Do we all—religious believers and nonbelievers alike—accept beliefs on faith? The answer depends on one’s definition of faith. Let’s briefly consider some of the definitions on offer.
Consider this sentence: “Melvin subscribes to the Mormon faith, so he thinks his skivvies protect him from tsunamis.” In this context, faith denotes a sectarian organization or an assemblage of religious tenets. We might speak of the Catholic faith or the Muslim faith.
Now consider this sentence: “I have faith that my friend Rob, despite his name, will repay the 600 dollars he borrowed.” This usage of the word faith doesn’t denote a religious group or set of tenets. It denotes confidence accrued through practical experience. The chemist in her lab has faith about how familiar chemical interactions will unfold. The cheerful little orphan girl has faith that the sun will come up tomorrow. The dinner guests have faith that the apple pie will smell like buttery cinnamon rather than smelling like Aunt Fergie’s flatulence.
Consider again our friend Rob. It’s possible that Rob will fail to repay the 600 dollars. We’re cognizant of that risk when we offer him the loan. We may nonetheless choose to act in a trusting manner toward our wavering friend to strengthen our friendship.
Though one’s behavior may be strategically out of proportion to the level of one’s faith, one’s level of faith is never knowingly out of proportion to the evidence. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is an acknowledgment rather than a denial of doubt.
The key point is that this kind of everyday faith implies confidence proportioned to evidence, at least to the best of our ability. Atheists have no objection to this kind of everyday faith, what we might call secular or rational faith.
Our third definition of faith, from Hebrews 11:1, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV) or “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (NRSV). By this definition, faith is having assurance where evidence is lacking.
Proverbs 3:5 is more explicit, prodding us to “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thy own understanding.” Believe. Don’t think.
We must never confuse the Proverbs kind of faith with the secular, rational faith that we place in a friend. The Proverbs kind of faith deliberately goes beyond the evidence. It sanctions holding a belief that’s acknowledged to be unwarranted by available facts. With this, our third definition of faith, we enter the realm of controversy.
Common phrases hint that this kind of religious faith is subversive of critical thinking: “Faith sees what the eyes cannot.” “Faith will cure your doubts.” “You just gotta have faith.”
Christians often insist that religious faith is reasonable. One gentleman protested that the Proverbs passage quoted above (“lean not unto thy own understanding”) merely cautions us that human knowledge and judgment are fallible. Like children, who are encouraged to trust in the greater wisdom of their parents, Proverbs encourages us to trust in God even when our own judgment might lead us down a different path. In short, Proverbs, the gentleman assured me, is advising intellectual humility.
The gentleman’s analogy between God and parents may resonate with someone who perceives himself to be in a relationship with God that resembles a parent-child relationship. The Proverbs passage might understandably intensify the believer’s deference to God.
But this parent-child analogy does nothing to legitimize belief in God. To the contrary, the poignancy of the passage depends upon the premise that a Heavenly Father exists.
The Proverbs recommendation that we defer to God’s judgment is coming from a religious text that lacks an authoritative pedigree. It’s echoed by religious institutions with vested interests and by religious adherents who exhibit a notable lack of critical thinking skills.
The gentleman’s parent-child analogy sounds homey and comfortable, but therein lies its danger. Proverbs advocates an eagerness to relinquish one’s own judgment that is peculiar to dictatorial political regimes and to organized religion.
The gentleman equated faith with intellectual humility. If his demeanor weren’t so sincere, I would have mistaken this for satire. Boasting that one has knowledge that outpaces the evidence is precisely the opposite of intellectual humility. It’s intellectual conceit. It may be motivated by pro-social instincts rather than personal arrogance, but it’s nonetheless a form of intellectual conceit.
The mantra of the rationalist, “Proportion belief to evidence,” is incompatible with the Proverbs kind of faith. These two methods of establishing beliefs assume radically divergent perspectives toward the role of evidence in supporting our beliefs. There will forever be tension between faith as confidence that outstrips the objective evidence and secular faith that is conscientiously proportioned to the evidence.
Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” Augustine proposed that by manipulating our presumptions about reality, we can eventually learn to filter our perceptions of reality so that they conform to our prior presumptions. Again, the recurring theme is a level of confidence in our beliefs that is not calibrated to the objective evidence.
The spiritually eclectic romantic writer Khalil Gibran describes faith this way: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.” He analogizes reason to a barren, desert-like obstacle, something faith must transcend. As the former stand-up comedian Pat Condell remarked, faith transcends reason in the way that criminals transcend the law.
The Christian philosopher Timothy J. McGrew disagrees with Gibran. He contends that faith is itself eminently reasonable.
If McGrew is right in saying religious faith is reasonable, then what distinguishes it from ordinary secular reason? McGrew marks the distinction by noting that we use the word faith when lots is at stake.
But the word faith isn’t used every time lots is at stake. It’s also used when little is at stake. I have faith that my wife will not drink my glass of buttermilk if I step out of the room for two minutes. It’s a trivial matter. Hell, she’s welcome to drink my buttermilk. She just doesn’t like buttermilk.
Even if McGrew were correct that the word faith is used when lots is at stake, he is describing the context in which the word is used rather than giving us a definition. When pressed to define faith, McGrew replies that the New Testament definition of faith (“pistis”) means trust.
Yes, faith does imply trust, but not the kind of trust we place in our friend Rob. Our faith in Rob is proportioned to evidence of his trustworthiness. Religious faith entails trust beyond evidence.
McGrew protests that religious faith is absolutely evidence-based. He promptly concedes, however, that faith may not be perfectly proportioned to objective or external evidence. The evidence in the case of religious belief is often internal.
The evidence being internal is irrelevant. My report of my headache rests on internal evidence. Being internally evidenced doesn’t distinguish religious claims from secular claims.
Religious claims about gods, demons, and angels intervening in the world demand more than internal evidence. To be warranted, these claims need external evidence.
The external evidence simply isn’t there. When we examine the world, it looks natural. It’s easier for us to explain the world if we assume religion is a human artifice, a false narrative.
The deficiency of external evidence is what prompts religious believers to invoke faith. Christian usage of the word faith reflects their recognition that religious claims need real-world evidence that is lacking.
Though unable to intellectually defend their beliefs, religious adherents remain certain, deep within the lumbering reptilian parts of their brains, that they have attached themselves to something true. As William Wordsworth said, “Faith is a passionate intuition.”
I like Wordsworth’s definition, but it fails to convey the danger inherent in faith. The instant you embrace the premise of faith—that is, the instant you accept that belief is sanctioned regardless of the evidence—the evidence ceases to matter. Whatever reasonable arguments you may have compiled to bolster your belief instantly become irrelevant. You have tossed a piranha in the fishbowl.
Faith implies a level of hostility to facts and evidence. Not surprisingly, faith evokes hostility from reasonable people.
The ultimate vein-popping rage against faith is expressed by Peter Boghossian, who defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know.” To Boghossian, faith is fraud. I guess I must hang with a different caliber of believer than does Boghossian. My personal interactions with believers have convinced me of their sincerity. They are not pretending to know things they don’t know. Social pressure may induce them to sometimes rhetorically express more confidence than they internally feel. But they are not simply pretending.
While I affirm Boghossian’s verdict that religious faith is an unreliable method to discern reality, my priority is not to attack faith head-on. I believe that the most effective way to get people to abandon a faulty method is by showing them a better method. Teach critical thinking skills and you indirectly undermine faith.
Let me illustrate the merit of this indirect approach with a little story. Suppose an acquaintance told you that he has a horse named Charlie. With no reason to be suspicious of his claim, you are likely to accept the claim at face value.
Now suppose you visit this acquaintance and find that he lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. You glance around the apartment and ask, “Where’s Charlie?”
Your acquaintance promptly reaches into his shirt pocket and holds out a specimen, “Here he is.”
“That isn’t a horse,” you object, “It’s a gerbil.”
“No. No. Don’t you see the saddle?”
“I don’t care. You put a miniature saddle on a gerbil. That doesn’t make it a horse.”
Until you discovered how unconvincing the evidence was in favor of your belief that your acquaintance owned a horse, you happily accepted his claim. It was only when you examined the evidence closely enough to see its weakness that you became a skeptic.
A similar thing happens with respect to God. Educating yourself about the substandard quality of the evidence for religious belief makes you skeptical. Once you have scrutinized the cosmological argument, the design argument, the transcendental argument, the fine-tuning argument, and so forth, and once you have discovered that all these arguments are unsound, you understand that belief in God is unwarranted.
From that moment forward you are constitutionally unfit to accept religion on faith. You no longer see faith as merely plugging a gap in the evidence. You now realize that faith must make up every trace of evidence from whole cloth and that it must even defy logic. You now understand why faith is touted only by those who fail to appreciate the flaws in religious arguments.
Suddenly your eyes are opened. You see faith as reflecting philosophical naiveté and perhaps even intellectual laziness, seasoned with a heavy dollop of spiritual shallowness. At the very least, faith becomes correlated in your mind with the kind of smug complacency that so often besets members of an insular, ideologically regimented, and pathologically incurious social group.
Given that atheists and agnostics speak out vehemently against religious faith, it would seem that we have answered the original question as to whether we all have faith. The answer is a resounding no.
But not so fast.
There is another definition of faith that we need to consider.
If you’ve spent much time around a six-year-old, you have surely experienced a scenario in which the child asked an innocent question, such as “Why are some clouds higher in the sky than others?” No sooner did you answer the question than the child followed up by asking, “Why?” No matter how many answers you provide, the child tirelessly responds by asking why. Eventually you become bitterly impatient. If you find it in yourself to remain civil and cooperative, you will eventually find yourself fatigued. Persist in playing this sport long enough, however, and your head will become locked in a tilted position, your expression betraying a state of baffled contemplation. After a period of intense calculations and reflections far beyond your pay grade, you sigh and admit to the child and to yourself that you don’t know.
The lesson the child is so graciously imparting is that none of us has an infinite train of answers. We all ultimately hold beliefs that we can’t rationally defend. Among these beliefs is a category of beliefs that philosophers label as properly basic. The word “basic” signifies that these beliefs are the base or foundation of our structure of beliefs. The word “properly” signifies that these beliefs are special. Precisely how they are special is a topic of some debate. One criterion often used to designate properly basic beliefs is that those beliefs are essential to reason.
We naturally presume that the future will, in key respects, resemble the past. In other words, we naturally assume the principle of uniformity. This was first pointed out by the philosopher David Hume, who showed that we cannot provide a rational argument to prove that the future will resemble the past. It won’t work to argue that the future must resemble the past simply on the basis that it always has. That is a circular argument, taking for granted the very point in question. The belief that the future will resemble the past is not something we can learn strictly from experience. After all, our confidence that the future will resemble the past is the prerequisite mechanism of learning itself. Please note that I am not repudiating the principle of uniformity—and nor was Hume. If we are to reason at all, we must make the presumption of uniformity. The necessity of making this presumption is one of the criteria (perhaps the sole criterion) for designating properly basic beliefs. If you can toss an idea overboard and still reason, then that belief was not properly basic.
Although, as mentioned, philosophers debate among themselves about the appropriate criteria to identify properly basic beliefs, they generally agree on one central point: we all hold some properly basic beliefs. That means that even atheists and agnostics hold properly basic beliefs that they cannot rationally justify—at least not without engaging in circular reasoning. If properly basic beliefs can be accurately classified as faith, then we all accept beliefs on faith.
Are properly basic beliefs a form of faith?
In April 2017, I engaged briefly with Ozymandias Ramses II (“Ozy”) on this question. He and I appeared on a discussion panel of believers and nonbelievers on the New Covenant Group’s “The Place” podcast. Ozy argued that we should use the term faith for our properly basic beliefs, whereas I argued for sticking to the term properly basic and avoiding the word faith. Let me reiterate that our dispute was not over whether we have properly basic beliefs. Ozy and I agree that we all do hold such beliefs. The dispute was over whether we should classify such beliefs as faith.
I object to labeling properly basic beliefs as faith on pedagogical grounds. When trying to communicate clearly, one should avoid terminology that unnecessarily fosters confusion. Most believers who hear the word faith will assume it to mean the kind of religious faith with which they are familiar. I wish I had a nickel for every time a believer has cried out, “You skeptics also accept things on faith!” These believers have in mind instances in which skeptics have declared an opinion on a topic where the skeptic does not have all the facts. As I try to explain to these believers, holding a provisional opinion on incomplete data is not equivalent to religious faith; the skeptic is not advocating that we dissociate the intensity of our convictions from the quality of the evidence. If I were immersed in such a conversation with a believer, and if Ozy were to interject that everyone accepts beliefs on faith, his comment would only reinforce the believer’s misconception.
Ozy’s contention that we all believe things on faith may be helpful toward establishing rapport with a believer. Conversations often get off to a better start if we establish some common ground with our interlocutor before launching into a discussion of our differences. But softly cooing that we all believe on faith does not genuinely establish common ground, given how divergent our conceptions of faith are. By the way, I am not suggesting that Ozy classifies properly basic beliefs as faith for the purpose of establishing rapport with believers. He sincerely believes that the label of faith is accurate.
The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig agrees with Ozy that properly basic beliefs are a form of faith. Craig cites biblical references to the word “faith” and to the phrase “witness of the Holy Spirit” and opines that these references are to properly basic beliefs. Craig makes a point of contrasting these forms of faith with fideism, a word that denotes beliefs held without evidence. Craig is not alone in his campaign to market personal revelation or pious presuppositions as properly basic. The religious philosopher Alvin Plantinga likewise decrees that religious convictions are properly basic beliefs.
Ozy, like me, would raise objections against many faith-related claims by Craig and Plantinga. But Ozy nonetheless refuses to shrink from using the word faith. He insists that flawed arguments by religious philosophers or conflation of terms by everyday Christians should not cow us atheists into abandoning the perfectly legitimate term faith. As Ozy has pointed out, when we speak of evolutionary theory, we know that a segment of the Christian population will misconstrue the meaning of the word theory. They think it means something like speculation or conjecture, when in fact the term theory has a well-established meaning within the scientific community. The last thing we should do, Ozy protests, is dumb down our language.
That’s an excellent point. But when we examine more closely Ozy’s analogy between the words theory and faith, we discover that the analogy serves my side of this debate as well as it does Ozy’s. After all, the word faith has a well-established conventional definition within the religious community. It is Ozy, not everyday Christians, who is trying to inject some novel definition to compete with the established conventional definition.
I’m not arguing against novel definitions per se. Nonbelievers are free to appropriate words that have religious connotations. The word design, for instance, is routinely used by evolutionists as a shorthand when describing traits or features that give the appearance of conscious design. Evolutionists use the term design in a teleonomic sense rather than a teleological sense. Perhaps the word faith could be likewise dispossessed of its religious baggage. But, for reasons I won’t delve into here, the word faith will prove far more resistant to such secularizing efforts.
A reasonable person reading this blog post might accept that faith is a fitting label for properly basic beliefs. If you are such a person, let me give you something else to consider. Suppose, hypothetically, that I invite you to a zoo, exclaiming, “Come with me! There’s an amazing exhibit at the zoo! They have a living, breathing theropod dinosaur!”
So, we eagerly rush to the zoo. You examine their specimen and then turn to me and grumble, “Daniel, that is a pelican!”
I smile devilishly, “Yes. I know. Scientific consensus maintains that all modern birds, including pelicans, are theropod dinosaurs.”
You might award me points for technical accuracy, but you surely would not award me any points for effective communication. My labeling of the pelican as a theropod dinosaur would mislead, not only a scientifically illiterate person, but also any ordinary person expecting clear language. Sometimes it is best to call a pelican a pelican. Likewise, it is best to label properly basic beliefs as properly basic beliefs rather than faith, even if we think the label of faith is technically accurate.
A professor of paleontology might object that there are contexts in which there’s educational merit in identifying pelicans as dinosaurs. I gladly grant that point. Labeling a pelican as a dinosaur provides the professor with an opportunity to discuss with students the commonalities between modern birds and extinct dinosaurs, including their both having gizzards, the developmental relationship between scales and feathers, the presence of air pockets in their bones, the fact that both modern birds and extinct dinosaurs have built nests and laid eggs, and the similarities in their DNA. While our hypothetical paleontology professor makes a valid point, please notice that it applies only to students who antecedently appreciate the distinction between modern birds and extinct dinosaurs. The students must enter the classroom already able to tell a titmouse from a T-Rex. I welcome opportunities to compare and contrast faith with properly basic beliefs, but first we must be sure that our audience does not conflate the terms.
When Ozy and I crossed swords (rhetorically, not literally) over this issue, he characterized the difference between religious faith and properly basic beliefs as subtle, whereas I characterized the difference as radical. Given that Ozy and I share similar perspectives about religious faith and about properly basic beliefs, why do we voice such starkly different appraisals as to whether the difference is subtle or radical? I decided that if I could resolve this quandary, I might be closer to settling our definitional squabble.
Here’s something to keep in mind about definitions. Using the same term with wildly dissimilar meanings is not inherently a bad idea. Consider, for example, the word dog. This word can denote a canine or it can be used as slang for a sexually promiscuous man. Those are two very different things. We rely on the conversational context to determine which meaning is intended.
Here’s another example. The philosopher David Hume coined a new definition for the word impression. He used the word impression to denote a lively conception or perception. Within the context of his book, it was easy to discern whether he intended the conventional definition of this word or his novel definition.
If using the same word for radically different concepts does not foster confusion, and if (as I argued) faith and properly basic beliefs are radically different, doesn’t that weaken my case against using the same word? Conversely, if Ozy is right that the difference between faith and properly basic beliefs is subtle, does that ironically strengthen my position over his? It began to appear to me that Ozy and I had each been inadvertently arguing against our own positions.
We have seen that using the same word for radically different concepts does not necessarily foster confusion. Let’s now examine the flip side of this coin. Does using the same term with very similar meanings foster confusion?
Consider, for example, the words objective and subjective. Each of these words has been assigned so many subtly different definitions that students of philosophy face a real challenge. The philosopher Richard Joyce once remarked, “So many debates in philosophy revolve around the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity that one may be forgiven for assuming that someone somewhere understands this distinction.” I sometimes think we could relieve ourselves of three quarters of the difficulty in understanding philosophy if we just didn’t have to memorize every philosopher’s idiosyncratic vocabulary. In any case, our proclivity to confuse two closely-related meanings of a word does not always motivate us to invent a new word.
After pondering the use of a single umbrella term for multiple concepts of varying likeness, here is what I concluded. If faith and properly basic beliefs appear to differ subtly in a key identifying aspect, but otherwise have widely divergent characteristics that are prone to be under-appreciated, then lumping them together under a single term will be especially likely to foster confusion. And that, I contend, is precisely the situation we face with regard to applying the term faith to our properly basic beliefs.
The key identifying aspect—the most conspicuous feature that religious faith and properly basic beliefs share—is that they pertain to our holding of unwarranted beliefs. That’s undeniably an impressive-sounding commonality, though I think it is more superficial than it might initially appear.
If we look beneath this superficial commonality, we find striking differences. For instance, we are biologically programmed to hold properly basic beliefs. Everyone holds these beliefs. I am, of course, using a more restrictive definition of properly basic than do people like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. In my view, religious beliefs held on faith are not biologically programmed into us. Granted, we may have some psychological or cognitive biases that predispose us to religious beliefs, but the beliefs themselves are not hardwired into us. Indeed, religious apologists could not promote faith as a virtue unless they perceived there to be a voluntary aspect to accepting beliefs on faith. God gave us free will, we are told ad nauseam.
Think about Dorothy in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. The tornado dropped her house on the wicked witch of the East. Dorothy was hailed by the Munchkins as heroic. The Munchkins saw Dorothy’s eradication of the witch as an act of valor. That’s how faith is often viewed—as virtuous and laudatory. But, in actuality, Dorothy did not voluntarily kill the witch. And that’s the way we view properly basic beliefs: embracing them is not a voluntary act.
I wish to stress this distinction. As we have seen in debates over homosexuality, it matters whether you speak of it as something that occurs to a person involuntarily or as a willful choice. Likewise, our legal system treats defendants quite differently depending on whether the defendant’s actions were willful or involuntary. The distinction between faith and properly basic beliefs is even more pronounced, since there are striking differences both in the content of the beliefs and in the epistemic mechanisms by which these beliefs are formed.
Ozy cites as a similarity between faith and properly basic beliefs that they are held intensely. If we examine the intensity levels carefully, however, the differences quickly outshine the similarities. Properly basic beliefs are held by all conscious animal species with no known exception. At any given moment, animals of innumerable species, scattered around the globe, are betting their lives on their properly basic beliefs. In contrast, appeals to faith are limited to a subset of a single primate species, and those appeals are expressed in voluntaristic rhetoric: “Ya gotta have faith!”
Moreover, the persistence of faith depends upon active encouragement through elaborate social and political infrastructure, censorship, and indoctrination. Society’s extensive investment in promoting faith is a symptom of faith’s inherent weakness, not its strength. Despite this intense pro-faith campaign, for every atheist who converts to religion, four religionists convert to atheism. Comparing the intensity of properly basic beliefs to the intensity of faith is like comparing the intensity of the strong nuclear force to that of the electromagnetic force. They occupy entirely different scales of magnitude. I therefore classify the intensity with which beliefs are held as one of the major dissimilarities between faith and properly basic beliefs.
A second dissimilarity is that properly basic beliefs, being essential to rationality, are not only rationally unjustifiable, but are also unfalsifiable. How could we falsify beliefs that are essential to reason? Who would undertake such a paradoxical project as to falsify reason using reason? In contrast, beliefs defended by religious faith are not only often falsifiable, but are in fact falsified. The belief that Earth is six thousand years old is a case in point.
The third dissimilarity is that properly basic beliefs are, as mentioned above, essential to reason, whereas religious faith actively subverts reason—that’s its raison d’être, as anyone acquainted with Martin Luther would attest.
The fourth dissimilarity is that properly basic beliefs are prehistoric, generated by neural circuits that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, whereas the notion of religious faith is largely a post-Enlightenment invention by theologians striving to circumvent reason.
The fifth dissimilarity is that properly basic beliefs are non-normative—they’re descriptive rather than prescriptive—whereas faith is normative, as we see in the Proverbs 3:5 depiction of faith as a virtue.
The sixth dissimilarity is that the innateness of our adherence to properly basic beliefs implies doxastic involuntarism, whereas religious faith implies doxastic voluntarism.
The seventh dissimilarity is reflected in the disparity between the intellectual merit of the ideas to which faith and properly basic beliefs conduce. Properly basic beliefs are essential to our non-basic inferences. They are thus prerequisites to all rationality, as well as to philosophers’ efforts to enumerate an inventory of fallacies to which we humans are prone—a task vital to improving our critical thinking. In contrast, religious faith strives to lower the standards of evidence required to embrace particular dogmatic tenets. Whereas properly basic beliefs undergird and nurture reason, faith undermines and desiccates reason.
These dissimilarities between religious faith and properly basic beliefs amply justify my use of the adjective radical. Such radical differences, when coupled with the comparative superficiality of the resemblance between religious faith and properly basic beliefs, constitute a reasonable argument against lumping them together under the umbrella term faith. Moreover, there are pedagogical reasons to prefer the term properly basic. It is both more descriptive and less likely to foster confusion.
If, having read to the end of this blog post, you remain unpersuaded on all these points, then I wish to thank you for your perseverance. I will close by urging a compromise. Please consider adopting a term such as “animal faith” for properly basic beliefs in recognition of the dissimilarity to religious faith.