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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  • In my early teens, I accepted Christianity on faith. As you say, this was a matter of beliefs. I think it fair to say that I adopted those beliefs on faith. That is, I adopted them on the basis of trust toward those who presented the ideas to me. It was a faith (or trust) in other people.

    Although I adopted those beliefs on faith, that did not relieve me of responsibility for them. My adoption of the beliefs was tentative. I knew it was my responsibility to investigate for myself. And, as I investigated, doubts arose.

    I eventually dropped out of Christianity, mainly because I could not find a basis for much of the theology. But I never saw that as a crisis of faith. Nor did I ever regret my time spent as a Christian and spent is studying what I should believe. And I am still inspired by some of the moral teachings of Jesus.

    If the people who persuaded me to adopt those beliefs had deliberately misled me, then it would be proper for me to have lost faith in them and to conclude that they were not to be trusted. But I do not, for a moment, think that is what happened. I believe that they were honest toward me. They presented to me what they honestly believed. They encouraged me to do my own reading and to investigate for myself.

    You are right. The word “faith” is often misused.

  • angie vandemerwe

    I tend to view the contexts of “faith” in sociological ways, rather than believing that God really exists.I suppose much has to do with how different humans tend to feel most comfortable, their trajectory.

    My theology underwrote my understanding of myself and the world, which made those beliefs important. The meaning of those beliefs, rather than “Ultimate Reality” or “the One and Only True God” is what made for my commitment. Such an understanding made for a justification for ‘loving myself, and a belief that others were to love me, too”. But, when education, as well as understanding the “social dynamic” of our culture as to politics and policy became evident to me, then I questioned whether there was a political agenda, as to faith and faith’s claims.

  • C. (sandhilldiary)

    My religious belief structure has, over the last thirty-odd years, morphed from Southern Baptist to vaguely theist none-of-the-above to neo-Pagan to strongly agnostic humanist (UU) and lately to It’s Very Complicated (still UU, only more so.)

    My faith, in the sense of my personal spiritual connection to the holy mystery (whatever it may be), has been continuous.

    This frustrates a great many people who have known me at various stages of my life, and who are unclear on the distinction between faith and religion.

    • angie vandemerwe

      “faith is whatever you choose to trust? or are you talking about faith in rationale of one’s life’s understanding and commitments? I see both could apply. If one chooses to believe in a literal “God” that intervenes, or in reason that exhibits an analysis and then commitment to a particular area of interest. One does not have to believe in”God” for the latter to apply.

      • C. (sandhilldiary)

        In my usage, (religious) practice would be what you do (either to access God/the Holy, or when you think the Aforementioned might be paying attention.) (Religious) beliefs would be what you think (about God/the Holy, its nature and intentions, and any expectations it might have for your behavior.)

        Neither of these is something that I would properly describe as “Faith” although I’m as susceptible as anyone to casual language usage.

        The way I am using the word, “faith” is not that which I trust, but the act or experience of trusting it (whatever it is), of being oriented to that spiritual reality (whatever its nature) and committed to following its call. This is what I think Dr. McGrath is writing about here — although I am prepared to be corrected on that point.

        • angie vandemerwe

          Then, I have no faith. I am unbeliever, as I do not “trust” that some supernatural/spiritual realm controls nature. Men are products of their environments, and biology. The human sense of “self” is the only “spiritual” aspect of man, as awareness of a separate identity and distinct interests. Where that awareness and distinctiveness comes from is not understood I don’t think. But, “God” is the answer for those that have faith. Those that don’t seek to understand it.

          • C. (sandhilldiary)

            Oh, I don’t think there’s some cranky old guy in a bathrobe sitting on his front cloud lobbing thunderbolts at people and telling them to get off his lawn or they’re going to hell, either.

            Seriously, I don’t see faith and rational understanding of the world as incompatible with each other at all. I am strongly of the opinion that setting up those two modes of thought as exclusive of one another (which might not be where you’re coming from) doesn’t do any good.

            I’d agree that the human sense of self is the spiritual aspect of humanity and that where it comes from is not understood. It seems to me that there’s no conflict between seeking an objective answer in the form of “Brain chemistry” or “electrical impulses” and -also- (some but not necessarily all individuals) experiencing, subjectively, a sense of some spiritual wholeness beyond their individual selves. There’s a fairly long and broad tradition (outside Protestant Christianity, anyway) of using ingested substances to access spiritual or metaphysical experiences – peyote, for example. Now on an objective, material level, a peyote trip is about the chemicals and the brain, sure. But for the person experiencing it, there might be a deep spiritual significance — or not, depending on their cultural context and what they’re taking into the experience.

            So no, I would disagree and say that “God” is not -the- answer for those who have faith, but rather one of the frames of reference for understanding the question.

          • Sorry for taking so long to indicate that I was indeed using faith in the manner you indicate – not as the object of religious attention, but as the attitude towards that Reality which is or ought to be the focus of religious intention. Indeed, one of my points is that faith itself becomes the center rather than the means of centering for many people, with problematic results.

  • My definition for faith is according to Heb 11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, **the evidence of things not seen**.”
    Faith is a substitute for evidence in order to support beliefs. That’s the way I see it.

    I was endoctrinated into the beliefs of Christianity at an early age. Did I have faith then? No, because I thought then all theology, doctrines and wonders, were clearly stated, with no ambiguities, differences, unhistoricity, nonsense and contradictions, by Jesus’ own witnesses, writing separately and from different locations (multiple independant witnessing of same events, with complete harmony), soon after the “departure”. I was led to believe Christianity was based on historical genuine facts, with no room for doubts. No faith was required.

    Now that I know a lot more, I still do not have faith, but it is for a very different reason.

    I also think the appeals for faith (or acceptance of beliefs) in the Pauline letters and “to the Hebrews”, very early on in Christianity, is one of many sure signs pointing to a lack of evidence supporting nascent Christian beliefs.

    • I don’t think that Hebrews 11:1 needs to be understood in that way, although clearly it often is. It doesn’t say that faith provides evidence about things you wish you could verify some other way but can’t, or that it allows you to contradict the evidence of what you do see by appeal to faith. Hebrews suggests that faith is the basis for hope regarding things which are not seen because they are future and thus hoped for. And that doesn’t seem to me to be incompatible with taking evidence seriously, nor does it seem to provide justification for the sorts of “leaps of faith” that many religious believers advocate.

  • When I was a believer, “faith” as trust in God or an Ultimate Reality made sense – because we know what it means to trust a person. But now that I don’t see any evidence for an Ultimate Reality or God (at least, not one that could in any way be considered a person), faith as trust in God makes no sense to me.

    • Is there any sense in which one can trust Reality? Does Reality have to be personal (and if so in what sense) for trust to be appropriate? I’m not trying to prejudge the answer one way or the other, I just think the question might be interesting to explore…

  • Shannon Heiska

    I agree that the word faith is misused, but in the Christian context, it cannot be separated from certain beliefs. A belief is just a way of describing the things one has faith in. If we reduce the Christian religion to something like Tillich’s faith in Ultimate Reality, then all those who believe in a Higher Power of some sort would be called Christians, and that is not a definition of Chrisitianity that many would accept. I lost my belief in Christianity, and likewise, I lost my faith that the Christian version of reality is true. I no longer trusted the Bible to give me a complete picture of the spiritual life. I lost my faith in the certainty I had that a Higher Power of the Judeo-Christian flavor exists. I didn’t lose the ability to have faith, but this faith is directed at those I love and towards institutions I trust to provide humanity with various things. I did however lose my faith in the Judeo Christian God, and it was concurrent with my loss of belief in the same.

    As for my faith in Ultimate Reality, I must say that I lost my faith in that as well. There may or may not be something that transcends our material world. I am inclined to think that whatever It is is just a branch of science and a part of the material world that we have not yet discovered or described very well. I do feel a sense of awe at the ability to be conscious and aware, but that is not the same as having faith in Ultimate Reality. I haven’t lost my ability to profoundly appreciate life and all its experiences or to see that love is a virtue essential to peaceful existence. But this is not Christianity. If it were, then all religions and most humans would be Christian.

    Although I really appreciate attempts to make Christian theology and belief more palatable and harmonious to modern sensibilities and discoveries, I don’t feel the need to cling to the label of Christian just because I haven’t lost my sense of wonder and faith in love. I don’t think I’m being incorrect in saying that I lost my faith in Christianity. My faith was based on much more than my beliefs, but even the profound faith I had was based on belief on some level. I changed my beliefs at many times throughout my Christian journey, but once I started changing those beliefs to things that have nothing to do with historical Christianity, I can no longer call that profound feeling a Christian faith.

  • Susan Burns

    Those of us who have had an NDE (near death experience) do not need faith because we know. It would not be possible for anyone to convince me that my experience was merely a function of my brain. The “other side” consists of pure, all-enveloping, all-permeating love.

    • James Ignatius

      please tell me more about your experience.

      • Susan Burns

        I was in a car accident when I was a teenager. I hit my head and was unconscious for about two weeks. At one point (probably at impact) I found myself on the astral plane where I simply “was” amongst the stars. The first thing I noticed was the all-consuming love and happiness and I had no fear at all. When I started to become aware of my surroundings, I was awe struck at the vastness of the galaxy. There is no word to describe the vastness – maybe infinite? There was a dawning awareness that there were no boundaries and I felt myself gasp. That is when the stars became specs of dust floating in the beam of light in the ambulance. I watched from above as the paramedics worked on me but felt no attachment to my body. The next thing I remember was waking up because whoever wrapped my head had bent my ear back and it was throbbing (it still hurts sometimes). As soon as I woke up they moved me from intensive care to a regular room. After I recovered I went back to my after-school job at a restaurant which was not far from the hospital. The intensive care nurse that took care of me came into the restaurant not long after. He did not recognize me but I immediately knew him because of his aura. I never saw him while in the hospital because of the bandage but I knew him intimately and loved him. He was a bit surprised at my emotional reaction.

        • Thanks so much for sharing this, Susan. I apologize for having taken so long to chime in on the discussion here. Even for those of us who have had a different sort of dramatic religious experience, whether of the born again or mystical union variety or both, that experience demands that we view the world in a way that takes account of it. For me personally, I used to spend a lot of time asserting that my experience “wasn’t psychological” – whereas now, I’m more likely to say “Of course it was psychological – otherwise it would not be an experience!” The question is what such experiences tell us about the nature of reality and about human existence, and what it means to live in a manner appropriate to a universe in which such experiences are or can be a part of it.

  • James Ignatius

    The tendency to make one’s beliefs and assertions the object of devotion in religion is tied to the ego’s need for identity and certainty. We miss faith because we don’t want it. Hell, we were never looking for it to begin with. We don’t want the vulnerability that comes with naked trust in a person. We would rather turn that person into an image we project in our minds because we can control the “person” and sell ourselves the false idea that we are trusting in a person and that person is the object of our affection, devotion, etc…. Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison, that most religious people serve a god of the imagination, which he likened to the use of deus ex machina in badly-written plays.

  • chris white

    Susan Burns–in a sense, your NDE was a revelation about the other side. You received information about the other side–but was it enough to know the who of the other side? Just to be assured that there is the”other side” may rule out the need for faith that there is a “other side” but does not seem adequate to rearrange your life to follow whatever you found. I am just brainstorming here knowing that you only gave a snippet of info about your experience. Care to share more?

    Shannon Heiska–I am sorry to hear of your loss of faith and belief in the God of the Judea-Christian Scriptures. I surmise something ugly must have happened. Do you think that the natural processes of the physical world can account for the aspects of love–with its wonder and awe? What is it about love that is more than what the materialists claim are certain synapses firing and what is it about love that you have faith or trust in it? Could your view of the God of Christianity have been incorrect–seeing that in their scriptures it is stated that –God is love–? I suggest you revisit this God who is love.

    Beau Quilter–I appreciate the sentiment you expressed. Despite the materialists claim that God is superfluous–we all have personality–we express this personality–is it something that can arise from molecules colliding at just the right time? Or maybe it is evidence that behind those molecules is a personal God–that God you once had faith in–in whom you trusted?

    Bernard–faith isn’t the substitute for evidence–it is the evidence. In the chapter you quoted one will notice that the folks listed there acted by faith: by faith Noah made the ark, by faith, Abraham left Ur, by faith etc. Faith was the motivator to act and the action in a sense was faith-evidence of the revelation each person received from God. Could Noah’s neighbors hear God’s call to Noah to build the ark? No. But they could see Noah building it. The things not seen was God’s command to build and the building of it, was the faithful obedience of Noah. Please revisit the book of Hebrews talk about faith.

    • Chris– Faith is no evidence: Hindus show a lot a faith in their beliefs, but would that mean their beliefs are “evidenced”? I say no, and any Christian would say no also.

      Then you mention legendary tales about Noah and Abraham (as told in ‘Hebrews’). Of course, in the stories, Noah is right to have faith in God. The same for Abraham. But they are most likely narrations about fictitious events and people, where, of course, their faith is “evidenced” by a good ending.

      One can make a story about someone whose faith into something or someone is fulfilled, therefore the faith looks like evidence: Noah had evidence (= faith) about the big flood to occur soon and building a ark, as called by God, would allow him to survive.
      I am not denying someone (real) can have faith into something and be proven right. However, there are many many who have faith in some beliefs (religious or secular), but then there is no realization (sometimes the opposite happens).

      I had faith in my broker who recommended I invest in some scheme. But I lost money. Faith is not the evidence. Obviously here, my faith was wrong, equivalent of acting on false evidence.
      Faith is rather a poor default substitute for evidence, when there is not enough trustworthy available “proof”.

    • Susan Burns

      There is no “who” of the other side. There is no heirarchy. There is no control. It did change my life in that I know religion is merely a human construct.

    • Shannon

      My Christian devotion was centered around the idea that God is love, and love is God. I’ve had some challenges in my life, but nothing more than the average person. These challenges really had nothing to do with my losing of the Christian faith. I lost my Christian faith because of my academic studies and philosophical musing. I still believe that there *may* be something we do not understand that exists and somehow gives rise to consciousness, but I do not think that Christianity adequately explains this Thing. It is Beyond any historical narrative. The general principles and values of Christianity are profound and give many lives great meaning. In fact, in many ways, they still inform my own world view… but these things are not exclusive to Christianity and that is why I do not call myself Christian.

      I do believe that our emotions, everything from altruistic love to senseless violence, are a result of evolutionary pressures. Even animals experience love and emotion. We are just touching the surface of what these “synaptic firings” really are about. We know so little about consciousness and awareness. Neuroscience is in its infancy! The fact that I do not think a Judeo-Christian God has anything to do with these things doesn’t change my own sense of morality.

  • arcseconds

    I have an inkling this focus on faith is a western preoccupation. Maybe even the very understanding of religion as faith is a western one.

    I don’t know very much about Islam, but I’ve had it from more than one Muslim (and read it in a book, I think, too) that ‘faith is a Christian thing’. Epistemically they regard Islam as being rationally proveable (whereas Christianity has traditionally required a ‘leap of faith’, at least to get from theism to Christianity), and in terms of one’s relationship to God, I suppose submission is really what’s required, not trust.

    As far as I can work out, Indian and East asian religions tend to be highly pragmatic in their outlook, to the point where I wonder how far the western notion of ‘truth’ is really applicable. Certainly there’s a tradition in Buddhism to the effect that there may well be gods, and they may well have important effects on the world, in which case it pays to pray to them for good weather, in the same sense at it pays to fertilize your crops. You could call this faith I suppose, but having faith that a certain procedure will result in good crop growth doesn’t seem to be exactly what James is talking about.