Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: Faith and Belief

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Language Prescriptivism is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I’ve started a regular series talking about the various usages of different words that come up here and there that cause regular problems in theological and other debates. While I will always have a preference for certain word usages over others, the label we apply to ideas is not as interesting as the ideas themselves, so I will do my best to present multiple usages behind words in the most charitable way while still defending my preference.

The words “faith” and “belief” cause all sorts of problems within theological debates, because it means so many different possible things. One might question why I am bringing two words into the blog post, but that should become immediately obvious. The way people use both these words, they can sometimes become synonymous! But these two words come up so often in theological discussions and they both carry such widely different meanings that just going into them will illustrate the importance of clarity and transparency in the vocabulary we use. Otherwise, it won’t just be people with different religious perspectives misunderstanding each other, it will be people with similar religious perspectives misunderstanding each other.

Between the two words, the one with more theological baggage is undoubtedly the word “faith”. Sometimes, people will refer to it when discussing their entire religious worldview. That is what we seem to imply when we refer to “people of all faiths”. When we talk about a person “of faith” we are talking about a religious person. When we talk about a “faith-based initiative”, we are talking about a political action based on religious actors. No matter what we do with the term, faith seems inseparable from a religious context.

With regards to discussing faith with religious folks, I’d highly recommend Matt Dillahunty’s video here. He, as usual, is able to thoroughly dissect the concept of discussing faith and give some thoughts on how to use it in conversations, and I’d recommend that everyone watch the whole thing. The relevant content for the usage of faith falls around 6 minutes, 32 seconds, where Matt discusses the Bible’s definition:

“Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

As Matt points out, this verse has two seemingly different usages of the word faith: one that chalks it up to “confidence” in an idea, and one usage that means the actual evidence of an idea. In this sense, if somebody has confidence that their god exists, then they can use that confidence as evidence that the god exists. This is a circular usage that basically assumes the premise. If the faith that someone had in their god could be uses as good evidence, then appeals to faith could be logically justified. However, since confidence has nothing to do with how true a proposition is (unless you’re talking about statistical confidence intervals, perhaps), then appeals to faith cannot be taken seriously.

However, “faith” is a common victim of equivocation. People will often use this definition of faith in one context, and then pull a bait-and-switch on you and use faith to mean something slightly different. It’s common for religious folks to claim, “Don’t you have faith that the chair you’re sitting in will support you? Don’t you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow? The chair that you’re sitting on could break, or we could get struck by a meteor that breaks up the Earth into tiny bits overnight.”

There’s a lot of truth to that statement, in all honesty. I’ve sat down on a chair and broken it before, so it’s within the realm of possibility that the next time I sit down on a chair it falls apart. And while it’s ridiculously improbable that something will collide with Earth with enough mass to destroy us all overnight is ridiculously improbable, there’s still a small chance that it could happen, as we never have a 100% probability of anything happening.


[Image: Scale from 0% to 100% of “evidence that we have to be able to be confident in something”. In order from least likely to most likely, the Christian god exists, I’m getting laid soon, Aliens exist, My coin will land on heads, We are causing global warming, gravity will pull me downward, I think (therefore I am)]

However, having confidence in something that is not 100% likely is far from the same thing as having confidence in something that otherwise has no evidence to back it up. In terms of things you could have confidence in, those two things are about as far apart as you can get. In fact, I have far more confidence that a coin will land heads-up than I have confidence that a god exists. I have more evidence that the next time I flip my coin, it will land heads-up. Yet, I have no confidence that it will do so. So it is ludicrous to assign “faith” to confidence in both things that have good evidence and confidence in things with bad evidence. This equivocation basically assigns “faith” to confidence in anything that we aren’t absolutely certain of, and since we can’t be absolutely certain of almost anything, it is a useless definition. If you’re having a conversation where this happens, it will be best that you call it out.

This leads to “belief”. There are a lot of people, atheists included, who will use “belief” as synonymous to the word “faith”, as in confidence in something without any supporting evidence. You can look at all the atheists who got a bit miffed when Hillary Clinton said, “I believe in science” in her nomination speech this year. You can look at science communicators who are considering taking the term out of scientific textbooks. Or you can follow an atheist Facebook page and come across a variety of memes that look like this:


[Image: four hominid skulls, with the caption “I don’t believe in evolution, I understand why evolution is true”]

Even though I think equating belief and faith is a bit silly, I have to admit that there are occasionally contexts where the word has been painted with religious connotations. After all, how many times have we heard the canard, “You have to believe in something!

As such, there are atheists who will proclaim that they have no belief, just as they would say that they have no faith. I find this to be an unnecessary place for atheists to plant their flag, as there appears to be far more philosophical ground for using belief to describe thoroughly justified or otherwise secular things. After all, one of the standard philosophical definitions of “knowledge” is, “justified true belief”. While there are still minor issues with this definition, this clearly distinguishes faith from belief, as faith can never be justified if it is mere confidence without evidence.

As such, I contend that it makes far more sense to use belief for anything you hold as true. You can believe something for good reasons, or for bad reasons. You can be dogmatic with your belief, or you can be non-dogmatic in your belief. You can believe that some things exist based on evidence, such as gravity or evolution. Or, you can believe that some things exist for bad reasons, like believing in Heaven because you want it to be true. The point is, there is a perfectly acceptable usage of the word belief without any supernatural baggage, so why should we get all worked up about it?

It’s also worth noting that for both these words, there’s another usage that can be used both in a religious and secular context, which is the confidence in something’s abilities. For example, if you are going to cheer on your kid doing track and field, you might tell them that you believe in them to let them know that you think they can do well. I’ve told my peers that I believe in them when they are about to go give a speech, which is a vote of confidence that I can give them. In the same sense, people may say, “I believe in God.” Not in the sense that they have confidence that a cosmic creator exists, but that they think that the cosmic creator is capable of doing a good job.

This is a non-trivial distinction. In this last usage, it already assumes the existence of such a thing. This means when atheists say “I don’t believe in God”, then they may be talking past somebody else. They might mean that they don’t think that such a god exists, while the theist that is listening hears that the atheist merely doesn’t think that the god they have proposed is very competent. This is important if we want to have clear discussions across the aisle. Instead of saying, “I don’t believe in God”, we might want to say that, “I don’t believe that your god exists.” Unless you actually think that the god exists and is not doing a very good job, but then I’d wonder why you’re calling yourself an atheist.

Hopefully pointing out all these distinctions is useful for the conversations we have, both when we are talking to theists and atheists. Both words appear to have a large amount of varying baggage depending on the person using them. As such, it’s good to clarify what we mean when it seems we are on different terms. Remember that you can always stop everything, take a step back, and breathe, before asking to clear up what the other person means. I believe that we are capable of that, if we are all interested in a good-faith discussion.


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