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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Redefining the Nature of Faith

By February 20, 2013

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Faith is a very important concept for many religious theists -- so important, in fact, that they often appear determined to find some way to apply it to irreligious, secular atheists. It's as if they can't conceive of anyone not having faith like them, so they try to find ways to redefine faith (and sometimes atheism) in order to get the two to fit. The results always fail, but sometimes the process can be very strange. Even some non-believers can get in on the act.

A forum member tries to redefine faith:

But faith is more than superstition; it has little to do with religion. Paul Tillich describes faith as "The most centered act of the human mind." Separated from its religious connotations, faith as Tillich describes it can be seen as an integral constituent of one's psyche. An example in simple terms of faith as distinct from superstition, one can say that faith is that certain knowledge that one's conscious being will persist from one moment to the next; or that the sun will rise again tomorrow. It is knowing that one will continue breathing while one sleeps. C.S. Lewis's remarkable claim that he is a Christian because "Christianity makes sense," is the antithesis of faith.

Faith acts constructively to conduct one into the future rather than acting to reinforce the past as superstition does. Faith anticipates constructive change; superstition demands stagnation. Religion is more of a superstition than it is faith. That people don't know the difference is one of the dysfunctions of religion, the result of religion's tendency to close the mind. Faith requires an open mind. That is the only way I can describe it. Faith is uplifting while superstition is not. Faith conquers fear; superstition reinforces it.

Another forum member responds by pointing out that "faith" has been redefined in a way to eliminate all the bad elements while preserving all the good ones:

Moreover, I think you've been so busy trying to glue some good connotations on that you've overlooked where the word got the good connotations it has already. The definition you criticized is half right, it's just incomplete. Faith does include the idea of believing without regard to evidence, but it's not just any believing without evidence. Rather, it's believing something because some other moral agent has a moral responsibility to make it true.

Faith is a moral transaction, and the opposite of faith is slander - if you lack faith, you're insinuating that someone (or Someone) won't fulfill their promises or duties or other responsibilities. It's not faith in this core sense unless there can be a breach of faith, that is, unless the other party does fail to fulfill their commitment.

So when you say that it's faith to expect that you'll wake up tomorrow morning, I say the only faith involved is in those close to you not to murder you in your sleep. If your number is up and you die of a heart attack at 3 am, then there's no breach of faith because there's no other party whose responsibility it was that you did wake up. The flip-side of that is that there was no breach of faith because there was no faith to breach. Whatever remaining expectations you may have had were not faith.

Now of course, if you want to try redefining faith yet again to make it something that an atheist could sign onto, then it's your prerogative to try, but I wish you wouldn't. Your definition is mushy to the point of uselessness, it's taking off in third direction rather than getting back to the roots of the word, and it makes it harder to say what is wrong with the evangelical conception of faith.

First, you can sensibly have faith in an existing God to be good and fulfill promises, but you can't sensibly have faith in a God to exist in the first place. If there's no God then there's no God to have committed a breach of faith, and so your belief in God was just a dumb idea, not faith.

Second, you can only sensibly have faith in God to fulfill promises that you have evidence were made by God originally. But all any modern person has is reports of promises relayed by Christians. So nobody actually has faith in God, or Christianity, they have faith in Christians. And that's a rather dumb thing to do, because Christians' primary obligation as Christians is not to have their facts straight but to believe and to get others to believe. To the extent they were good Christians you can have faith in them to have used everything from ignoring contrary evidence through sophistry to outright dishonesty to keep believing.

What do you think about the attempt to redefine faith? Do you agree with the first poster's ideas about faith, or with the second poster's? Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

June 13, 2007 at 10:55 am
(1) Elaygee says:

Faith is no diofferent than magic. Faith relies on no logic or reason. At best it is a series of assumptions, and you know what happens when you assume (Ass out of U and Me)

June 13, 2007 at 11:46 am
(2) Ron says:

So… What exacly is the Christian faith? Do they have faith that their god will honor his commitment, or is it faith that there is such a god? Or both?

June 13, 2007 at 1:12 pm
(3) Paul Buchman says:

Faith is no diofferent than magic.

They are not at all alike. Magic is action which violates the laws of nature. Faith is believing without evidence.

or is it faith that there is such a god?

You didn’t understand the post. It said quite clearly “you can’t sensibly have faith in a God to exist in the first place.”

Read it again.

June 13, 2007 at 7:41 pm
(4) Ron says:

hi, Paul. I am abt halfway thru a book by Pascal Boyer: The evoutionary origins of religious thought. Do you remember how real the monster under the bed was when you were 5 years old? I could feel it’s presence. It was real!I was tryin to put myself in the shoes of an evangelical friend, and see it from his perspective. To him the presence of god is real, like the monster under the bed. your thoughts?

June 13, 2007 at 11:12 pm
(5) Paul Buchman says:

Hi Ron,

I, too, read Religion Explained and I consider it a good book, well worth rereading.

As for the evangelical you mention, I have talked with such people myself. I always ask them why they associate their experience with their god and suggest possible alternative explanations. So far I have not gotten any satisfactory responses. I end up either avoiding the subject of religion with them or avoiding that person altogether.

At some point in life, I grew up and discarded the idea of the monster under the bed. Now if I think I hear something, I get up, turn on the light and take a look. Would that fundies did the same.

June 14, 2007 at 10:30 am
(6) IsaacJ says:


I think Elaygee meant that faith in God is like faith in magic. Or, as Ron put it, a belief that the monster under the bed was really there even though your parents showed you there was no monster. None of these have any basis in reason.

I think you didn’t understand Elaygee’s post. It said quite clearly that “faith is no different from magic. Faith relies on no logic or reason.”

Please read it again.

June 15, 2007 at 4:02 pm
(7) Paul Buchman says:


Maybe Elaygee “meant that faith in God is like faith in magic” but that is not what s/he said. I might have assumed that s/he meant what you said but you read what s/he also said about making assumptions, right?

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