There are various concepts of faith which have different connotations. In the dictionary there are multiple limiting definitions across a common theme:
- Confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
- Belief that is not based on proof.
- Belief in god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.
- Belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.
- A system of religious belief.
- The obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.
- The observance of this obligation; fidelity to one's promise, oath, allegiance, etc.
- The trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved.
All are legitimate definitions, possessing thematic inter-relation.
The variety of definitions for the term is one reason why so few arguments on the subject of faith lead to useful ends. If different individuals are using different definitions, both sides are inclined to make errors of equivocation.
Mark Twain also created a classic definition in his book, Pudd'nhead Wilson: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
This is similar to Nietzsche's definition:
- "Faith means not wanting to know what is true."
While useful for illustrating the problems associated with faith, this derisive use of the term sometimes hinders discussion of the topic, and thus, hinders intellectual growth.
Faith can apply to any assertion of truth, regardless of the quality of the reasons for that assertion. This is an important distinction because while faith includes counter-factual (wrong) beliefs, it also includes both factually supported and factually-neutral positions.
Factually-neutral positions include subjective statements (that's a pretty picture) and value-judgements (it's wrong to hurt people for fun). These are factually-neutral positions because it is impossible, even theoretically, to prove them right or wrong. Facts, effectively, do not apply to them.
Religions typically assert a number of positions in which they have faith, and do not typically differentiate between positions which can and cannot have facts applied to them. Since most religions do not have formal vetting processes, there is not typically a need for them to do so. This can lead to miscommunication when secular atheists vocalize a rejection of faith. For instance, most religions assert (explicitly or not) the central tenet of humanism: Human beings are morally valuable. As this is a factually-neutral stance, it is an article of faith. Secular atheists (like most people) typically do not reject factually-neutral ideas as fallacies, and (like most people) do not typically reject the idea that humans have moral value. A religious person hearing someone reject faith in general may well misunderstand this statement as a rejection of all moral values, as all moral values are eventually based on factually-neutral premises. This helps lead to the characterization that atheists have no morals.
"Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'"
Faith in the Bible
In one classic Bible story, Doubting Thomas does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the opportunity to touch his wounds, after which Thomas becomes a believer. However, Jesus admonishes Thomas' skepticism, saying: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." (John 20:29 ).
This anecdote demonstrates the view of faith that belief in the claim without requiring evidence is righteous, compared with requiring evidence for belief.
In Hebrews 11:1 , it says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," it also says "[e]xamine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" in 2 Corinthians 13:5 . Clearly the writer of Hebrews is simply stating the obvious, that faith is complimentary to a lack of omniscience. The writer goes on to make examples of other Biblical characters who demonstrate faith. Each have faith in something yet unseen, but not necessarily without reason; Noah has the promise of protection; Abraham, the Covenant; Joseph, his father's blessing; the list goes on. They are able to maintain faith because of a lifetime of evidence that God will fulfill His promises. Furthermore, Paul's account in 2 Corinthians 13:5 shows that indeed faith is to be tested and not dogmatically held.
Arguments for faith
A number of arguments exist in defense of faith.
- Faith is a virtue: Faith is something to be desired, in and of itself.
- The idea that a premise should be accepted without evidence and that the premise is better without evidence can be used to justify any claim. One could just as easily believe that God wants people to love their neighbors as one could believe that God wants people to kill their neighbors for working on the Sabbath. For example, faith is often used as a justification for suicide bombers.
Arguments exist within the Christian community (as well as in other religious communities) as to whether faith, when spoken of as a virtue, should apply to all believed premises or only some. For instance, there are those who believe that faith, in this sense, means something closer to optimism, and not a blatant disregard for reality. It has often been argued by linguists that the terms 'faith' and 'hope' are not distinct in the language of the Bible.
Arguments against faith
- "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." – Voltaire
- "A casual stroll through an insane asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." – Friedrich Nietzsche
- "Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse–constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor." – Sam Harris, The End of Faith
- "Is there anything one could not believe based on faith? [...] Couldn't I say that white people are better than black people and I just believe this based on faith? [...] Is faith a mechanism that gets you closer to the truth? [...] Do you care about what's true?" (pointing out this is broken compass argument)
Belief in belief
Rather than directly justifying faith, some would argue for belief in belief in a god. Daniel Dennett posits that belief in god may be less common than belief in belief in god. This would allow doubters to act as if they believed in what a true believer believed in. Belief in belief in god would allow them to feel comforted in the knowledge that they adhere to common moral and ethical norms. In addition, this would allow doubters to benefit from accessing all the ready-made social support and acceptance embedded within a religious community.
It would be prudent to also include mention of a more secular, popular meme of "belief" currently in use, especially in the United States. This can be defined by equating its use under the category of “self-help,” or “positive-thinking.” Belief in the notion that “one can do anything one puts one’s mind to” can be very powerful. Belief in this belief has sold many a self-help book, (This is not to denigrate any sincere effort on anyone’s part to strive for personal growth.) and it is just another variable one might add to the amorphous nature of the study of faith and belief.
- It takes more faith to disbelieve than it does to believe
- Atheism is based on faith
- Science is a faith
- Faith healing
- Argument from faith
- Why are you trying to tear down other people's faith?
- God enables faith by withholding proof