Debate / Discussion / Story

Defining “Faith” in Practical Terms

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:


  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
  2. 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.

Preferential Belief

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 practicethe 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.

8 thoughts on “Defining “Faith” in Practical Terms

  1. This is one of the most important pedantries that we can talk about. The differences here are the locus of differences between religion and non-delusional living. Good post. Blind faith is not a virtue, rather it is the hallmark of those willing to believe anything and do anything based on absolutely nothing. Lunacy is another good word for it, and we know that lunacy is not a virtue.

  2. Pingback: Defining “Faith” in Practical Terms | The Atheism News Magazine |

  3. Jack makes a good point that theists and atheists are often talking at cross purposes. But I think it’s much simpler than this. It’s really all about feeling. Rational, logical thinking (2+2=4) brings a feeling of certainty and conviction about its conclusions; that feeling reinforces the rational approach. It doesn’t matter whether you call it tentative trust or contingent convictions or faith. If logic made you feel sick and queasy and a psychic dread, it would be repugnant and unconvincing. Theists have also found something that leads to a feeling of confidence and conviction – akin to the atheist’s rationalism. No one should think that the two kinds of ‘faith’ are the same, but in order for atheists and theists to talk about something they have no shared experience of – they have to compare something! But I can’t make your blood circulate with my heart, no matter how much we talk about it. The question will never be resolved rationally because it is about feeling… and the insuperable limits of intersubjectivity.

  4. Perhaps as a christian I can add some thoughts about how christians think about faith within our theological framework.

    The Bible says that without faith its impossible to please God as you have to beleive that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. It also says that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the certainty of things not seen. The results of faith, the reward christians get is (a) being justified, meaning that Christ’s atoning sacrifice is counted for us so we are in right standing with God. (b) God himself up close and personal.

    I’ll try and flesh out what that looks like in practice. God, in the Bible gives promises. Christians trust that God keeps His word and so we trust Him with our lives, now and in eternity. So faith is trusting God and acting on the promises of God. E.g the promise that He rewards with Himself those who diligently seek Him. After I became a Christian I began a life of experiencing God through the Holy Spirit. You could no more tell me that God does not exist than my wife does not exist.

    I know you don’t experiene God and would right my experience off as emotionalism and / or delusion etc. But to my its the same argument as righting off the existence of my wife as delusion. You would say, well you can physically see your wife and touch her and introduce her to people – which is proof she is real. I would say that your physicalism dwarfs you as a human being to the capacity human beings also have for God – its another type of sense. I can introduce you to my wife, but I can also introduce you to God. Of course its not quite that easy as the reason you dont know or experience God is that your sin and guilt has cut you off from Him. Repentance and trusting that Jesus died for you is the way that you would remove this barrier and experience God for yoursellf – which of course you will not do.

    My point is that my spiritual life is vibrant and very real at the same level of reality as my physical life. So faith to me is not a leap in the dark its trusting a person I know and experience. You took the wrong pill in the matrix film and stayed in the matrix.

    So as a christian I reject the idea that faith is just a leap in the dark or beleivving without evidence etc. The difference between us is that you cannot experience the evidence I do and so you right it off, which is your right and choice. Hope that makes sense.

    As little theological facet of this is that one of the promises of the Bible is that chrisitans can know that they will go to heaven when they die because Good grants them to experinnece something of heaven now on earth through the Holy Spirit (Epphesians 1). So I beleive I am going to heaven, not just because the Bible says so but because God gives a promise that I beleive and that promise has come true / real now – so I have confidencce for the future.

    So i don’t beleive in God beccause of science and philospohy, my belief is based on the trustworthy character of God. That faith is strengthened as I walk through life and experience Him keeping His promises to me now. Having said that I do not think that it is illogical, antiscientific or irrational to beleive in God. I think, for example, William Lane Craig does a fair job of showing theism is more plausible that atheism given science, logic and reason. Not a knock down case but inference to best explanations, enough to show that its reasonable to beleive in God.

    You will never convince a truly born again (Holy Spirit comes and lives inside you) that God does not exist. Its a futile and impossible task. Atheists webistes like these perhaps contain people who the Bible describe as having committed the unforgivable sin, and Hebrews 6, e.g having tasted christianity rejecct it and become so hard they will never be saved. In which case you could rename this website “the community of the damned” I sincerely hope though that there are people here who have not gone that far and for whom it is not too late. You attack things that you can’t hope to understand in your current state and put your very soul in jeapordy.

    • You describe faith as the trust you have in god, and that is why you believe. But this cannot be the reason you believe because in order to trust in god’s character or his promises, you must first believe he exists. You said that your evidence of his existence is that you feel his presence, and that believers receive a personal relationship with him that is as real to you as the relationship you have with your wife. Yet you also stated that non-believers cannot understand or receive this evidence until they first put their faith in god. So, from even your own statements, you have condoned the un-evidenced faith you claim not to employ. Because according to you, that evidence comes AFTER accepting it to be true. This is a leap of blind faith.

      As for your later comments, you also asserted that one is not capable of convincing a “truly born again” that god does not exist, calling it a “futile and impossible task”. This is an example of denial in order to protect your beliefs. There are thousands of atheists who were once among the most devoted of Christians, and who experienced all of the same things you attribute to being the presence of god. This is why you use the word “truly”. It’s a way of not having to accept the reality of the fact that there are people who were exactly as you are who were capable of no longer believing. You do this by dismissing any such person as not ever having be “true” Christians in the first place.You do the same thing by claiming that in our “current state” it is impossible for us to understand, which is an esoteric fallacy. And it also a further demonstration that you believe based on blind faith because if a non-believer is not privy to understanding what you do, then neither could you have been before you became a Christian.

  5. The article concludes with, “and it goes without saying; faith is not a virtue.” There are many studies that correlate regular church attendance and belief in a deity with longer, happier and healthier lives. Not to argue these studies, but if it were to be shown that this evidence is accurate, would it not be reasonable to say that faith is, in fact, a virtue?

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