Q of the Week: Faith and Belief

Well I completely enjoyed Kaleidoscope this year! Remember when I said that my attendance at KG had nothing to do with elephants? Well, in fact there was an elephant at KG this year. I helped to make it (although Jeff and Auz did almost all of the work, really).

Not too much other than that going on. Two weeks ago, I had an interview with a temp agency here in Ottawa, and I left it feeling very confident and enthusiastic about being placed in a good position in the early fall. I’m also going over the manuscript of Loneliness and Revelation for the last time, and I will probably upload it to the publisher later today. I’m looking forward to the work weekends on Raven’s Knoll (those who attended KG know what this means), and also looking forward to a visit from my lady from out west…

Ahem. So, on to the question of the week.

Do you “believe” anything? Have you “faith” in the gods, or in impersonal spiritual forces like fate or destiny, or the like? I ask partly because I’m not sure if I do. I find myself swiftly coming to the view that concepts like faith and belief might not be the right kind of concepts to describe my spiritual life. I don’t have “faith” in anything. But I do have certain cultural, philosophical, and spiritual commitments. For instance I find myself committed to a certain tribe of people who surround me. I’m also committed to certain values and ideas which I have learned from Celtic mythology, from my own examination of nature, and of my own mind and heart.

Faith, as perhaps most people understand it, is like a belief in the existence of things which you otherwise have little or no reason to believe in. St. Paul himself seems to confirm this: he defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1.) In many ways this notion of faith enables people to entertain beliefs in things, ideas, people, spiritual realities, etc., for which they have no rational argument, nor any empirical evidence; the emotional and perhaps irrational wish for such things being the only evidence that the faithful person needs. It sounds simple and elegant. Leo Tolstoy wrote in his “Confession” that such simple faith enabled him to avoid suicidal despair. But I think that Richard Dawkins might be right when he characterises faith as a form of non-thinking. I simply cannot have that in my own spirituality. I need to know things before I can commit my life to them. And before anyone stigmatizes and attacks me for being a doubting Thomas (a classic case of the adversariam fallacy, and a sign of a dogmatic mind), let me observe that useful and reliable knowledge can come from many sources: the sensory organs of my body, the work of my hands, and the contemplations of my mind, just as a few examples.

Other, less dogmatic understandings of the role of faith exist, and need not imply a confrontation or a rejection of reason. An op-ed piece in The Guardian a few weeks back, entitled Metaphysical Mistake, described how mythos and logos were two fields of knowledge with well-defined and distinct roles to play in human life; I found the author’s argument persuasive. To understand the world, live in it, use it, and even change it, we need reason, scientific enquiry, and the like (designated by this author with the word logos); for our social values, our artistic directions, and the like, which logos cannot supply, we have mythos: the stories of the doings of our gods, ancestors, predecessors, and heroes.

And so, friends, I put the question to you. Does faith and belief have a role in your spiritual life? What is that role? Or, like me, do you instead have commitments?

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11 Responses to Q of the Week: Faith and Belief

  1. alfrecht says:

    As you may recall from my I.P.V.B.M. posts, I think the understanding of faith (and belief, whether taken as synonymous or as one leading to the other) that is commonly held by most people (including the biblical writer you cite above…and it’s fairly agreed that Hebrews is a deutero-Pauline epistle at this stage) is one that is ridiculous and not very useful, and completely at odds with most forms of paganism, polytheism, animism, and the like. These are religions of practice, religions of experience, not religions of creed…

    If the terms are defined in those manners, then no, I have no faith, and I have no beliefs, and I do all that is possible to not have them.

    So, I like the definition of faith and belief and religion given by my ecclesiology prof at Gonzaga: faith is the experience of the divine, and belief is the articulation of that experience. If defined in those ways, then I have lots of faith, and lots of faith (conventionally defined) in those faith experiences. But just because I know these things to be “true” does not mean that everyone else has to agree…

    …And I think that’s exactly where things start falling down between people in the same religion, and between people in different religions. It’s almost as if the urge to proselytize is the urge to impose one’s radical solipsism on everyone else, since any faith experience (by the second definition above) is inherently subjective and personal, often more perceptual than physical, and as often as not completely internal. Oops…!

  2. uncledark says:

    Faith has always seemed to me to be the stuff which fills in the gaps between direct experiences. It’s the stuff that holds together one’s internal model of reality. Acting on (or from) faith is acting as if what one has faith in were so.

    In those terms, I wish I had more faith than I do. I don’t want to give up questioning, or to take on beliefs without thought. There is, though, a point where I’ve run out of proof and personal experience, where it would be nice to have faith to bridge those gaps and allow me to push on. Sometimes stopping at the edge of the known is a wise thing, but being bound by the edge of the known isn’t so good.

    I go back and forth in my belief in the reality of things for which I have only subjective experience and anecdotal evidence. Maybe the gods are real, maybe they aren’t. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m not certain that it matters, on a practical every-day level.

    But I get by, proceeding as if.

  3. darklyfey says:

    I’m Wiccan, and as with many of the paths beneath the grande olde pagan umbrella, it is an experiential path rather than a revelatory one. I don’t think the word ‘faith’ has any real place in my spiritual life. Belief, yes – I believe that magic works. I believe that there’s an intelligence behind the mysteries of nature. I believe that the sun will come up tomorrow and the day after – so yes, belief. But faith, to me, implies that I sit around waiting for the things I need to happen in my life to take place because I have faith they will. I don’t have faith. I do stuff. I believe that I’m a co-creator with the divine, but I don’t really need ‘faith’ to actual experience that.

  4. dubhlainn says:

    the emotional and perhaps irrational wish for such things being the only evidence that the faithful person needs

    But I think that Richard Dawkins might be right when he characterises faith as a form of non-thinking.

    And before anyone stigmatizes and attacks me for being a doubting Thomas

    I have heard you mention before how hurtful it has been to you when Pagans have disparaged you for not having faith or belief. Knowing how that feels, can you understand how using language like you did above “non-thinking”, “irrational” etc. can make others feel?

    For myself, as a Polytheist and animist, I acknowledge there are many forms Divine and many ways to approach that divinity. Having faith is no more “irrational” than not having faith. They are just different.

  5. erynn999 says:

    I tend to fall more into the experience and commitments side of the equation, though I would say I have some faith and belief as well, usually based on experiences. I believe that a lot of deities exist, though I only have experience of a small subset of deities in the world, for instance. My ritual actions are often based on the faith/belief that the deities will respond to them, as they sometimes do. I don’t think it’s harmful to have faith or beliefs, just to insist that faith and belief must be imposed on others.

  6. Anonymous says:

    One man’s facts are another man’s faith

    The lady from out west has faith…

    But the lady from out west doesn’t expect others to share her worldviews.

    And now I shall ramble a bit…

    “Faith and doubt both are needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.” ~ Lillian Smith

    (I should warn you, I am in a quoting mood)

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    The first word demanding our attention is the Greek word hupostasis. This is a compound word, from hupo (upo) under, and histemi (isthmi) I stand; and literally or primarily means standing under, an underprop, a support, a basis, ground, or foundation. To stand under or to understand perhaps???

    Faith is from fido; confidence from confido, which is merely fido intensified by con.

    Never mind non-thinking, what about non-feeling? Complete rationality lacks emotion. We are Human, not Vulcan.

    Do I have to be rational all the time? Why? How terribly boring and dull a life I would then lead! I’d never be able to wear non-matching striped socks ever again *pouts*
    (I’m not sure I can do that, I am a woman at the mercy of my hormones after all hehehehe)

    It is rational to have no faith, no belief at all? Can you not have at least some faith in certain things, some beliefs, and still be a rational, thinking person?

    Does having faith in something automatically make me a hysteric?

    Where is the middle ground? The world is not black and white; it is a million shades of grey.

    “I want to believe” ~ A poster in Mulder’s basement

    What is commitment?
    An act of committing to a charge or trust
    The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action or to another person or persons
    Dedication to a cause or principle

    How can you make a commitment without faith or belief? Doe sit not take faith and/or belief in order to dedicate ourselves to some thing, someone or some cause? Do we not first have to believe in a group and its purpose before we can make a commitment to it?
    When someone makes a commitment to us, do we not take that on faith?

    To know and to have faith are different things. But they do not cancel each other out; indeed one can strengthen the other.

    I loved the article you linked to by the way, and I think that covers where I stand fairly well…

    Do I have a literal belief in the myths and folk tales, for example? No, not really. I believe in them wonderful pieces of lore, wisdom, knowledge, values, ideas, and a little real historical accounts thrown in.

    But for me “Faith” is making the conscious choice to take knowledge one-step further.

    To boldly go…

    Now, I have issues with blind faith and belief with out any facts or experience to back it up. But I simply cannot have a lack of faith or belief. I wouldn’t be … whole.

    Experts From Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith:
    “Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing.
    It is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools.”

    Some of the hardest and most painful things I have done and faced were gotten through on faith and/or belief. I wouldn’t fight to save a dying dog and her litter of pups if I did not have faith. Or no, I would try to save the first ones, but not the next to come along. Where would I find it in myself to do that?
    The only certainty is that the world is cruel and that I will lose more than I save. But my faith and my belief are what makes me fight that loosing battle.

    My beliefs are based upon my knowledge and experience, my faith upon my hopes and dreams. And also the need to trust there is something good in me, and this world around me.

    “Faith is reason grown courageous.” ~ Sherwood Eddy

    And finally:

    “Reason is our soul’s left hand, faith her right.” ~ John Donne

  7. One day, five blind men came upon an elephant…


  8. misslynx says:

    I think a lot depends on how you define terms like “faith” and “belief”. The belief-without-evidence definition of faith – what some people might term more specifically blind faith – is only one of many possible definitions, though it’s certainly a widespread one, particularly among people critical of religion.

    Personally, I don’t have much use for that particular sort of faith, and try very much to avoid it, much as wrote above. But like him, I don’t think that’s the only possible definition.

    In trying to clarify my own ideas on this, I looked at some dictionary definitions of faith, and found some that I find more useful. The first one listed on Dictionary.com is “confidence or trust in a person or thing”, and that one is considerably more relevant to my own sense of spirituality, in several ways, than blind faith is. Others listed there include “belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.” and “the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.”, the latter of which seems to reflect your own statement about “cultural, philosophical, and spiritual commitments”.

    For me, a personal definition of faith would encompass things like trust in my own spiritual experiences; the ability to remember them even when things seem dark and hopeless, and believe that things will some day get better; the willingness to reach out to the divine even if it’s not hitting me over the head with its presence at any given moment; commitment to the ideals and ethics that have grown out of such experiences; and openness to having the experiences in the first place.

    None of these, I think, would entirely meet Dawkins’ definition of faith, though they do in a sense fall into the category of “the evidence of things not seen”, because they all in some way involve having trust in or commitment to thing that are intangible. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I like that phrase, as paradoxical as it may seem, because it doesn’t so much assert the value of belief without evidence as point out that there is more than one kind of evidence and things that are visible in the conventional sense are not all there is.

  9. willowwindss says:

    I am new to live journal and the community here but I will make so bold as to reply.
    This is a loaded question depending on your definition of faith and belief. If you define
    faith as the steadfast adherence to the existence of something that has never been demonstrated to exist or to have occurred, then faith is indeed irrational because it bypasses the normative conventions of cognitive proof. Some will take this as a negative value judgment rather than a descriptive statement, colored by the notion that rational is a state of superior sanity to irrational, but in this case I think it is straight forward description. Faith is irrational. The inference systems that produce this have been discussed by Pinker, Boyer and others. I would say that I have faith that the universe will continue to unfold according to its own self generated rules without the influence of external actors that can randomly contradict those rules. But is this what most people think of as faith? Perhaps not. It is not, from my point of view, a blind faith but a conclusion resulting from repeated examination of both ideas about the universe and acquired knowledge. As such it has certain aspects that stand up to the demand of repeated demonstration. So come to the question of whether faith is blind or examined. There are some points of view that hold the premise that blind faith is what faith really is. But I can’t subscribe for myself to that kind of viewpoint.

    It occurs to me also that one rarely is questioned about the concepts of faith and belief in the abstract. When someone asks you if you have faith or believe, they almost always are really asking if you believe in some specific entity or doctrine even if what that is remains implied rather than stated; and usually with the additional implication that some beliefs are true (theirs) and others are false. Faith, also, is not just faith in general but has certain expectations of performance around it. For instance, that things are the way they are because that is what God or the gods intend. But I don’t have such expectations because I don’t see the forces of the cosmos acting from personal intent. So again, faith may not be an appropriate term.

    It seems there is some difference in the qualities of faith and belief, the concepts to which the action of faith is applied. Belief, as opposed to knowledge, implies that what is believed cannot be demonstrated. Again, there is more than one type of belief. Generally, there is the type of beliefs that are handed down culturally and which the individual accepts are true because they are conditioned to accept what their culture tells them is true. There is also belief that has been subject to rigorous questioning. This kind of belief exists because the person who holds it has made the choice to believe after having studied the other choices. This is my position regarding the Celtic deities. Based on my personal inner experiences (which cannot really be validated as actually having happened though they can be compared the experiences recorded by others) I have come to believe in the ability to interact with the deities on the level of the psyche at least. I reconcile this with my faith in the integrity of the cosmos because my concept of these deities does not include that they are external to it. This is not an imprinted cultural belief but one that was arrived for emotional and aesthetic reasons after long consideration and in the full knowledge that yes, it is rather irrational and cannot be demonstrated empirically. In fact, its indemonstrable and irrational nature held me back for a long time.

  10. willowwindss says:


    Perhaps I should have just put this in my journal and made a link but put it down to lack of experience.

    There are also the beliefs that are the basis for action. One of those beliefs is that no one has the right to impose their beliefs on others, particularly on the pain of death and eternal damnation. Other such beliefs include the demonstration of certain qualities like compassion and justice but these may also be considered commitments to certain principles rather than belief per se. So I would say that I do have beliefs but they were not arrived at without due rational consideration, much of which was based working knowledge that results from science and some which was based on interior experience. And I do have faith in the unfolding of the cosmos according to its own principles but some people might not consider that faith. With regards to the deities, you could say I have faith that when I reach out for the presence of those I believe in that I consistently find it but I don’t expect any one of those presences to appear in some glorious version that others will instantly and unmistakably perceive. So there is a degree of faith and a kind of belief but not of a nature that I feel to be inconsistent with knowledge. Which brings up another interesting question for me. My belief is that we should never attempt to impose belief. But where does that leave knowledge? Can or should we likewise hold the belief that persons or societies can reject knowledge which in itself has a profound affect on belief?

    Thank you for posing this interesting question.

  11. gryph07 says:

    It’s interesting that you pose this question, as I’ve been contemplating this in myself for the last few months.

    Do I have faith? To some extent, yes. I have been undergoing a similar drift in my spirituality in the past while that has been gradually taking me in a direction I didn’t necessarily see myself going. But to some extent, I still have something that resembles faith. I’d like to think it isn’t blind. I definitely question, think, question and try to experience. The experiences (spiritual and scientific) I have had feed into it. Other people’s philosophical discussions have fed into it as well. Although, semantically, I tend not to consider what I have to be faith so much as spirituality.

    Do I believe? Yes, I would have to say I do have beliefs. My beliefs have, in fact, shifted from what they were, as I have grown through trials and tribulations. My experiences impact my beliefs. Certain beliefs I held ten years ago are cast off. Certain are still valid.

    In the end, I do believe in gods, but they are very similar to “impersonal” forces of nature. I find one of my most spiritual exercises is to gaze up into the inky darkness of the universe and realize how very tiny and fleeting I am. I do have a “faith” which is essentially pagan, based on virtues such as courage, honour, truth, love and generosity.

    Thanks for asking this question. It’s not something I often attempt to verbalize because it is such an internal dialogue. It definitely provokes further thought when you are asked to explain it (and I probably didn’t do as good of a job as I could have – more thinking needed!)

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