everywhere except where it would demonstrably hurt the overall flourishing of the species.

      And I think God debates are not hurt by the fact that people are being too rational or to concerned with their flourishing as rational agents. It is, I fear, quite the opposite as things stand!

      But feel free to come back at me, the question is interesting and important and not annoying in the least.

  • Laurance

    Hello, Camel…I was reading another blog by an atheist who wanted to reclaim the word “faith” and say that atheists can have faith if they use a different definition of the word. She was happy to have faith.

    I wrote a response, but when I clicked to submit my post, I couldn’t get things to work. I tried to log in via Gmail, but got dumped on some other page that wanted me to register to become a blogger. I tried repeatedly but couldn’t post my writing.

    So I copied and pasted into an e-mail and sent it to myself. Now I’m going to copy and paste again and share what I wrote here:

    I have a real discomfort with the word “faith”. Yes, I know it can also mean “confidence”. But it’s just too easily misunderstood and conflated and jumbled up with “unjustified belief when there’s absence of evidence”.

    I wish you’d stick to “confidence”. I wish you’d find a nice vocabulary of words to use for the things you are working on doing and feeling and save “faith” for “blind belief when there’s no evidence”. You are going to be
    misunderstood because you are using a word with drastically different meanings.

    Don’t think that this can’t happen. My mother-in-law was distressed to discover that I didn’t have “faith” in god. She howled, “But you have faith in your husband…”

    She was conflating. She was confusing trust and confidence with unjustified blind belief. If you talk about “faith”, you may well confuse people.

    Sounds like you have confidence, and are learning when and whom to trust. You have hope (but “hope” is a seriously dirty word for me and it’s something I do NOT want to have). Sounds like you have some pride and feelings of well-being. Sounds like you’re developing self-efficacy, and the healthy feelings that go with it.

    Good on you! Glad to hear it.

    You tell us that “Faith doesn’t have to be a dirty word for an atheist. We can still find faith, it just has a different meaning.”


    When we just give a different meaning to a word, we muddy the waters.

    “God” is such a word. You’ll hear people using the word “god” to mean all sorts of things, and I do mean ALL sorts of weird, non-theistic things. Einstein, for example, used the word, and some people think he was a theistic believer in a personal god. He wasn’t at all, but because he re-defined the word to suit himself, he
    was misunderstood.

    Yes, I know that “confidence” is one of the dictionary definitions of “faith”. But please be careful, and don’t give believers a reason to claim that atheists are true believers, too, because they have faith.

  • Laurance

    Word junkies! I was just now re-reading what I posted a moment ago. The young woman (I get the impression that this is a young woman) wrote, “We can still find faith, it just has a different meaning.”

    Word junkies!

    If it’s a different meaning, it’s a different thing! Self confidence and self efficacy are NOT the same thing as blind belief in things for which there is no evidence.

    Some people seem to think that if they give the same name to two radically different things, they can salvage, they can salvage…what?

    The word! They can hang on to the word! Here’s an atheist who doesn’t want to believe without evidence, yet she likes the word “faith” and wants to think she can have “faith”. So she redefines, or uses an alternative definition so that she can keep the word without keeping the unwanted meaning.

    There’s a lot of that going around. As I already mentioned, “god” is another such word that has been defined and re-defined and defined some more such that it conveys no useful information. Shucks, if I wanted to I could say that I’m an atheist with faith in god if I define “faith” to mean some sort of more-or-less justified expectation, and “god” to mean “All that Is”.

    I think there’s a lot of Abuse of Language happening, and that many people are not aware of it.

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