Recently I posted a brief overview of my “Disambiguating Faith” series in which I root out each equivocation used to justify faith one by one. In the overview I defined faith over the course of several paragraphs with links to previous posts in the series. But the core of my definition was as follows:
Faith is deliberately believing a proposition more strongly than evidence warrants (either when you think that the proposition is not strongly supported by evidence or is even undermined by the best evidence). Faith is the willful treatment of one’s most cherished notions as though they were impervious to evidence. Faith is hostility to genuine, open-ended doubting.
Thinking about faith in terms of this definition the once devoutly believing Libby Anne (of Love, Joy, Feminism) came to conclude that she never actually had faith. Her belief was grounded on what she perceived to be the best evidence. When she was confronted with overwhelming counter-evidence she changed her beliefs. She was always essentially committed to reason, she just had been misinformed prior. She then dabbled for a brief time with believing on faith—willfully choosing to accept Christianity as true more than she perceived the evidence to support it—and realized she just couldn’t keep that up. And she became an atheist.
Others of her readers also claimed not to have had a faith that fit my definition. So is there something wrong with my definition? No. But it needs to be fleshed out and some parts that come later on in the longer version not quoted above need to be reiterated.
The first key thing to note is that there is no reason to assume that just because someone belongs to a faith or has an unjustified belief that we must interpret their beliefs as matters of “faith”. I don’t, for example, think that every truly believing superstitious person throughout history (whether religious or not) was a “faith-believer”. If the common sense of the world which surrounds you simply takes it as a basic fact that there are invisible agencies manipulating human affairs and you never question it, you have a false belief (for sure) but not one that involves any decision to be a “believer”. You just accept the world as your culture presents it to you. You have no cognizance of believing anything more extravagant than modern people believe when accepting invisible forces reported to them by scientists.
Yet there are distinct phenomena of wittingly believing more than you perceive that the evidence warrants or believing specifically contrary to the evidence. This does not happen for all believers but it happens for at least some. Possibly many. I have had believers admit to me things like that they will refuse to abandon their faith regardless of whatever evidence is presented to them. These people exist and their way of believing exists. It is an importantly distinct way of believing which deserves its own word. It’s not necessarily “blind” faith since it’s sometimes at least partially informed by a perception of evidence. The key is the will is choosing to go beyond evidence. I think this is a vicious way of believing. It is morally and epistemically wrong and needs to be specifically denounced. So I designate faith to tag this distinct phenomenon.
But other religious people mean by faith something which intends to be more rational? That’s fine. They shouldn’t use the word faith as it’s misleading. If all they mean is that they believe an uncertain and yet evidentially supported proposition and that they believe proportionally to the actual evidence for the proposition, then I am not accusing them of willful irrationalism. I accept that some religious people are not deliberately rejecting a commitment to evidence. I accept that some religious people think their beliefs are based on evidence and perceive themselves as open to changing their minds if strong enough evidence is shown to them. Of course, I expect them to probably be biased against fairly assessing such evidence and usually lazy about even looking for such evidence. But I grant that, nonetheless, they do not have faith in the culpable sense I want to blame them for.
I also do not think that only religious people can have faith in the sense of willfully believing disproportionate to evidence. People in other contexts besides religion can make this mistake too. Faith is especially a problem in religions not because it is unique to them but because for the most part only religions actively encourage people to commit to beliefs even against evidence.
Now, there are still three ways that someone could have faith in the sense I am criticizing and still not yet be covered by my snippet of definition quoted above.
There is a difference between believing that there is a God on faith and trusting in God on faith. We can cast both beliefs about the existence or non-existence of entities and beliefs about the trustworthiness or untrustworthiness of people in terms of propositions. There is the proposition “There is a God.” and there is another proposition “God can be trusted to do what is best for me.” Someone could hold either of these beliefs either as a response to her perception of evidence or despite their perception that the evidence is insufficient.
So, someone who believes that there is a God based on a perception that all (or the preponderance of) the metaphysical and experiential evidence points that way may be (at least consciously) an evidence-based thinker on this point while at the same time she feels strong doubts that God truly will bring the best possible outcome from a tough situation in which she finds herself and yet deliberately opts to make herself trust that he will and to (essentially) affirm the proposition “God can be trusted to do what is best for me.”
Instances of trusting beyond perceived rational warrant are distinctly instances of trusting by faith, rather than according to reason. Not all trust is inherently done contrary to evidence. Again, as with belief in general, we need a distinct word for those specific cases of trust which eschew evidence and go out on a limb. When someone trusts a reliable person it is a distinctly different thing than when they trust an unreliable (or invisible and untraceable!) one.
Many people have a much easier time reasoning that there must be some creator of some kind and calling it God and assuming it’s the God of their particular faith than they do trusting in that invisible being to come through in real world binds where actual consequences are at stake for their lives. This often requires much more practical commitment than assent to a bare, seemingly common sensical, low-cost/high-pay off metaphysical proposition does. This is why biblical characters, who never seem to doubt the existence of God, are preoccupied with faith anyway. It’s God’s reliability that is deeply uncertain. And then sometimes it’s God’s character that is in doubt, as a consequence of all his perceived failures to come through on promises or to be just.
So someone who has what they perceive to be an evidence based belief in God can nonetheless have numerous cases for faith in the trust beyond perceived evidence sense. And this involves both willfully assenting more than evidence warrants to propositional beliefs (like “God is absolutely trustworthy” and “God loves me enough to do what is best for me”.)
Now there is another sense in which people who perceive themselves as evidence based thinkers may yet be willful believers who assent beyond the perception of evidential warrant. They may be latently and potentially faith-believers who have not yet been forced to make this choice. Even though they currently perceive the evidence to be on their side, when challenged with unsettling counter-evidence, they may suddenly find that when actually confronted with the possibility of losing their religion they deliberately cling to it as a matter of principle and appeal to the legitimacy and primacy of faith as a conversation stopper (“this is why you must just have faith!”). In such a case, this person either reveals a buried will to believe against evidence that was always there or maybe just goes from someone who had not been determined either way to someone who becomes a faith-believer at that moment. That’s an interesting psychological question. It is possible that the answer even differs from faith-believer to faith-believer.
In short, just because two kinds of believing are both traditionally called faith does not mean that the one’s rational justification transfers to the other. When one is believing in a way that is self-consciously attentive to perceived evidence, it is formally morally and epistemically approvable to that extent (even if there are other intellectual or moral vices involved). And this kind of believing properly lends none of its justification to other cases of believing that involve self-consciously putting identity and deliberate bias over responsiveness to evidence.
For this reason, we need two words. One for what is good and another for what is bad. Anything else is an attempt to confuse the bad for good by a false equation of the bad’s essential characteristics with the good’s.
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.