In recent discussions centred on religion, the topic of ‘faith’ has come up a number of times, and in particular the move where it serves as a refuge from difficult arguments: even if the rational cards seem stacked against the truth of religious claims, the believer can remain steadfast in the name of faith – faith ‘above’ reason, or at least ‘against’ it.
Now, if someone wants to slap a certain set of noises onto a damn-fool concept, then they have the right to do so, and declare ‘by the word ‘monkey’ I intend to refer to triangles’. But they shouldn’t be allowed to make their use of the word appear more noble than it is by quietly appropriating the associations and positive (or negative) ‘baggage’ of an already-existing word, if their new definition has nothing in common with the existing definition.
So the question I find myself asking is, how does ‘faith’, as the term is used in religion, and in particular as used in this sort of defensive maneuvre, relate to the things we call ‘faith’ that aren’t about religion? Which requires us to ask – outside of religion, and setting the religious uses of the word entirely aside, what do we use the word ‘faith’ for?
What follows is not a systematic review of linguistic habits studied rigorously; it is a somewhat-considered attempt to summarise when this word would seem reasonable to me, when I (an ardent atheist) might find myself using it positively.
I would use it in cases where for some circumstantial reason, something seemed very strongly to be true, but where I had separately reached the opinion that those circumstances made my judgement unreliable. For example, if I were to have periodic episodes of depression, then it might be that at such times, because of changes in my mood, my patterns of attention and memory, my thinking patterns, and the stimuli I get exposed to, it seems overwhelmingly that life is not worth living – that is the only idea that feels real.
But I believe that my depressive brain thinks in a faulty way, and that in fact life is worth living – and I recall this belief during the depression, even while it seems in every way shallow, absurd, and unrealistic, because it cannot connect with how I’m actually able to reason.
To hold on to this belief, this resolution to keep living, takes ‘faith’.