Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Is Faith and Who Has It?

Leah of Unequally Yoked has been hosting some interesting discussion on the topic of faith lately. This started out when she re-posted a challenge from atheist blogger John Loftus of Debunking Christianity. The challenge was as follows:
Christian theists make two claims about faith:
  1. That atheists define the concept of faith wrong, and
  2. That atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.
So here’s my challenge: Define faith in such a way that it fulfills both requirements!
Leah then critiqued two answer to this. The first which she described as defining faith as "standing on the shoulders of giants" was as follows:
Faith is knowing by testimony rather than by experience. I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, because the scientists tell me so, and I believe them. I can become an astronomer or an astronaut and find out more concretely, but I can also become a monk and find out the experience of divine revelation more directly.
Leah object to this saying:
I think this is defining ‘faith’ too broadly (and it’s certainly underestimating how much we take on authority). When I was an intern in a genetics lab (one of the more empirically-based things you can do), I transfected cell lines I didn’t create with plasmids I didn’t sequence that were meted out pipets that were calibrated by someone I didn’t know. When it came time to analyze my data, I used a machine that I wouldn’t know how to repair and sent the results to a biostatistician whose methods I wasn’t familiar with.
Long story short, we all do a lot of standing on the shoulders of giants. Our modern lives are complex enough that we have to accept on authority the way most of the physical world around us functions, let along the metaphysical aspects. Using this as the heart of faith makes the definition useless to me, if I want to talk about a way of knowing that differentiates atheists and theists.
This framework might be useful if we think the two groups have different criteria for identifying credible authorities, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on that topic in the comments. My hunch is that, when it comes to metaphysics, it’s not that atheists and theists are turning to different authorities, but that atheists mostly aren’t seeking out explicit authorities on these topics at all. Most atheists don’t cleave to particular philosophers the way Christians might be shaped by a certain theologian. So this doesn’t end up being a fight about how we answer questions, but about what we’re trying to find out.
The second definition she criticized came from Loftus himself and was as follows:
In my opinion faith is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities. If, say there is a 70 % probability something is the case then to conclude more than that 70% probability is faith, and I reject faith based reasoning like that. To reject that kind of faith is to live and operate based on the probabilities. If there is a 70 % chance of something then that’s all I can conclude and that’s all I can use to base my decisions on. And so I could never give my whole life over to a 70% probability. I could only give 70% of my life over to a 70% probability. This is Lessing’s ditch when applied to the past, as you know. Kierkegaard responded by acknowledging Lessing’s point and therefore decided faith must go beyond what the evidence calls for. And that’s what I must reject.
Leah points out this seems to suggest a basic misunderstanding of probability:
Loftus is essentially saying that, when we aren’t certain, we have to hedge our bets, but that can be the wrong way to reason. Let me give an example. I tell you that I have a weighted coin — it is 60% likely to come down heads and 40% likely to come down tails. Plenty of people, given this data, will conclude that they should call out ‘heads!’ 60% of the time and ‘tails!’ 40% of the time. They’ll lose out to the people who call ‘heads!’ every single time you play with enough iterations.
What that 70% means is that you need less new evidence to change your mind about this action than you would if you were truly 99% confident. But, absent that new evidence, there’s no reason you shouldn’t stay the course. Instead of half-heartedly committing to the choice you’ve made, you should just stay vigilant that you don’t discount new evidence in either direction, because you’ve started thinking of your current confidence level as an important part of your identity, one that it would hurt you to lose.
Faith is a really, really big topic, but I wanted to suggest a few clarifying thoughts, though not a complete answer to the questions posed.

First off, it seems to me "faith" itself is a fairly broad term. Christians often talk about the need to "have faith", but in a sense that is a shorthand. Faith in what?
The old Catholic Encyclopedia in its article on faith describes the Old Testament use of the term to be essentially "trustfulness" or "steadfastness":
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew means essentially steadfastness, cf. Exodus 17:12, where it is used to describe the strengthening of Moses' hands; hence it comes to mean faithfulness, whether of God towards man (Deuteronomy 32:4) or of man towards God (Psalm 118:30). As signifying man's attitude towards God it means trustfulness or fiducia. It would, however, be illogical to conclude that the word cannot, and does not, mean belief or faith in the Old Testament for it is clear that we cannot put trust in a person's promises without previously assenting to or believing in that person's claim to such confidence. Hence even if it could be proved that the Hebrew does not in itself contain the notion of belief, it must necessarily presuppose it.
This usage still informs the way that we use the term in reference to interpersonal relationships. I have faith that my wife loves me. She has faith that I am faithful to her. Etc.

Obviously, in this sense one can have faith in any number of things or people, and as it notes, faith in this sense necessarily presupposes belief. I can hardly have faith in my wife's love (as in, trust in its existence and steadfastness) if I don't really believe that I have a wife or don't really believe that she loves me. When Christians talk about "having faith" however, they're pretty specifically talking about "having faith in God" -- that combination of believing in God's existence and of trusting in God to remain steadfast and trustworthy in His love for us.

So one sense in which Christians might say that atheists also "have faith" is that in which atheists perform a similar action (they believe in some thing and that it may be relied upon steadfastly) but in reference to different objects: loved ones, friends, science, progress, etc. Clearly saying one "has faith in" any of these things would carry somewhat different meaning, because these are different kinds of things, but arguably there is some commonality in the type of action which "having faith" in any one of these things might be.

Secondly, I think it's important to be clear on what kind of a thing faith is: faith is an act of the will. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the issue in typical fashion here in Article 1.
If, on the other hand, "to think" be understood in the second way, then this expresses completely the nature of the act of believing. For among the acts belonging to the intellect, some have a firm assent without any such kind of thinking, as when a man considers the things that he knows by science, or understands, for this consideration is already formed. But some acts of the intellect have unformed thought devoid of a firm assent, whether they incline to neither side, as in one who "doubts"; or incline to one side rather than the other, but on account of some slight motive, as in one who "suspects"; or incline to one side yet with fear of the other, as in one who "opines." But this act "to believe," cleaves firmly to one side, in which respect belief has something in common with science and understanding; yet its knowledge does not attain the perfection of clear sight, wherein it agrees with doubt, suspicion and opinion.
If I'm paraphrasing this right: To have faith, or to believe, is not simply to make an passive assessment as to the probability that something is true, it is to decide to believe something to be the case or not be the case (and one presumes to act accordingly.)

Looking at Loftus and Leah's points about probabilities, I'm having a little trouble grasping how exactly you would act on a 70% probability belief. Leah makes one reasonable assumption. It seems to me that another would be that one would simply lower the stakes. If someone comes up to me and says, "This weighted coin has a 60% chance of coming up heads. How much money would you like to bet that it will come up heads?" I might offer a different size bet than if she had said, "This weighted coin has a 90% chance of coming up heads." But either way, I'm placing a degree of faith in the idea that it will come up heads. In this example, refusing to place any faith in it's coming up heads would mean refusing to bet on the toss at all, or betting on its coming up tails.

But this underscores the argument that "everyone has faith in something", in that, faith being an act, just about everyone ends up acting in some way on a given point in which they must make a decision as to what to believe. In many situations, even refusing to act ends up being some kind of an act. As in, for instance, if I had refused to act in any way as if I believed that my future wife loved me, you can probably bet that she wouldn't have married me. Virtually any act (including refusing to act) that I chose to take would have represented a "bet", either slight or strong, that she either did or did not love me. Refusal to take a position on the question was not really an option.

This emphasis on faith as an act (rather than a piece of knowledge or a feeling) is particularly comforting to me. After all, I can't really say that I know God exists and came to suffer and die for our sins in some absolute, sure sort of knowledge. Nor can I say that I always feel the truth of this. But I most certainly can choose to believe it, and act accordingly.


Anonymous said...

I believe in things that are backed by evidence. I have opinions about everything else. Faith, the deliberate practice of believing things that are not backed by evidence, yet refusing to label these beliefs opinions, is a bad habit that interferes with clear thinking.


P. S. Or maybe you were just wanting to have a discussion among religious folk about the various nuances of religious thinking - if that's the case, just say so and I'll leave now.

Darwin said...


I certainly didn't mean it to be a religious-folk-only discussion, since I was linking to Leah (who'se an atheist) and she shows up from time to time. (Besides, we only burn at the stake without trial over really, really important issues like the genre of Jane Austen novels.)

I'm not sure how your belief/opinion divide lines up against the types of knowledge/act/feeling that I would identify, however.

First off, I would say that most of the things which religious folk would label as things they "have faith" in are based on evidence -- though perhaps not evidence that you'd accept as convincing. Thus, for instance, I don't believe in God (and in Christianity in particular) just because I think it's a nice story; I believe in it because I find the evidence sufficiently compelling for me to make an act of belief.

An opinion, on the other hand, I'd generally see as something which is a matter of taste. Even there, opinions are based on various things, which you might call evidence. So, for instance, it is my opinion that Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout is an excellent beer. This is in part because of its thickness, it's deep, roasted flavor, its persistent head of foam, and it's balance between malt and hops flavors. However, this is tempted by taste in that I happen to like these characteristics in a beer, and someone who really loves Pilsners or IPAs might feel differently.

Then there are pieces of knowledge which don't require any act of belief because they are known outright. I know that 2+2=4, and it takes no act of belief to get there, because that's a definitionally true thing. I know that the book lying next to me on the desk is blue, because I can see it right in front of me and there's not really any question in the matter (other than some sort of drastic confusion of my senses). So again, there's no real act of belief there.

However, I believe that all human persons have a basic, equal human dignity by virtue of being human persons. This is a belief I can back up with various pieces of evidence and argument, but it does require an act of belief. Other people (say, Peter Singer, to grab the obvious example) would make a different act of belief in this matter.

bearing said...

I prefer to think of "faith" as an organic whole encompassed in the concept of "fides" or "fidelity." It is more like "faithfulness" as used in the sense,

I am faithful to my spouse.

I do not think of it as a purely intellectual phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

The hierarchy of knowledge, ranked by level of certainty:


In my world, knowledge and belief are one and the same, and rightfully apply to things that are supported by strong evidence: 2 + 2 = 4, F = ma, evolution, plate tectonics. Opinions are things unsupported by evidence, or supported by insufficient evidence, but wherein I still feel the need to make a decision: most public policy questions, science questions that are still open. Taste covers those areas that are judged on my own purely personal whims: the quality of beers or TV shows or such.

In your world, interestingly, it is not knowledge and belief that are the same, it is opinion and taste. I wonder what that says about us?

I'd like to explore this further, but I've got to run.


Kyle Cupp said...

A friend of mine, who's a priest, defines faith as a response to a God who reveals, a definition of which I'm very fond. The word "response" goes long with faith being an act of the will. If I were to broaden the definition a little, which I have, I would say that faith is a response to the sacred, or to what one believes to be the sacred, or, lastly, to the visitation of the other. In any case, faith comes from me, because it is something that I do, and yet it is not arbitrary or directionless or purely subjective, because I am responding to something outside of myself, something that eludes certain knowledge.

Darwin said...


That seems like a good way of putting it, and seems to underline that the dichotomy between "faith" and "works" is a false one -- faith without works isn't just dead, it's not even faith.


I suppose we'd have to get rigorous about our terminology before we could see if we're even talking about the same things with these words. However, continuing to be fairly casual about the use of words, it seems to me that there are at a minimum the following categories:

1) Things we know with certainty because they cannot be other than true (such as 2+2=4)
2) Things we know with certainty by direct observation (such as "there is a tree there" or "that vase is blue")
3) Things we think to be correct based on rational assessment of evidence (plate tectonics, evolution, OJ killed Nicole, Julius Caesar was killed on March 15 44BC)
4) Things we believe/have faith in based on evidence -- I'd hold that these are different in the sense that they involve committing action of a sort that 3) does not -- (I believe my wife loves me, I believe that all human persons have an innate human dignity and certain human rights, I believe that God exists and was incarnated as Jesus Christ)
5) Judgements we make based on evidence and circumstances (I judge that representative democracy is the most equitable form of government in this time and place)
6) Matters of opinion/taste (it is my opinion that classical music is more beautiful than jazz, it is my opinion that Stouts are better tasting than porters)

My classification abilities are running out of steam, but it seems like certain kinds of aesthetic judgements might be more than matters of opinion/taste and yet involve some element of them. Thus, for instance, it seems to me that there is an objective element to saying that the parthenon is more beautiful than an apartment block, which goes beyond which style of building one prefers.


Certainly, faith in God is a response to the sacred, though it seems like in the more general sense faith must at least be a response to something other. It's never simply an internal intellectual assent.

Laura said...


I've never commented before, but was tempted by this interesting discussion. I've considered this problem before, because I am a reluctant atheist who cannot persuade herself to have "faith" in God.

My intuition, before reading this and thinking about it some more, was that the reason I do not have faith in God is that I do not have faith in anything. I share the feeling discussed above that I "believe" in many things based on the testimony of others, absent direct evidence, and I suspect I could believe in God in a similar way.

But, I do not think this would constitute faith. I believe in the laws of physics because someone told me they were true and it seems consistent with lots of other things I know. But I believe in them in a sense that is changeable - the sense in which I believed that there was a brontosaurus, and now I believe that there never was one.

I did not imagine myself ever being able to believe in something in a way that was impervious to new evidence; that is, to come to a conclusion that I was convinced I would never change based on new information. But I feel fairly confident that that is necessary for faith in God. That is, I think the difference between faith and plain old belief may rest in your acceptance or non-acceptance of the possibility that you are wrong about that particular thing.

What made me rethink my position was your analogy to your faith in your wife. I am also married, and I think my belief that my husband loves me may be the exception to my no-faith policy (by this definition). I know that it is POSSIBLE that someday his character could change dramatically, or I could discover something about him that might cause me to question things I thought I knew. But my faith in my husband and his love is so strong that I would choose to interpret possible contrary evidence in other ways, like emotional distress or mental illness, rather than jumping to the conclusion that he did not love me. This represents a choice on my part, because that is part of how I show my love for HIM. It would be a sad, sad world if we guarded our hearts in the way that would seem most logical if we were always holding open the possibility that the people we love might not REALLY love us back, pending further evidence. In fact, I would be concerned that someone who did this might be a sociopath.

Maybe this is the key to finding a way to have faith in God (although I think I am still a long way off.) Thanks for the food for thought.

Darwin said...


Thanks for commenting. I often think of myself as writing primarily for the people who normally comment, so it's always exciting to see someone new show up and be reminded that here are other readers than the ones I know of.

For what it's worth, as someone who "has faith" (though I always feel like I'm tempting fate when I use the term for myself), I don't think I'd necessarily say that "the difference between faith and plain old belief may rest in your acceptance or non-acceptance of the possibility that you are wrong about that particular thing". I do actually accept pretty readily that I may be wrong about God's existence. The howling randomness of a purposeless universe is something I find all too easy to think is true. The sense in which I reject it isn't so much that I don't accept the possibility that I'm wrong (that's always with me) but rather that I choose to believe anyway.

I think that marriage analogy is useful here. In a sense, it's easier for me to imagine what evidence that MrsDarwin didn't love me would look like than to imagine what evidence that God didn't exist would look like (aside from the evidence that I already see but interpret differently.) For instance, if I were to come home and find MrsDarwin in bed with the pool guy, after I got over my indignation over her hiring a pool guy when we don't have a pool, I would settle down to taking it from this evidence that she didn't love me.

I don't think that that would happen, not for a second, but I can certainly imagine that if it did happen, I would draw that conclusion.

So it's not so much that there's no evidence that would suggest to me that MrsDarwin didn't love me, as that I really, really don't expect to ever see that evidence.

With God, it's a little different. It's harder for me to imagine what clear evidence that God did not exist would look like, because I'm only familiar with this world in which I'm convinced that God does exist. I can talk about things like the world not making sense or moral laws not seeming to exist, or some clear evidence that the Gospels were false, but these are all highly speculative ideas. (Whereas real people do find that their spouses don't love them, so it's at least possible to imagine what that would look like.)

But I would, at least, say that I can certainly imagine evidence convincing me that God didn't exist -- I'm just not sure (aside from very pat answers) what that evidence would look like at this moment, though I can readily believe that I would know it when I saw it.

That disagreement aside, however, I very strongly agree with your conclusion: "It would be a sad, sad world if we guarded our hearts in the way that would seem most logical if we were always holding open the possibility that the people we love might not REALLY love us back, pending further evidence. In fact, I would be concerned that someone who did this might be a sociopath."

This, I would say, is a very strong example of the sense in which faith, as in "trustingness" is absolutely necessary -- whether we can imagine disproofs of what we believe or not. The fact that something is not absolutely 100% "proved" does not get us out of taking some sort of action, having some sort of belief, unless we are reconciled to a life completely without action or attachment. And that would be a pretty lousy sort of life.

bearing said...

I wish I had more time and mental space to write at length about this.

Faith in, and faithfulness to, a spouse are very precisely designed to be an image of faith in, and faithfulness to, God. They are so bound up in each other as to not be separable; but at the same time, it is possible to "be faithful," to "do faithfulness," even in times of doubt or -- God forbid -- abandonment.

This is what I would like to get across to anyone who says they wishes they could have faith but that it has never come to them. Anyone can, without committing a single act of intellectual dishonesty. It is simply a matter of becoming a faithful servant, or spouse, or child of God. To act faithfully -- the precise nature of the "acts of faith" depends on our state in life and our circumstances -- is to have faith. The ability to act faithfully, the possession of faith, both come from grace, the only thing by which we are saved.

Today's (well, tomorrow's) readings kind of got into that and reminded me to come back and check the conversation here. It's from Ephesians 2.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them."

bearing said...

I fleshed this out a little bit here.

The Ubiquitous said...

Has Leah responded to you, good sir Darwin? You do have the right answer, you know.

Laura said...

Darwin, bearing, I found both your thoughts very interesting.

I can easily accept a notion of faith (in the 'belief' sense) that allows for the possibility that new evidence could change your mind, but finds this possibility vanishingly unlikely. I think that is far more consistent with the atheist worldview than my original formulation, and thus is a more satisfactory attempt at unifying the atheist and the theist versions of faith. This probably IS the kind of faith that atheists have in the laws of physics.

It also does a good job of unifying the faith-in-spouse with faith-in-God, which as bearing points out have a special relationship to one another.

bearing, regarding faith in the 'being faithful' sense, I read your post and the line that stuck out to me most was this:

Why would someone who did not believe in God ever strive to live according to God's laws?

Here is a little thought experiment (which I'm sure has been done many times). You can imagine that in a world where no one was at all aware of God's laws, and each person developed their own code of behavior, there would be a large number of possible such codes. And, given a sufficiently large number of people and sufficient variation among the codes, someone would probably strike upon one that mimicked the code of behavior demanded by God. This person would then be doing just what you describe - striving to follow God's laws without believing in God.

Would they be faithful? My suspicion is that the most sensible answer is no - there must be an awareness of the laws one is adhering to, and perhaps also an awareness of the authority that set them up as laws, in order to call someone's behavior faithful.

Does that also demand a belief in said authority? I think it does. Otherwise, rather than being faithful, one is simply playing a game. Perhaps a game with excellent results; perhaps a game that edifies one's soul. But I do not think this would be a useful example of faithfulness.

bearing explicitly disagrees with my conclusion:

"This is what I would like to get across to anyone who says they wishes they could have faith but that it has never come to them. Anyone can, without committing a single act of intellectual dishonesty. It is simply a matter of becoming a faithful servant, or spouse, or child of God. To act faithfully -- the precise nature of the "acts of faith" depends on our state in life and our circumstances -- is to have faith."

I think this is true, but don't think that "acting faithfully" is possible without a basic belief that there is something/someone to be faithful to.

This makes me think that it is indeed necessary to achieve Darwin's kind of "faith" before bearing's "faithfulness" - although I am more than willing to believe that I have not understood this right.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. And thoughtful and civil discussion!

This all reminded me quite strongly of the topics addressed in Lesslie Newbigin's excellent book Proper Confidence. Readers might want to check it out.