Why are discussions about faith between believers and unbelievers so often a complete dog’s dinner?

[Back to Reason, Science and Faith]


I’ve looked up the word ‘faith’ in a few dictionaries, here are a couple of examples.

Oxford language:

1. complete trust of confidence in someone or something.

2. strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

Merriam Webster

1. a: allegiance to duty or a person (e.g. lost faith in company’s president)

b: fidelity to one’s promises, sincerity of intentions (e.g. acted in good faith)

2. a: (i) belief and trust in and loyalty to God
(ii) belief in the traditional doctrines of religion

b: (i) firm belief in something for which there is no proof (e.g. clinging to the faith that her missing son would one day return).

(ii) complete trust

3 . Something that is believed especially with strong conviction, especially a system of religious beliefs.

It seems to me that there are two distinct classifications of use of the word, one to describe confidence based on evidence (e.g. faith in something that has proved reliable, for instance a piano teacher that has a track record of teaching people to play the piano well), and the other to describe confidence in a something which has no tangeable evidence underpinning it (e.g. faith in a religious text, or doctrine).

The majority of the difficulty with the word is that it is common for people to switch from one meaning to another when seeking to defend their point of view, when in fact there are clear differentiations between them.

Christian emphasis

The first few verses of Hebrews are the most often cited when discussing faith with Christians, the first verse being quoted as a stand alone, when the following verses actually elaborate (I’m using the New International Version here).

The first verse: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” 

The second verse adds This is what the ancients were commended for”.

The third verse states ‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible’.

Note that this is an assertion, something stated without any evidence, a piece of doctrine. God commanded the (seen) universe into being from invisible matter. Note this also suggests forming rather than creating from nothing in this translation. This is clearly a use of the second meaning of ‘faith’.

The rest of the verses in the chapter describe mainly Old Testament personalities who did things in response to their faith in God (commended for believing things with out evidence), actions and behaviours by the way that illuminate an understanding of God who appears to be self obsessed, appears only to reward those who believe in him without any actual evidence. Even when the things that were believed (or were supposedly promised by God) failed to materialise while the person was alive, it still seems that we are encouraged to believe that they received them after death. Convenient, as negative delivery would normally count against the validity of the belief.

There is a mix in these latter examples given, but it is made clear that the writer believes there is a virtue in believing things even when there is no visible or tangible evidence to help you believe. This underpins my assertion that this is the second type of faith, religious faith, demanded without evidence.

In this instance I think the King James version of the first verse is more lucid and clear (and honest), “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Faith itself provides the substance of the belief, the evidence is the faith itself. A kind of circular mental state where we believe something because we have faith that it is true.

I would suggest that any doctrine that requires us to believe it without any supporting or corroborating evidence should be treated with great suspicion, especially if it warns that if we fail to believe it we will suffer unpleasant consequences.

This is not the kind of faith we all exercise, quite normally in every day life, it is something else altogether and should not to be confused, even though it is really hard to be disciplined about it!

Useful links:






Here is an example of how some Jews suggest that believing specific things is not central or essential in order to be a Jew: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/from-belief-to-faith/

Here is an example of how some Christians attempt to muddle the ground: https://www.gotquestions.org/definition-of-faith.htm

A long article about how philosophy seeks to address the matter of faith: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/

and another: https://lifehopeandtruth.com/change/faith/what-is-faith/ Note this latter actually explicitly quotes the circular definition I alluded to above:

“In the New Testament the English word faith is used to translate the Greek Pistis. “Pistis is used of belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same. ‘Faith’ means trust, confidence, assurance, and belief”.

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