I attend meetings with a humanist group, and I enjoy the thought-provoking conversations with fellow like-minded individuals. Recently we discussed the topic of faith, and I quickly realized that the term “faith” has many meanings and can be used in different contexts, sometimes within the same thought, to mean some very different ideas.
What is faith to this atheist?
Faith can be defined in many ways, and I actually looked it up on dictionary.com to get some ideas, and found no less than 7 definitions…
I’ll start with the definitions of faith that I generally think are good or positive things: having confidence or trust in a person or thing, belief in anything such as a code of ethics or standard of merit, the obligation of loyalty to a person or promise and the observance of said obligation. With the idea of faith meaning any or all of these definitions, faith can be misplaced, which would certainly hold negative consequences. If I had a friend who I felt had misplaced faith, I might try to change her mind, or at least convince her to question that faith. However, I think as humans in general, having faith in other people or keeping faith when you make a promise are good things for humanity and society, mainly because I think this creates positive outcomes for people and society.
Taking the first definition of faith a step further, you could argue that you can “have faith” that something is going to happen; when you get home, you can have faith that your house will be safe and that other family members in the house are healthy and well. Maybe you can argue that this is a type of faith, because it might be something you don’t know for a fact, but there is generally evidence and common-sense to back up your “faith”: statistics (how many times have you gone home and everything is fine?), and the fact that nothing has happened to make you think there might be a problem (no frantic phone call, no one sick or in trouble when you left the house, etc.).
Something I find in common about these definitions of faith: they are all kinds that can be tested in one way or another, and shown to be worth it or not in the long run.
The other side of faith…
dictionary.com lists 3 other definitions of faith: belief that is not based on proof, belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion, or a system of religious beliefs.
Belief in God or in your religion… I personally don’t think that faith in God is necessarily a bad thing (I do think some atheists disagree with me on this point). I tend to instead look to what that faith causes them to do, and judge from there: if you are fighting for equal rights, try to help those less fortunate than yourself, or in general just being a kind and compassionate person, then I will think highly of you. If your faith is “leading” you to do such a thing, then awesome (even if, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I think you could be pretty awesome without faith). I think faith in doctrines or teachings can be a problem if a person is not allowed to question them or disagree with them, because this can lead to very problematic beliefs.
My main issue is with belief that is not based on proof… actually, I realize as I write, what I have difficulty with is faith in something that causes you to ignore evidence to the contrary so that you can hold on to that faith. One big issue that comes to mind is creationism. I used to be a 7-day Old Testament creationist. The amazing thing about this is that you have to ignore the fact that there are 2 separate creation stories, in Genesis, sitting pretty much next to each other. Read Genesis 1, then Genesis 2. The order in Genesis 2 is totally different. If you’re a creationist, like I was, you have to reconcile that both are accurate accounts because you have to make it work to fit your belief. And that’s a problem. Or, if you hold on to a belief that your church teaches you – say, that it’s wrong to be gay – and ignore all evidence that gay people can be normal, functioning humans who want a loving relationship like many other normal, functioning humans, and instead hold on to the belief that it’s “evil” and “sinful,” this is a problem (especially if it causes you to hurt loved ones or fight against people’s rights).
I suppose that this can apply to the other kinds of faith: for example, if you have faith in a person – you put your trust in them, and have confidence that they will do what they say – and time and time again they betray that faith… but you hold on, in the face of evidence – this is a problem too, and the person it hurts the most is the person who’s holding on.
Faith that is not based on proof – but is held onto in spite of proof – is a problem.
Other kinds of faith range from anywhere between normal to good and important parts of the human experience.
(P.S. – parts of this post were published earlier because… I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save.” Whoops!)