Faith: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
As a human being I’m interested in broadening the understanding of my experiences and increasing my knowledge by identifying what I’m ignorant of and then looking to fill in the gaps. My humanity also determines the limits to fulfilling those desires. I have particular interests by virtue of being me, not every subject draws me the same way. I have time limitations so I have to choose on a daily basis what to read, what to study and plan accordingly for the future. I have career limits, in that my professional obligations concerning psychology direct me to continued education along paths associated with it and not, say, that of electrical engineering. I also, though this is controversial and not without a great number of caveats, have limitations on my intelligence; there are items I study which I struggle to understand while other people have already passed me by. All of these limits are part of being human, but none of them determine prior to the inquiry itself whether I could understand by virtue of that very humanity, they are only particular limits of my own.
As an atheist I am confronted often by the simple declaration from religious adherents of “you have faith too” or in its more arrogantly adolescent form: “it takes more faith to be an atheist.” The confusing nature of this argument becomes immediately obvious when I inquire as to just what is meant, resulting in some example of the form: “you have faith that x will happen” where “x” is filled in by the sun rising tomorrow, the continued love of friends and family, or other such. From the days of my own belief, I can recall the apologetic of referencing wind or air when attempting to describe how the Holy Spirit works. Then, as now, the response to such attempts is to point out that the examples being referenced are not at all comparable.
Faith, as used colloquially, is an indication of ignorance that currently has not been resolved. The determination of proving a claim through this version is to gather more information and clarify one’s thoughts. At all times it is accepted that the potential knowledge exists, though in the end any claim will likely be tentative. I can claim to have faith (if I want to use the term) the sun will rise tomorrow due to history of experience, the demonstrated belief of the uniformity of nature and if further clarity is needed, endeavor to study astrophysics.
To believe by faith, in the supernatural religious sense of the term, means to accept that knowledge of who we are, what we can know and how to act, are forever beyond the reach of our understanding as human beings. This is why there is the felt need for special revelation from a Deity. Knowledge and the ethics that come from it are no longer derived from human rational inquiry, but are at the mercy of deistic whim. In other words, knowledge claims and moral imperatives are true not because they are demonstrably true via social consequence or ethical philosophy, but because Deity says so. If at any time it could be stated that Deity declares something true or moral because it is true or moral in itself, not only is there then no need for a Deity to clarify, but there exists knowledge and morality above or beyond the Deity. Such a situation simply cannot be accepted by adherents to religious dogmatism.
Caught in the bind of not being able to rationally justify their beliefs, believers in the supernatural like to use faith in two different ways and then get confused when called on it.
Here’s the clarification:
1) Faith: I don’t know x, but I could know x with sufficient ability and study because the material/natural world is inherently understandable or amenable to rational inquiry. If faced with a situation where x is required, then I have faith that someone else understands x for the situation to have occurred.
Example: I do not understand structural integrity and engineering, but I have faith that driving over a bridge it will not suddenly collapse or turn into a dragon and fly away with me. Given ability and time I could learn engineering, and for the bridge to exist, someone else must know enough about it to have contributed to building it.
2) Faith: I can’t know x, nor could I ever know x despite dedicating time and energy to the study of it because x is inherently outside of the natural universe. I (pretend to) know x is true because I have faith that x exists precisely because I can’t nor ever could understand it.
Example: All claims of the supernatural by various religious ideologies and many metaphysical claims made by mystical traditions that are said to “simply be known” or “known by intuition or resonance with the universe”.
There you have it. The first is otherwise known as standard human ignorance, the latter is what is being used by claimants of the supernatural, of which not all religions claim. This is why I separate out religions that have them from those who don’t.
Let’s be even clearer. One cannot have the faith of the supernatural religionist without first positing the existence of the supernatural. However, the only justification for such a notion is the very concept of faith in the first place. Faith, for such a person, is not the trust of the scientist in the indomitable power of human inquiry, but a tremulous hope, a wish-filled thought, whispered into the dark expanse of ignorance, that the dark doesn’t really exist, instead it has already been filled or in fact has always been filled. Faith, in this sense, is a completely made-up idea, it has no purpose and no meaning beyond propping up statements of belief in things that otherwise are not open to skeptical inquiry. Conveniently, the Grand-Filler, bastardizing Aristotle’s first cause, is always the very deity the believer wants others to believe in originally.
So yes, as an atheist I have faith, but it is not a faith that sets me apart from the rest of humanity. Nothing that I know now or could know in the future is due to some special revelatory experience, there are no ideas I have now or in the future that are not inherently open to skeptical inquiry, criticism and hold the potential for being removed. Faith from within humanity exists as an identifier of ignorance and a push for continued questioning, with a wariness for declarations from an authority. Such is not the case for the religious dogmatist.
© David Teachout