What is faith?

Prompted by Rowan Williams saying that neo-atheist fundamentalists aren’t attacking the religion ++Rowan actually believes in, the Barefoot Bum has a good bit on the role of the term “faith” in discussions with believers.

Getting killed on the next zebra crossing

The argument goes something like this: religious faith is sometimes taken by atheists to mean “belief without evidence” (Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion, for example). “Ah, no,” say believers, “that’s not what faith means, our belief is based on the evidence”. There follows an interlude for examination of this evidence, which turns out not to be so impressive. “Did we say based on? We meant compatible with,” say the believers. “That’s not good enough”, says the Bum, “all sorts of things are compatible with the evidence if you’re prepared to add ad hoc stuff to shore up the core beliefs you really don’t want to get rid of, but then those core beliefs are held without regard to evidence”. “But,” say believers, “you yourself have some core beliefs you hold without regard to evidence”. “Well,” says the Bum, “I don’t think so, but anyway, you’ve just conceded that I was right about faith, haven’t you?” “Oh dear,” say the believers, “we hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

Six impossible things before breakfast

The believers’ final attempt to parry the Bum is similar to an apologetic argument I’ve seen, whereby the believer says “If you have an unevidenced belief that your senses aren’t under the control of the Matrix or of a cartesiandaemon, why not round it off by believing in my religion?” This is an odd argument: the believer mentions beliefs you might doubt if you’re a radical sceptic (you’ll recall that you risk becoming a radical sceptic if you’re a university-educated Catholic), but which most people accept because it’s impractical not to. It turns out that belief in gods is something we can get by without. (On a related note, the folks over at Iron Chariots have a reasonable article on the proposition that atheism is based on faith).

Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Three parts of faith

There’s another thing missing from the popular atheist definition of faith. At least for Christians, faith has an element of trust as well as acceptance of facts. After all, even the demons believe.

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton separates faith into three parts: content (faith in what?), assent (affirmation that the content is true) and trust (the part that the demons lack). Patton blames the lack of assent (which requires an examination of the evidence) for the loss of faith of the ex-Christians he’s encountered. He goes so far as to say that the statement “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart” is stupid. Patton seems quite different from other Christians, who say that the main reason they believe is the internal feeling of God’s presence, what they call the witness of the Holy Spirit. One can perhaps forgive atheists for using “faith” in a way Christians don’t like if the Christians themselves aren’t sure what it’s about.

The virtue of faith

A thought which should occur to anyone who reads Less Wrong: you can make people reluctant to give up religious faith by making them think that having faith is virtuous. And this is what we find: in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with). Rather, say:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe “the sky is blue”.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe “the sky is not blue”.

21 thoughts on “What is faith?”

  1. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with).

    It’s often seemed to me that a surprising amount of Christian proselytisation – not so much the carefully thought-out essays in the academic literature and the credible end of the blogosphere, but the simpler material used when the average believer encounters the average nonbeliever – tends to skip lightly over the question of whether the facts being asserted are accurate, and instead jumps straight to the stage where you supposedly already accept that God exists and has the specified nature and are only arguing about the appropriate response to those facts.

    The twee ‘donuts’ story (second section on this page, though my guess is you’ve probably seen it before) seems like a good example of this tendency – it paints atheists as wilfully refusing a ‘gift’ that they know for certain somebody has suffered and died to give them, and if one unwisely accepts that framing of the question it becomes emotionally difficult to say “wait a minute, no he didn’t!”.

    I’ve often wondered whether this is a consciously chosen debating strategy, or whether it’s a direct reflection of the theist’s honest best estimate of what’s going on inside the atheist mind. Perhaps many theists actually can’t bring themselves to believe that people like me interpret the available evidence differently from them, and are therefore forced to the conclusion that we must believe all the same facts about the universe but somehow have made a mistake at the next stage, when it comes time to (e.g.) decide whether or not to go to church.

    1. As previously mentioned, some (most?) evangelicals believe that everyone knows there’s a God really. This does influence evangelism tactics, in that they’re told that philosophical debates are often a smokescreen for people who don’t want to admit their guilt before God, so evangelists should get people to that point as quickly as possible.

      I also think Andrew Brown is right that thinking things through in the way you describe is not a habit many people have learned. It may be that telling stories (like the donut one, which I’d not seen before, but there are others) gets through to people who just aren’t that bothered about evidence and consistency. If I have understood Patton rightly, that’s what he seems to blame for the people who left: they got in through Two Ways to Live and what they thought was a feeling of God’s presence, and got out when they actually encountered an argument or a sticking point. Neither of these seem good reasons to change one’s mind. Over at Less Wrong, there was another Eliezer post where he talked about someone who had been convinced she was getting messages from the future, but reasoned herself out of it. Strong feelings/the inner witness of the Holy Spirit won’t do, or Christianity is another form of being an Otherkin. But on the other hand, leaving when you encounter a single argument seems too hasty. You ought to look for the strongest arguments for and against.

    2. That’s really interesting. Listening to stories or parables popular with a group really helps establish what they actually believe.

      Some of the most effective prosetylization (whatever extent it was intended to be), was the bit in the last battle where the dwarves close their eyes to Aslan and refuse to believe the truth, because that really scared me, whereas many other arguments just wash off because I’m not sold on the premises.

      Looking at a story really helps to show how the people adhering to it think. Although the donut story doesn’t have the same impact on me, I see “yes, many Christians see Jesus, believers and atheists that way, but I just keep forgetting, because it doesn’t come through if anyone ever SAYS it, but is evident in the sort of stories told”.

      I’ve often wondered whether this is a consciously chosen debating strategy, or whether it’s a direct reflection of the theist’s honest best estimate of what’s going on inside the atheist mind.

      It’s probably both. Telling a story that hits emotionally is often one of the few effective tactics. And also, it’s really hard to hold in your head someone else’s subtle apparently insane beliefs, so even if you know intellectually athiests/religious people don’t think like that you keep forgetting and arguing as if they do.

  2. In Buddhism, ‘faith’ is important but generally means something quite different: more like determination or motivation. And ‘doubt’, the opposite of that, is thought to be a hindrance.

    So it’s more practical – faith is the kind of quality you’d need to, for example, stick at an exercise program, and doubt would be thoughts like ‘I can’t be bothered to do it today.’

    1. I’m sure there’s an element of that in the theological virtue of faith. Wikipedia refers to it as “steadfastness”. The problem is that it’s applied to belief rather than practice, I suppose, and you end up with believers as chronic sinus sufferers, to use Adam Gopnik’s excellent analogy.

  3. in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship.

    I think there’s an assumption smuggled into that of humanist ethics, in which doing harm to others is the only moral evil. Otherwise, why shouldn’t such faith be a virtue? Do you think wisdom, consistency, intellectual honesty, etc are virtues, or just practical?

    I agree with Lewis that faith is the ability to hold on to a conclusion you reached by reason, even when circumstances make you doubt it. A theist needs faith when things go wrong or seem meaningless, but an atheist also needs faith, to hold on to their atheism when admiring something beautiful in the natural world, or when wishing for hope in the face of death. Without faith, no one could remain either a theist or an atheist for very long.

    Over the course of my life I have believed and disbelieved at different times (as have you). I am absolutely certain that God either exists or doesn’t, and that he doesn’t flicker in and out of existence depending on my belief or my circumstances; so some of the time my sincerely-held and apparently reasoned convictions must have been wrong. For me, faith is reminding myself of this, and reminding myself how strongly emotions and similar things influence what I honestly think are purely reasoned thought-processes. This is depressing, for someone who thinks of herself as rational, and I don’t like to admit it, but I can clearly see it’s true, in all sorts of areas of life, not necessarily having anything to do with religion.

    Faith is like the bottom of a pyramid in stable equilibrium: it stops small perturbations from tipping it over, by bringing it back to the centre. You might have heard this before, but it’s like if you do an experiment and get results that contradict the known laws of physics. If you’re sensible, you assume experimental error, and it’s not until you’ve seen lots of results which point that way, and others have confirmed it too, that you question whether the known laws of physics are wrong and need to be updated.

    1. It sounds like the kind of faith you’re talking about is similar to the kind in my comment above.

      “faith is the ability to hold on to a conclusion you reached by reason, even when circumstances make you doubt it”

      That sounds like a good quality to me, depending on what ‘circumstances’ means. One wouldn’t want to hold on to a conclusion if evidence disproved it. But from what you say, you mean things like emotions getting in the way.

      So is it something like confidence, maybe?

    2. Do you think wisdom, consistency, intellectual honesty, etc are virtues, or just practical?

      I admire people who exhibit those things, so I think they’re virtuous in that sense. However, I don’t think that the lack of those things is necessarily culpable in the same way that doing harm to others is. For example, a young person may not have had time to become wise. Perhaps I should say that faith may be practical, but it’s hard to see why we’re always supposed to regard it as admirable.

      an atheist also needs faith, to hold on to their atheism when admiring something beautiful in the natural world, or when wishing for hope in the face of death.

      Those seem odd examples. I don’t find it difficult to hold on to atheism when admiring something beautiful in the natural world. Why would I? As far as death goes, I wouldn’t say I have much hope (for continued existence, presumably): as far as I can tell, death is the end of a person. While I don’t want to die, I do not find that this makes what occurs before death meaningless.

      For me, faith is reminding myself of this, and reminding myself how strongly emotions and similar things influence what I honestly think are purely reasoned thought-processes.

      I agree that it’s important to have good reasons for changing your beliefs, and that what we think are good reasons are sometimes reflections of our digestion, as I think Lewis put it.

      Nevertheless, there seems to be something more to the religious virtue of faith than merely a slow filter that damps wild swings of belief, though that may be all that you mean by it, which is fair enough. In general, though, there’s some sort of heroic story there. There are flaming arrows and whatnot, and a personal Adversary whose job is to tempt you away from Christianity. Believers who wrestle with doubt for years and yet still believe are seen as praiseworthy. Those people are well beyond experimental error, yet they’re still fiddling with their auxiliary hypotheses rather than doing away with the main theory, the very thing that the Bum complains about in the linked posting.

      That heroic narrative should concern anyone who wants to be able to stage a real crisis of faith (I think that piece is one of the better ones on changing beliefs, maybe because Saunt Eliezer is another ex-theist), because it sees doubts as enemy soldiers, and changing your mind as surrender. This is the opposite of the effect a rationalist wants, which is to be able to relinquish incorrect beliefs easily. The third virtue is lightness.

      1. Those seem odd examples. I don’t find it difficult to hold on to atheism when admiring something beautiful in the natural world. Why would I? As far as death goes, I wouldn’t say I have much hope (for continued existence, presumably): as far as I can tell, death is the end of a person. While I don’t want to die, I do not find that this makes what occurs before death meaningless.

        OK, they were only guesses. The first was from my own experience: both as an atheist and as a theist, seeing something beautiful in the natural world (including people I love) makes God’s existence seem more likely. I probably can’t give a logical proof from “This is beautiful” to “God exists”, but that’s the whole point – it was an example of when an emotional reaction changes my assessment of an objective probability. The second was a guess based on things like the saying about there being no atheists in foxholes; I didn’t mean when contemplating death abstractly, but when one’s own death is imminent or when losing a loved one, an atheist might think “Maybe there is a god and an afterlife after all”, for reasons more to do with wishful thinking than rationality.
        But if neither of those examples are accurate for you – are there any? Do you have any times when you wonder if maybe there is a God? If not, I’m not sure whether that means you have strong faith (in the sense we’re discussing here), or whether you don’t question your beliefs sufficiently, or something else.


        That heroic narrative should concern anyone who wants to be able to stage a real crisis of faith (I think that piece is one of the better ones on changing beliefs, maybe because Saunt Eliezer is another ex-theist)

        Do you reckon there’s no heroic narrative in that article? It’s all about having the courage to think the thoughts that are painful, and daring to go where few thinkers have gone before.
        Despite that, though, I think it’s a good article, and one which Screwtape would try to distract people from reading 🙂 I think both sides would say that the unbiased search for truth is a good thing and that if the other side questioned their beliefs deeply enough they’d switch sides.
        I admire the way he takes it to a meta level and encourages people to doubt as deeply as they’d want a theist to doubt, although the way he assumes so unquestioningly and even patronisingly that Aumann is wrong seems at odds with that.

        1. I guess I try to base my emotions on my conception of how the world is, rather than vice versa (a habit I think was reinforced by evangelicalism, at least the sort I got from CICCU and StAG). I suppose when I do have what Lily the Peaceful atheist refers to as emotional doubts, they are brought on by stuff which reminds me of the good parts of Christianity, such as the music and the good communities (uk.r.c as it was before it got colonised by idiots, and LiveWires). As I say on Lily’s post, I get the “it’s 3 am and I’m going to die someday” occasionally

          The sure extinction that we travel to
          And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
          Not to be anywhere,
          And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

          but I don’t really feel tempted to turn to religion: doing so in the face of death seems so obviously a sop to my fear that I’d find it embarrassing.

          This is a special way of being afraid
          No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
          That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
          Created to pretend we never die

          I do not spend a lot of time wondering whether there’s a God: I think I’ve seen most of the arguments and they’re unconvincing. I don’t have an inner feeling that God is present, and if I did, I’d be reluctant to become an Otherkin. There could still be something out there, of course (like Pullman says), but I doubt it looks much like the Christian God. OTOH I’m pretty clear about what would change my mind, but I suspect we both doubt that that sort of thing would happen.

          Do you reckon there’s no heroic narrative in that article?

          There’s often a sort of Zen Ninja Rationalist narrative in Yudkowsky’s stuff. I suppose I’m not against that if it really does help people to think about how the world is, rather than just pretend they have to be a cool Zen Ninja Rationalist. My problem with the heroes of faith story is that it seems to reward the opposite behaviour.

          I think there are people on both sides who are interested in looking for the truth, and people who aren’t. A while back, I found a Christian blog criticising other Christians for changing their views based on evidence. I’m pretty sure there are atheists who are more interested in cheering for the team than in who has the best arguments (some folk on the Dawkins site recently thought Hitchens thrashed Bill Craig in their recent debate: I’ve not listened to it, but I’ve reasons to doubt that). It is harder to see how people I genuinely think seek the truth about God end up with such different opinions (though, if you think about it, I think the fact that they do strengthens my case 🙂

          the way he assumes so unquestioningly and even patronisingly that Aumann is wrong seems at odds with that.

          Atheism’s taken as read there (though there was some debate, started by gjm11 and continued by others, about whether this was a good thing). He’s warning people that it’s not sufficient to work out that there’s no God and then feel pleased with yourself. You say you believe that God is None? You do well. etc. etc.

          BTW: simont has talked about this before. I’d completely forgotten until I stumbled across it while looking at my old comments.

          1. Aubade is a fantastic poem, but I have to disagree with it 🙂

            Larkin is afraid of the state of being dead – which is nonsense if there is no afterlife. He dreads “being dead”, “the total emptiness for ever/The sure extinction that we travel to/And shall be lost in always”

            And he’s not impressed with:

            “specious stuff that says No rational being
            Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
            That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
            No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
            Nothing to love or link with,
            The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

            It seems like he’s afraid of the experience of being dead. Which just seems weird to me.

            I mean, I don’t want to die, because I like being alive. If I knew I was going to die soon, I’d be sad about all the things I wouldn’t have a chance to do, and afraid of the pain and suffering of dying. But death itself doesn’t seem at all frightening. Am I alone in this?

            1. I agree with you. I don’t see anything frightening (as opposed to sad or disappointing) about ceasing to exist. There is, literally, nothing to be frightened of (and I don’t mean that in a glib playing-with-words way). I thought the same when I was an atheist.

          2. I guess I try to base my emotions on my conception of how the world is, rather than vice versa (a habit I think was reinforced by evangelicalism, at least the sort I got from CICCU and StAG). … As I say on Lily’s post, I get the “it’s 3 am and I’m going to die someday” occasionally…
            but I don’t really feel tempted to turn to religion: doing so in the face of death seems so obviously a sop to my fear that I’d find it embarrassing.

            Yes, exactly this – that’s what I was trying to describe that I (and, I believe, Lewis) mean by faith: trying to base your emotions on your conception of reality rather than vice versa, and having the objectivity to recognise that certain changes of opinion would be “a sop to your fear” rather than something more rational, and rejecting them because of that.

            “Emotional doubt” is a good descriptive phrase; I shall borrow it.

            (FWIW, I instinctively find the idea of existing forever scarier than the idea of ceasing to exist; it’s only by reminding myself of what I believe about God’s goodness that I can face the former.)

            My problem with the heroes of faith story is that it seems to reward the opposite behaviour.
            Oh, I see, so your problem wasn’t with the heroic narrative per se, but the way it was ranged on the side of non-seeking and non-questioning – fair enough.

            I think there are people on both sides who are interested in looking for the truth, and people who aren’t.
            Yes, definitely.

            It is harder to see how people I genuinely think seek the truth about God end up with such different opinions (though, if you think about it, I think the fact that they do strengthens my case 🙂
            I’m thinking about it, but don’t quite get what you mean … do you mean that if there’s no God guiding any of them, they’re more likely to end up with different answers?

            Atheism’s taken as read there
            I think it’s fine for it to be normally taken as read, but in a post like that, encouraging people to question their most basic assumptions, it would have been nice to break with that. “Maybe X, or maybe Y, or even maybe Aumann is right after all. Do you instinctively recoil in horror at that and think I’m losing my senses? Don’t worry, I’m not, but you should examine that knee-jerk reaction…”

            1. [pw201]

              It is harder to see how people I genuinely think seek the truth about God end up with such different opinions (though, if you think about it, I think the fact that they do strengthens my case 🙂

              [woodpijn]

              I’m thinking about it, but don’t quite get what you mean … do you mean that if there’s no God guiding any of them, they’re more likely to end up with different answers?

              It would be nice if genuine-seekers-after-truth came up with roughly the same answers. The fact that they don’t suggests there isn’t enough conclusive evidence either way. If there is a God, it makes you wonder why he’s hidden.

    3. an atheist also needs faith, to hold on to their atheism when admiring something beautiful in the natural world…

      For me, looking at something beautiful gives rise to emotions you might call spiritual, I suppose. But I don’t find I need to believe in God to explain them.

      …or when wishing for hope in the face of death

      I don’t think that death means the end of hope.

      But it’s true, I think that wishing that something is true is a warning sign of emotions getting in the way of reason.

    4. I think there’s an assumption smuggled into that of humanist ethics

      That’s a very good description. I’m so used to thinking in terms of badness=harm these days (with a few exceptions) I always get thrown whenever I’m talking to someone who doesn’t.

      I agree with Lewis that faith is the ability to hold on to a conclusion you reached by reason,

      That sounds like a lovely description. I’d not thought of that.

      Reading Paul’s post, I was thinking about religious faith, and my interpretation heavily emphasised the trust aspect. If your parents nurture you, and you love each other, you hopefully come to trust them even out of proportion to the evidence you have. This trope is repeated endlessly in fiction, with “OK, so I can’t know for sure my parents/sibling/partner/friend is going to come and rescue me, but I have faith” being presented as a virtue of The Side of Light. The difference being, a religious person bonded with God in that way, and a non-religious person didn’t, and so it’s really hard to persuade each other of their position!

      1. This trope is repeated endlessly in fiction, with “OK, so I can’t know for sure my parents/sibling/partner/friend is going to come and rescue me, but I have faith” being presented as a virtue of The Side of Light.

        Yes, that’s definitely true, now you say it.

        The difference being, a religious person bonded with God in that way, and a non-religious person didn’t, and so it’s really hard to persuade each other of their position!
        Saying a non-religious person “didn’t bond with God in that way” sounds slightly odd to me – it sounds like they believe he exists but they don’t have that kind of relationship with him, whereas IME they don’t believe he exists.
        I think it’s part of the nature of God that he is like the trustworthy parents/sibling/partner/friend who will come and rescue you, if he exists. When I have doubts they’re not about whether the trustworthy friend is trustworthy, but about whether he exists; I think if he does then his trustworthiness is a given.

        1. Yes, that’s definitely true, now you say it.

          Thank you.

          Saying … “didn’t bond with God in that way” sounds slightly odd to me

          Oh yes, I definitely mean it in the literal sense of didn’t bond with God (presumably because God doesn’t exist, or at least they believe so), rather than implying that they might have done so but failed.

          the nature of God that he is like the trustworthy parents/sibling/partner/friend who will come and rescue you

          Indeed. If someone came to me and said my parents didn’t love me I’d flat not believe it, and if they said my parents were actually something else entirely who just seemed to love me, I’d find it possible but very very difficult to consider.

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