Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, quoted in a Christmas newspaper article1 discussing the virgin birth of Jesus, said that he had “never seen a quark and nor has anyone else. They are, he said, like so many other things we take on faith, beyond our human comprehension.”
Another example: I have been on a plane and have heard a fellow passenger say that he has “faith” that the pilot will land us safely.
These are common uses of the word faith, and the sense in which it is used (akin to trust) in our two examples is well known. But I believe these uses are improper, are a distraction, and have caused much unnecessary argument.
It is not faith that drives my belief in quarks and it is not because of faith that I believe the plane will land safely. I believe in quarks and safe flights based on evidence. (How that evidence drives belief does, however, hinge ultimately on faith; see below). Even stronger, quarks are not beyond human comprehension; statements like Collins’s are paradoxical because humans in the first place proposed quarks, thus they comprehended them.
I am most certainly not arguing that quarks are real, or that all planes will land safely. We know that some planes crash, and the evidence for quarks is elusive to most of us. But there is evidence, and an enormous amount of it, that most planes will make it home fine, and other evidence which shows that quarks are real. Both of these beliefs, therefore, are the result of reasonable arguments (unarticulated, almost certainly, for most humans, but that fact does not matter here).
A common (and stupid) misconstrual of faith is found in, for example, the Skeptic’s Dictionary:
Faith is a non-rational belief in some proposition. A non-rational belief is one that is contrary to the sum of the evidence for that belief. A belief is contrary to the sum of the evidence if there is overwhelming evidence against the belief, e.g., that the earth is flat, hollow, or is the center of the universe. A belief is also contrary to the sum of the evidence if the evidence seems equal both for and against the belief, yet one commits to one of the two or more equally supported propositions.
That web page also approvingly quotes Mark Twain, who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” We can dispense with these blatant misuses of the word immediately. Believing what you know is false is idiocy or contrariness or obstinacy or insanity, not faith. This definition says more about the authors of the definition than it says about faith. Twain should rather have said, “Faith is believing what I, Mark Twain, believe ain’t so.”
Incidentally, the Skeptic’s Dictionary’s definition of non-rational belief as a belief “that is contrary to the sum of the evidence” is not controversial, and the two examples it uses are fine. But it false, and against all experience, to say it is irrational to “commit to one of the two or more equally supported propositions.” If this were true it would therefore be irrational to carry an umbrella when the forecast is for 50% chance of rain. (It would also be irrational to weight propositions by how much you would gain or lose depending which turned out to be true; this is the technical subject of decision analysis.)
It is mere abuse to say that faith “is a non-rational belief in some proposition.” This is no sort of definition at all, only an aspersion on a perfectly good word. This petulant casting is almost certainly the result of an overreaction to the gross misuses of faith from the “other side,” i.e., those who are religious. The Dictionary quotes one of these people, UC Davis Professor Richard Davis, who says, “A statement like … ‘everything evolved from purely natural processes’ cannot be supported by the scientific method and is a statement of faith, not science.” Davis is obviously wrong, and uses the word faith in the same sense as the person claiming the plane will land safely.
Misuse of faith by the religious is common, e.g., Archbishop Collins’s quip. When this misuse happens, it is usually because the religious are seeking to counter certain scientific statements which they believe threaten their beliefs. As a weak counterattack, some religious devotees attempt to argue that much of science is also taken on faith. Sort of a “We’re all in this thing together, so leave me alone” argument. This is unfortunate, but is no reason to dismiss the word altogether. For example, physicist Paul Davies, writing for the New York Times (quoted on the Skeptic’s Dictionary) said, “..science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.” Davies’s first sentence is true, his second is false (in the now familiar manner). Why is the first one true?
This is faith: the belief in a thing for which there is no (empirical) evidence.
For Christians, misuse of faith most likely begins with Hebrews 11:1, which reads, “…faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This use of evidence should not be seen in its empirical sense, but some have attempted to take it this way by, perversely, requiring faith in evidence, which is what Davies is trying to do in his second sentence.
But Davies’s first sentence is true: every atheist, scientist, and mathematician has faith in certain statements, rules, and propositions they believe to be true but cannot prove; further, these things are impossible to prove. That is, there is no, and can be no, empirical evidence for them. Nevertheless, they still believe that they are true. It is even necessary that they do so. These propositions form the very basis of logic, probability and statistics, as well as physics, chemistry, and on and on. All belief begins in faith.
1This post ran originally on 26 December 2007, a time when this blog was young.