What is Faith?

There are some people in our previous thread and on Twitter who keep asserting that theists and non-theists are on equal ground because they’re both based on faith. I don’t think of myself as having faith, but maybe we just don’t agree on a definition for the word. So, what is faith? Is faith a good thing? Always? Are all objects of faith equally likely to be true? Please discuss in the comments.

28 responses to this post.

  1. The Bible says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” According to that definition, faith is basically being very certain of something despite a lack of evidence for it. Apparently, the fact that you *hope* something is true is supposed to make up for the fact that you can’t see or know it for sure.

    By this definition, I don’t think I have faith in anything. Certainly, I entertain ideas that haven’t been proven or observed such as the big bang and a natural origin of life, but I don’t feel certain about them to the degree that faith suggests. I hold views like this with a tentativeness. I’m open to evidence that might disprove my ideas. Is faith open to being disproved? And in some areas I’m forced to admit that I just don’t know and we may never know what happened. That seems like the opposite of certainty to me.

    Then there are ideas that I hold with more certainty, even though I’m not familiar with all the evidence for them. I feel certain that my computer is powered by electricity rather than magic, though I don’t fully understand electricity and I haven’t opened this computer up to confirm that there are no fairies inside. But would you really say that I have *faith* in the role of electricity? Though I don’t understand the workings of my computer that well, I know that there are humans who do and if we took the time they could make me understand how it works. Religious faith is not like that. At some point you’re told you just have to accept it because there’s no one who can show you the evidence.

    If faith is certainty without evidence, then I don’t think I have faith. I try my best to proportion my certainty to the evidence. If there’s no proof for an idea, I don’t claim to be certain.


    • Posted by Tony Retz on December 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm

      I know this is an old post, but I was reading this and had to comment. If you’ve already covered this particular point, feel free to ignore…How do you say your belief in science being correct is not faith? For example, just in my 30 years on earth, I’ve seen salt be called bad for me, then good for me, and now it’s sorta bad for me. Science is constantly being “proven” and then dis-proven over and over again. Doesn’t that mean that you are hoping that science is correct when you yourself have not seen any actual evidence of it (numbers and reports are created by men, generally with agendas (grants, power, prestige, etc), much the same way you might say the Bible was)? Especially with the knowledge that it is often dis-proving itself? Basically, what I’m saying, is, isn’t there a measure of faith in everything you yourself have not done/seen?


      • I don’t think I have faith in science, but it all depends on our definition of the word “faith.” I understand it to mean being certain of an idea when the evidence doesn’t warrant certainty. I try to proportion my certainty to the evidence. So, my certainty in scientific ideas is not 100%.

        The conclusions of science will certainly change over time as new data and understandings emerge. That’s one of the reasons that science is more useful than religion, which clings to ideas long after the evidence proves them wrong.

  2. Well said.

    Faith, by the biblical definition, is Anti-Reason. Period.



    • Faith, by the biblical definition, is a reasonable expectation based on trustworthy information. “Hope” is an expectation, not a wish. The fact that you haven’t seen it yet is because it has not yet happened. Read the passage – this “faith” that is being referred to always looks to the future. It assumes God exists, yes – this is the presupposition that we’re dealing with in the other thread. Theists presuppose he exists, non-theists presuppose that he doesn’t.

      In any case, there is nothing in the passage to warrant the idea that faith is faith BECAUSE there is no evidence, and that if there was evidence, it wouldn’t be faith.


      • Posted by Eric on August 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm

        I still find absolutely no use in this redefinition, as I noted on the other post. “Reasonable expectation based on trustworthy information” has, for as long as I’ve been alive, been called “rational belief,” not faith. And the word “faith,” when I was a Christian, was primarily used as a justification for belief, not as a synonym for belief. It was an alternative to evidence (belief in what you cannot see – if you could see it, you’d believe for that reason, and wouldn’t need faith), not a belief based on evidence.

        Again, the only goal I can possibly see in this redefinition is to slip on connotations that are associated with faith – either to demean reasonable beliefs and bring them down to the same level as beliefs that aren’t based on evidence, or to uplift beliefs not based on evidence to the same level as those that are.

      • 1Co 1:18-23: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

        1Co 3:18-20: Guard against self-deception, each of you. If someone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish so that he can become wise. For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. As it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

  3. Posted by byron Arnold on August 13, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    the definition of faith that i use is the one of the original greek and hebrew terms. It does not mean to believe something inspite of evidence. Rather it means to have faithfulness, to be loyal to the object of your faith. I am not sure when the meaning of faith changed, but i much prefer the original meaning. While it does constitute believing in the object of your faith (if you are faithful to Christ, of course you will believe!), it encompasses oh so much more.

    more than mere believing, having faith constitutes a lifestyle.


  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by almightygod and David Faulkner, Pinar. Pinar said: RT @almightygod Our first serious discussion has passed 100 comments. Here's another topic: "What is faith?" http://is.gd/efZgY […]


  5. Posted by Mr_Atheist on August 13, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    There are multiple definitions.

    Dan_Garland likes to abuse this fact. “You have faith in your friends, don’t you?” he asks in an attempt to convert me to his religion.

    Of course these are entirely different.

    My faith in my friends is hardly absolute. It’s not religious. It’s evidence-based and practical.

    One can see choosing a sky-daddy is not based on this kind of faith.

    There is also a disconnect I’d like to mention. A lot of Christians say they have faith in Christ and his Biblical promises (camels and eyes of needles excepted), but never do they talk about their faith that the Bible has not been doctored, shaped, or compiled for political reasons.


    • Really? ‘Cause over here in the Baptist muck people talk all the time about how the Bible wasn’t deliberately shaped. In fact, they never tire of stating that doctoring passages is an unforgivable offense.



      • These Baptist folks you speak of may not have participated in editing and filtering Biblical texts, but the Bible they profess to believe has been mutilated censored and filtered by coulntless hands over the millenia. That this is a valid assertion is widely documented.

  6. I used to regard the term faith as something entirely contrary to reason, and therefore irrelevant to my spirituality, which is based on a response to the natural world, and engaging in practices like meditation that have measurably beneficial results.

    Then I came across this lovely quote by Alan Watts (an Episcopalian priest who became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s) that explains the difference between the openness and trust of faith and the rigidity of dogmatic belief:

    “Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

    So obviously this kind of faith could lead even to non-theism.

    Even the term “belief” started life meaning to like or love something, and later came to mean “to assent to a creed” instead.


  7. Very nice definition, Yewtree.


  8. Posted by Dave on August 13, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I define faith simply as “belief in some thing without evidence or proof, and often in the face of evidence and/or proof against said thing.”


    • Without evidence and without proof are two different things. I can admit the second without harming the first. Proof only comes when the trusted one comes through, when the “faith becomes sight”. Evidence is what the faith is initially based upon.


  9. Faith is beautiful and relaxed. It’s like a quiet confidence in a thing without needing constant proof of its existence. It’s not frantic or scrambled. It doesn’t scream at you when you contradict it. It’s simply a calm, satisfied trust.

    Beautiful for creating things, I think. Having faith in your ability to create means you aren’t stressing over the details, constantly evaluating the object’s worth. You just do. Because you have faith it will all turn out.

    Pretty thing, faith is.

    Sorry, were we talking about God somewhere in there?



    • Posted by joespot on September 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm

      What do you mean constant proof. How about not a shred of proof. Faith means you have NO proof. You simply believe in a lie some one else told you. That’s ludicrous.


  10. Posted by Tracy Ahlers on August 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve always said that it is the answer to the unanswerable question.


  11. I reject the notion that theists and non-theists are on equal grounds, since I assume a “categorical” component in faith of any kind.

    To elaborate: To the faithful theist the existence of a god is an elementary (categorical) truth, beyond doubt and maybe beyond discussion.
    However an (intelligent and reasonable) non-theist would be able to change his opinion if and when given sufficient proof or evidence. To him the (non)existence of god is not some categorical fact of the universe, but rather an unproven hypothesis which he assumes to be wrong.

    Assuming unproven and evidence-lacking hypotheses to be wrong until contrary evidence is provided has a long tradition in the sciences and should by no means be called “faith”; there is already a perfectly fine word for it: scepticism.

    Noone in his right mind would call the common assumption that P!=NP (whilst unproven) “faith”.

    Anyhow: to me the key difference between theist faith and non-theist scepticism is thatcher the sceptic is able (willing) to accept contrary evidence whilst the faithful is – by definition – not.


  12. Hebrews 11:6 Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.


  13. Posted by joespot on September 4, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    This is an absurd discussion. Having faith simply means one believes something without evidence. Normal people need evidence. End of discussion. Then you have this person who quotes Hebrew 11.6. It’s an obvious lie. First of all there are no gods – absolutely 0 proof. So if this god existed, according to this stupid quote, if you seek god you are rewarded. Another lie. There are billions of people who seek god, but have horrible living conditions, and experience extreme abuse by others – including sexual, gender based, pedophiliac, physical and psychological violence – I could go on. They often don’t have any food and water, and suffer from awful diseases. This nut job from the bible and the person who quoted him – did you notice it’s always a ‘him’ – calls this reward? Hit the road loser.



  14. Posted by billwalker on February 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    ” Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Mark Twain


  15. Posted by 1000lbs of Clowns on May 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Faith is the price humans pay to feel better about what we do not yet understand. Give up your reason and logic for the promise of an end to your suffering. Give up your doubts and scepticism to feel there is purpose for you beyond your meager ambitions and human faults. Give up your individual responsibility to belong to something larger and more irresponsible than you could ever be alone. Give up your ability to think and we will think for you, defend your ignorance as love for our saviour, and collect your tithes of cash and thought – they’re due every week, so don’t be late. Faith is flaggelation for the mind and wilful subjugation of the self to absolve responsibility and explain the inexplicable. Faith is an attractive offer, but I cannot pay such a price.


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