We Believe . . . What?


August 2, 2012


A friend recently asked me, “What is faith and what belief?”

Words of this sort have so many meanings that to think about them is like looking at a dozen unfocused images projected on top of each other in a promiscuous jumble.  In practice, to compare “faith” with “belief” means choosing one of each word’s many meanings and sharpening the focus until the two things become distinguishable in some interesting way.  In what follows, I claim no absoluteness for the meanings used and definitions attempted.



Here’s how I answered the question (with some awkward wordings tweaked from the original e-mail):


“Belief,” is, I would say, an attitude toward a given proposition, stated or implicit, that is founded on evidence. I believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, dramatically and predictably: lots of evidence. We even have a good idea of why, causally, it does so. Although one could quibble about whether any factual knowledge is ever absolute, the fact is, we can count on the Sun coming up.  I believe in all sorts of things in this sense—that is, I give to various notions about the world a level of credence proportioned to a degree of evidence. A whole range of belief-states, from great doubt to great confidence, fall on this continuum. Hume said, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” In philosophy this is, I gather, called “evidentialism.” I take it as given that our relationship of belief to matters of fact, both everyday or scientific, is and should be essentially evidentialist. Philosophers can haggle about the details, but we won’t go far wrong with a Humean evidentialist approach to questions of scientific and everyday fact.

What about “faith”? Although there are many atheists and some misguided believers who will tell you, in essence, that faith is ultimately belief based on insufficient evidence, which the atheists say is idiotic and the misguided believers say is meritorious, I think it’s another kind of beastie altogether. God cannot, I feel compelled to imagine, in line with many theologians, be a thing, fact, or event like all others—like some kind of ubiquitous magnetic field or far-off nebula waiting to be discovered, observed, validated, analyzed. We do not “believe” in God, if we do, in the same evidentialist way that we form a “belief” in Hume’s evidence-weighted way about matters of fact. At least, we don’t if we are wise. In fact, we probably never do, even if we think we do. The only believers more misguided, in my opinion, than the ones who think that faith is belief based on insufficient evidence are the ones who think it is belief based on sufficient evidence, like the Intelligent Design proponents who think that the molecular machinery of life, say, is hard-cash evidence for God’s existence.  It isn’t, thank goodness.  I, for one, would be too weirded out for words if it were.

I think that “faith” is a form of allowing ourselves to be gripped by an ultimacy in which we have chosen to trust. (Here I’m groping for a definition big enough to include religions other than my own. The phrase “gripped by ultimacy” is from Ninian Smart.)  That trust is anchored in experiences, both our own and those of others: people who have found that when they try to go forward and live as if the object of faith would keep faith, they have, by and large, felt answered. Those other people are our “community of faith,” which is basic to the existence of faith: there is no such thing as truly solitary religion, any more than there is any such thing as truly solitary language. A faith community spans time, including all those who have gone before, who have built up a faith tradition or confessional path on which we choose to walk: authors, anonymous humble believers, mad saints, songmakers, slaves, kings, dogs, whoever. It includes people have never met, people we meet every week or every day, and ourselves.


Here my e-mail came to an abrupt end. Had I gone on, I might have tried to disentangle “faith” from “belief” in the sense found at the start of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” This is not the evidence-weighted “belief” described above.  The credal “I believe” is an announcement of a commitment or alignment, however imperfect, between the whole self (which includes but is not limited to the conscious self) and some doctrinal idea, some “religious belief” or dogma such as the existence of God, the Incarnation, or the like.

Such “belief” is not weighted Humean intellectual belief, but an aspect of what I’ve called “faith.” Credal announcements are therefore not pseudo-science: that is, they are not statements of belief on a footing with those we make about the internal structure of Titan, the altitude of Venice, or the existence of Spot the dog. They are entirely conditioned on, have claim or grip upon us only because of, the transcendent “God,” and this changes everything because the considered intuition of most religious believers throughout most of history has been that that the ultimacy that grips us when we “have faith”—to monotheists, “God”—is not, cannot be, a “thing” or “fact” like others.

Why not?

Better writers than I have tried and failed to break through the wall of mutual incomprehension between atheists and believers on this point. Many of the letters responding to Terry Eagleton’s 2006 pummeling of Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books carry on the traditional misunderstanding with eloquence. But I’ll take a crack at it anyway.

I remember being lit up the first time I read Heisenberg’s explanation of why an elementary particle cannot have an appearance. It’s not that such particles have appearances that we happen to be unable, at the moment, to find out (as we happen, circumstantially, to be unable to take pictures of the insides of caves on planets circling distant stars). Rather, there is no appearance to find out. Individual elementary particles do not look like anything: they do not have surfaces, are not little spheres or cubes or dodecahedrons or fuzzy clouds, do not even have locations or entirely fixed realities. They are not “objects” at all in our intuitive sense, even though very large numbers of them make up everyday objects. All appearances arise from them, but the idea of “appearance” doesn’t apply to them.  The roots of this insight are ancient: according to Heisenberg, “Democritus was well aware of the fact that if the atoms should, by their motion and arrangement, explain the properties of matter—color, smell, taste’—they cannot themselves have these properties” (Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, Harper Torchbooks 1958, p. 69).

Analogously, if God exists, then all our categories of knowing, formed on and appropriate to our experience of the factual world, cannot apply to God even in principle. The source of all things cannot be just another thing, cannot be known or investigated or apprehended as we would anything else.  Apophatic theology, the via negativa, takes its cue and joy from this radical failure of categories, as do the calm negations of Lao Tzu: “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name” (Tao te Ching, circa 6th century BC). We can point at God but not grasp.  Credal statements are a few of our pointers.  Art makes others.

So when most believers say that we “believe” this or that, religiously speaking, we are not saying—though some confused persons, anxious to armor-plate religion with the cognitive authority of science, do unfortunately say—that we believe because publicly verifiable evidence persuades us to.

It is interesting to see honest atheists who assume that there is only one kind of “belief” chiding religious believers for going beyond their evidence. A long, revealing comment thread on the Panda’s Thumb website never breaks out of this claustrophobic cul-de-sac. A comment by Matt Young (author of the lead article, a review of Robert Asher’s Evolution and Belief, 2012) is typical:

A belief is a statement that you hold to be true. I do not deny that people believe in God, but I claim that they have no intellectual right to believe in God because there is no evidence to show that their belief is true. Therefore, all they can honestly do is provisionally assume their belief, that is to say, hypothesize.

Given his assumptions, Young is right. If God is a “hypothesis”—a testable mental model of some aspect of the factual world—then God is not only dead, but dead on arrival. There are no data to tip our carefully adjusted scales toward some degree of intellectual “belief.” (The Intelligent Design school says there are such data, but their key claims of fact are all wrong.) We have no “intellectual right to believe” in God.  God the hypothesis, that is.

But a God in whom we had a Humean “intellectual right to believe” would not be a God whom we had any right to worship. It would be a mere superbeing, bigger and more impressive than us but not ultimately different.  God-the-hypothesis is not only a bad hypothesis, it is not even God.  The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

I can imagine how a clean-thinking atheist might find all this palaver merely aggravating or even disgusting: an elaborate, unworthy attempt to cut an escape hatch in the skull, to place God safely beyond disverification. Well, it could be that, depending on where one went with it: but in my favor I’d plead that (a) it is a fairly accurate account of how God or the gods are most often actually worshipped, regardless of the merits of such worship, and (b) it may put God comfortably beyond disverification but it also puts God disconcertingly beyond verification, ruling out the sort of gilt-edged evidential security that Intelligent Designers dream of. Faith on these terms must hover permanently over an abyss of doubt. If that’s an easy way out, show me a hard one.

Not atheism, though: atheism of the confident, rationalist sort is as easy, natural, and pleasant as sitting down. Show me an atheist of that type who finds their position uncomfortable or difficult to maintain, and I’ll show you a rare bird.  If all I wanted was to relax, I would become an atheist this minute.