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Faith and Belief

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Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith'. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. ~ Bertrand Russell

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. ~ Richard Dawkins

Faith is not a leap in the dark; it's the exact opposite. It's a commitment based on evidence... It is irrational to reduce all faith to blind faith and then subject it to ridicule. That provides a very anti-intellectual and convenient way of avoiding intelligent discussion. ~ John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and philosopher of science at University of Oxford

At a talk I attended some while ago, the Secular Humanist speaker dismissed faith as simply believing something with insufficient reason—or even against reason. I have often heard atheists and humanists express this view quoting Mark Twain's famous dictum Faith is believing what you know ain't so.

Religious friends, on the other hand, often talk about their belief in the existence of God as a matter of faith, implying that faith is either a mode of belief or a valid foundation for belief.

It seems to me that both of these positions are mistaken in similar ways as they both mistake the relationship between faith and belief. They both conceive of faith preceding and providing a foundation for belief or beinf a mode of belief in itself. Of course one side approves and the other disapproves, but they both agree on the nature of faith and belief and the relationship between them. I want to argue that the relationship is the reverse of what both parties think. I contend that belief always logically precedes faith and the very possibility of faith is always predicated on logically prior beliefs.

The meaning of a word is in its use

It was the philosopher Wittgenstein who proposed that if you want to understand the meaning of a word then you should examine how it's used in everyday life; there is no source of meaning other than established, collective usage. In the case of faith I think it is beholden upon us to look at how it is used in everyday cases in order to truly understand what it means.

Blondin and faith

Perhaps one of the best explications of faith is the one I recall from my old Sunday School days. The story is told of the great Victorian tight-rope walker, Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in the late 1850's. On one occasion he walked across the Falls blindfold, pushing a wheelbarrow. Having performed this feat he turned to a bystander and asked him if he believed that he, Blondin, could perform the feat again, but this time with a load in the barrow. The onlooker had no hesitation in replying Yes--of course you can do it!. At this Blondin said, OK, then jump in the barrow and I'll take you across. Predictably the onlooker demurred.

Differences between belief and faith

I think this story brings out several important features of faith and belief and the relationship between them.

1. Belief is passive while faith is active

Belief is simply the assertion that so-and-so is the case. It does not necessarily entail action or an attitude of any kind. Faith on the other hand is action-oriented—even if that action is simply waiting patiently for something to happen. It is therefore quite consistent for someone to say that they believe in God but have no faith in him. Faith and belief are different things. I expect that many people who assent to belief in God in public opinion surveys are simply 'of the opinion' that God exists but have no personal faith or trust in him as such. Indeed, this must be the state of mind of Satan in the Old Testament book of Job. As counsel for the prosecution in the heavenly assize he chats to God quite a bit so he is obviously convinced that God exists (one might even say that he 'knows' God exists) but it would be absurd to attribute faith to Satan on that basis.

2. Faith is voluntary while belief in involuntary

Faith is voluntary in the sense that you can choose, or make an effort, to take the risk of exercising faith while you cannot simply choose to believe something. Belief is involuntary and forces itself upon you. You may entertain beliefs with different levels of confidence but you cannot make yourself believe something that you do not already believe or feel you have good reasons to believe. If you don't think it's so then try this experiment. Sit down in a comfortable chair and concentrate your mind on believing in fairies. I guarantee that you will find it impossible, even if I were to motivate you with a large bribe!

3. Belief has a symmetrical relationship to the facts; faith has an asymmetrical relationship to the facts

It's like this: if the facts are so and so you are acquainted with their truth, then belief follows automatically and involuntarily. (I know I am oversimplifying here, but stay with me).

If you are shown the facts are not so, then you can no longer continue believing. It makes no sense to say that you continue believing something that you have been shown is false.

Faith, on the other hand is voluntary and cannot be compelled by the facts. Blondin's audience were quite clear as to the facts and his ability to walk the tightrope but that did not engender faith in their hearts and minds.

However, faith can be defeated by the facts. Madame Butterfly, in the eponymous opera, has faith that Pinkerton will return to marry her and be a father to their child but that faith is betrayed. He comes back to Japan with a new wife and takes the child away. Butterfly's faith is thereby shown to have been ill-founded and a mistake.

4. Faith involves a promise to be faithful

This may be an explicit undertaking, as with God in the Bible, or it can be tacitly understood by the participants in the situation. However, it clearly involves the object of faith being an agent in some sense as only an agent can make, fulfil or betray promises. It makes no sense for someone to claim they have 'faith' in the roulette table in a casino as the roulette table itself operates by determinate laws as has no choice in what it does. Superstitious gamblers who want to exercise 'faith' in this context have to invoke some sort of invisible, quasi-personal force like 'luck'.

'Belief-that' and 'Belief-in'

Sometimes the distinction is made between 'belief-that' and 'belief-in'. To 'believe-that' is to assent to the truth of a statement while 'belief-in' is to take a risk on it and commit yourself to acting on that belief. It is one thing to say that you 'believe-that' God exists (merely assent) and quite a different thing to say that you 'believe-in' God as your saviour (making a life commitment, taking a risk on that belief, making a 'leap of faith'). However, to 'believe-in' something logically presupposes 'belief-that' something is the case or that something exists in which one can have faith.

Faith is a transitive verb and always implies a person or state of affairs in which one has faith. This means 'belief-that' a certain state of affairs pertains is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for 'belief-in'. You cannot drive a wedge between belief-in and belief-that; the former is logically dependent on the latter. Faith cannot be free-floating in mid-air. It has to be anchored to something factual and that something has to be an agent who has undertaken to be faithful.

The British people had faith in Winston Churchill during World War II. They 'believed-in' his ability to win the war for them. However, this 'belief-in' was founded on several 'beliefs-that', eg, that Churchill was Prime Minister; that he had the backing of the war-time coalition government; that the service chiefs respected and backed his leadership. It would have made no sense to say you had faith in Churchill unless all of these other beliefs were in place first. On the contrary, you can argue against the appropriateness of the exercise of faith in a specific situation by pointing out how someone has got their supporting facts wrong in some way.

Faith in God

My religious friends are therefore mistaken, I would argue, when they say that they have 'faith that God exists'. God's existence is a matter of 'belief' and not 'faith'. Faith can only be exercised after belief in the object of faith has been established. Once you have established that God ~is~, only then does it makes sense to talk about having faith in God.

But my artheist friend is also wrong in her analysis of faith, for if there is logically a state of affairs that you have faith in then you can give 'reasons' for your faith. In a weak sense then, faith can always be said to be 'rational'—although it does not follow from this that one necessarily has good or sufficient reasons for one's faith. That is something that has to be examined on a case-by-case basis as there are no universal rules by which you can determine whether any belief or action is rational. Furthermore, the infidelity of the object of one's faith does not show that one's exercise of faith was irrational: mistaken perhaps, but not necessarily irrational.

Madame Butterfly has good reasons, from her point or view, to trust Pinkerton but she is sorely betrayed as it turns out. Butterfly's faith does not pay off in the end but that does not render it irrational, just tragically mistaken. However, had Butterfly seen strong documentary evidence that Pinkerton was married and intended to return to Japan to claim their child and yet she still continued to cling to her belief that Pinkerton would stick to his promises, then we would have to conclude that Butterfly was engaged in wishful-thinking and thus being irrational.

This case also demonstrates that it is always possible to describe circumstances that amount to one's faith either succeeding or failing to pay off. Indeed, I would want to say that unless you can state up-front what fidelity or betrayal would amount to in a specified situation, then your claim to faith has no content.

Moral responsibility for faith and belief

I have argued that belief is involuntary and so it seems to follow from this that we are not morally responsible for our beliefs. It is a general intuition, which I don't intend to defend here, that one can only be held responsible for matters over which one has control: 'ought implies can' is one summary of this idea that philosophers often quote. So how can we condemn anyone for their beliefs? But, of course, we do criticise people for their wrong-headed beliefs—all the time! For instance we would condemn someone who believed that black people are inferior to white. However, I would suggest it's not the belief per se, that we are condemning, it is the way they arrived at their beliefs, which is under their control. We might want to say that they are rationalising their beliefs and engaging in self-deception. Their belief is in reality motivated by a desire to feel superior but they deceive themselves into thinking that the belief is forced upon them by the facts.

By contrast we can imagine the case of a young child living in the Southern States of the USA in the early nineteenth century having been brought up with everyone around her telling her that black people are inferior to white and natural slaves. The child would have only encountered poor, brutalised blacks who fit the stereotype she is constantly being presented with and so it is only to be expected that she believes blacks are inferior to whites. In a case like this we could not morally condemn her belief since it sincere, subjectively well-founded and involuntary. The child cannot believe otherwise. It might be unfortunate and regrettable, but it is not morally condemnable.

We also criticise people for arriving at their beliefs carelessly. How carefully a person collects and handles the facts supporting their beliefs is a matter over which a person clearly has some control and so we can hold them responsible for that. If someone fails to consider all the facts or is sloppy in drawing conclusions then we feel justified in condemning that person. We say they are lazy or thoughtless. However, where someone has simply made an understandable error or was unaware of certain pertinent facts at the time, we do not hold them responsible for doing something wrong. We might regret their error but we would respect their sincerity, integrity and their 'good faith'.

In science, for instance, we do not criticise 17th century scientists for believing the Phlogiston theory of combustion even though nowadays we have every reason to believe it false. Believers in Phlogiston theory were simply mistaken but not morally wrong in holding their erroneous beliefs.

Error in religion

Now consider how error in religion is regarded. The Tritarians won the debate with Arius over the wording of the Nicene Creed in 325 CE and the Trinity was accepted as the correct doctrine of God. However, Arius was not treated as someone who had just made an unfortunate mistake. His error was not simply an intellectual one, it constituted a moral failing as well, which was harshly condemned. Arius' motives and intentions were completely irrelevant. And so we find in all religions the notion of an honest mistake over doctine, made in good-faith, is completely absent. All errors of belief are culpable moral failings.

If I am right in my claim that faith is always logically dependent upon belief and that belief is involuntary, then if someone cannot believe certain propositions, the act of faith that is dependent upon those beliefs is also impossible for them. It follows from this that failure to exercise faith where the supporting beliefs are absent cannot be a subject of moral condemnation. The honest atheist who has weighed up all the facts as has come to the conclusion that God does not exist, cannot be justly condemned for his lack of faith (from a religious perspective, that is).

The only recourse the theist has at this point is to assert that the atheist is either rationalising a deep-seated antipathy towards God and religion (he really knows that God exists but is in denial) or that he has been careless in assessment of the facts. Both amount to rather thin ad hominem attacks and would be very difficult to substantiate.

Faith without an object

Some liberal and radical theologians have nowadays given up on the idea of an independent, benevolent, supernatural, personal God who has agency within the world. However, they appear to still want to employ the word 'faith' even though there is no substantive object of that faith. I find this difficult to understand. If you cannot specify who or what in particular you are having faith 'in', and if there is nothing that could count as infidelity within your framework of understanding, it seems to me that neither the word nor the attitude have any work to do.

Sometimes such theologians may talk about having faith in 'Life', the 'World', the 'Universe', 'Nature', 'Evolution', 'Existence' or even 'Being-itself'. But none of these is a benevolent agent capable of entering into a relationship of trust with you and so it is impossible to see on what grounds you could ever claim to have been betrayed by them. What would a claim that Being is faithful (or unfaithful) to me amount to? And if Being is incapable of being faithful to me, why should I trust it?

Without a creator God, or some sort of benign or just metaphysical force controlling the world, like karma say, the best we can say is that the natural world is merely indifferent to our human desires, plans and interests. This does not inevitably lead to cynicism, nihilism or despair. We just have to face the fact that there is no one 'up there' looking after us.

If I were to be caught up in the middle of a tornado it would be absurd of me to have faith that the tornado will not destroy my house. It might or it might not. It has not made any commitments to me and so while I may hope it will not destroy my house, and while I may remain ~optimistic~, faith is quite literally meaningless in this context. What we really need in this situation is knowledge, skill and understanding. We need to know the best kinds of strategies to employ in an indifferent world to maximise our chances of collective survival and flourishing.

It seems to me that radical theologians are wedded to a paradigm of faith and belief that makes no sense any more. Once you have dropped the idea of an omniscient, omnipresent, benevolent God who is in full charge of the show you have lost the logical basis for faith (in a religious sense). These theologians, however, are reluctant to drop the word faith completely as that would entirely sever their connections with traditional religious language and institutions. They therefore hang onto the word but try to invest it with a new meaning so as to stay at least tenuously within the ambit of Christian orthodoxy. But the new meaning they give it makes no sense. The most charitable interpretation of this new style 'faith' is that it is another word for 'optimism' or for Nietzsche's 'amor fati'. But arguments about optimism have little to do with metaphysics or theology. Rather, they are the proper object of psychology. Indeed much work has been done by experimental psychologists in recent years on the utility of optimism.

A return to Wisdom

What we need to do, I would suggest, is to slough-off the outdated paradigms of traditional Christian theology which tend to distort our thinking. We need to return to our classical pagan roots, emphasising Wisdom in place of Faith when it comes to our relationship to Life, the Universe and Everything. Faith, clearly has meaning and utility within human relationships and institutions (even if often betrayed) but it makes no sense when applied to a larger framework of existence, unless one already has a belief in a benevolent cosmic agency such as God or Karma. And whether one is justified believing in such agencies is not a question that can be answered by faith as such.

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Read Dr Philip Knight's reply to this paper.