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’.
The same sort of thing might happen for just a day, an hour, a minute, but I chose the example of depression because it shows most clearly how valuable faith is. It is valuable because 1) it is often incredibly hard, requiring an enormous amount of mental effort, and 2) it may well be the difference between life and death.
A different sort of example might be when I have reason to be critical (in a specific way) of my general ability to reason. For instance, I might know that my personal experiences and history will make anything that I don’t have experience of seem unreal and impossible – but also know from considering history and so forth that many things quite different from my experience and from other people’s experience have happened, and hence are possible.
So then perhaps my personal experience of deceit, manipulation, and cynicism, leads me to despair of humanity and of society, or my experience of war and genocide leads me to despair of lasting peace. But I also believe that these are not actually good evidence against, say, the possibility of peace. So I continue to believe it to be possible – but it doesn’t feel possible. To maintain that hope requires faith.
A perhaps related third example is where I am engaged in some project that will only succeed if I stay committed to it. It may also be that I won’t stay committed to it if I don’t believe I will – if I think that future-me will give up next week, I’ll give up this week. Here, I need an ability to believe that future-me won’t give up next week, not on the basis of a prudent statistical prediction (after all, I gave up all the other times didn’t I?), but merely by a resolution, an act of will.
This ‘irrational’ belief about the future is necessary for me to succeed – and it would be natural to call it ‘faith’.
And finally, I have ‘faith’ in particular other people – in a way that could be also called ‘trust’. If I were just calculating probabilities by statistical methods, I might well think it quite possible that you will ‘defect’ on any deal or shared endeavour (say 20% chance), and then I might adjust my behaviour in light of that possibility (say, not giving you access to certain information). But then you don’t trust me as much, so you consider my defection more likely, as well as having more reason to defect yourself. And so it goes on.
For the relationship to work, we need to trust each other, i.e. have ‘faith in’ each other. This, again, is something that may be both very hard and very important.
Now, what can we say about these sorts of cases? They are all cases of localised irrationality in the service of overall rationality. In each case, I see, on rational grounds, that it would be advantageous for rational ends, to suspend strict rationality in certain respects, because of a defect (an irrationality) within rationality.
I hold to my faith that life is worth living, because I see rationally that the rational goal of staying alive is best served by ignoring what seems to be rational to my depressive brain, because I rationally recognise a defectiveness in that rationality. I keep my faith in the future and the possibility of progress because I see rationally that what seems to be rational in some respects is defective, because it is irrationally affected by my personal experience.
I keep faith in myself and my abilities, because I see rationally that my rational goal of completing my projects will be best served by suspending rationality in a certain respect, because that rationality is prone to lapsing into vicious circles and self-fulfilling paradoxes.
I keep faith with others because I see rationally that my rational goal of having relationships requires suspending rationality in a certain respect, because our shared rationality is similarly prone to paradox (e.g. prisoner’s dilemma situations).
In all these cases, ‘faith’ is of enormous value, because it is reason’s ability to manage and repair its own failings. Faith is an integral part of reason, and gets its value from reason. When it goes beyond the boundaries reason gives it, it becomes ‘misplaced faith’, i.e. a blind and stupid sort of optimism.
And now back to religion – not religion in general, of course, because there have been many religious people who have held their beliefs to be rational, and saw faith as playing exactly the role mentioned above. Rather, the maneuvre of presenting faith as an alternative to reason in grounding beliefs.
Now suddenly we see, not reason suspending itself for its own reasons from a recognition of its specific failings, we see the total suspension of reason. It’s not for a particular time, but for your whole life; not from a determinate failing, but from a general disparagement of reason (which is, among other things, the faculty of identifying determinate failings); not within a particular sphere, but concerning a grand set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of the world and about what sorts of clothes to wear.
This almost seems like a bad joke. This can no longer be justified by the sorts of reasons why faith in non-religious matters had seemed so valuable and so important. Why not? Because they were rational reasons – as is the whole point of ‘reasons’. It’s like declaring ’emergency powers’ and then making them permanent. What might have made sense as a brief suspension of civil liberties to protect them at other times, can only be justified permanently by giving up the whole idea of liberty.
Similarly, what was justified in a particular small domain or short period, can only be justified in one’s life-long most important beliefs, by entirely putting aside the idea of being rational and understanding things. But faith, in the non-religious sense, is a part of reason: sacrificing reason to faith is like eating your own intestines.