Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.
–Attributed to D. Elton Trueblood
The concept of a leap of faith generally means “the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence,” often associated with religious belief. (Wikipedia.) The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of a leap to faith. For him, it meant choosing to have faith in the truth of Christianity even though no reason could be given for doing so, indeed even though the central idea of Christianity was to his mind absurd. He didn’t criticise this; he advocated it, considering objective uncertainty essential to faith.
So what is this “faith”? Not just belief. I don’t think I have faith in trees existing, though I believe in it. Belief that requires a Kierkegaardian leap, believing through inner conviction rather than rational reasons, comes closer. But is that all?
Faith is often associated with religious belief — and vice versa. Many theologians these days would still insist that there is evidence of god’s existence, but others would say that there isn’t and that it’s all about faith, since that is what faith is all about. Kierkegaard would not be alone in saying that evidence makes faith impossible. I do agree there is no evidence of god’s existence or for other supernatural beliefs, and this is what will be assumed below.
But what is faith? And what is belief? Is there a necessary connection? And is there some value to faith even though it seems irrational by definition? What can philosophy and psychology tell us about this?
The nature of belief
Belief by its very nature tries to be truthful, to correspond to the world. To believe a notion is just to think that the notion is true. At a first glance, then, it seems the desirable, rational thing for a belief is for it to be true about the world.
If this is true, we should aim at having beliefs that are true. There will always be some uncertainty involved, but we should at least base our beliefs on the most reliable sources. We should also have just the confidence in various beliefs that they merit to the best of our knowledge; a very high confidence in simple, familiar things we are seeing right now that are not subject to much interpretation; a high confidence in established scientific truths (provided that the method of science is reliable, of course; I should write about why it is some time); a low confidence in mere guesses; and so on.
This also implies that we should not believe in things that are not backed by evidence. It’s possible for a human mind to come up with any completely random idea, and the chances of hitting on a true idea merely by invention without any link to evidence is basically zero. People may even come to believe things with no evidence whatsoever, though even this will probably often, on some level, involve a mistaken notion that there is some evidence.
This leads to the idea that forming beliefs based purely on faith is irrational. It’s basically a way of ensuring that your ideas will not correspond to the world.
I don’t know how many people could really deny the notion that their beliefs are supposed to represent reality. Fideism is a notion according to which, roughly, you don’t need reasons for religious belief. It can mean that faith is itself a guide to truth, but I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen a version according to which the truth of beliefs is irrelevant to whether one should have them. If one does have a belief, though, that pretty much tautologically implies that they think it’s a true one. Besides, if faith were somehow mysteriously a source of reliable knowledge, taking things on faith would really be adopting beliefs on reliable evidence, and so not really faith — you can’t have it both ways. So it would seem to be in the nature of belief that it aims to be true, and that makes it irrational to adopt beliefs that are not liable to be true. If religious beliefs are really taken on faith, then, this makes them irrational to have.
The rationality of taking risks
(No, this has nothing to do with Pascal’s Wager.)
No matter what you do in life, you always have to take risks. Just going outside, you might get run over a car or be shot or be hit by a meteorite. Note that these are all very unlikely things, though of course there are some places where one of them might be less so than usually. In most places, they probably won’t happen. But they might. You can never rule that out. Nor would never going out eliminate such risks entirely. It would make them even less likely in most cases, though. Perhaps it would be safer overall, though we’d have to factor in the greater possibility of domestic accidents, and I don’t know what the end result would be. But even if it is safer, it’s still not either a wise or rational thing to do just to avoid the unlikely things. Maybe staying indoors will reduce your risk of having something horrible randomly happen from 1/10,000,000 to 1/100,000,000. But it will certainly lower your chance of enjoying a night out with your friends to 0.
The lesson isn’t just that you mustn’t be totally paranoid about very unlikely things, though. The whole of life is a risk on many different levels. And there is never a guarantee. Random terrible things happening to you may be unlikely, but you’ve got decades full of varied opportunities for it to happen — it will happen at some point. And some things are fairly likely or inevitable rather than random. You will lose people you care about. You will die one day. On the side of the merely likely, having any kind of emotional connection with other people makes it fairly likely that some of them will hurt you at some point. As soon as you care about anything, you are vulnerable to losing that thing. If you care about nothing at all, you will presumably die of thirst unless someone else takes care of you.
But it’s in our nature to care, and it’s the only thing in the universe that makes anything have any point. Even if we suppose there is a god somehow giving everything a purpose, you will not be touched by it unless you personally care. The wider metaphysical point aside, there’s no point in life without something to care about. There’s never a guarantee, though. To care about anything is to take a risk. It may be impossible in practice to care about nothing (at least outside of some neurological conditions that render people practically comatose), but it’s still possible to be afraid and to avoid taking risks, or not. And of course there’s no point in taking excessive or pointless risks. Buying a lottery ticket isn’t rational unless you get something good out of not winning. But there is a point at which you have to stop being afraid and put yourself at stake or you’ll miss out. Being too cautious is irrational too.
This requires a kind of “faith”, though, even if one never thinks about it that way. A kind of trust that things will turn out well, even though there’s no guarantee. There’s no sense in worrying about everything bad that could happen, or even about the things that inevitably will happen, such as death. It’s rational to spend little time stressing over things that can’t be helped. At this point, some people will take up a guarantee provided by religion: since god is good, then in some sense or another, it will turn out all right.
Notice, however, that we got here from the assumption that there is no guarantee. Now it seems as if it’s still rational to act in a way as if there is. Does this disprove the point made earlier about it not being rational to believe without evidence? Is it necessary for practical reasons?
Psychological roles of religious beliefs
I don’t think that religion can be explained just by appealing to things like fear of death. If you want an overall explanation of why there is religion, try Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. I expect it has its flaws, but it’s the most plausible explanation that I know of. Besides, it refutes many of the other explanations.
Nevertheless, it’s evident that religious beliefs play a role in dealing with the uncertainties of life as described above — at least to some people, very probably to many, somewhat possibly even to most. If you’re afraid of death, particularly the general fact that you will have to die eventually, a belief in an afterlife partly removes that worry. It may actually be rational depending on the person, if the role it has of making life better in stopping one from worrying is great enough to counter the problem of the belief virtually certainly being untrue.
A phenomenon that I’ve seen mentioned in studies of religion and that seems to be quite common (although maybe the people studying religion just like to talk about it) is dealing with great tragedy in the context of religion. There is a pattern (only one of many possible ones, of course) where the person goes through a period of disbelief and/or anger at god for letting it all happen, but eventually comes to accept it and find a meaning for the whole thing, seeing it as part of god’s plan, even an overall “good” thing. Clearly, faith is at work here, and helps dealing with the unreliability of the world.
There is a pair of concepts I have not fully understood yet but know enough about to mention them here. They are very relevant. In her book The Battle for God, which is about religious fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong states that part of the reason the modern phenomenon of fundamentalism has arisen is because people have forgotten the way religious texts are supposed to be read and statements in the language of religion are supposed to be taken. These days, we tend to take it that everything that’s presented as a claim about how things are is meant to be logos — literally true statements about the world. But religious language had always been more about mythos — something that has an effect on people and helps them deal with life psychologically. Not exactly metaphorical speech, but something a little in those lines. Of course, this doesn’t mean mythos isn’t believed in at least some sense. But its function is something else than to be true — a counterexample of sorts to what I said above about the nature of belief.
Again: does this all prove that one should rationally adopt beliefs on a different basis than their likelihood of being true? I will continue to build up to the answer.
Strong and weak faith and the role of beliefs
Does the fundamentalist have strong or weak faith? I’m sure the answer will vary both by person and the exact definition of faith. So the following isn’t a definite answer to that broad and vague question. But it’s one perspective that seems to be true as far as it goes.
The fundamentalist, by which I mean here a person who approaches religion with the preserving approach to truth as I have defined it here, is characterised by a kind of blind faith. No amount of reason will make them change their beliefs.
But is this strong faith? It’s been plausibly argued that it’s not. If one’s faith depends on accepting every item of dogma strictly and literally… if one can’t abide the notion of evolution because that would contradict what they see as the literal word of the Bible… if one is deathly afraid of contradiction at any point because that would undermine their certainty and they cannot live with having to weigh different options… where is the trust? The confidence? Do you really have faith in Christianity if you posit that if a single word in the Bible is wrong, you have to give it all up? I would say that such faith is, indeed, quite weak. (It should be noted that there’s at least one other possible way to approach beliefs within the preserving approach — not involving faith, but rather cynically manipulating and controlling people.)
It seems, then, that in some cases, clinging to specific beliefs is a sign of weak faith. A stronger and, here more to the point, more mature faith can deal with various ways that the world may turn out to be. It doesn’t need false certainty in things that the person can’t know infallibly because they themselves are fallible.
There is a presumably stronger kind of faith that already came up above. It does overlap with the above, the fundamentalists are liable to have it too, but it’s different in principle. This is faith where everything is interpreted according to one’s faith in something like god being good. It’s seen in what I said about the one way of coping with tragedies. In the end, it all makes sense to the person. You can also have this kind of faith right from the start: never questioning god in the first place, just accepting that whatever happens must have been part of some plan for the greater good, or something. This kind of faith will look at a horrible plane crash that killed dozens of people and thank god for the only one “miraculously” saved, not asking why all the others had to randomly die. This isn’t remotely logical thinking, but it may help deal with the tragedy. (See the next paragraph, though.) It might be healthier to be grateful than to be angry, at least within limits. This can also go with a trust and belief that things will turn out all right for oneself, perhaps if only one trusts in god, even though evidence about the world doesn’t suggest there is a guarantee.
It’s perfectly possible for people to be religious and still be too rational to accept that kind of thing. (Of course it is.) Just as an example, here is an article by a Reverend with experience of helping people in traumatic situations saying that it’s both theologically and psychologically dumb to give people the “God has it all planned out and it’s all good” kind of talk when they’re dealing with grief over something that happened to children. (Maybe it works better as a psychological aid, if it does at all, if you think those things of your own initiative rather than being told them.) She admits it makes no sense to believe that god meant for all the horrible things to happen, but though this seems to diminish the power of god to intervene, she still has faith, presumably — and besides, it’s one absurd belief less.
I’ve seen this elsewhere too. There is a kind of faith I have seen people profess where they acknowledge all the facts about the world I have been going on about here — anything bad could happen, god isn’t making sure things will turn out all right for us. But, they say, they can deal with all this through just one belief: they trust that in the end, in the afterlife, everything will be all right. Then god will intervene.
Arguably, this is a strong kind of faith. It is very self-sufficient. It doesn’t need to adopt baseless beliefs beyond just the one or override reason in affirming contradictions or absurdities. It doesn’t need to get in the way of reason because it’s strong enough to deal with (almost) whatever reason throws at it. Strength of blind belief might be called strength of faith too, that is true, and that’s in some ways the opposite of this. But I think this is a truer strength, and it is certainly more mature and balanced. It doesn’t have to pretend anything contrary to the way the world really is; it can accept that and deal with the uncertainty it creates by relying on the transcendent alone.
Again, that question in a slightly different form: Is this last the right thing to do, then? Being minimally deluded about the world, yet still having faith?
Well, do you remember the title of this article? Obviously, there’s one step further to go.
Faith is good in enabling us to deal with the fundamental uncertainty of life. Something like faith is even necessary, even if it’s mere unthinking lack of worry in place of anything properly spiritual. The more we are aware of our situation, the more we are confronted with it, the more we need something like full-blown faith to deal with it.
As stated before, faith tends to come bundled with belief. Typically it’s belief about supernatural entities and whatnot. People cope and find meaning in their lives, and somehow that tends to involve unproven beliefs about magical entities that may not even have much of an impact on things in practice. It’s probably because it’s all mythos. But the difference between mythos and logos wasn’t ever really clear to people in general even before — if it had been, they would never have taken mythos as a guide for how to act in the concrete world — and now, apparently, we have collectively forgotten what mythos even is. Heck, I don’t even understand it completely. So people just have beliefs without a good basis for thinking that they are real.
But is this necessary? Rational? I don’t think so. Because we can take all of what makes faith rational and leave out everything that makes it irrational, and I do think the resulting thing still deserves to be called faith — and, more importantly, answers our needs. Of course, if you really need to apply this faith to the fullest, to deal with some major issues that threaten to psychologically crush you, it theoretically also takes the strongest kind of faith to be able to do so. Take the strong faith mentioned above and remove the final belief — the one about everything being made all right in the afterlife.
There’s no afterlife. Things in this life aren’t certain. Everything will be lost once, though at least then we will have the respite of nonexistence, and before that, we will be around to see much pain. There is no meaning but what we create. But, then again, we will likely see much joy and happiness in our lives too, and we get to create what meaning in life we want. Although we may still fail in some way that makes it all fall flat. There are no guarantees.
It is, nevertheless, rational to take those chances and not waste what time we have worrying too much. And it is possible. But it takes faith. Or, so as not to argue about the mere meaning of words, the closest thing to faith that there can be without any specific belief that is accepted.
Suppose you have faith in humanity. That doesn’t have to mean you will be too naïvely trusting or assume that everyone is nice. You can and probably will still know that humans are capable of both good and bad things and that both have happened and probably will go on happening in abundance. The faith isn’t based on believing any specific factual proposition. It does, however, typically mean that you will have a positive, optimistic attitude and are open to try to work with people to make things better. This is rational because the alternative, worrying too much or not even trying, is not.
Suppose you have faith in love. That doesn’t have to mean that you believe such propositions as that everything will be all right in a relationship as long as love is established or that you will never get hurt if you engage in romantic relationships. It does mean you think it’s very much worth a try, basically. But that’s a subjective value judgment, as well as a rational attitude as above, not a claim about the way the world is. Maybe a belief, but not a strictly factual one.
Suppose you have faith in yourself. It doesn’t have to mean you think you can never fail, but it does mean you will try, thereby increasing your possibility of success immensely compared to not trying.
Suppose you just have faith, period, or maybe in life. You don’t have to believe everything is going to be righted perfectly in the afterlife or is perfectly well right now even if it clearly isn’t. You just have to approach life with confidence and not completely unrealistic optimism, acceptance of its limits and ephemerality, and passion and interest, rather than with fear or a sense of meaninglessness.
Suppose you don’t have faith in these things. You can certainly go pretending you’re awfully rational for being so cynical and “a realist”, but what’s it all going to achieve? Just your being unhappy and ineffectual. (I’m not saying someone couldn’t both be grumpy and improve the world. But if they lack everything associated with “faith” here, they can’t.)
The world is full of wonder, too, without having to imagine any incomprehensible extras. “Myth” can mean something untrue (which is telling enough), but it can also mean a mythological, spiritual explanation for how things are — no doubt it’s no coincidence that the word appears to derive from the same root as “mythos”. Well, we actually have scientific, more or less likely true explanations for why and how things are, and there’s no reason they can’t act in that role as well. I certainly find them spiritually satisfying — no less so because they actually explain things and supposedly “kill the mystery.” Heck, myths all seem to be explanations in the normal sense of the word too, just bad ones. The world doesn’t become any less fascinating if you know more about it, I can promise you that. Of course, people may have trouble understanding and dealing with explanations on different levels, say when a physical explanation of the world seems to remove things like morality, free will or meaning. But there is a way that all of these things fit together, the secret to understanding which is being able to see the connections between the levels and being able to shift between them, not bothered by mere apparent contradictions, as between physics and morality. It’s not easy, but it’s doable, and I do think it’s a more worthy spiritual pursuit than studying myths that are only myths.
Note that there are some actual beliefs that it is necessary for us to take on faith. If we didn’t believe we are able to know things at all, which we cannot prove in any non-circular way, we would not be able to believe anything at all. But that’s a slightly different matter, and in any case, they should be kept to the absolute minimum. Belief in deduction and induction, yes, because everything else requires those too. Belief in the supernatural, no, because nothing else requires it.
So: faith without belief? Yes, unless you want to quibble over terminology in what is really an indeterminate area of the meaning of the word “faith”. Faith is valuable and necessary, but beliefs based on nothing but it are not, at least provided you can have strong enough faith. I stand by what I have always said about beliefs: they should be based on the most reliable evidence available.
I have observed here, bit by bit, that the concept of “faith” refers to inner conviction that is usually not based on reliable evidence and tends to involve belief and a trusting attitude. I have argued that the component of trust is necessary in life. It can mean just not thinking too much about unavoidable risks and uncertainty, which is nothing deep in itself, or a deeper way of confronting them and still going living with trust and confidence. Religious-style belief can often help with the latter, but I have argued that the belief is not needed. Faith, and also trust and confidence themselves, typically (and in some ways definitionally) involve belief, but I think what I have said shows that you can have the other components of them without involving unreliable factual beliefs. You can, at least provided you can muster strong enough “faith”, have “faith” in life without believing for certain that your life will turn out for the best in the end. (To some extent, of course, you could also speak of hope instead of faith here.) This is also necessary and rational.