I want to talk about the difference between secular and religious faith.
I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists don’t have faith in God, we therefore don’t have faith in anything. And at the same time, I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists do have faith in things and can take leaps of faith, therefore an atheist’s secular faith in love and whatnot isn’t really any different from religious belief.
At the risk of sounding like I’m quibbling over language, I think secular faith and religious faith are very different animals. They’re not entirely unrelated, but ultimately they’re not the same thing at all. In fact, they’re so different, I’m not sure they should even share the same word.
So let’s take this one at a time. What is secular faith?
Let’s use an example. I have faith in Ingrid. What does that mean? It means that I trust that she loves me; I trust that she’ll act with my best interests at heart; I trust that she’ll keep her promises. It means that I rely on her, and that I believe my reliance is justified. And it means that I don’t need a 100% ironclad guarantee of these things. It means that I know what a ridiculous expectation that would be — we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee of anything — and that I’m willing to trust her anyway. It means that I’m willing to take the evidence that I have, the evidence of her feelings and character that I have from her actions and words, and then take a leap of faith by trusting that they mean what they seem to mean.
Or let’s use another, more complicated example. I have faith in democracy. That’s a tricky one, as democracy has let me down time and time again. But I have faith in it. I have the conviction that, while far from a perfect political system, it’s still the best one we have, offering the best hope we have for a better and more just life for everyone. And I have hope that, with commitment and hard work, its problems can be… not eliminated, probably, but mitigated.
And one more example before I move on with my point: I have faith in myself. Possibly the most complicated of all, as I’ve lived with myself for my entire life, and have therefore probably let myself down more than anyone or anything else that I’ve ever had faith in. (With the possible exception of some notable ex-lovers and the Democratic Party…) But I have confidence that, when I set my mind and my heart to it, I can accomplish the things in my life that are important to me: being a good partner, a good writer, a good worker, a good citizen, a good friend. And when I take on a big new task — writing a book, moving to a new city, getting married — I have confidence that, if I seriously commit to it and put all my energy and talent and intelligence into it, I’ll be able to accomplish it.
So now we have some pertinent synonyms for “secular faith.” Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope.
Keep those synonyms in mind.
And religious faith is… what?
I don’t agree with certain hard-line atheists who insist that religious faith is always blind faith; that it always means refusing to question or doubt; that it always means absolute obedience to the authorities and precepts of one’s religion. Sure, it often means these things. Many religious and formerly- religious people have said so, in so many words. But I’ve also known believers who do question, do doubt, do think for themselves, do have their eyes open. For at least some believers, a faith that can’t weather questioning is a weak-ass faith that isn’t worth having. Faith in honest doubt, and all that.
So religious faith is… what?
In writing this, I didn’t want to be a jerk and assume that I know better than believers do what faith means to them. I always hate it when theists assume they know what atheists think without actually bothering to check, and I don’t want to commit that error myself.
But it was surprisingly difficult to find definitions of faith from organized religions. I spent many hours looking at websites of different religious organizations — Islam, Judaism, Hindu, Bahai, and many Christian sects including Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist (American and Southern), UCC, and MCC. And I didn’t find definitions of “faith” on any of these. (The Catholics were an exception; see below.) Lots of religions clearly state what it is they have faith in: but what exactly it means to have faith is either ignored, or it’s just assumed that everybody knows. “Our faith is in (X, Y, Z)… and what that means is that those are the things we believe. Believing (X, Y, Z) is what it means to be in our faith.”
That being said, here are a few definitions of religious faith that I did find.
“Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org)
“…since faith is supernatural assent to Divine truths upon Divine authority, the ultimate or remote rule of faith must be the truthfulness of God in revealing Himself.” (catholic.org)
“Faith therefore is to believe that which you do not see, truth is to see what you have believed.” (St. Augustine”)
“‘Faith’ involves a growing recognition of who Jesus is… It is much more like an intuitive perception — a kind of ‘sixth sense’ — about this person Jesus: an inner prompting which compels us to go after him, to engage with his words and character, to ‘relate’ to him… But ‘faith’ is also not just about the intuition to seek. ‘Faith’ consists in taking Jesus at his word. This story illustrates clearly that ‘faith’ is characterised by a willingness to grasp what is being offered in the encounter with Jesus… ‘Faith’ in this story is not primarily some settled and serene conclusion reached at the end of a chain of philosophical reasoning. No, faith is rather the readiness and eagerness to receive what is offered to us in Jesus Christ. It is the hand that grasps the gift of God in Jesus and makes it our own. This is biblical faith.” (Revd Dr Paul Weston, ely.anglican.org; emphasis mine)
“Assent to the truth is of the essence of faith, and the ultimate ground on which our assent to any revealed truth rests is the veracity of God.” (Christiananswers.com)
“The dictionary definition of faith is, ‘the theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.’ For a Christian, this definition is not just words on a page it is a way of life. Faith is acceptance of what we cannot see but feel deep within our hearts. Faith is a belief that one-day we will stand before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Allaboutreligion.org; emphasis mine.)
“Biblical faith, however, is specific and unique. It describes the person who chooses to believe, trust, and obey God. This principle is vital — the object of faith determines its value. Thus, it is very important that what we believe, what we have faith in, is really the truth!” (Herbert E. Douglass, The Faith of Jesus: Saying Yes to God’s Love)
“Faith means an individual’s personal, existential connection with the reality and power of God. Faith is not a ‘thing’ that is possessed or an ‘idea’ that is pondered, but rather a relationship that infuses divine power and creates an attitude and a vision for living and acting.” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew)
“Faith is not a power or faculty in itself which âmovesâ or âcompelsâ God. It is an attitude of confidence in God Himself. It always points to the One in whom it is placed.” (inchristalone.org)
“Faith, then, is like the soul of an experience. It is an inner acknowledgment of the relationship between God and man.” (John Powell, A Reason to Live! A Reason to Die)
“Faith saves our souls alive by giving us a universe of the taken-for-granted.” (Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House)
“Reason is an action of the mind; knowledge is a possession of the mind; but faith is an attitude of the person. It means you are prepared to stake yourself on something being so.” (Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1961â74)
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
So let’s sum these up, and make it as simple as we can without being simplistic.
And it means believing in God no matter what. It means an unshakeable belief in God. It doesn’t necessarily mean an unquestioning belief in God — again, many believers do ask questions, and hard questions at that — but it means a belief in God that survives those questions, and any questions. It means having belief in God, not as a hypothesis that so far has stood up to the evidence but might not always do so, but as an axiom. A presupposition.
Now, it isn’t the case that religious faith always means faith without evidence. Some of the more fundamentalist religions actually say that evidence is an important part of their faith. But the things they consider “evidence” — namely, the Bible, and its supposed inerrancy — are themselves objects of faith. Despite the Bible’s historical and scientific errors, its contradictions, its moral atrocities, etc., the belief in its inerrancy is itself, for these believers, an unshakable axiom.
Here’s a test that I’ve found to be extremely useful. Central to my whole thesis, in fact. In Ebonmuse’s excellent Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, he makes this observation: “Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, ‘Nothing — I have faith in my god.'” He then goes on to offer several examples of the types of evidence that he, as an atheist, would accept as proof that a given religion is true.
But only two people have taken up Ebonmuse on his challenge, stating the evidence that would convince them that their religious faith was incorrect. And both replies consisted of either physical and/or logical impossibilities (things like, “Proof that all miracle claims are false,” or “Falsifying the resurrection of Christ”)… or irrelevancies, non-sequiturs (things like, “If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.” As if the fact that people experience meaning proves that this meaning was planted in us by God… and as if creating our own meaning was the same as being deluded.)
Only two responses to the challenge, “What would convince you that your faith is mistaken?” And both those responses are strikingly unresponsive.
Now. In contrast. Let’s return for a moment to secular faith. And let’s offer one of the examples I mentioned before: my faith in Ingrid.
Is there anything that could convince me that my faith in Ingrid is mistaken?
Sure. Yes. Absolutely.
She could murder all my relatives. She could set our house on fire, purely for the thrill of watching it burn. She could clear out our joint bank account and run off to Brazil with Keith Olberman. She could be revealed to be a Russian spy (or a Cylon agent), who’s pretended to be in love with me all these years simply to gain information. She could shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
None of these things is logically impossible, or physically impossible. (Well, except the one about being a Cylon.) They’re not very likely, of course… but they could happen. And any of them would convince me that my faith in her was mistaken.
So my faith in Ingrid isn’t irrational. It’s reasonable. It’s based on evidence — the evidence of her past behavior. It’s true that I take a leap of faith with her every day: I can’t be 100% certain that she has never done any of these things and never will. And more to the point, I take leaps of faith with her every day that are both smaller than these and more serious. I have faith that she puts the right amount of money into our joint bank account; that the medical advice she gives me is as unbiased as she can make it; that she really is going to dance practice every Tuesday instead of seeing a lover she hasn’t told me about. These are all leaps of faith… but they’re leaps of faith that could conceivably be overturned by evidence.
And that doesn’t make them weaker, or less valuable. Quite the contrary. It just makes them rational. It makes them grounded in reality.
Let’s look at those secular synonyms for “faith” again. Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope. Those are the things that secular faith means. They mean a willingness to move forward in the absence of an ironclad guarantee. A willingness to hang onto the big picture in the face of small failures and setbacks. A willingness to persevere during difficult times.
But not one of these synonyms for secular faith implies a willingness to maintain that faith in contradiction of any possible evidence that might arise. Even when people’s secular faith leans towards the irrational — faith in lovers who repeatedly cheat, faith in leaders who repeatedly let us down — it still could theoretically be contradicted by evidence. Yes, some people maintain their faiths in the face of ridiculously obvious evidence to the contrary. But I think there are very few, if any, people whose secular faith in their lovers and leaders, their plans and ideologies, could not possibly be shaken by any imaginable evidence whatsoever.
Even if there are some people like that… how shall I put this? That kind of unshakability isn’t inherent to the very nature of secular faith. It isn’t a necessary and central part of the definition. Even if there are people whose faith in their cheating lovers could never be shaken even if they caught those lovers actually having wild naked sex with another person… I don’t think anyone thinks that that’s what it means, by definition, to have faith in your lover. I don’t think anyone thinks that giving up on your faith in your lover’s monogamy when you see them screw someone else somehow means that you didn’t really have faith in the first place… or that your faith wasn’t strong enough. (An argument that does get aimed at atheists who once had religious faith.)
In fact, when someone hangs onto a secular faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we stop calling it “faith” at all, and start calling it less complimentary words. Words like “pigheadedness” or “blindness,” “willful ignorance” or “delusion.” (Our current President is a prime example.)
And that, I think, is the difference between secular and religious faith. That is why my faith in Ingrid, in democracy, in myself, are fundamentally different from a theist’s faith in God. I have faith in Ingrid… but it’s not a central defining feature of that faith that nothing could ever shake it, even in theory. I don’t answer the question, “What would convince you that your faith in Ingrid is mistaken?” by saying, “Nothing. Nothing could convince me that I was mistaken. That’s what it means to have faith.”
We all have to make leaps of faith. We can never have all the relevant information when we make a decision; we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee that our beliefs and actions will be right. So it’s not irrational to have secular faith; it’s a calculated risk (unconsciously calculated much of the time, to be sure), necessary to get on with life in the face of uncertainty.
What’s irrational is to maintain one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise. What’s irrational is to assert ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever shake your faith; to assert, essentially, that your faith trumps reality. And what’s profoundly irrational is to insist that doing these things is a virtue, an admirable trait that makes you a good and noble person.
Which leads us to a somewhat explosive question: Is religious faith irrational?
And that’s the subject of tomorrow’s sermon.
(Many thanks to Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism for his help compiling the “definitions of faith” list.)