In A Word, Faith

From the very beginning, faith has been mankind's way of grappling with any of life's particularly unsettling unknowns. The harmless stuff has always been the domain of science.

For example, there are creatures everywhere around us. Only very primitive humans saw animals and developed theories about monsters. Thinking man saw animals and developed taxonomies, biological theories, and ultimately the theory of evolution. We humans observed the phases of the moon and were prompted to ask why. We trained our eyes on the stars and developed astronomy, navigation, and theories of the universe.

And yet, when it came to aspects of life that posed difficult or uncomfortable questions, we turned to superstition. Dark, creepy staircases leading to potentially spider-infested corridors inspired ghost stories out of us. Even walking down such a staircase inspires us to believe something is creeping down our necks, or that the shadow in the corner just moved in a threatening way...

Death scared us so much that we developed ideas about the afterlife. These ideas came from nothing in our physical universe. They came to us, passed down from generation to generation, via oral history and the vague wording in dusty old tomes. The evils we witnessed ourselves capable of committing in cold blood were so frightening to us that we developed ideas of demonic possession, Satanic offiliation, temptation, sin.

I have blogged about these sentiments before. I called them The Spider Effect. Creepy things will creep us out. It's only natural.

What I have not blogged about, though, is how this ties into faith.

A Stationary Waves Definition Of Faith
I submit the following as a definition for faith: Faith is the act of favoring what one wishes to be true over what one knows to be true.

While the definition is admittedly loaded, I feel it is fully consistent with believers' own views. In other words, a believer will say that faith is a requirement of religion, and that at some point one needs to accept that many religious beliefs will never and can never have scientific explanations. At some point, if one wants to accept a religion, one must stop demanding knowledge and scientific answers, and must replace those demands with faith. As all believers accept this fact as a natural aspect of their own beliefs, I feel my definition need not offend.

Moreover, it is also consistent with secular use of the term faith. When I put my faith in another individual, I know there is a possibility that he/she need not demonstrate the behavior I expect. It may be that my lawyer sells me out, or that my doctor will engage in malpractice, or that my good friend will betray me. It's possible. But, I wish it will not be so. Without a need for concrete evidence - indeed, in the complete absence of concrete evidence, other than a good prior track record - I put my faith in an individual, wishing that I am correct. I will not know it to be true until the situation is passed and I can assess what actually happened.

Therefore, in all contexts, faith represents the replacement of what I know to be true with what I wish to be true.

Scrutinizing Faith
By far, the most commonly discussed form of faith is that which pertains to religion. Millions of people worldwide place their faith in one of the various religions out there.

Religion offers people a rich oral history to which they can engage in cultural attachment, foster a sense of belonging - both to a "higher cause" and to a community of like-minded people - and provide themselves with a set of moral guidelines by which they can govern their ethical behavior.

On the other hand, the deontological nature of religion provides a powerful disincentive to believe. That is, because the rules and guidelines involved in religion are so strict, many of us find ourselves at odds with other people when it comes to situations that matter to us. For example, we may find that religion advises against associating with certain kinds of people. We may find that religion counsels us to keep a "safe" distance away from certain kinds of art. Religion prevents us from eating certain kinds of food and wearing certain kinds of clothing.

While the underlying reasoning behind these seemingly arbitrary rules is often well-intentioned (e.g. it is in the name of preserving a sense of "modesty" that we must wear certain clothing, or a preserving a sense of "cleanliness" that we must avoid certain foods), many of these rules start to become confusing when examined under more scientific scrutiny.

Puritans, for example, thought it sinful for a woman to expose her ankles. That seems clear enough, until we're asked where the ankle begins. At this point, we must engage in the Paradox of the Heap. Point A is not the ankle, Point B is. Between the two points lies ambiguity.

If the ankle itself cannot be defined, then neither can any point "above the ankle," at least when it comes to creating a rule about what can be exposed "modestly," and what cannot. This must surely be how miniskirts and bikinis came into existence in the first place. Everyone agreed on the line at which "modesty" ended until someone pushed the line infinitessimally. Since the movement was infinitessimal, no objection could be raised. Today, we wear a variety of clothing that is perfectly modest, but not by Puritanical standards.

More to the point, when exposed to real scrutiny - when we seek to define exactly where "good" ends and "bad" begins, we find that the decision can only be one of two things:
  1. Arbitrary
  2. Well-Reasoned
If we accept my definition of faith, then we must confront the fact that a person's wishes are fundamentally arbitrary. I wish to be rich and eat hamburgers because that is my subjective value-preference. It's arbitrary. I wish angels to greet me upon my death because that is my subjective value-preference. Other people wish to be greeted by kittens. The death-lore of angels is no less arbitrary than the death-lore of kittens.

This means that faith is deontological, arbitrary, and weak when scrutinized. If a position or preference is well-reasoned and clearly stated, then it must not be faith. It must be reason or knowledge.

Scrutinizing Knowledge
Knowledge can always be assessed and scrutinized. A major advantage to knowledge, reason, and truth is that knowing you are wrong puts you in a better position than believing incorrectly that you are right. The primary argument for science over religion has always been that when scientific "knowledge" is proven wrong, science adjusts. When one theory is disproven, a more correct theory takes its place.

Knowledge, then, changes with time. The more we know, the better we understand. We never reach a static point at which we say, "Here is the place where life makes the most sense to me. I no longer wish to know anything further, for it will only be a detriment to my understanding of the universe." Such a statement seems laughable, because it is. Knowledge yearns to be improved through the refutation of prior mistaken beliefs.

When exposed to scrutiny, what we think to be knowledge becomes one of two things:
  1. True
  2. False
This means that truth is determinable, objective, and stronger when scrutinized. If a position does not change and improve when it is found to be incorrect or arbitrary, then it must not be knowledge or reason. It must be faith.

Adherents of faith can always rationalize a wish by saying, "It may be that the universe behaves according to X, and if so, then my faith is correct and well-founded." In this way, many practitioners of faith reconcile what they wish to be true with whatever the most recent trends of knowledge happen to be. And yet, their faith never evolves to a greater understanding of anything.

Indeed, the mark of a faith-based belief is that, no matter what new information presents itself, the core position held by people of faith never changes. They may develop a new rationalization for holding the same position, but the core position never changes.

It must be, therefore, that faith is the act of favoring what one wishes to be true over what one knows to be true.

Please note, the above discussion applies equally to religious faith as it does to other beliefs like socialism or anthropogenic global warming. The key point is simply this: You know you are looking at a faith-based belief (rather than reason or knowledge) when, no matter the evidence, the position does not change. That's because faith is a wish held over knowledge. What is important is the wish; even knowledge itself cannot compete.


  1. Hi Ryan,

    I have enjoyed perusing your blog! I just wanted to toss this thought out there. We very obviously won't agree on this issue, but I wanted to see if you could back up your claims. I find your conclusion to be faulty because your premise is not solid. You say,

    "Faith is the act of favoring what one wishes to be true over what one knows to be true."

    You are assuming that everything which doesn't agree with faith/religion is "true." Not so. Evolution is still a theory not a proven fact. That's just one example of the holes in secular reasoning.

    Second, secular (humanistic) reasoning doesn't have a corner on science. And faith and science are not mutually exclusive. It wasn't until the Enlightenment (thanks a lot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau!) That the two became "enemies." The reason that faith and science don't seem compatible now is because where science "used" to be a search for truth, is now a discipline where we attempt to use human reasoning to make sense of life. And we are content with anything that seems to disprove God, even if it is a theory (evolution), or an unrealistic approach to life (like utopianism).

    I wonder, if you removed or altered from your definition the part about "against what they know to be true," if your conclusion could stay the same? As you know likely know, a faulty premise can't lead to a solid conclusion. :)

    I will also acknowledge that moral relativity may cause you to feel defensive, as you state this is your personal definition of faith and here I come, saying it's not solid. I don't mean to step on toes, but I don't accept moral relativity for a lot of reasons and I also don't believe it is logical to support a conclusion that has a faulty premise.

    Otherwise, I am really usually a nice person and don't make a habit of challenging people I don't know. We probably agree on a whole lot! :)

    - Steph

    1. Hi Steph,

      First of all, let me say thanks for reading, and let me assure you that I welcome all discussion - even if it's harshly critical of what I've written. Rest assured, it's all good. ;)

      Second, I should point out that in this post, "faith" applies to non-religious faith (as in faith in a particular political idea, or faith in a person) as well as to religious faith. But because you are commenting on religious faith specifically, I'll take up the conversation there.

      With regard to "what one knows to be true," I can only say that people of faith have repeatedly told me that "faith is believing in something even when one doesn't have evidence." Indeed, to a certain extent, if there were "proof" of God, faith would be no more significant than acknowledging the color of a banana - it would be no more than a banal fact. Faith, at least religious faith, seems to hinge on the notion that "having faith" is something that is often difficult to do.

      Well, what would make it difficult, other than a dearth of concrete evidence? Faith in something is only difficult when there is either little supporting evidence, or when the conclusions themselves are difficult to swallow, such as the world's being only 12,000 years old, to take a particularly orthodox example.

      What we *know* to be true is this: The existence of God can neither be proven nor refuted. So, while many of us feel very stongly that God exists and behaves in accordance with a particular religious text, they do not *know* it, because they cannot know it.

      At least in that sense, faith is the act of wishing that there is such a God, and banking on it. I don't fault someone for being a believer, but their faith is not at all grounded in concrete evidence so much as emotional conviction in excess of the evidence.

      Having said all that, I must be fair and concede that there are many instances when people have faith for very good reasons, such as having faith in a dear friend. I don't see believers as having "misguided faith," even if I myself am not a believer. I certainly don't think believers' faith is bad!

      Instead, this post is my attempt to note that many beliefs are mere acts of faith; and that the difference between that kind of belief and a belief in objective facts is personal knowledge of the right answer. Only after establishing that concept could I build toward some of my future posts, which will deal with the problems we face when we lack evidence for the things we believe.

  2. Ryan,

    I really appreciate your systematic approach and I am realizing that I did the equivalent of eavesdropping on a conversation and then fixating on one word, totally out of context. Oops! Sorry! I can see that this post is a building block to a larger construction project you were working on. I hope I someday can read it all and see how the building turned out!

    As for the discussion at hand, I thank you for your clarifications.

    Oddly enough, I can take a lot of what you said and turn it back around on post-modern philosophies like evolution (I know, I'm sorry I keep going to that one. :/ I have studied it a little more comprehensively than others). If you will indulge me, I will give an example:

    You said,
    "What we *know* to be true is this: The existence of God can neither be proven nor refuted. So, while many of us feel very stongly that God exists and behaves in accordance with a particular religious text, they do not *know* it, because they cannot know it. "

    I could substitute evolution for God and change the wording a little, and it could read like this:

    "What we *know* to be true is this: The theory of evolution cannot be proven. So, while many of us feel very stongly that evolution is true and it behaves in accordance with a particular fossil record, they do not *know* it, because they cannot know it. (It hasn't been proven)"

    In short, facts (or lack thereof) show that philosophies such as evolution are not science, but a belief system.

    Thank you for taking time to reply to my request for clarification! I have enjoyed this discussion and will peruse your blog again in the future.