Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Tradition

Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Tradition August 14, 2009

Earlier this week I began this series of posts attempting first to disambiguate the various senses of the word faith in order to explore how the various practices referred to under this one word’s umbrella all relate to each other and how they can be ethically and epistemologically assessed, both as they occur individually and in various combinations with each other.   On Wednesday, I explored how faith’s connotation as “trust” differed from other connotations of trust. In this post I want to sketch some ideas on what a faith tradition is and what functions it plays.

The expressions “breaking faith” and “keeping the faith” point out to us that for most people to reject a faith is not simply to reject a set of truth-propositions but to “break faith” with a group.  This phrase “break faith” means to break with either implicit or explicit promises.  To “keep the faith” by contrast is to loyally preserve a tradition, a common set of values, practices, rituals, meditations, codes, belief statements, etc.

Participation in each of these aspects of tradition is designed to inculcate and reinforce one’s identification with the group and to preserve the traditional expressions themselves as vehicles for maintaining and transmitting the group’s identity and values to new generations.  Whenever one performs the group’s rituals, one transcends one’s own individuality (or lets themselves be robbed of it—depending on your point of view) in order to act and think formally like any other member of the group.

This is part of why faiths require carefully defined practices and statements of belief.  They do not so much need everyone to interpret all the meanings of these practices and beliefs identically, but they need the outward forms—the uniting rituals, practices, and expressions, etc. themselves—to persist.  Individuals’ personal interpretations of their tradition can vary only insofar as they do not threaten the outward forms and the identity between both cotemporaneous and inter-generational members of the group.

So, for example, Christians can vary in their interpretations of whether Genesis 1 is literal or figurative as long as their interpretations do not threaten people’s future willingness to recite the Christian creeds or participate in communion or read from the Christian holy texts, etc.  I think debates about orthodoxy—the boundaries of permissible interpretations of the meanings of a tradition’s standard belief statements—boil down to debates about what variations of ways of speaking would threaten a group’s identity by hindering the abilities of its practices, recitations, rituals, holy-text readings, etc. to have the same effects and to be able to successfully transmit the tradition into future generations.

Faith traditions in this way try to unite people in holistic ways of acting, speaking, valuing, and identifying with each other.  Disagreements and variations are permissible (to varying extents in different traditions and times and places) but the forms and group identification are paramount.

And faith traditions, as traditions, try to preserve values through means of tradition more than through reason.  The traditional rites convey the group’s recognition of the important stages of life, its weekly rituals inculcate (and express its belief in the value of) certain habits, and its creedal statements express its fundamental view of the world (usually in a way that is mythical enough to permit interpretations which can adapt to some extent to the advance of knowledge over time).

All traditions, religious or otherwise, supplement their rational justifications for their ideals with practices which unite members to the tradition by shared participation in rituals, symbol recognition, and reverence for heroic role models and institutionalized authorities  who impress the seriousness of the tradition and its values upon children and others who are less responsive to rational arguments.

Traditions, religious or otherwise, are a valuable resource for transmitting previous generations’ wisdom of experience.  Rather than having to rediscover everything that our ancestors learned, we rely on our traditions to guide us to a considerable extent.  In most matters in life, we have a default deference to tradition rather than attempt to “reinvent the wheel” in the innumerable instances in which tradition proves itself a reliable guide for accomplishing goals effectively.  We also retain many traditions whose explanation may be unknown to us or may have never existed.  Sometimes we might develop traditions out of the human tendency to ritualize and standardize all our practices, even some of those practices which do not rationally require being standardized for any urgent purpose beyond the pleasures of predictability, routine, familiarity, and stability in life.

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

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