On the notion of faith

Faith. What a slippery word. What does it mean? Depends who you ask, and under what circumstances you ask them. I’m going to try to nail it down anyhow.

The word “faith” can be used innocuously, as a synonym of “trust.” “I have faith my friends won’t let me down” means essentially the same thing as “I trust my friends won’t let me down.”

But it has another meaning, a meaning unique to the word “faith.” “I have faith in Allah!” or “I have faith in Jesus!” or “I have faith in God!” for instance are a bit different, and, when pressed into a corner on questions of the existence of their various gods, theists, I have found, will often say something like, “well, it is a matter of faith.” As if this removes it from the sphere of rational inquiry, as if this is some sort of “get out of jail free” card they can play when their beliefs are shown to be unjustified.

So, in that sense,the best definition of faith I’ve been able to come up with is this:

To “have faith” is to believe something to a degree of certainty which exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence.

The (the? one version of the) Bible tells us that “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

If you convince yourself to be more certain about something than the evidence warrants, less doubtful than you really should be given the information you have, who are you fooling except yourself? Faith is inherently dishonest. It is dishonest because it involves lying to yourself about how certain you ought to be.

Some may object, saying, “We all use faith.” Supposing for a moment that this is true, that we all use faith. This does not make faith a good thing, or acceptable, or honest, or a virtue. At least I recognize faith for what it is, a vice, and strive to minimize it and eliminate it from my reasoning. I don’t try to convince others that faith is some sort of virtue, and that lack of faith is some sort of failing. Succumbing to the fear and peer pressure brought to bear and allowing yourself to be convinced that faith is a virtue without ever thinking to ask why you should suppose faith to be a virtue, that is the failing. Lack of faith, arrived at by examining faith, and how it relates to truth claims, and by evaluating its efficacy, is the virtue. Faith is the con man’s greatest invention. Faith is the con man’s way of getting you to think that the very act of believing something makes you virtuous, special, and a good person, so that you will desire to believe. You are subtly made to convince yourself to believe something, without examining that something itself; instead you are distracted from the details of that something and made to focus your energies on the act of believing that something — belief is all important — never mind the details of what you’re believing — that is hidden by simple words, “the Bible”, “the Word of God”, etc. — but that particular something is something which will tend to make you act in ways which tend to transfer money from your pockets into the pockets of the con man. Although, the con in most cases is so old that for the most part, by now, even the con men, many generations removed from the original con men, have bought into the notion of faith themselves, and are only naively aping an ancient con, knowing not what they do through no real fault of their own, except perhaps excessive gullibility.

But, back to the accusation — yes, accusation — that “we all use faith.” If a person tries to justify his own use of faith by pointing out the use of faith by others, this indicates to me that this person, deep down, knows that there is something wrong with faith. For instance, creationists often accuse people who think the best explanation of the complexity and diversity of life is the theory of evolution of using faith to arrive at this conclusion. And this is a conclusion with which they, the creationists, vehemently disagree. So, if according to the creationists, evolutionary scientists are using faith to arrive at what they deem to be erroneous conclusions, what is the point these creationists are trying to make? That faith doesn’t work? That faith not a good way to arrive at a conclusion? Okay. For once I agree with the creationists.

Now, suppose it is argued that faith really is a good way to arrive at a conclusion, you just have to have the “right” faith. Well, what a person has faith in is fairly arbitrary, almost invariably an accident of birth. People overwhelmingly adopt the religion of their parents, and employ faith to believe the same particular unjustifiable things which their parents believed. (“Unjustifiable,” because if those beliefs were justifiable, faith would not be required. People tend to believe that 1+1=2 regardless of their religious upbringing, and faith doesn’t enter into it.) So, supposing that it is argued that faith is a good way of arriving at a conclusion, how does faith stack up?

Well, pretty badly. In the very best case scenario for faith, we could assume that the conclusion arrived at by faith by the most people on earth should be the correct one. That is, the best case scenario for faith is the one in which the most people get the “correct” answer by means of faith. Presumably, there is just one correct answer. The Muslim who believes all Christians end up in hell, but no Muslims do, and the Christian who believes all Muslims end up in hell, but no Christians, and the Buddhist, who thinks nobody ends up in hell (or heaven) cannot all be correct. So if we try to find the largest group of people who believe (more or less) the same thing by means of faith, we find that this group is the “Christians”, with about one third of the world’s population subscribing to that religion. (I am ignoring Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox (to name the 3 main) different branches of Christianity here.) So, in the very best case scenario for faith, it gets the wrong answer 2 out of 3 times. Even in the best case possible, faith is not a good way of figuring out what’s true and what’s not. Faith is wrong most of the time even in the very best case for faith.

Equivocation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told things like: “You have faith the sun will come up,” or “you have faith the chair you’re sitting on will hold you up,” or “Love requires faith.” By my definition of faith, the available evidence for these things is plenty to warrant the level of certainty to which I believe these things. So I don’t use faith to think these things are true, since, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe these things to a degree of certainty which exceeds what’s warranted by the available evidence. So no faith. Also, acting on less than complete information is not faith. I don’t have to be 100% certain of any piece of information to be able to take action on that information. I don’t know that my house will burn down, in fact, I think it probably won’t. Yet I have insurance which covers my house in case it burns down accidentally. Does that mean I have faith that my house will burn down? No. That’s not faith. That’s taking action on incomplete information.

Here’s another thing. Being asked to “have faith” is an insult. That’s right, an insult. You are typically presented with an absurd proposition (usually when you are a child, and aren’t old enough to know enough to sort bullshit out) and told that good people believe this, and bad people don’t believe it, and that you’d better believe it, or else, when you die, you will be, oh, I don’t know, maybe tortured in burning flames for all eternity. When (if you are brave) you ask for evidence that such outlandish claims are true, you’re told you shouldn’t ask for evidence, but just have faith, perhaps even told it’s wicked to ask such things, and that the magic book has all the answers, but is beyond your understanding, and not to be questioned, or perhaps not told, but made aware by a look, a demeanor, a tone of voice, that such questions are unwelcome. Well, that is insulting. I mean, Just how dumb do you think I am? You’d have to be retarded (or a child — “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”) to accept such absurd claims without any evidence. Yet this is what many believe, and expect others to find “reasonable.” It is not reasonable. It is retarded. I’m not going to mince words here. It really is dumb enough to warrant being called “retarded,” at considerable risk of insulting the intelligence of the mentally retarded. It is an insult, and Jesus was an arrogant, delusional dickhead, much akin to David Koresh, supposing he existed at all.
So, in my estimation, faith is not a virtue, far from it. Faith is inherently, inescapably dishonest, unacceptable, and an insult to humanity. Faith is the conscious rejection of reason in favor of nonsense. And, after quite a few years of looking into it (an excessive amount of time, really) I cannot but conclude that if you think that faith is a good idea, you are not an ethical, nor very bright* person, in my judgment as you consider lying to yourself about how certain you should be about certain topics to be a good idea.

*I add “nor very bright” because if you disagree, and think that faith is a good idea, then you must argue that believing arbitrary things to a degree of certainty exceeding that warranted by the available evidence is somehow a good way of arriving at truth. If you argue that, then sorry, you leave me no choice but to conclude you are a moron, and over the years, thousands of Christian arguing their case have only succeeded in showing me how terrible their arguments really are, and how silly the whole thing is. *sigh* Grow up. The Bible’s a crock. Read it, why don’t you, and see for yourself.

And so ends my first anti-religious screed on this blog. 🙂

~ by scaryreasoner on October 16, 2007.

19 Responses to “On the notion of faith”

  1. […] one here though. The thing is, science works, bitches. Faith most emphatically doesn’t work. I’ve addressed this at length before. If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and […]

  2. Let us imagine one day you meet a rational theist, remember now i said imagine. Now in a rational and logical discourse between you two about the nature of Reality, the nature of Divinity and the role of faith logic itself would fail you both. At some point you each have to assume some things to be true without either proof or even a real explanation. In mathematics these statements are called axioms and if any rationale is offered for there assumption it is one of aesthetics or by appeal to intuition or even sadly authority or perhaps it is merely pragmatic the old it works so shut argument. A theist is assuming something in his philosophy that gives rise to his concept of divinity and is most likely an idealist. For him to say he has faith means that he takes it as axiomatic. Nothing intellectually disrespectful about that per say. Now you might deny his axiom and fail to see any value in assuming it and your own philosophy might be and probably is radically different than the theists, that is your freedom. Assuming the theist is actually an idealist and you are not your philosophies might even have no points in common aside from the assumption you’re both rational so that you both agree on questions of a purely logical nature. But as you know most theists are not rational nor are in fact most people and sadly many do not see it as even a virtue.

  3. I think your argument, if it may be called that, fails on the premise that mathematical axioms are held by the same means by which religious claims held by faith are held.

    Axioms which lead to contradictions are discarded. Religious claims held by faith which lead to contradictions are typically held anyway.

    You may say that such is the behavior of the irrational theist, not the rational theist.

    Note that your rational theist is however, imaginary.

    Axioms also generally have the property that they can be used, in combination with other axioms, to arrive at more complex truths which may be tested experimentally.

    Further, not all beliefs (I use the word reluctantly as short hand for “things provisionally thought to be true to some degree of certainty”) are of the mathematical sort. In fact, pretty much NO religiously held beliefs are of the mathematically or logically rigorous sort. So this talk of axioms is really an equivocation on your part.

    Of course not all beliefs are testable. I believe that when I was a kid, I had a pet dog, mostly white, with brown and black spots. What evidence do I have of this belief today? Not much. Yet it is not such an extraordinary claim that, were I to tell someone that I had a dog when I was a kid, they would be apt to doubt me.

    Axioms in mathematics are similar in this respect, they are not astonishing claims, they are rather ordinary claims.

    The “axioms” held by faith — the claims of the religious — are not such simple, ordinary claims. They are generally astonishing, extraordinary claims.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    What is an axiom of your imaginary rational theist?

    That faith is a good way of finding out new, true information?

    If every piece of information found by means of faith is either untestable, or no better than guesswork, or conflated with evidentially supported claims, then what shall we conclude?

    If the claims made by faith are very often mutually exclusive, what to conclude?

    I conclude that faith a a load of crap, and you’ve done nothing in your “argument” but bolster my conclusion.

  4. Another point: mathematics has axioms which can’t be proven themselves because mathematics is an abstract system invented by humans. So with only reference to itself, of course mathematics will have unprovable axioms.

    However, mathematics is used to represent and describe situations ***observed in the real world***. In other words, where there is an axiom that can’t be proven, there are two options:
    1) It’s purely a theoretical construction. This however, doesn’t need “faith” to describe it.
    2) It’s based on empirical evidence. No faith required here either.

    Why do the angles of a triangle drawn on a plane surface add up to 180 degrees? No idea, but if you try it again and again and again, ***in real life***, it always works.

  5. […] and fairly long video of Obama talking about the topic of faith in quite some detail. Of course, I, who find faith to be inherently dishonest and the opposite of a virtue, do not see precisely eye to eye with Obama on this topic. That being said, it does seem that […]

  6. […] user VOTERSTHINKdotORG posted this video of Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee talking about religion and faith on Huckabee’s […]

  7. Andrew wrote:

    “Why do the angles of a triangle drawn on a plane surface add up to 180 degrees? No idea, but if you try it again and again and again, ***in real life***, it always works.”

    Good grief, what a terrible example. I can tell you EXACTLY why this is so, nearly 20 years out of college without even consulting a geometry textbook.

    Imagine you are a turtle, and you are traveling, say clockwise, along the edges of a triangle.

    You will come to three corners in the course of making a complete circuit At each corner, you will make a right turn. At the end of making 3 such right turns, you will be on the same side of the triangle that you started on, having made only right turns. So, you will have rotated a total of 360 degrees. This is true regardless of the sort of triangle the turtle is circumnavigating. If he starts on one side, after he turns three corners, he will be on the same side he started on, traveling in the same direction. Regardless of the triangle, he will have rotated 360 degrees.

    Let us call the angle the turtle rotates at each corner the “exterior” angle of each corner of the triangle. The exterior angle plus the interior angle make 180 degrees. This is because if you are on one edge of the triangle and you draw a straight line continuing past the corner, the exterior angle this line makes with the line your about to turn onto plus the interior angle form a straight line — 180 degrees, that is, the interior plus exterior angle make 180 degrees. So, to put this into equations, if we call the exterior angles (the angles by which the turtle rotates at each corner of the triangle) a, b, and c, and call the interior angles of the triangle x y and z, we get the following:

    a + b + c = 360 (because the turtle ends up facing the same way after turning through the 3 corners)


    x + a = 180
    y + b = 180
    z + c = 180
    (because the angle the turtle turns at one corner plus the interior angle of that corner form a straight line).

    If you add those last three equations together, you get:

    (x + a) + (y + b) + (z + c) = 180 + 180 + 180

    which can be rewritten as:

    (a + b + c) + (x + y + z) = 180 + 180 + 180

    But, we know, because after 3 right turns the turtle ends up facing the same way he started that:

    (a + b + c) = 360

    so we can rewrite it as:

    360 + (x + y + z) = 180 + 180 + 180;

    so subtracting 360 from each side:

    x + y + z = 180 + 180 + 180 – 360


    x + y + z = 180


    In short, the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 for EXACTLY the same reason that 2 + 2 = 4 — because that is how addition works.

    Are you telling me that needs faith?

  8. Thanks!,

  9. […] on his blog, people espousing such views regard this behavior as a virtue. I’ve tried to beat up on faith before, but it bears […]

  10. […] About faith. You’re full of shit. I do not have faith that everything in a BBC documentary is true. Likewise I do not take necessarily take science on faith, although I might be inclined to cut science a little slack, on account of, unlike religion, it works, bitches. And science does not ask me to take it on faith, unlike religion, which very much does ask one to take it on faith. Anyone is welcome to take on any scientific claim and verify (or disprove) it for themselves. […]

  11. I was a hardcore Christian but came out of the faith earlier this year. (Very difficult when you’ve already put yourself out there, with a Christian song and all.) Looking back, I am disgusted at how my thinking processes have been stunted by this notion that faith is a virtue. Thank you for this well-written piece that exposes the bullshit.

    • Glad you liked it. It’s probably one of the better things I’ve written on this blog (all downhill from here, heh.)

      Lately, I’ve grown tired of the atheism vs. religion debate. After quite a few years (most of them prior to even starting this blog) you come to a point at which you’ve seen the same things over and over, rearticulated by various people, but, essentially the same, and the new ideas come less and less frequently, until you can’t remember the last time you read an argument which you hadn’t already come across a better version before. And for the most part, by now, I’ve had my say on the arguments I care about. And so I find myself, more and more, posting things completely unrelated to atheism or religion, or just kind of relaying links and videos from elsewhere. Less and less often do I write my own thoughts about religion. At times, I feel like I should be doing more, should try to write more posts like this one, but the arguments are all old, have all been made, still stand, and… I kind of feel like, “what’s more to say about this topic?”

      • YES, so sick of the same old tired arguments. It always comes back to “you just have to have faith,” or “You can’t trust human logic.” And of course, “Scientists can’t explain it (so obviously that means Yahweh did it),” or “the eye is too complex to have evolved,” or “Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot were atheists,” or “The apostles died for their faith. Who would die for a lie?” or “Some secular historian briefly mentioned a man named Jesus (so clearly he MUST be God!)” etc. etc. etc. These arguments convinced me before I knew how weak they were. I’ve spouted them a million times myself. I’m glad I know better now.

  12. […] believe, that I find the entire concept of such a god ridiculous. The invention of the concept of faith, and it’s elevation to the status of virtue counts in my opinion as one of the greatest […]

  13. Awesome. That is all.

  14. “To “have faith” is to believe something to a degree of certainty which exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence.” that is according to you, right? so you believe in yourself. do you have enought evidence to believe in your self? in your knowledge? NO. so…you have faith in yourself. therefore, there is faith!

  15. \”To “have faith” is to believe something to a degree of certainty which exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence.\” that is according to you, right? so you believe in yourself. do you have enought evidence to believe in your self? in your knowledge? NO. so…you have faith in yourself. therefore, there is faith!

    • I see you had insufficient evidence to believe that your browser had posted your comment and so posted your comment a second time.

      so you believe in yourself. do you have enought evidence to believe in your self? in your knowledge? NO. so…you have faith in yourself. therefore, there is faith!

      This is an idiotic argument.

      “I believe in myself.”

      What does that mean? I believe that I exist? If that’s what it means, I have more evidence for the proposition “I exist” than pretty much any other thing I believe. I think Descartes would agree. (“Cogito ergo sum”).

      Does it mean, “I believe I can achieve what I set out to achieve”? If that’s what it means, then, I actually don’t believe that (not unconditionally nor deliberately to a degree which exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence.)

      For example, I do not believe that I could fly by flapping my arms if I were to set out to do this. Nor do I believe that I will ever be able to play “Eruption” on electric guitar satisfactorily, based on the evidence of how well my attempts to learn that, and other guitar pieces have gone over a period of 20 years or so. I may have once thought it were possible, but only insofar as it was allowed by lack of contrary evidence up to that point.

      Does it mean “I cannot rely on my senses and thoughts to be an accurate representation of reality?” If so, I can rely upon them to the extent that they define my reality — my senses are not reliable but they are authoritative in that they are all that I have and they define my experience — they are reality. Your argument then comes down to: “You cannot trust your senses, so you are free to ignore them and believe whatever you like irrespective of what your senses tell you.” And in that case, I invite you to slap yourself in the face as hard as you can and believe that it doesn’t hurt.

      So, you’re basically spouting a load of bullshit, and your argument, if it may be called such, appears to be all too typically idiotic — bordering on presuppositionalist levels of idiocy.

  16. […] the Notion of Faith I found an interesting blog that I thought a few people here might like. On the notion of faith | Scary Reasoner There've been some quite good posts there, but I'll stick to that one for now. What are your […]

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