Definition of faith

C. S. Lewis wrote that

Faith is holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.

When someone says “I can’t believe it’s Tuesday” he really means that he does believe it’s Tuesday, but it takes effort. His emotions are telling him that it is some other day, but he chooses to accept that it is Tuesday for other reasons.

It takes faith for me to believe that men walked on the moon in 1969. I’m convinced that it happened, but it doesn’t seem true to me. It doesn’t seem plausible that 1960’s technology could have accomplished this, even though I know that it did.

It takes faith for me to believe that Ernest Shackleton and his crew survived their exploration of the Antarctic. I don’t doubt the historical accounts, though they are hard to believe.

It takes faith for me to believe some mathematical theorems even though I have carefully gone through every line of their proofs. I am convinced that these theorems are true though they do not seem true. Other mathematicians have commented on the same experience. For example, Jerry Bona once joked that

The Axiom of Choice is obviously true; the Well Ordering Principle is obviously false; and who can tell about Zorn’s Lemma?

The three statements he mentions are logically equivalent, though the Axiom of Choice is the easiest to believe and the Well Ordering Principle is the hardest to believe.

It takes faith for me to believe in God. At times it doesn’t feel like God exists, though there are reasons to believe that He does. I have found these reasons convincing, and I hold on to my conclusions in spite of my changing moods.

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34 thoughts on “Definition of faith

  1. Yes, the link you give about reasons to believe is not convincing.

    I suggest you the following excellent scientific readings on religion:
    Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought,
    and the brilliant essay The God delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

    Both are appealing to a scientific mind and make two independent cases on why not to believe blindly in anything.

    By the way, you should not have faith in neither three of the examples you mention in the beginning. Go and check for yourself the enormous documentation, footage, written accounts on the lunar and antarctic expeditions. Read math books about the axiom of choices. Check the details for yourself. Do not take anything for granted.

  2. Agreed with Douglas on Reasons. That quote… does not make me interested in reading the article it talks about at all, because I expect the article to be as shoddily reasoned as the quote itself.

    This post feels like a redefinition of faith to me, possibly to allow later equivocation. Faith in the past has meant (at least according to the Bible, and in general usage as well) believing in something without reasons. Now you’re redefining it as believing with reasons even when your emotions tell you otherwise. In the past, that has been called “being rational.” So you’ve taken the definition of being rational, labeled it as faith, and for what purpose? The only reason I’ve seen arguments like this before is to try to get blanket acceptance of “faith” as a justification (since you’re really just being rational) and then slip in some beliefs that aren’t rational and say they’re justified by “faith,” not specifying which definition you use. You can define words however you want, but they can still be wrong.

    In fact, what we’ll call “blind faith,” or the original definition of faith (believing without evidence) is not capable of creating correct beliefs. It’s prohibited by thermodynamics.

  3. The Christian idea of faith is not “believing in something without reason.” Perhaps other religions have that definition, but the Bible does not present faith as opposed to reason. For example, I Peter 3:15 says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

  4. Yes, that passage does say that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. But it does not imply assurance or conviction for no reason. Faith goes beyond assent to facts, it involves trust, but it is not contrary to facts.

  5. I think that’s exactly the implication of “certain of what you do not see,” especially from an author living in a pre-scientific time where evidence basically meant seeing something, or hearing from someone who had seen it.

    Regardless of what the Bible says about it, the general usage of the word faith in a religious context has been to mean belief with insufficient evidence, or belief despite contrary evidence. This is how people use it, and by inventing a new meaning you’re not making things clearer.

    The reason there are two words, one for faith, and one for belief is that they mean two different things. If faith just means believing with evidence, then just call it believing – no need for the word faith. If faith means believing despite emotions, then call it being rational, which is what everyone already calls it.

    If faith means the same thing as being rational, as C.S. Lewis claims, then the only reason to use the word faith is to confuse people who think it means something else – to sneak in connotations that aren’t associated with being rational. “Having faith is rational. I have faith in my religion. Therefore my religion is rational.” Well why do you need to even start with the beginning statement? Either your religion is rational and supported by the evidence, or it’s not. No need to use the word faith at all.

  6. I always like to inject something practical into the discussion. Here’s an example of the interaction of fact and faith. If one reads in the Bible about the fall of Jericho (the city where the walls fell miraculously at a trumpet blast), one may try to prove/disprove by sending a team of archaeologists to the site of Jericho to see what happened. Sure enough, archaeologists have indeed gone to Jericho and verified that the city walls did not crumble to the inside, as happened in every other ancient city that has been dug, but fell to the outside. They considered that a shocking discovery. Now, it doesn’t prove the story, but it DOES support it. Now I’ll use a counterexample. The Book of Mormon is full of battles, cities, wars, etc. just like the Bible. So archaeologists have gone to look for evidence of all of the stuff that has happened in Mormon history. They have found no supporting evidence. I submit to you that it makes rational sense to believe the Bible story, but it takes extraordinary and unsupported faith to believe the Mormon story.

  7. Mike:

    Here’s another example: there’s virtually no evidence of Hebrew tribes ever being in Egypt, and c. In fact, during the time that the plagues supposedly went on, Egypt actually ruled large parts of Canaan. In fact, at the time when the Bible records Jericho being demolished, it was uninhabited and stayed that way for centuries after.

    By your reasoning, does it now take extraordinary and unsupported faith to believe the Bible?

  8. Eric:

    People believe what they cannot verify based on what they can verify. In a court trial, a witness has credibility if evidence corroborates part of what they say and does not contradict the rest. If a witness only told you what you already knew, they wouldn’t be very useful.

    No large software application can ever be exhaustively tested, but running successful tests does increase your confidence that the parts you have not tested may be correct. This doesn’t prove that the untested parts are correct, but it is more reasonable to trust a piece of software that has past tests than to trust a piece of software that hasn’t.

    Archeology does not confirm everything in the Bible, but it does corroborate many things and I am not aware of anything it contradicts.

  9. I guess I’m not sure what your response is aimed at, John. You didn’t respond to the faith comments I made, and you said “I am not aware of anything [archeology] contradicts [in the Bible]” after I just gave two examples of contradictions – Jericho, and the Exodus/slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt.

    You also said “People believe what they cannot verify based on what they can verify.” If this statement is true, it’s not a good thing. People should not believe something they can’t verify. If they can verify it by acquiring evidence for related, dependent beliefs, then that’s fine – but in that case, the belief is verified (that is, there’s enough evidence to justify believing it). If they can’t verify it, they shouldn’t believe it.

    And in any case, believing in something that they cannot verify to a degree of certainty is identical to believing without reasons – exactly what you said faith was not.

  10. Eric, from what I have heard second hand, there isn’t much archeological evidence regarding the Jews in Egypt. Some, but not much. If that’s correct, it is a lack of evidence, not evidence that they were not there. As for Jericho, one reference I looked at says there is archeological evidence that the city was inhabited from 7000 BC until it was destroyed around 1400 BC.

    I certainly agree that it’s good to verify what you can, but life constantly requires us to extrapolate from what we can verify to what we cannot. I don’t see the question of God’s existence as being fundamentally different from more mundane questions in that regard.

  11. Ben: I am not advocating holding on to childhood beliefs. But sometimes you have to act on beliefs that do not match your feelings at the moment. If I don’t feel like it’s Tuesday, but I believe it is, then I should go teach my TTh class.

    By the way, there is a mathematical theory of how you should change your mind in light of evidence. It’s called Bayesian statistics. Your belief after seeing data is a function of your belief before seeing the data and the data itself. See Musicians, Drunks, and Oliver Cromwell.

    Sometimes new evidence overwhelms your previous beliefs. For example, this is what happened with Anthony Flew. He was a lifelong atheist until the last couple years of his life when he became convinced that there was sufficient evidence to believe God exists. He wrote a book about his change of mind. He did not, however, embrace any religion as far as I know.

  12. Interesting. Admittedly, I’ve never read the bible, but I am aware that it makes this claim in Joshua:

    10:12 Then spoke Joshua to Yahweh in the day when Yahweh delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand you still on Gibeon; You, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.

    10:13 The sun stood still, and the moon stayed, Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies. Isn’t this written in the book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of the sky, and didn’t hurry to go down about a whole day.

    So, The Bible claims that conservation of angular momentum was violated. If this were true, wouldn’t astronomers and astrophysicists be able to tell?

  13. I’ve been eying this post all day, trying to decide how to respond.

    “Faith is holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

    I’m a bit disappointed to hear that this is a quote from CSL. It gives a warm feeling at first, but the more I examine it, the emptier it seems to be. It says nothing about evidence, and makes some distasteful implications: If I hold on to a childhood belief that there are people living on the moon, is this faith despite the fact the reasoning was faulty? Should I accept or reject previous logical reasoning on my part simply because my mood has changed? Let me offer a different short quote, that does not have the same warm fuzzy feeling associated with it:

    “Faith is accepting something without question, irrespective of any reasoning on your part.” -Me (Maybe someone will quote me in a theological discussion someday)

    For me, the problem really comes down the relationship between the strength of a belief and the strength of the evidence related to that belief. I would say that a rational person should hold beliefs with a strength that is proportional to that of the evidence. (B = k * E, where k is nearly constant.) Faith implies a different relationship; it states that the strength of a belief should be constant, irrespective of the strength of evidence supporting it, the strength of the evidence against it, or the lack of evidence altogether. (B = c, where c is a constant.) Put this way, I can’t intellectually condone that in any field of science, and I don’t think that I can accept it in my personal beliefs either. When pressed, I say “I don’t know.”

    I don’t want to see this discussion fall into debating the validity of Christianity. If we were going to link faith to something specific, it should be the idea of Religion, not a particular religion. I’ve laid out the foundation of an argument (however rudimentary) against the acceptance of Faith, how would you support it?

  14. Ah such an unfortunate turn of the discussion to religion…

    The Well-Ordering principle appears obviously TRUE to me, at least in its wikipedia formulation, as does AC. Zorn’s lemma feels true, but not obviously.

    Any reason why well-ordering priciple should feel false?

  15. I’m heading out for a day or two and may not respond, but I just wanted to say that Antony Flew wrote no book. Bob Hostetler wrote it with help from Ray Varghese, and got a less-than-mentally-all-there Flew to sign off on it. The argument that convinced him to convert to deism he later agreed was false, and he gave no other compelling arguments for his conversion.

    Also, I’d like to see the source you looked up on Jericho.

    And again, in your response to Ben, you describe something which everyone else refers to as “being rational.” Believing those truths which are supported by evidence without regard to emotions is what people generally mean when they talk about “being rational.” You still haven’t explained why you have chosen to apply a different word with a different (and contradictory) meaning to that idea.

  16. John,

    I’m going to take a step back. If I look at your original post, without the last paragraph, I think I can see what you were trying to say. You are using faith to mean something like “strength of a conviction,” which I think is more applicable to the word “belief.” In this context, I think the message there is coherent. But in the last paragraph you seem to use the same term to describe how you maintain your belief in God. This is quite a jump in meaning, to something that I disagree with.

    On childhood beliefs, I could have picked better examples (conspiracy theories are legion), but since I have revised my interpretation of your post in the previous paragraph, I’m not going to go into detail unless you think it would further the discussion .

    On Bayesian inference, I am passingly familiar, having covered them in school, but I have not explicitly used them since then. As you point out, initial belief is a factor in determining final belief, which means that if you and I inferred the probability of the existence of the God of the Christians, we would likely get different answers. even when based on the same evidence. There is probably some way to adjust for this difference, by comparing the probabilities we infer for the existence of other similar deities.

    If I may ask a clarifying question; What is the difference between your belief that it is men walked on the moon and your belief in the existence of God, and how do you define “faith,” relative to those beliefs?


    As I mentioned earlier, I have reevaluated what John was trying to say. When I was laying out my arguments, I used the word “belief” where some people would use the word “feeling.” I hope that resolves the confusion, but if not, and you would say that John’s “feeling” is synonymous with “emotion” instead, I say that decisions based on emotion are not wise either. (B = rand() ).

    To try to clear up my mistake of introducing the word “rational” without using the normal definition (Busted!), I am going to belatedly define it as a particular “Strategy for Choosing Beliefs” that relies solely on available evidence. A “faith-based” strategy would rely on the assertion of others without examining evidence. An “Emotional” strategy would mean that your beliefs vary with your moods. Does that clear things up at all?

  17. Neither the bible nor history teach that faith is believing in something without reason.

    Faith is described in the bible as taking place in an environment of supporting evidence. Abraham believed that his 90-year-old barren wife could miraculously conceive because of the evidence that God had spoken to him and had previously done visible miracles. Abraham followed a reasoning process called “inductive inference”. The pattern “Voice speaks => thing happens” was repeated multiple times; he reasoned that it would happen again. Inductive reasoning is accepted as an essential part of human understanding. The bible has many examples. God reminded His people that He was the same God who miraculously delivered His people from Egypt, thus they could trust Him now; argument from induction. Elisha infers that God can do miracles through him just as He had done through Elijah, 2 Kings 2:14. The bible does not teach that faith is opposed to reason. This is simply an objective fact.

    Historically, “fideism” is the only epistemological position that holds to the idea of faith held apart from reason. This view has been held by some, but it is only a minority view; through the entire history of philosophy and religious thought, the overwhelming majority view has been that faith should have some support from reason.

  18. Dave,

    I don’t understand what purpose the word faith serves then. Believing with reasons is usually just called “believing.” Believing in spite of emotions is called “being rational.” So what purpose does adding a new word serve, except to confuse things? I have consistently heard people use the word faith to mean believing without sufficient evidence to justify the belief, so why change the meaning, except to equivocate?

  19. I’m just wondering… how much evidence is necessary before one achieves a level of “belief”? Since we’re talking specifically about belief in God, that’s an important question. If we can look up archaeological evidence on Jericho (BTW, I got that from Evidence That Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell), but we cannot find clear evidence of a kingdom in Israel that dates back to King David, do we conclude that King David is a fiction? Let’s put it another way: if one can find 100 historical events in the Bible have good extraBiblical evidence, but cannot find a different 100 with this kind of evidence, do we conclude that maybe the first 100 are true, but the other 100 are fiction? I believe that anyone who does such a thing can be accused of an antisupernatural prejudice, far from the arena of sound judgment. If it is an act of faith to decide that probably the “unproved” 100 events are genuine, then that’s an act of faith I’m willing to take. In fact, I myself am a former atheist, and after spending a while reading and researching, I found that I couldn’t maintain my intellectual integrity AND remain an atheist. I am convinced. I really, genuinely believe that Jesus is the actual, genuine Messiah. BTW, I was John Cook’s college roommate, so he knows my story better than anyone.

  20. Ben, I wouldn’t say Evidence that Demands a Verdict is horrible. It is a popular work, and it’s very broad, so it will not be as detailed as more specialized scholarly books. It may be oversimplified in places, giving McDowell’s conclusions rather than going into the nuances of complex issues. But it’s not a bad place to start.

    I haven’t had much time to look into the Jericho issue, but from what I’ve heard — and this is so second-hand that I hesitate to even say anything — there are problems with the statement that archeologists have found the walls as Mike (quoting Josh McDowell) described. As I understand it, archeologists have found walls, but the dating of the walls does not match the dating of the book of Joshua. Perhaps they’re simply not the same walls. I don’t know. But I’ve also heard, again second-hand, that there is ample evidence that Jericho was inhabited at the time in question.

  21. Mike,

    I think your comment misses the bulk of the discussion here. Christianity is mentioned here because we are all familiar with it, but we could carry on the same discussion about the worship of Ra, Zeus, Mithras, or probably any other god. The real questions here are: (I think)
    “What is faith?”
    “When is it appropriate?”
    “Once you have it, what is its value?”

    Here are some answers that I could support:
    “Holding a conviction without questioning the evidence supporting it.”
    “In cases where the a specific level of integrity has been shown by the party asking for your faith”
    “As an example, it allows me to use advanced mathematics: I ‘have faith’ that what my teachers taught me the in mathematics has been rigorously proven. I need not spend years deriving proofs describe the behavior of complex numbers. Instead, I can can make use of them directly to design electric circuits.”

    If you have different answers to these questions, I would be interested in hearing them and discussing them with you.

  22. @Mike
    Evidence Demands A Verdict is a horrible book, and the claims in it have been debunked many times. When I was a Christian I read the book on recommendation from apologist friends, and ended up deciding never to recommend it or reference it because of how poor McDowell’s arguments were.

    There’s information available on Jericho here and here.
    From the first link:

    Biblical historian Robin Fox writes, “After 1320 BC there may have been a fair-sized village, but nothing like a city or an impregnable wall. After 1300 the place was not settled at all; on the usual dating of the Exodus and Conquest (circa 1250 – 1230 BC), the Israelites would not even have needed to blow a trumpet to take the site by storm.”

    From the second link:

    Proponents of today’s “New Archaeology” have criticized the Albrightians for presupposing that the Bible is a completely reliable historical source and who shaped data to fit a procrustean bed based upon that presupposition. Indeed, an excellent example of this is with John Garstung’s excavation of Tell es-Sultan (the biblical Jericho) in which he found that the walls had been flattened exactly as the biblical account described. Later, Kathleen Kenyon’s work revealed that Garstung had made many embarrassing mistakes in his enthusiasm to prove Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan. Yet McDowell relies almost solely on the speculative findings of Garstung, Albright, Wright and other Albrightians in establishing the reliability and historicity of the Bible.

    I still don’t like that definition of faith, at least not as it pertains to religious ideas. I think often people use the word faith in that context, but it’s a different meaning. In the context of people, “having faith in someone” is synonymous with trusting someone, with or without evidence. But in a religious context, it generally means believing a proposition which you otherwise would not believe due to a lack of evidence. It’s not about believing in people, it’s about believing ideas. “I have faith that Bob will complete the tasks” is different from “I have faith in God.”

    Your example seems flawed to me – if a random person walked up to me and told me a particular mathematical theorem were true, I wouldn’t then use that theorem to design circuits without first testing it, checking it against the literature, etc. That is, I wouldn’t trust them (the “people” definition of faith). When a college professor of mathematics tells me that a particular theorem is true, I believe them (though not as strongly as if I had seen the proof myself) because evidence tells me that they know what they’re talking about. I take their credentials as evidence, and their previous information they’ve given me as evidence… etc. Their testimony is evidence in place of the actual proofs, so it’s still not an unjustified belief (as it would be if you were trusting a random person off the street).

    I think one of the biggest problems in talking about faith is the equivocation between religious faith and other meanings of the word. John is furthering that misunderstanding in this post, and I think you’ve fallen into the same trap here as well.

  23. Blaise F Egan

    >I don’t see the question of God’s existence as being fundamentally different from more mundane questions in that regard.

    With respect, I think anything that brings in supernatural events or beings isfundamentally different.

  24. Blaise

    How do you know what is supernatural and what is not? Unless you can formulate a test that can distinguish between the two, I think you have to treat them the same.

    The sun is eaten by the moon. . . . Is an eclipse supernatural? Are the seasons supernatural? Some people thought so. How about what existed before the big bang?

  25. Blaise: You’ve touched the heart of the issue. Does one reach conclusions about the supernatural realm by the same process as conclusions about the natural realm? I contend that the two are not so different, and clearly other people disagree.

    I reject fideism (as in Dave’s comment above.) If I didn’t believe there were evidence that God exists, I would be an atheist. I see no point in some compromise position that God exists even though there’s no reason to believe so, or that things can be true in some “spiritual” way but false in the physical world.

  26. Ben, you have a good point. What is the dividing line between natural and supernatural? Some things that are orthodox physics now might have been called “supernatural” (or subnatural) in the past.

    For someone who does not believe that “supernatural” things exist, the term is easy to define. “Supernatural” means “that stuff that I don’t believe exists.” But to someone who does believe that “supernatural” things exist, the term is a little awkward because there isn’t such a sharp dividing line; there’s just reality.

  27. Eric,

    I’m sorry that you think I am equivocating. I disagree. I have actually tried to be very careful and use a definition of faith that does apply in both situations. The statement that “I have faith that Bob will complete his portion of a project on time” and “I have faith that God loves me, protects me, and has prepared a place for me in the afterlife” use my definition of ‘faith’ in exactly the same way. The difference between the level of evidence supporting each statement could be debated. I think you have to hold religious faith to exactly the same standard as secular (for lack of a better word) faith.

    Also, I agree with you: I would trust mathematical theorems from a random person very little, and I would trust a college professor to a much greater (but not unlimited) degree. When I say that I have faith that the professor is teaching me what is known to be true, I am saying that even though I have not rigorously vetted them, I believe that they teaching the right thing, even though I may not have sufficient evidence to prove that. Reviewing a proof would offer some confirmation that my faith was well placed, but is not, and cannot ever be conclusive. (There may be an error in the proof.)


    I had initially seen this discussion on supernatural as a digression from the discussion on faith, but I think I see a connection now. First, I would suggest that “supernatural” is a mislabeling. I cannot think of any way to distinguish between an event with a supernatural cause, and and event whose causes are unseen but entirely natural. A problem is that many people conflate “it cannot be explained” (scientific definition) with “I cannot explain it” (personal definition). If a being with god-like powers suddenly appeared on earth and offered incontrovertible proof if his existence and power, many people would say that this was “supernatural.” In reality, this may just be an example of Clarke’s Sufficiently Advanced Technology, there may be perfectly good science backing up this being and his powers, we just don’t know it yet.

    To have faith in the actions or motives the supernatural, using either the scientific or personal definition, you are essentially holding a belief without much evidence at all. This, I think, would be Religious Faith, as Eric uses the term.

    My opinion is that if you describe something as “supernatural” you have said that explaining it is beyond the limits of the human mind, and that we cannot probe or question it. I find that to be a depressing idea, and you will need to prove to me that there are ideas that the human mind cannot encompass before I accept it.

  28. Ben, I don’t entirely agree that describing something as “supernatural” is equivalent to saying that it is beyond explanation or exploration.The term is often used that way, but it doesn’t have to be.

    I would say that morality is part of the fabric of reality just as much as gravity and entropy. Morality can be explored, though not by using the same techniques as exploring gravity.

    I would also say that logic is part of the fabric of reality, though logical laws are not physical laws. If “supernatural” means that which cannot be studied by laboratory measurement, then logic is supernatural. As far as that goes, statistics is supernatural. Empirical measurements cannot tell you how to interpret and draw inferences from empirical measurements.

    I don’t think the word “supernatural” is very useful in this kind of discussion. For the atheist, it is a pejorative term and implies a forgone conclusion about the subject being discussed. For the theist, the word implies a partitioning of reality that the theist doesn’t fully accept.

  29. John, I think that I am suggesting that we avoid using the term for the same reasons as you. But I _completely_ disagree that statistics is supernatural by any definition or that I cannot study it in a laboratory environment. Statistics is the formalized study of aggregate behavior, and the world is my laboratory. All that is really required is that I take good observations. I can make the same assertion for logic (what decisions can be made based on given knowledge), morality (“good” behavior), radioactive decay, and any number of other fuzzy, poorly understood subjects. I am actually yet to find a subject that cannot be investigated as though it were the result of natural processes. I had a college professor who once told me how he went about the study of miracles (in the religious context).

    In each of these cases I can speculate as to the causes of each of these things, devise hypotheses, develop experiments to test the hypotheses, and draw conclusions based on my results. This makes it no different from any other natural phenomena, whether we currently understand it’s causes or not.

    I’m going a bit into left field, but. . . (I can’t stop.)

    What we can’t do is assume that because we behave a certain way, or we observe a certain behavior, that those behaviors apply everywhere. (Just like we cannot say that all numbers behave like real numbers, or all populations have a Gaussian distribution.) This is where treating our own morality as a fundamental truth can get us into trouble. Is committing suicide to preserve your honor condoned by morality? Not mine, but if you asked a 16th century Japanese samurai you would get a different answer. Is it moral for an animal to kill and perhaps eat it’s own kind? We certainly frown on people doing it, but what about ants, who regularly engage in “wars” between rival colonies. I haven’t heard of anyone erecting ant proof barriers in the wild for the express purpose of protecting ants from themselves. Polygamy? Polyandry? You could generate a lot of discussion with those two!

    I can take an fMRI of a brain that is “happy”. It may be that I can induce such an experience using chemicals or electrical stimulation. What if I were to do the same for a brain in the midst of a religious experience? If I discover a way to repeatably trigger an religious experience, am I intruding on the supernatural? Or am I studying the way your brain naturally reacts to stimulus?

  30. @Ben:
    I don’t think combining those two meanings is useful. In fact, I’d say it’s wrong because you get compression errors. People don’t actually use the word in the same way. John, in defining it how he did above (using C.S. Lewis’ words), and other apologists in a similar manner have tried to make them seem the same, but when most people use the word faith to refer to religion they mean “belief in something which doesn’t have enough supporting evidence to justify the belief on its own merits.” Having faith in someone is occasionally used in that manner (I really shouldn’t trust him, but I have faith that he’ll be better next time), it’s generally used to mean trust (regardless of the justification for the trust).

    I agree that religious beliefs should be held to the same standard as secular beliefs. I don’t think they are. And I think one of the main methods that apologists and other religious people use to avoid taking the same responsibility for religious beliefs that they’re expected to take with their secular beliefs is by invoking faith, and often by equivocating the two meanings. “Science is based on faith too” is a way of saying “I can use faith instead of evidence to justify my religious belief, because you use faith for your beliefs too.”

    When you said “The difference between the level of evidence supporting each statement could be debated,” it seems like you’re saying that faith is the jump from whatever level of belief is warranted by the evidence, to believing with 100% certainty. I’ve heard faith explicitly defined that way, and it seems to be a pretty general usage for the word. This is part of what I have a problem with. It allows people to justify any belief simply by invoking faith, regardless of the evidence, and in practice that’s how it’s used. I’d say that instead we should just believe with a certainty that’s proportional to the evidence.

    In your math example, you said “I believe that they teaching the right thing, even though I may not have sufficient evidence to prove that” – I think this is an outright mistake. If you don’t have evidence that indicates that the theorem is valid, you shouldn’t believe it. The thing is, you’re not considering the witness of the math professor when you’re talking about what evidence you have (though you seem to be when deciding whether to trust the theorem or not). That’s why I gave the example of a random person vs. the professor – the random person is weaker evidence, and therefore warrants weaker belief. The word of the random person is so weak that it’s not considered sufficient evidence to believe, but the word of the professor is. Seeing the proof also is sufficient, but not necessary in order to warrant belief if you have enough other evidence. It’s not faith. It’s different levels of evidence. Some are sufficient, others are not. Faith doesn’t come into play at all – just believe proportionally to the evidence.

    And a quick interjection into the “supernatural” argument: here’s a good definition of supernatural: from Richard Carrier.

  31. Eric, We cannot have a meaningful discussion if the words we use are not clearly defined. I’ve been taking great care to offer a precise definition of faith “accepting something without questioning, irrespective of any reasoning on your part” and “Holding a conviction without questioning the evidence supporting it”. I think these definitions capture the essential nature of what ‘faith’ is _and_ they do not bring along excessive baggage (refer to John’s comment about ‘supernatural’) For example: (ignoring the level of evidence available to support each statement) saying that “I have faith that God will protect me” is semantically and logically the same as saying “I have faith that Eric has my back in the upcoming meeting.” Both can be reasonably and correctly parsed using my proposed definitions. Therefore, I do not see how these definitions are incompatible with either “religious faith” or “secular faith” and yet you have twice stated that I am equivocating. Apparently I am not understanding your concerns.

    If you want to press the idea that there are two “correct” yet contradictory definitions for a word, then I need you to present some other terminology (and definitions) that makes the contradiction clear. Keep in mins that defining religious faith as accepting something despite a total lack of supporting evidence, and secular faith as accepting something with or without evidence, is unfairly biasing the definitions. (Which is part of the reason I like my single set of definitions that work for both.)

  32. John,

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It is refreshing to know.

    In Jesus Grip,

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