[Back to Reason, Science and Faith]
This article has been written with the aim of presenting an understanding of faith which is useful - which can be used as a solid basis for fruitful discussion. It is recognized that people do, in practice, use the word in many different ways, which are sometimes unclear and often inconsistent - but this simply reinforces the importance of having a clear and consistent shared understanding when attempting to talk about it; if we use the word in unclear and inconsistent ways, the chances of the discussion making any progress are rather limited.
This article has also been written from the perspective of the general framework being used on this site, making a distinction between 'Particles, People and Purpose' and, in particular, remembering the importance of the six key questions. The faith described below can be applied, whether we are talking about a rope, an organization, or an abstract idea - although, of course, what counts as evidence and the means of testing the faith will differ significantly between the three areas (see Reason Alone for a quick summary).
In particular, the framework makes a distinction between hard science, biology and abstract ideas, but it does not distinguish between religious and non-religious abstract ideas: the implication, which is being tested here, is that we should be able to talk about belief in justice, or democracy, or god, in broadly comparable ways. This will be different from the way we talk about belief in quarks or our current foreign policy.
Firstly, a quick word about the language here: some people insist on making a clear distinction between ‘faith’, ‘trust’ and ‘belief’, but each word can encompass a variety of meanings, and there is no commonly accepted distinction between them. In this article, we will treat the terms as interchangeable.
We tend to think about faith as a state of mind, but when considering faith we need to focus, not on the subject who is believing, but on the object of that belief. We can have faith in something or someone.
When we have faith in something, we believe that it will function as expected, or as advertised. You can put your trust in a rope to hold you up; or you can trust in a boat to keep you safe in stormy weather. You can believe that a chair will support your weight, or that an unfamiliar dish in a restaurant will prove to be nutritious and not poisonous.
The same principle works when we have faith in someone: we have faith the bus will take us to our destination because we believe the driver will do their job; we trust our prescribed medicine will cure us because we believe the doctor interpreted our symptoms correctly, and we believe the pharmacist dispensed the correct pills.
Faith is not always conscious. While we don't generally think of it in these terms, driving a car is an act of faith: we believe that the other cars will behave in a reasonably predictable manner, and most of the time they do. But we know that every now and then, something unexpected will happen, as a result of human error or mechanical failure, and the outcome may be serious injury or death. But we drive anyway, or allow ourselves to be driven, in faith that there will be no accident this time. Many people who get in a car every day have such strong faith that they hardly ever give even a passing thought to the real possibility of dreadful harm.
Faith in a person does not only apply to situations when they are doing a job or exercising a skill: we believe a friend will meet us as arranged, or will be there when we need their support. We generally believe the promises made when we get married.
In addition, faith in a person can have a specific meaning when that person is seeking to achieve some goal or purpose. We may vote for a politician because we like what they promise – but to say you believe in a politician means that you identify with their cause, and trust that their strategy can achieve it; you believe their goal is right, and you will do what you can to help them achieve that goal.
Faith, Doubt and Knowledge
Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin: if you believe something, then you have some doubt about it. People sometimes attempt to induce a guilt trip in others by suggesting that doubt is wrong, and “if you doubt, then you don’t really believe,” but this is misleading: there is nothing wrong with having doubt.
On the other hand, when you say you know something then, as far as you are concerned, there is no doubt about it – you don’t say you believe things when you are certain of them. But the line between belief and certainty is a thin one, and it sometimes depends more on the context than the reality: it is often easier to talk about ‘knowing’ things when in reality we are simply very confident that our faith is well placed, and when we are in the company of others who share the same strong confidence.
Some people like to contrast the uncertainty of faith against the certainty of knowledge, while completely ignoring the difficulties involved in obtaining knowledge. A major area of philosophy (‘epistemology’) is devoted to addressing these difficulties. Descartes famously tried to discover what he could know for certain – what could not be doubted – and discovered that without some foundation of faith, he could be certain of almost nothing.
We mostly encounter conflict related to the vague distinction between knowledge and faith in areas where people are very confident about what they ‘know’. This often happens when they talk about science or religion: in both those areas, many people talk about ‘knowing’ things because they cannot imagine that their belief could possibly be misplaced.
Karl Popper wrote in The Logic of Scientific Discovery about the necessity of a scientific theory being falsifiable. This is generally regarded as being an important insight, but (inevitably!) it is not the whole story. In practice, when a theory is falsified, the scientific community rarely concludes that the theory was wrong – instead, they find ways to tweak it. We have an emotional attachment to our beliefs, which is quite distinct – and disconnected – from any application of logic or reason.
Faith and Evidence
All faith is based on evidence. If you have no evidence that something is the case, then you may hope that it’s true, and you may want it to be true, but you don’t believe it: hope and desire are not the same as faith.
Evidence, of course, is not the same as proof, although they are often confused. Evidence always needs to be weighed: there is often evidence both for and against a belief – arguably, there is always evidence both for and against any belief.
When you examine a belief, some people are under the impression that you simply compare the evidence for and against, and decide which is stronger. The practice is more complicated for several reasons.
- Faith is, fundamentally, a choice you make. When faced with conflicting claims and no clear test, you have to choose who to believe.
- Other beliefs, knowledge and experience will affect how you evaluate the evidence, and even what you recognize to be evidence in the first place, so no two people will evaluate the evidence in exactly the same way.
- What you want (or fear) to be true may affect how the evidence is weighed.
- We are social creatures with a desire to conform and please, so the beliefs, needs and priorities of our peers and community will affect us.
Faith and Action
We all have to act in faith because we live in a world of imperfect information. We get on the bus not because we know, but because we believe it will take us to our destination.
And we all have to act in faith because we cannot know the future: however confident we may be, we cannot know in advance what the bus will actually do.
We may live in a world which is mostly made up of different shades of grey, but actions are frequently binary – we can either get on the bus, or not. We can try to gain more information and achieve greater confidence, but greater confidence often comes at the cost of missing opportunities: when you are asking people about their experience of the service, the bus may leave without you.
In religious circles, people sometimes talk about ‘strong faith’, but the term is quite ambiguous: a faith may be described as strong because someone is highly committed to acting on it, or because they are very confident the faith is well placed. And, of course, both things may be true.
And we sometimes talk about people ‘acting in faith’, when they appear to be making a risky choice, but we are not all aware of the same options, and we do not all assess risk in the same way – so what appears to one person as a risky choice, may appear to someone else as the least risky option, and another may see no choice at all.
In any case, while faith does not provide certainty, it does enable us to act without certainty – which, from the outside, can appear to be the same as acting with certainty. It is very difficult to infer anything about a person’s beliefs from observing their actions.
Faith and Personal Growth
Telling the truth may be costly, but it is generally straightforward. Telling a lie is difficult, and maintaining a lie is even more difficult: it involves creating an internal counter-factual reality, and acting – at least, to some extent – in accordance with that constructed reality. It involved maintaining two incompatible models of reality in your head, and selecting the ‘correct’ one to draw on in each circumstance. This requires both mental and emotional energy.
While this is unlikely to originate from peer-reviewed research, I have heard from multiple sources that the best way to convince someone else of a lie is to believe it yourself – to convince yourself that it is true. We are capable of lying, not only to others, but also to ourselves. We choose what to believe, and we can choose to believe things that we know – or strongly suspect – are untrue.
It seems likely that if you choose to lie to yourself, this makes it much easier to lie to others, but it is far more harmful in the long run. If you choose to weaken your ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, you may find after a while that you cannot tell them apart, and that this rabbit-hole goes very deep.
Faith is a choice, but it is a choice we often choose to avoid. As Paul Simon tells us, “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” The truth is very often uncomfortable, and the easiest option is generally to look the other way.
We can choose to believe that truth and love matter. There are rational grounds for believing this, despite the pull of convenience and comfort, telling us to ignore them. And what we choose to believe shapes, in the long run, who we become.
[The initial version of this article is also available as a PDF.]