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

Disambiguating Faith: Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant” July 5, 2010

Last week I responded to David Crowther’s argument that we should equally consider all beliefs that are not 100% certain to be “faith beliefs”.  I argued that the word “belief” already covers the fact that we are fallible human beings and as such even our most nearly 100% certain propositions about the world are always going to have some possibility, however infinitesimal, of being wrong.  I also argued though that if we do not go on to further discriminate between kinds of beliefs, however fallible, such that we referred to justified beliefs with a different name (“knowledge”) from unjustified ones (“not knowledge”) then our language will be far less successful at both giving us the world and helping us navigate it.

So, having hopefully made clear that faith beliefs must be a distinguishable subset of the larger class of assents to propositions we call “beliefs”, in this post I want to clarify and defend my longstanding definition of faith specifically as “beliefs beyond rational warrant”.  Some might think that we could distinguish faith beliefs from beliefs in general without equating faith beliefs with a belief that actually goes beyond rational warrant.  Some might argue that defining them in that way is a sophistic attempt to make religious beliefs, the ones most often identified as specifically “faith” beliefs, irrational by definition.  In this way, some might charge that I am begging the question and assuming religious faith beliefs are irrational and defining them as irrational when they might not be, according to less prejudicial criteria.   In short, is my argument just tautological?

Similarly, what justification do I have tocharacterize “faithful” forms of trusting as specifically those instances of trust that trust beyond rational warrant?  In other words, why do I ultimately equate all instances of “faith as trust” with “trust as blind faith”?  Is this a way of defining religious trust as inherently unwarranted trust and, again, question-begging?

The first thing to clarify in answering this question, is that whatever we want to call it, believing more strongly than your rational evidence and logical inferences justify is a specific way of believing.  And believing something despite the presence of countervailing counter-evidence is also a specific way of believing.  Whatever we want to call these things, they are distinguishable subsets of belief that are important enough, which have enough actual consequences in reality, that there really should be a simple word to identify them and distinguish them completely from beliefs that are adopted more scrupulously by reference to standards of evidence.  The same goes for excessive trust.  There are instances of “blind faith” wherein people trust beyond reasonable proportion to evidence of the objective trustworthiness of those they trust.

In fact, all the various senses of the word faith I have distinguished in my “Disambiguating Faith” series are distinguishable cognitive and volitional phenomena.  They are all specific ways of believing, trusting, and being loyal to others which are important to identify and analyze for their worth.  Even if you do not like my choice to call them all instances of faith, you can still judge whether the phenomena I am calling faith are good ones or bad ones without necessarily accepting my terminology.

Another key thing to note is that by using the word faith for these usually problematic ways of believing, trusting and being loyal, I am neither saying that all instances of religious belief, religious loyalty, or religious trust are unjustified.  If you trust your minister to give you good advice because she has training as a counselor and because in all of your experience with her, you have judged her to be humane, compassionate, an astute judge of morality and psychology, etc., then you do not have an unwarranted trust in her but a rationally defensible one.

Similarly, many religious people believe much more according to what they think are good reasons than anyone, either religious or irreligious, usually implies.  Regardless of whether given religious people have reasoned well or open-mindedly and thoroughly about counter-arguments to their beliefs, many simply think belief in God is more than 50% warranted, even 90-100% warranted based on various metaphysical inferences.  Many are under the impression, however false, that their holy books have solid historical evidence that corroborates their claims, etc.

In short, enough religious people have developed enough apologetics routines that it is easy to see that they at least think they are believing in accord with rational warrant and not deliberately believing despite countervailing counter-evidence or deliberately believing more strongly than their warrant permits.

So, I am not saying that all religious beliefs, religious trust, or religious loyalty, are instances of faith, which would be the deliberate decision to believe beyond the degree of one’s evidence permits or against strong counter-evidence to what one wants to believe or is committed to believe out of loyalty to a group, etc.

Often by “faith” religious people mean rational trust or mean belief in what is not 100% known.  In those cases, they are selling their conscientiousness in belief short.  By stressing that they have faith, sometimes all they are doing is overselling their humble recognition that they don’t know 100% but still not claiming that they are going against evidence deliberately.  They might only be copping to committing to the belief with 100% of what they have even though they think their warrant for the belief is actually only, say, 75%.  In that way, they have a criticizable over-commitment for what is rationally warranted.  But this is not nearly as bad as committing to a 1% or 33% belief as though it was 100% warranted.

Now in fact some of their beliefs might really be >1% justified even though they think of them as 75% warranted.  On those issues they would clearly be awful reasoners, but not necessarily faith-based ones.

So, not all religious beliefs or forms of trust are faith-based.  And, there is nothing which precludes an atheist from also willfully over-committing to a belief beyond what she sees the evidence rationally warranting and nothing which precludes an atheist, on any matter whatsoever from religion to politics to sports, from refusing to abandon a pet idea when all the evidence is against it.  Atheists could have faith.  But I’ve yet to meet or read the atheist who is deliberately claiming to believe more than the evidence warrants about God.  Even if some believe more than their evidence permits on some point or another, they do not make it a matter of principle to believe beyond evidence.

So, finally, why call this deliberate act of believing beyond rational warrant specifically “Faith” and not something else?  Why saddle faith with all the blame for all the bad things that go with belief beyond warrant?

The reason faith is the chief candidate for a word to describe deliberate belief beyond warrant is that faith’s three connotations are not mutually exclusive but mutually informing.  Unlike the general word for assenting to propositions in general, “belief”, faith has connotations of loyalty, volitional choice, traditionalism, and specifically religious deference in it.  And while both belief and faith are often used to signify trust and hope, usually when belief is used to refer to trust and hope it is actually just being used as a (confusing) interchangeable synonym for faith or it is referring to a more carefully rationally calibrating form of trust and hope.

Since faiths are traditions of shared beliefs which serve as bases for common group membership, it is more likely that one will make group conformity a criterion for belief assent when involved in a faith tradition than when one is not.  Since people are most often admonished to “have faith” when they are specifically doubting either a tradition (usually religious) or a person for rational reasons, we can interpret “faith’s” volitional component as specifically the choice to believe when the evidence is weak or too strongly against one’s tradition or friend.

The undeniable commonness of religious exhortations to have faith when one doubts, rather than to simply find better evidence or to temporarily suspend judgment or to abandon refuted beliefs, indicates to me that most people recognize the deliberate choice to stick with an unsupported belief is most characteristically (and accurately) called “faith”.

And that’s not even to judge it as a bad thing.  Of course, I think it is a bad thing.  But the point is that good or bad, it is a common thing for people to will themselves to believe against counter-evidence or to commit beyond what evidence warrants.  And it is indisputable that religious people the world over encourage this.  Not all religious people do, but it is too common to say that I am creating a straw man to say that faith for many people is a deliberate and religiously praiseworthy commitment to believe more than evidence allows or against strong counter-evidence and to refuse to suspend judgment in the face of doubt.

Similarly the connotation of faith that involves loyalty also implicates in faith a motive to willfully believe in conformity with one’s group rather than doubt and risk alienation from it.  And so when we consider faith’s connotations of (a) loyalties that are deeper than one’s commitment to truth, (b) volitional willingness to suppress doubts for the sake of staying within a desired belief or community, and (c) allegiance to faith traditions in which it is routine for people to believe in conformity with traditional opinions and poorly substantiated texts claimed to be authorities, the sense of faith as “trust” we get is one that is likely to volitionally commit oneself to loyally trust one’s tradition and its institutions and specific authority figures beyond what might be strictly rationally warranted.

It is precisely because faith has these numerous connotations which I have been meticulously disambiguating that faith is the best candidate for describing deliberate belief beyond or against rational warrant.  It is because the term’s various senses bleed into each other and compromise each other.  When one is a religiously faithful person, one’s faith beliefs are inherently influenced by deeply ingrained traditional loyalties, habits of (at least) acknowledging and (usually) deferring to religious authorities, and habits of trusting that precede one’s age of suspicion.

So all these factors are going to affect the resultant belief propositions one makes on matters related to one’s religion.  These faith beliefs will not just be any ordinary kinds of beliefs that do not have a full 100% warrant.  They will be the sort entangled with other loyalties and the ones most likely to flagrantly and in good conscience involve willful rejection of normal standards of evidence.

So, in short, for being the most explicitly willful forms of belief, the most tradition-deferent forms of belief, the beliefs that are bound up with loyalty and group trust, the beliefs that involve connotations of life commitments and religious devotion, faith beliefs are the most specifically evidence disregarding kind.  They need not occur only within the confines of religion.  Political loyalties and life commitments can form huge incentives to faith-based believing (which often barely admits that it really is so volitional and evidence-resistant).  Personal attachments to specific individuals might lead us to entanglements of allegiance and belief which compromise our commitments to rational warrant.

So, no matter how it happens, as long as there is volition which operates to second guess rational degrees of warrants and as long as there are loyalties that give motive to do so, belief is most likely to be compromised.  And these conditions are most clearly met in cases of faith.

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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