Can You Lose a Faith You Never Had?

Can You Lose a Faith You Never Had? November 21, 2012

I find myself wondering how many people who defend their “faith,” and how many who say they have lost their “faith,” actually have or had faith.

Let me immediately clarify that I am not referring here to the offensive and foolish suggestion sometimes made by some Christians that, if someone becomes an atheist, they must never have been a Christian to begin with. Nor am I referring to the equally inane suggestion sometimes made by some atheists that, if someone becomes a Christian, they can't really have been an atheist before that.

No, neither is the sort of thing that I am going to say. And in fact, both these instances actually Illustrate why “faith” is in scare quotes at the start of my post.

What many religious people have, and what atheists typically reject, is not faith but what might be called beliefs. They are doctrines, dogmas, assertions, claims, and any number of other things. But a question that is rarely asked is whether those things are faith: whether they should be understood as such, or not, and why. That “faith” is the same as “assertion” is – rather ironically – merely a claim, an assertion, one that needs to be questioned.

If one looks at the use of the terms typically translated by the word faith in English translations of the Bible, they mean things like “trust” and/or “faithfulness.”

For modern Christian traditions influenced by Existentialism, whether on the conservative end of the spectrum among Evangelicals or on the liberal end represented by Bultmann and Tillich, faith has come to mean a centering of one's life around God, whether understood in an anthropomorphic manner or as the transcendent Ground of Being.

But neither trust, nor faithfulness, nor orienting one's life on the Ultimate, is the same thing as making assertions or believing doctrines. The tenets one holds are not irrelevant to one's fidelity and trust, or to the orientation of one's life. But neither are they the same thing.

In a marriage, there is (or should be) fidelity, trust, and orientation/focus, and one's beliefs about one's spouse and a great many other things affect those commitments. But the things one knows and believes are bound to, and supposed to, change over time. If they do not, then your relationship is likely to be unhealthy.

In a similar way, beliefs will and should change and develop over the course of one's life.

But what happens if the assertions themselves become the object of one's devotion, whether in religion or in marriage? In the latter, if one's aim is to remain committed to believing the same things about one's spouse, rather than to remain committed to them even as one's knowledge of them changes, the relationship will suffer. Something comparable happens in the case of religion, too. The very act of making beliefs the object of one's faith, trust, and devotion leads to an attempt to keep those dogmatic assertions unchanging and to protect them from assault. At best, one ends up with idolatrous faith, focused on words and ideas about God (and perhaps also other matters), rather than faith in God.

I know that this blog has a great many readers of many different perspectives. I am curious whether, if you consider yourself a person of “faith,” that faith is in fact merely beliefs, or perhaps worse still, faith in beliefs. If you are a person who at some point lost their faith, did you lose an orientation of your life on Ultimate Reality, or did you lose beliefs, and/or a misplaced trust in those beliefs?


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