The word “faith” is a very misleadingly ambiguous one in common language. As I see it, religious people try to justify having faith by equivocating between different standard meanings of the word. For example, in everyday language faith may be a simple synonym for trust and so religious people will say that religious faith is no different than ordinary forms of trust that everyone rightly engages in. Or faith is sometimes used as a synonym for “holding a belief that is not known with certainty to be true.” We all inevitably have to believe and act on some propositions without having absolute certainty they are true. So they want to say religious faith is just another instance of that common, rational, essential, and unavoidable form of believing and behaving. Sometimes faith is a synonym for loyalty or hope and, again, who can be against loyalty or hope?
What I want to say is that there are different ways we can trust, hope, be loyal, or hold uncertain beliefs. Some of them are rational. When they are rational they are intellectually scrupulous and morally conscientious. Other, irrational and negligent, ways of hoping, trusting, being loyal and believing despite uncertainty involve intellectual and/or moral carelessness.
Language is confused if we use the same words for the rational, intellectually scrupulous and morally conscientious versions of a practice as we use for the irrational, intellectually unscrupulous, and morally unconscientious versions of them. We need different words for similar behaviors when one exhibits an intellectual or moral virtue and the other an intellectual or moral failing, or “vice”.
Language is also confused if we do not have a special word for especially good actions compared to unexceptional ones.
And of course certain kinds of actions are very different from other kinds even when there is no virtue, vice, rationality, or irrationality at stake. And the language that is most accurate and useful would highlight those differences for us—especially when doing so would help us make sense of our behaviors, plan our actions, and/or choose our beliefs with more awareness and precision.
So for all these reasons, I think it is important that we distinguish faith from other forms of trust, uncertain belief, loyalty, and hope. If the apostle Paul is correct and faith is one of the three most special virtues (along with love and hope, according to 1 Corinthians 13:13) then Christians have a reason to say it is not identical with ordinary belief or trust or loyalty but rather is something extraordinary. And since he distinguishes faith explicitly from hope then neither should they equivocate between faith and hope by trying to defend faith as merely a species of hope.
So even those who want to especially praise faith as a virtue (rather than denounce it as a vice as I do) have a stake in clarifying what faith is as opposed to other virtues.
So, I want to give an account of faith that accounts for several major kinds of it. Then I want to show underpinning unifying factors that make each worth calling “faith”–independent of whether faith is on net a great, good, bad, or indifferent thing, either intellectually or morally. Only having established how exactly it differs from other forms of trust, uncertain belief, loyalty, and hope can we then dispute whether it is a good thing or not or in what ways it could be good or could be bad.
The most thoughtful, coherent, and consistent account of faith we can come up with will preserve all the most essential things people mean by the word but also reveal that some other usages are unhelpful because they lump actions which are distinct from faith with more specifically identifiable faith actions and, in this way, confuse people. This leads to all sorts of debates that go nowhere since people talk past each other by meaning different things by the word faith. So I am trying to suggest some people revise their linguistic usage where my suggested definition allows for clearer and less ambiguous discourse. If there are flaws in my reasoning, please convince me of them so that I can correct my errors, otherwise I recommend you adopt my usage.
I define faith thusly:
Faith is willfully committing (whether explicitly or implicitly) to a relationship (or relationships) of trust, loyalty, hope, and/or belief (a) beyond perceived rational warrant, (b) against perceived predominance of counter evidence of untrustworthiness, and/or (c) against all possible future counter-evidence that may undermine currently perceived evidence of trustworthiness.
So the first thing to establish is that faith involves willful commitment. Faith is a synonym for loyalty. It is not merely believing something unsupported by evidence, as this alone does not account for the dimension of loyalty in the word faith. Say I believe something unsupported by evidence only because I am deceived and think that it is actually supported by evidence. Then someone persuades me that I was wrong and that belief was not supported by evidence. Then I abandon the belief as false. In no sense in that situation was there loyalty or commitment to a belief. There was just believing that was, unbeknownst to me, unsupported by evidence. There was believing erroneously. But there was no principled, or otherwise volitional, faithfulness to the belief.
Yet, there are distinctly different circumstances in which people not only hold a belief unsupported by evidence but do so knowing that it is unsupported by evidence. These people believe out of commitment to the belief itself, independent of the degree of evidential support for the belief. They might believe it while thinking that there is no evidence for it. They may perceive themselves to believe it more strongly (and commit their lives to living by it more fervently) than the evidence for it alone would warrant. This distinct kind of believing deserves its own word to designate it. I use “faith” because it’s what people believing in this way themselves use. It is also this act of willful commitment in faith which I think makes it a matter of praiseworthy virtue to many believers. Much as they want to water down the concept of faith by making it equivalent to mundane instances of believing without certainty, in a religious frame of mind they want to praise the resolve that faith involves. That is what makes it so morally admirable. It is an act of strong commitment to the God or the belief which is faithfully believed in, hoped in, trusted in. Not only does it involve more belief than evidence warrants but it involves things like a maximal life commitment to some of the worst supported beliefs people have. This goes well beyond your garden variety mistaken or prejudicial belief. It also goes beyond cases of reasonably holding to a likely belief with tentativeness that it might be wrong.
Some do not realize they hold a belief as a matter of will at first. They think that, in part or in whole, their belief is based on evidential support. Nonetheless, once the belief comes under attack and seems to have lost its evidential support, they prove they are now (and maybe all along were?) committed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to believe anyway. This is observable in the case of religious people who argue for the existence of God based on evidence but when presented with counter-arguments that show their reasons for believing are weak decide without hesitation to keep believing just as strongly as when they thought they were believing based on evidence. The word “faith” designates this kind of believing also. In fact, when pressed in these circumstances, one regularly finds believers invoking faith explicitly.
These types of believers who are recalcitrant in the face of evidence exist. When they believe more strongly than their own perception of evidential support warrants, or when they believe against what their perception of the evidence weighs in favor of, or when they implicitly or explicitly commit themselves to continue believing even should future evidence counter their belief—they are doing something distinct from other, unwitting, cases of believing out of proportion to evidence done by people who are willing and able to abandon their beliefs should their evidence be successfully assailed.
Those who are committed to believing, independently of evidence that points one way or another, do something that distinguishes them from people who are simply mistaken but willing to change their minds. I say we should designate this distinct choice to believe, trust, hope, and be loyal irrespective of evidence as “faith” and we should reserve the word “faith” for only such cases rather than muddle it up with the much intellectually and morally different practices of mundanely believing, hoping, trusting, and being loyal with uncertainty and yet nonetheless in ways that are calibrated to evidential warrant and responsive to changes in evidence.
Faith is the appropriate word for these distinct acts of believing. It is the word that mixes loyalty and hope in with belief and trust. It is the word believers reach for themselves when they are out of arguments and yet insist on believing anyway or when they try to justify why they believe things that they themselves do not perceive adequate evidence for. I have regularly encountered believers who challenge me to debates about beliefs and then outright tell me that they will not change their minds no matter what evidence or arguments I bring forth. They are committed in principle to believing their religious beliefs no matter what I say. And yet they would like to “reason” with me and insist I have to have an open mind and heart to accept their god.
We need a word that distinguishes this choice to believe irrespective of reasons to believe from other forms of merely believing uncertain propositions, merely unwittingly believing too strongly given the actual evidence, and merely being wrong. This choice, whether consciously admitted or revealed by recalcitrant behavior in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence, is a distinct phenomenon. It needs a name. It has a name. Its name is faith.
Now this does not mean that every religious believer perceives herself to believe irrespective of evidence. Some don’t seem to. Some very well do abandon their beliefs when they perceive them to be deeply incongruent with evidence and logic. (I for one did and you can too!) These religious believers may be enculturated to say they have faith, but they really do not. They just have beliefs they think are true and that they are willing to abandon if they come to think they are not supported by evidence adequately.
Some such believers may believe some wholly unrealistic and bizarre things. But if to them those beliefs seem to make perfect sense of experience and have more evidential weight than disbelief in those things would, then these people just believe strange things. But they are not committed to believing what they themselves find strange out of loyalty, hope, or principle, so there is nothing about will or loyalty or commitment there. So it’s not faith.
Now, if such a believer does come to see strong counter-evidence and lose confidence that their beliefs really are so rational and yet insist willfully on believing anyway, then it’s revealed that implicitly they had a faith commitment after all. Or, maybe in that moment the faith commitment is created, coming to be for the first time as they suddenly decide to start hanging on to their beliefs despite evidence after all. In either case, as soon as someone starts confessing that they are knowingly and unrepentantly not proportioning their beliefs and their actions and their trusts and their hopes to what the evidence for them warrants, they are engaged in an irrational form of believing, one worthy of denunciation and deserving of its own dishonorable (or, as many religious people would insist, honorable) name. Faith. If you want insist on another name, fine, but then at least admit that whatever that is is a prevalent thing among religious people.
Why do I think faith, as I have defined it, is dishonorable? While we all have to believe, hope, trust, and be loyal to others to one extent or another with uncertainty, it is immoral to not be as scrupulous as we can when doing so. We must be especially critical and rationally careful, for the sake of our own well being and flourishing and others’, to believe, hope, trust, and be loyal in the ways most likely to lead to good and not evil outcomes. Indulging our brains’ tendencies for confirmation bias or their desires to hold onto our ingrained identities or habits of seeing the world at all cost is to be ethically negligent rather than virtuous. This is why faith is, as far as I am concerned, usually morally bad and only more and more culpable the more that it is deliberately and defiantly chosen in flagrant, conscious contradiction of the authority of reason.
Is that stacking the deck against believers? What about those who say their faith is proportional to evidence? What I want to say to them is that their beliefs are not like others of their brethren who willfully disregard evidence, either implicitly or even explicitly. If a religious believer really is eager show himself responsive to the canons of reason in all matters, then that’s great. I’m not denying such believers exist. Let’s talk evidence. In that case, I am open minded enough to grant that this person is potentially as principally committed intellectually and morally to standards of philosophic, scientific, and social scientific reason and evidence as I am. Perhaps they can show me all the ways they interpret their beliefs as being the most supported by evidence, the most internally coherent, the most logically consistent, the most conceptually clear, the most semantically plausible, the most comprehensively explanatory, the most compatible with scientific knowledge and the historical record, and as capable of making the most sense of ordinary experience and leading to the best possible human lives.
In that case I am happy to say they are a committedly rational religious person, even if I disagree with many of their arguments and conclusions, and even if I think they are reasoning badly much of the time. Nonetheless, if they show how all their beliefs are rooted in reasoning processes according to the standard canons of rational thought, I can grant they are at least trying as I am to be rationally careful. Maybe even a rationalist like me. Perhaps their only “faith” in God is in their willingness to trust God to carry them through tough times when they feel scared or something. But even then they think that’s ultimately a rationally justified belief. Okay. I’m not saying there can’t be rationalist and evidentialist theists or other religious people who just have a different perception of what reason indicates. But they are not believing by faith specifically. They are just convinced of different things according to their reason than I am to respect and obey reason.
But here’s the rub. If you claim you’re principally and scrupulously going to be rational and evidential about your beliefs, when in the midst of debate you’re forced into conceding a logical contradiction or an incoherent concept or a disconnect between science and your religious beliefs, etc., you cannot start appealing to a supposed right to believe what is not most rationally compelling (even to you) but which “goes beyond reason” or start making any other audacious leaps away from reason and into the arms of irrationalism and arbitrary posits. Start doing that and you’re going to reveal yourself as a “faith” believer in the irrationalist sense after all. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt though for as long as you’re willing not to do that. But even your unusually rationalistic method of believing does not change the fact that for most believers, their “faith” is their committed willingness, rooted deeply in their identity, to believe in advance of evidence and in the teeth of evidence whatever they perceive their religion to require of them.
In reply to complaints from theists about this post such that I was mischaracterizing faith by defining it as belief/loyalty/trust/hope that is not proportioned in strength or degree to the strength and degree of rational warrant, I have written a follow up post, No Christians, You Don’t Rationally Proportion Your Beliefs to Evidence.
For numerous more analyses of these and many other aspects of faith and dissections a large range of other proposed definitions for faith, read any of the below posts in my “Disambiguating Fiath” series:
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