What the hell is "faith", anyway?

There's been some squabbling in the blogosphere of late over author of A Manual for Creating Atheists Peter Boghossian's recent debate with philosophy professor/Christian apologist Tim McGrew on a Christian podcast called Unbelievable, in which the two quarreled over the definition of the word "faith". Frequently blogsosphere nemeses Randal Rauser and John Loftus have both had their say, with the usual impasse and the usual insinuations that the other guy, like, totally doesn't get it.

The fuss is that Boghossian defines faith in much the same way Richard Dawkins generally does, i.e. something like "Belief without evidence" or (my personal fave) "belief in spite of, and sometimes even because of, a lack of evidence". Christians, however, do not like to appear irrational. Savor the irony of that statement for a moment. But, it's true. So, much as the inimitable David Marshall did in my old review of his chapters in the apologetics tome True Reason, McGrew defended faith instead by appealing to the Oxford English Dictionary, equating faith to something like 'trust' or 'confidence'.

We've been here before. Of course Christians don't like being described as people who believe something without evidence – this despite the fact that purportedly sophisticated theologians have gone to great length to argue that evidence isn't even relevant to the foundation of belief (and when I say 'evidence', I'm using it in the independently verifiable, intersubjectively reliable sense – not "I had a vision! You can't prove me wrong!") – see William Lane Craig's "internal witness of the Holy Spirit", Alvin Plantinga's "sensus divinitus", or Randal Rauser's claim that testimony is "properly basic". In those theologians' cases, they argue that one doesn't need evidence to believe in Christianity, and then (especially in Craig's case) proceed to spend ample time arguing that the evidence favors Christian belief anyway.

Let's take a look at how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines 'faith' [bold text mine]:
Philosophical reflection on theistic religious faith has produced different accounts or models of its nature. This entry suggests that there are three key components that may feature, with varying emphases, in models of faith—namely the affective, the cognitive and the volitional. Several different principles according to which models of faith may be categorized are noted, including
  • how the model relates faith as a state to faith as an act or activity;
  • whether it takes its object to be exclusively propositional or not;
  • the type of epistemology with which the model is associated—‘evidentialist’ or ‘fideist’;
  • whether the model is necessarily restricted to theistic religious faith, or may extend beyond it.
There is, of course, no ‘established’ terminology for different models of faith. A brief initial characterisation of the principal models of faith and their nomenclature as they feature in this discussion may nevertheless be helpful—they are:
  • the ‘purely affective’ model: faith as a feeling of existential confidence
  • the ‘special knowledge’ model: faith as knowledge of specific truths, revealed by God
  • the ‘belief’ model: faith as belief that God exists
  • the ‘trust’ model: faith as belief in (trust in) God
  • the ‘doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment beyond the evidence to one's belief that God exists
  • the ‘sub-doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment without belief
  • the ‘hope’ model: faith as hoping—or acting in the hope that—the God who saves exists.
The bolded section is important, because in these sorts of debates theologians get up in arms over the usage of the term, saying that this or that specific definition is the correct one and you, the foolish atheist, are just straw-manning Christians with a definition they don't actually use or believe in. But the first three models here, as well as the last one, are all perfectly legitimately described as belief without evidence. They comport with the types of statements we've all heard, particularly those of us who spent much of our lives as Christians:
  • We can't prove God exists; we just have to have faith
  • We don't know why God works the way He does; we just have to have faith
  • I have faith that God is leading me to do x
  • I have faith that God has a plan for me

The idea of faith as 'trust' is colloquially common: "I just do my best, and have faith in God". But this isn't particularly useful if we're talking about how faith fits into an epistemological framework, and I don't think the equivocation is helpful – 'trust' is a perfectly accurate word for this circumstance and it's not clear what the word 'faith' adds to the terminology. However, it's worth pointing out that the trust model requires belief in the existence of God, as well as a litany of assumptions about the nature and behavior of God, to already be in place.

The sub-doxastic venture model isn't one too many theologians will bother defending – it's a practical commitment to a set of beliefs (i.e., the practicing of ritual or commitment to a set of behavioral norms) without any assurance that the underlying beliefs are actually true. From the SEoP:
The firmness of faith-commitment is then just the firmness of one's ‘resolve to use [faith-claims] as a basis for one's thought, attitude and behaviour’ (Alston 1996, 17): there is no firm assurance of their truth.
Since most theologians I've encountered are preoccupied with arguing for the truth of the claims of Christianity, it's the doxastic venture model that bears examination. This is, more or less, what theologians like David Marshall and Randal Rauser argue for in their definition of faith. In his response to my review of his chapter in True Reason, Marshall replied,
By "faith," I argue Christians have almost always meant something rational, and usually something supported by strong evidence.  I deliniate four species of faith: in the mind, senses, other people, and God.  I argue that faith in the Christian sense (sense four) is just a special case of, and in continuum with, the first three forms of rational faith.  And therefore not only can't one find God without faith, one also can't walk down the sidewalk, say "Good morning" to a friend, jump in a swimming hole on a hot summer day, or learn about fossils in pre-Cambrian shales.  One can almost never do science without faith, in the Christian sense.[1]  
Now, since we've seen the seven models from the SEoP, it's obvious that Marshall is just haphazardly jumbling a few of them together. But he's also taking the leap of asserting that faith is essentially the equivalent of what is in science known as a provisional assumption, in which a strong measure of observational evidence justifies confidence the probability of a proposition (like "the sun will rise tomorrow"). In my response to Marshall, I outlined my objection to this approach:
This is nothing like belief in the supernatural, for one extraordinarily important reason: the provisional assumptions of empirical experience are buttressed by a methodology that allows us to discern the validity of one or more alternative possibilities. If new evidence arises, it may force us to reconstruct or even discard our current models of reality. That's the caveat of an evidence-based world view – it's contingent on evidence![2]


Randal Rauser, in another example of equivocating faith with scientific assumptions, spuriously defines faith as "Assent to a proposition that is conceivably false":
With this definition in mind, the object of faith can be thought of in two basic ways:
(1) Immediate faith in the proposition itself.
(2) Mediate faith in the doxastic process or agent that is the occasion for one forming belief in the proposition.
 Consider a simple example.
I look out the window in the morning, see the sunny day, and come to believe: “It is sunny today.” 

It is conceivable that this proposition is false. For example, I could possibly still be sleeping or hallucinating due to a brain tumor while it is in fact raining. I know this is conceivably the case but I still believe that “It is sunny today.”
As a result, I have immediate faith in the truth of the proposition “It is sunny today” and mediate faith in the doxastic sense perceptory processes that are the occasion for me forming the belief.[3]

This reminds me a bit of the ongoing quarrel between Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci over the relevance of philosophy. Pigliucci defines philosophy as dealing with 'conceptual spaces', such that anything that requires structured thought is subsumed under philosophy, yet he (rightly) views science as integral for assessing the validity of philosophical ideas; Krauss simply sees conceptual and semantic reasoning as part of the process of developing and implementing a coherent scientific methodology, and thus sees 'philosophy' as an independent discipline to be superfluous. In both cases, the terms are just being defined to suit the biases of the individual with little disagreement on the process of attaining knowledge itself.

Likewise here, Rauser is defining 'faith' in a manner that's fundamentally indistinguishable from a scientific assumption. All propositions are conceivably false; in his example that "it is sunny today", it's more rational to accept the parsimonious explanation that it is indeed sunny than it is to entertain propositions of hallucinations whose validity cannot in principle be reliably ascertained.

Suffice to say that this definition of faith, virtually identical to Marshall's, is pointless. We already have a perfectly accurate and commonly used term for the kind of assent Rauser is describing, and it's not clear what the term 'faith' adds to our conceptual clarity of such processes of reasoning; rather, it's an unabashed attempt to equivocate the terminology so that it appears, as the popular theistic canard goes, 'atheists have faith, too'.


So, we have seven models of faith. One is obscure and doesn't need to be discussed; one needlessly conflates the scientific concept of a provisional assumption with religious belief; one needlessly conflates religious belief with 'trust'; and four of them fit perfectly well with the type of definition given by folks like Dawkins and Boghossian – belief despite a lack of, and sometimes even because of, a lack of evidence.

We can only be left wondering why theists even indulge in these arguments to begin with. If – per theologians like Craig and Plantinga who are widely respected among Christians – rational belief in God does not require any evidence at all, why bother arguing that belief in God is indeed a process of inference from evidence? Presumably, it's just to counter atheists who repeatedly charge, correctly, that there is no unequivocal evidence that any God – much less a god of some specific religion, like Christianity – actually exists. Knowing this, believers commonly state that belief is 'a matter of faith' – or, as the popular saying goes, 'believing is seeing'. Since a worldview contingent upon evidence does not require faith in any meaningful sense of the word, the more academically pretentious theologians are at the ready to redefine faith in a way that equivocates it with commonly used and more accurate scientific terminology. That way, everyone has 'faith' and belief in God doesn't seem quite as irrational as it really is.


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