Monday, July 6, 2015

Don't Gotta Have Faith

Faith is a polarizing word in my circles. Depending on what side one comes down on regarding the existence of God, people have biased meanings for the concept. I know atheists who define it as “belief in something contrary to evidence” and theists who define it as “justified, true belief.” A working definition of faith for which I’ve had the most luck in finding agreement is “belief in something beyond what the evidence warrants.” Let’s plug this common term of “faith” into a few use cases for the word.

“I have faith that my wife will never cheat on me.” I think this works. My wife has never cheated on me in the past (as far as I know) and has never behaved in such a way that I think she would consider cheating. That said, I know relationship data shows that cheating is common. So in this case, I have a decent amount of evidence in the form of past experience that justifies a belief that she probably won’t cheat in the future, but a realist should still consider that it could happen more than I actually consider it. I’m willing to admit that I have faith in my wife’s fidelity. Thankfully, I don’t need as much faith as I would if I was aware that she cheated in the past.

“I have faith that the sun will rise in the morning.” I don’t think this is a good use of the term faith, even if the statement is understandable and technically accurate. Like the example with my wife, I have evidence in the form of past experience that the sun rises every morning. Not just decent evidence, but a perfect record of the sun rising every morning. One could argue that “morning” is defined by the sun rising. Depending on location and season, we can track exactly when sunrise will be and confirm that that fiery ball in the sky sticks to the schedule. Beyond personal experience, I know enough about astronomy to explain orbits and gravity doesn’t really come into play here. It is possible that the sun does not rise tomorrow at our expected time? Yes, but only if some catastrophic event with statistically insignificant odds--like earth being knocked off its axis--happens. To use the term more correctly, I have faith that some observatory or news outlet would give me notice before the night before such an event could occur.

“I have faith that God exists.” Okay, I don’t, but if I did, this is the best use case for the word so far. Even if we grant theists that there is some evidence for God’s existence, you know that I’d argue that it isn’t very good evidence. And since most religion requires belief to the degree of certainty, or at least an attempt for such belief, faith is what gets them the rest of the way from the perceived evidence available.

So is faith good or bad? It depends. The faith in my wife means that I don’t easily get jealous which is a positive in my relationship. However, that is but a bit of faith. If my wife cheated regularly or otherwise treated me poorly, having faith that tomorrow will be different would be a negative force for my well being. Faith can be good in small amounts, but should generally be avoided. Strive to have your beliefs reflect the evidence to the degree it merits and not far beyond, if any.


  1. Timely post, I was talking about this recently with a theist friend. It really is important before you talk about faith to define what do you mean by faith, and I think these examples do a brilliant job in showing how varied the definitions are.

    Reshared :)

  2. These reflections on belief and reason are a very interesting exercise in thinking! If it's not "too" late, I'd like to post a comment.
    In line with your thoughts, I also find the term 'faith' difficult to grasp. But on the basis of what I read and hear, more often than not is it incorrectly used instead of 'hope. Other examples are the expectation that a patient with cancer will be healed, that a student who has not done his utmost, will pass an exam, that a troubled marriage will nevertheless last "until death do us part". In all these cases (including of course, the ones you mentioned in your post), person who express their faith, know that there IS a possibilty that their wish will not come true. A reasonable alternative. And that is what true believers (in God) do not see. They are absolutely convinced that a supernatural being exists, they simply deny any other possibility. That would perhaps be the only "correct" use of the term faith. - Because it is contrary to any reason, and there is no alternative, period.
    As other readers have already said (elsewhere), it doesn't bother me that such persons exist. The bad thing about it is the ideology, the wish to impose their opinion upon others, at all cost.