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Pet Peeve: Faith and Faith


"Everyone has faith in something. Even if you don't believe in God, you might have faith in humanity."

In a handful of conversations now, a coworker at YVC has said this, or something like this. I understand her intent, but I must object to her sentiment. I believe she's committing the fallacy of equivocation.

The word faith - like the words spirituality, religion, and even God - has come to encompass a pretty large swath of definitions, and not all definitions are equal. Consider:
 
A) I have faith that my doctor will take good care of me during surgery.
B) I have faith that the scientific method is a good way of discovering truths about the world.
C) I have faith that human goodness can overcome evil actions.
C) I have faith that an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God watches over the earth and all its creatures.
D) I reached that point in my life where I had to make a decision. I decided to take a leap of faith.

There are obviously some profound differences in the way the word faith is used in these examples. In A, faith is used as a straight-up synonym for confidence. It can be assumed that the speaker's confidence comes from the fact that she knows her surgeon has had to go through many years of intense training and schooling, or that the surgeon has carried out the procedure many times on other patients. 

Statement B is similar. The scientific method has made what our ancestors considered unsolvable mysteries into understandable, predictable phenomena. We have jet planes, microwaves, and iPads. These things work because they are based on sound science.

The next one is a bit trickier. Is there any objective way to say that human goodness can overcome hate or bigotry? Possibly. Maybe the speaker has witnessed that very thing in the life of a friend, a historical figure, or in herself. Perhaps they have experienced the power of rehabilitation, change of heart, radical transformation.

If someone were to say they had faith that their car mechanic would be able to transplant their heart, based off of nothing more than freewheeling optimism, we might call that blind faith - a faith of a considerably different nature. Imagine too, if someone said they had supreme faith in astrology or alchemy, or that they have faith that Al-Qaeda has the best of intentions for humanity. This is strolling along the top of a cliff-side in the pitch-dark night, changing lanes without checking the rear-view mirrors.

Is this kind of faith virtuous? Not in any of the examples above, obviously, but a large percentage of Americans believe it is a virtue as long as the faith is directed toward a god.

In the many extended conversations I've had with Christian friends at Sterling College or from my old church, the faithful might say at first that his faith in God is based on evidence in the form of, say, answered prayer, a serene peace or love, or a changed life. But these aren't necessarily attributable to Jehova. 

Incidents of answered prayers, after all, aren't statistically different from the machinations of random chance. People attribute more weight to the positives than they do to the negatives. Psychologists understand this phenomenon very well. It's called confirmation bias. No surprise, then, that every religion has adherents claiming that a supplication was answered in some miraculous way. A similar trick is used by those who claim they can read your mind, interpret your dreams, or speak with your dead relatives, but I'm not putting my faith into John Edward any time soon.

Serene peace can be felt by many things. I can feel it when I'm thinking about God not existing as much as I did when I used to believe in God. I can also do it by meditating, reading poetry, or taking a walk by myself through the woods.

And life changes happen for all sorts of reasons. I made several changes, for the better, in my own way of life when I deconverted from Christianity, but for some reason my Christian friends don't want to take this as evidence that God does not exist, even though they often use the reverse situation as proof.

The conversation inevitably leads to this, then: "I cannot prove that God exists. He wouldn't want that anyway. He wants his people to have faith in Him. Faith is belief in the unseen, the invisible."

Which brings me to the essence of faith as illustrated in statements C and D. This blind, leaping sort of faith is the very core of religious literalism. Anyone who believes that God as described in sacred texts really exists is relying on a blind faith. Most will admit this.

Is this a good thing?

I will let that question linger until another post, but for now all I wanted was to make a clarification between usages of the word, because equivocating the various definitions trips people up and leads to more fallacies, like claiming that atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism are religions in the same sense that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are religions.

No. I'm sorry. They are not the same. In almost every way that matters, they are not the same.

So next time you hear somebody say something along the lines of, "Everybody has faith in something," remind them that not all faiths are equal.
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