Thursday, January 7, 2010


Now, I would like to preface this by saying: this is me thinking aloud, this is me wondering, this is me stretching my limits.

Faith. The word. Some smart-ass once said, and it is often repeated "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." If that's the definition of faith then it's an awful, awful concept - self deception. The usual definition that a religious type will give when you ask them what faith might be more like "believing something in the absence of actual evidence for it." It basically seems to be "there's no proof, so I'm allowed to believe it."

That is, perhaps, an ineloquent definition, but never mind. It's not what I'm wanting to talk about. It is something which I can make little sense of, and I think that's because there is no sense in it. If there is sense in the idea of faith - and that is what I am wondering aloud here - it does not lie in the narrow religious/mystical excuse for believing without evidence. There are times when we use the word "faith" and it makes sense.

This is, I guess, taking a little inspiration from Sam Harris. In the final chapter of The End of Faith, Harris discusses spirituality. He argues that spirituality is an idea that has been hijacked by the dogma of religion and the supernatural; that spirituality can be rational. He says:

The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece.

My issue, and that quote that I just found from Wikipedia illustrates it perfectly, is that faith doesn't fit on that second list. I am sorry, Mr Harris, your book is fantastic, I agree with what you say, but I cannot see the word faith as a negative word. Yes, the meaning that it takes in that religious context - the meaning that you are discussing, blind, unconditional faith - is awful, but the word faith, just like the word spirituality, means more to us than that.

I got thinking - and this is where this whole post comes from - about the word "faithful" as a description of a husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend etc. In this context, it means sticking with, loving, a person. We are faithful not only to our partners, but to our families and our friends. Faith is sort of like loyalty or trust perhaps; but somehow those words are too empty and cold. Faith is what allows us to have long term relationships with our loved ones, it gets us through the bad times when they annoy us, allowing us to reach the good times when we see again how beautiful or funny they are. I cannot think of a better word to describe all this than "faith."

It is easy to see why we'd have this faith. It helps us stay stable. There's clear advantages to stability in our relationships. The idea can be expanded beyond relationships. We have faith in ourselves - our abilities and character - it's the optimism that, yes, I can go out and face the world today. This faith in one's self might lead to, for example, a scientist having faith in, and thus trying very hard to defend, his pet theory, even though he sees that it faces severe difficulties.

That last point - the faith the scientist has in his pet theory - is an important idea. By now a religious reader might well be protesting (although this may be optimism on my part) that this is exactly the same as religious faith. I agree that it is. I have more to say on it. Consider the scientist and his pet theory. His faith can clearly only go so far before it becomes stubbornness. Or the lovers - it's all right to have a little faith when your partner's a bit moody or something, but if your partner is beating you regularly, maybe what's stopping you from leaving them is fear rather than faith. Faith can take you so far, but there is a point at which it stops being faith and becomes something bad.

And so, this conception of faith, it is a sort of optimism. It is an optimism that you attach to your thinking, about people, ideas, yourself, basically an optimism that allows you to think you're right just that little bit more than you really are. I said that it was similar to "loyalty" and "trust," but that those words didn't seem right; perhaps it is loyalty with optimism tagged on, or loyalty and trust with optimism.

Directing my attention back at religion: faith is a poor justification for your beliefs and definitely no reason for anybody else to join you in them. If someone asks that scientist with his pet theory "Why do you think your theory is so good?" the answer "because I have faith in my idea," although it may be true, does not help; the asker of the question can probably see that already, they want actual reasons, evidence or whatever. And if the question is "Why should I believe your theory?" the answer "Faith" is even worse; the questioner wants evidence, reasons. Faith does not answer the question.

I do not feel that I have been redefining the word "faith" here in the way some words are deliberately redefined ("gay" for example). I believe that what I have been saying is what faith actually already means. It is a positive word, a positive idea. Faith is the force that holds us back just that little bit from making changes we cannot easily go back on. It allows us to investigate ideas thoroughly, giving us every chance to find subtle insights, and when it is not enough - when we give up our pet scientific theory, when we lose our religion, when we split from our lover - it is the fact that we have had faith, that we have given it every chance it had , that our decision was thought out and not hasty - that gives us confidence that our decision was, indeed, correct.

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