What does it mean to have faith?

I found this comment on Pharyngula that I think sums up — unintentionally — part of the issue with faith when it comes to discussions about it and whether it is good or bad and whether it is compatible with science or not and so on and so forth: everyone defines it with respect to their own personal view of the world/debate and not as an independent word in its own right. The first part is from Alan Lightman, and the second is a commenter’s response to that:

Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Wrong, Lightman. Faith is accepting something that has no evidence to support it. There’s no evidence for god(s) and so faith is required if one wants to believe in god(s).

Now, I’d say that neither of these definitions are right and neither have a hope of being right because both start from a judgement about what faith does and whether it is a negative or positive influence, and start from sticking faith into a debate and a context instead of considering it apart from the contexts we see it in. They’re trying to make a point about the concept of faith by sticking themselves into the instances and insisting that it must conform to that … which is not a good way to do conceptual analysis.

Take Lightman. His definition comes awfully close to being what is called purple prose. It’s emotional and evocative … but hardly useful for allowing us to see what faith is in any real sense. Are those cases he describes faith? Maybe so. Are there other cases of faith that don’t involve that? Well, if we’re going to use faith as a general term and not merely limit it to religion, then that seems to be the case. So what question will that settle? None, of course.

But the ripost from ‘Tis Himself, OM is no better. It’s a simple assertion that faith is believing with no evidence, and then trying to prove that or make a point of that by claiming that there is no evidence for god(s) and so faith is required. So much for an interesting definition, then, especially since most people who give it any degree of thought will concede that “no evidence” is, at least, a bit of an overstatement; there does exist things that could be called evidence but it isn’t — in the minds of atheists, at least — enough to justify belief.

But both of these insist on defining faith relative to religion and/or its issues, and then defining it with respect to whether or not they think the stances it leads to in the religious context good or bad. So Lightman waxes eloquently about the positives and about linking to things higher than ourselves and generating passions, while T’is Himself drags it down to an unjustified belief with no proper grounding. And for both of them, that’s faith: tightly intertwined with their opinion on religion.

Let’s start, then, by taking faith out of the world of religion and into the world in general. Let’s see if we can come up with a definition of the word “faith” that can encompass a more universal meaning, but still be applied to the religious case without losing much. Let’s take our views of faith with regards to religion out of the picture and try to come up with a neutral and justified analysis of the concept that we can then work with to decide all of the interesting questions about faith, religious or otherwise.

Now, I could start with a long and onerous process of going through instances and trying to find a common set of attributes, but this is a blog post so I’ll jump ahead a bit and toss out a candidate: faith is where you hold a belief more strongly than a strict interpretation of the evidence would justify. In short, you believe something with a confidence level — even up to knowing it (although I don’t consider knowing merely a consequence of confidence so don’t make the mistake of assuming that that’s what I’m implying) — that is greater than the confidence level suggested by the evidence.

Before turning to religion, we can see how this works with common notions of faith. If I say “I have faith in that person”, you are implying that you trust them to do something or even as a person to an extent that, strictly speaking, the evidence doesn’t support. If a close friend or family member was, say, accused of a shocking crime, what it would mean to have faith in them is to admit that the evidence suggests that the person did it but that your experience with them makes it so that you believe them innocent. The stronger the evidence of their guilt, the stronger the faith you’d be having in them to believe them false. To have faith in the justice system is to have faith that it will get it right in the face of evidence that should make you doubt. To have faith in science is indeed to have faith that it will give an answer to a problem or even all problems in light of an argument that it can’t or won’t. So, in general, this is what faith means.

And we can see, then, if we use this definition that in general faith is considered to be laudable or at least neutral, as long as it is not carried too far. Faith when you know that the person is guilty or untrustworthy is considered delusional and irrational. An overabundance of faith can also be considered a sign of great naivete when it seems based on simply not understanding how the world works. Handing someone your wallet while you go to the bathroom because you have faith in humanity would be considered incredibly naive. To use a better example, in Persona 3 you activate the “Devil” Social Link by basically getting suckered into an investment scheme; he asks you for some money for a venture, and then says that he needs more, and then that he needs more again, and you can’t activate the link unless you give it to him, at which point he tries to educate you as to how the world works. Unless you’re rich and wanting to see how far he’ll go, that faith in him is naive and, perhaps, something you should change.

So, faith in that sense is neutral. And we can see how this applies to religious faith. Faith, I submit, is simply believing that God exists to a degree greater than would be suggested by the evidence. Note that this fits into both Lightman’s and T’is Himself’s definitions. Lightman’s focuses on the thing being believed — higher power beyond ourselves — and T’is Himself’s takes the evidence line to an unsupported extreme line of “no evidence at all”. But those religious believers who have faith hold the belief in God to a stronger degree than the evidence strictly warrants. The ideal of religious faith, it seems to me, is to hold the belief in God as knowledge. That’s quite strong faith at that. Not all religious people really do claim that or believe that they know that God exists.

But equally strong would be an admonishment that no belief in God is justified by the evidence, that the evidence clearly indicates that any belief in God is simply faith, and faith taken too far or that is too naive. To determine this, we would really need to get into epistemology and decide when it is acceptable to believe something true and what level of evidence is required for that. But that’s a different argument than is advanced by T’is Himself.

Ultimately, the problem here is that both sides have defined faith in their terms and then tried to force that definition on what position their opponents actually hold. T’is Himself thinks that there is no evidence (in some interesting sense) for the existence of God, and therefore what it means to have faith is just to believe without evidence, despite the fact that his opponents will not agree with his classification. And Lightman takes rejection of faith in religion to entail rejection of any sense of something outside of oneself because his definition of faith is doing just that, and so if you reject that you reject everything else, again despite the fact that his opponents are taking a stand on God and not on anything else.

With a neutral definition of faith, we can now ask better questions and make better arguments. Is belief in God based on faith unwarranted in the sense required for faith generally? Is it naive? Are those who reject faith being too skeptical or applying different standards to religion than anything else? This, then, is far better than trying to stuff your opponent into a framework they will not accept.

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5 Responses to “What does it mean to have faith?”

  1. seeingfaith Says:

    This is a great post- thank you. I agree that it’s crucial to first develop neutral definitions of an item before you attempt to evaluate it. I’ve just started reading Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology and he has some interesting points that relate to this post: check out the section about ‘Truth and Verification’ in Volume 1. He notes that in trying to evaluate what is ‘true’, there must be some verification process, and that such verification processes can be categorized as either ‘experimental’ (i.e. you state a hypothesis and then run an experiment to test whether your hypothesis is correct) or ‘experiential’ (i.e. developed in a more organic manner through life experiences). Tillich argues that both verification methods are important. It seems to me that your example of having faith in a friend who has been accused of a crime may fall into this ‘experiential’ form of validation (i.e. my experience with this friend leads me to think that he didn’t do it although the evidence says otherwise). I think many people’s experience of religious faith is similar: based on ‘spiritual experiences’, people have faith that there is some sort of higher presence or power that can not be understood through ‘experimental’ means. Anyway – you do a great service by trying to remove the word ‘faith’ from the loaded context of religion so as to show how all of us come to conclusions about our world using experiential as well as experimental means. Thanks.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    I didn’t mean to leave the reply to this comment for so long, but things have been fairly busy for me lately.

    Anyway, I haven’t read that book, but right off the bat I have some problems with the “experiential” vs “experimental” definition if we decide to apply that to faith, at least how I defined it in the post. The biggest one is that I think that either of those can involve faith or, in fact, not involve faith in the beliefs formed or I suppose verified by them. You can have experiences that are absolutely certain and so do not involve faith at all (for example, sense data seem certain; you may doubt that it reflects anything external to you, but that you are feeling a pain or seeing the colour red don’t seem to be open to doubt). On the other hand, if you run experiments you may find yourself, at least, believing your theory more than the experiments would strictly allow — say, because there are some potential confounds — on the basis that it fits the theory well and you don’t really believe that the confounds were present. For me, as long as you are more certain about the belief than the evidence strictly warrants, that’s faith, and it seems to me that both methods can be involved with beliefs that do that.

    • seeingfaith Says:

      Hey there – first no apologies for delayed replies – fall is such a busy time (at least for folks with kids, that’s for sure!). Anyway – in rereading your post again and yours and my comments, I’ve realized a few things:
      1. I think we’re actually a bit more on the same page than you think. I am not saying that the relationship is always exclusively experimental = scientific and experiential = faith. Rather, I am just pointing out, as you do both in your post and comment, that both in religious and non-religious contexts, we have different modes of evaluating truth and that those modes sometimes involve ‘hard’ evidence and other times softer, more experiential evidence.
      2. That said – I would say that in certain non-religious spheres (science in particular) experimental data is of much greater importance while in the religious sphere experiential data is pretty much the only thing of importance. For example, I believe that a scientist would respond to your last comment by pointing out that what you describe re believing a theory more than the evidence allows is actually not good science (if indeed the confounds were statistically significant) and that through reproducing similar experiments the truth would eventually come out. Furthermore, science is structured in a way so that it is always open to new hard evidence that overturns existing theories. So hard evidence discovered through experimentation always has the last word in science (for an example check out this article about how some experiments may prove a core aspect of Einstein’s theories wrong: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2094665,00.html). Furthermore, overall we have ‘faith’ that science will give us the right answer because when we test that hypothesis we get results that substantiate that faith. We have faith in the reliability of our judicial system when it seems like it is mostly fair (or we lose faith in it when we see all its flaws!). So these forms of faith are actually based on some hard facts.

      In contrast – in the realm of religion – experimentation and hard data have almost no relevance (I tend to find attempts to test the ‘God hypothesis’ either embarrassing – when conducted by people who think they can prove that God exists, or missing the point- when conducted by people who are trying to prove that God does NOT exist). So I guess I would put the relationship this way:

      In evaluating non-religious truths, both experimental methods (hard data) and experiential methods (consciousness/emotional/feeling data) are frequently used. This is the point of your post – I think.

      In evaluating religious truths, primarily experiential data (consciousness/emotional/feeling data) are used.

      Finally – I wonder whether the issue is that we need to also define the term ‘evidence’ – not just the term ‘faith’. In your post it seems to me that you are using a scientific definition of evidence. But isn’t your personal experience with your friend a form of evidence? That’s what character witnesses are, right? And isn’t the sense of awe or spiritual presence that people feel when they pray a form of evidence? It’s just an experiential form of evidence (i.e., residing in consciousness) rather than experimental form (i.e., hard evidence that can be measured). Anyway – thanks for the post and comments – you’re helping me think through this stuff.

  3. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, let me start with the last paragraph first, since that might be the whole difference: I DO, in fact, consider experiences to be evidence, and I called out T’is Himself’s claim of “There’s no evidence” to be working on a limited idea of what it means to be evidence. As I said in my reply comment, I consider sense data to be experiential and yet absolutely certain. What makes that sense of awe or spiritual presence different is that it doesn’t strongly indicate the conclusion; there are a number of other possibilities to explain that. If, then, you take that evidence and use it to claim that you personally KNOW that there’s a God, that by my definition is faith, because the evidence can’t justify it that strongly. Is that bad? Sometimes it seems to be and sometimes it doesn’t seem to be.

    Now, as to science, I think Kuhn would argue that science does work more on a notion of faith that it would like to admit. But regardless of that, we can ask whether SCIENTISTS have faith in their theories even if strictly speaking SCIENCE doesn’t work on faith. I think it’s quite credible to say that scientists have faith in their theories; they wouldn’t argue for them so strongly before they’re proven or rely on them so heavily in other work if they didn’t. And that’s enough to establish that even an experimental or “hard data” approach can involve faith as I defined it, and even does so fairly frequently.

  4. Scientism 101: Knowing and Ways of Knowing. « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a key part of this argument would be getting around what I think faith is. I’ve already talked about what I think faith is before, and taking that definition it is clear that no such methodology is possible. For me, faith is […]

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