What is Faith?

What is faith? As it’s most commonly used, faith falls into one of two categories:

1) Belief without evidence (e.g., faith in gods)
2) Confidence gained through evidence (e.g., faith in friends/family)

Faith is often said to be one of these abstract “virtues” to which all people should aspire, but I subscribe to a far different interpretation of faith. In terms of the first definition, faith is a disease of the mind.

* * *

These are harsh words, so an equally strong defense is necessary. Consider this meaning of faith in any context that isn’t religious. If I tell you that I have faith that I am the king of the planet, so you should bow down before me, give me all your money, and allow me to enslave your family, you would have to be a fool or mentally unstable to comply with my demands. If I walk into a car dealership, are the salespeople obligated to let me leave with their most expensive car upon hearing that, while I have no money at all right now, I have faith that I will soon strike oil in my backyard, which will make me a very rich man? Of course not. In either instance, my claims clearly mark me as delusional. Yet once we shift the discussion back to religion, the tendency is to feel as though judgment must necessarily be withheld. I reject this without hesitation. I mean no offense by this, but your beliefs aren’t special—they are not above reproach. Neither are mine. Beliefs aren’t special, so because faith is a belief, faith is also not special.

Ideas can be wrong, and when they are, it’s good to be told about it. In many ways, allowing someone to maintain a belief you know to be false can be detrimental to their well-being. (We do not, after all, give equal respect to scientific models and schizophrenic hallucinations.) There are a nearly infinite number of potential false beliefs where not speaking up is conceivably a moral harm, and we are obligated to intervene in these cases. When the tables are turned and it is our beliefs that are wrong, we shouldn’t wallow in embarrassment; letting your ego get in the way of growth is childish and counterproductive. Unwillingness to change your beliefs is intellectual death, so it’s necessary to incorporate new knowledge into your worldview. That applies to sacred and profane beliefs alike*.

In this podcast, Peter Boghossian argues that matters of religious faith are actually knowledge claims. In saying “I have faith in this story,” a believer is making a claim that is not exempted from rational examination. “Having faith” that a religious story is true is fundamentally identical to the statement “X is true, and evidence is not required to demonstrate that truth.” Choosing to believe anything without evidence is potentially very dangerous, and one should endeavor never to do this.

Ask yourself if there are any beliefs you are unwilling to reconsider. Is there anything at all you would refuse to change your mind about if you were presented with contradictory evidence? I’m not convinced that anyone can give an honest answer this question. Let’s take a step back. Can people really “choose” their beliefs? It’s obvious that you can choose whether to pursue knowledge about something, and you can even choose how you go about that pursuit, but once you’ve found that evidence, can you make a conscious decision about whether to change your mind? How do you cope with direct proof that your beliefs are wrong? People can obviously close themselves off to thinking about this kind of evidence, but is it possible to decide to keep a demonstrably false belief?

There’s ample evidence to demonstrate that people do believe even frankly ridiculous things in spite of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Consider the case of bigfoot. Or 9/11 truthers. Or birthers. Heck, any conspiracy theory at all. Why would religion be an exception to this? It’s not. Cults often enjoy the benefits of this phenomenon, and need I mention people like Harold Camping? With these examples in mind, we see that there’s no question that people are entirely capable of believing absurdities. These cases are likely explained by subconscious processes, such as cognitive dissonance, which may lead a person to double down on erroneous convictions, or other forms of logical fallacy that act as coping mechanisms. But can this be done deliberately? I don’t know, but I think the answer is no. Mind you, I don’t have faith that the answer is no; I believe it based on the findings of modern psychological research.

And that’s way better than belief without evidence.

* Of course, to me, all beliefs are profane.

Edit: After posting this, a third definition of faith came to mind. I think this third definition corresponds with how more liberal believers would justify their use of the word. I’ll identify it thusly:
3) A feeling associated with spirituality that is taken as confirmation of a supernatural higher power
Having said that, I think a solid case can be made for the inclusion of this definition inside the first. The feeling is a subjective experience, and that experience cannot be denied. The experience is entirely real, but to associate it with a supernatural force is where the idea of belief without evidence comes into question. There is a significant logical step between “I feel a sensation” and “that sensation is God.” Technology has given us the ability to bestow spiritual experiences upon people, including nonreligious people. Do the experiences of subjects wearing the God Helmet demonstrate the existence of a god? No.

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