I have grown weary of the never-ending definition wars between theists and atheists over the word “faith”.
Nevertheless, I will herein attempt to see if it is possible to find practical ground on this matter.
Before we can discuss some practical ways of defining faith, let’s begin by looking at the dictionary definitions.
If you do a quick Google search, the first definitions that will pop up are as follows:
- Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
- Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
The first is the common use, colloquial definition (“This heartfelt story restored my faith in humanity” .. “I have faith in your ability to accomplish your goals”).
Some theists like to argue that this is the type of faith they have in god. They also like to use this definition to assert that atheists also believe things on faith.
But then there is the second definition. This definition directly specifies religious belief. It is also virtually synonymous to how atheists describe religious faith, “belief without evidence, and often despite evidence to the contrary“. (There is of course a difference between evidence and proof, but I shall digress for the sake of not getting muddled up in other definitions than the ones we’re discussing.)
The problem that often occurs over the course of debate is a failure to distinguish between these two definitions.
When a theist claims that an atheist also believes things based on faith, they are (with or without realizing it) moving the goalposts from one definition of faith to another.
Atheists have a tendency (in order to avoid adding more confusion to the conversation) to not reference this distinction, instead simply responding that atheists do not employ faith of any kind. Matt Dillahunty, of The Atheist Experience, does this frequently. He instead offers that as opposed to faith, he has reasonable expectations based on evidence, and trust that has been earned, which he’ll grant tentatively. And this explanation is absolutely valid. But notice that his alternative is nearly the same as the colloquial definition of faith (the difference being that the trust/confidence is tentative as opposed to “complete”). Even though one could possibly count this as the informal version of faith, we prefer not to use the term because, as I previously stated, believers fail to make the distinction, or in some cases intentionally choose not to.
The failure to distinguish between these definitions likely stems from the fact that theists (Christians in particular) do in fact consider “trust” and “confidence” to be a part of the faith they have in god. I fully acknowledge this. However, with a possible exception of self-professed Agnostic-Christians, religious faith is not limited to those concepts. This is why there is a separate definition concerning religion. And that meaning of faith includes belief in spite of evidence.
To put faith into a practical perspective, we must look beyond definitions.
It is reasonable to say that atheists do not employ faith in their lives. Even in colloquial terms, as Matt Dillahunty says, beliefs we hold are tentative, not absolute. And that which we trust or have confidence in are all based upon some form of evidence.
One example could be the belief that one’s spouse isn’t cheating on them. Is this a blind trust? Hardly. If it is your belief that your spouse isn’t cheating, that belief is based upon your interactions with them, how honest they’ve been with you in the past, your knowledge of their personality, the possible lack of opportunity to be doing so, and a myriad of other experiential facts and factors that have played into that trust being earned. And beyond that, there is still the acknowledgement of the possibility that you could be wrong. What you believe to be true has no bearing on whether or not something actually is. This is why trust can be lost as easily as it can be given. And of course this example isn’t limited to atheists.
Another example. It was recently asserted to me by a Christian that because the Big Bang Theory “has holes in it”, that an atheist must employ faith in order to believe it. But again, this comes down to tentative acceptance. I personally do accept this theory, but no faith is required for me to do so. There is enough evidence that it is the best current explanation for the beginning of the universe. And that “belief” is subject to ready-and-willing change if/when any possible new evidence is presented.
And this is where the major difference between beliefs of theists and atheists lay.
In practice, religious belief is held in unwavering fashion. Sure, the religious may deal with doubts.. and in many cases it’s not considered inappropriate to have them. However, to a believer, doubt is often just something that coexists with faith, and is seen as a test of it; meant to be overcome. Typically this is done by applying even more of that same blind trust. A theist is supposed to believe with absolute certainty.
In the case of Christians in particular, scripture even tells them that this sort of blind belief, without the requirement of evidence, is a virtue:
King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
John 20:29 - Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Whether or not this is how every Christian believes, it’s clear that it’s how they are supposed to. And virtually every religion promotes blind faith as virtuous.
In looking further into how faith works on a practical level, it occurs to me that faith has as much to do with wanting as it does believing.
In my opinion, faith requires an emotional investment of some sort. It is dependent on an attachment to the idea it pertains to. Misotheists are those who hate god, yet believe he exists nonetheless. It seems that it would be inappropriate to say believers such as these “have faith”. In fact, you never hear the word faith used for anything a person believes to be true, but for which they do not wish to be the case…
Have you ever heard a person who suspects they may have cancer, or who while waiting for the results to come in claims to be absolutely confident that they do, say “I have faith that I have cancer”? I certainly haven’t. Christians believe in the existence of Satan… would any of them ever say they have faith in the devil?
Faith entails a desire for something to be true as much as it does believing it to be the case. No one ever speaks of “having faith” in terms of the undesirable because it would carry the implication that they want it to be true.
In the same way, one doesn’t express faith in that which they are indifferent to either. Faith doesn’t apply to just any belief to which there isn’t absolute certainty. At present, it is my belief that my roommate is at home. There’s every possibility that I could be mistaken and she went out somewhere. Is my belief that she’s home a matter of faith? No. Because it makes no difference to me. I’m not emotionally invested in the belief that she is still asleep in her bedroom.
This works the same way with existential theories which Christians and other theists claim atheists believe as a matter of faith. Going back to the Big Bang example, why would I have “faith” that it’s true? I have no preferences about the origin of the universe. I simply believe whatever it is there is the best evidence for. Singularity, infinite expansion, static state, an intelligent designer, or if the universe came out of the fart of a supernatural slug-like being getting wasted in a cosmic opium den… it doesn’t matter to me. I only care whether or not it’s true.
When it comes to the ways in which 1) The word “faith” is used, and 2) How faith is applied in practice, the colloquial definition is broad and useless… and the only actual faith is religious faith.
And it goes without saying; Faith is not a virtue.
Faith is the excuse we give ourselves to believe something when there’s no other reason to.