What is Faith?

A common theme throughout many world religions, and in particular Christianity, is the notion of faith. In my experience, often the words faith and religion are used almost interchangeably, and this is understandable, for the word faith is used frequently by religious people. In fact, from time to time you will hear the phrase “the Christian faith” in place of “the Christian religion.” The word ‘faith’ is rather ubiquitous, which is why I want to talk about it… because through my reading an personal experience, I have come to realize that both non-religious and religious people tend to misunderstand the meaning of the word in some very crucial contexts.

What Faith Is Not

I have a sense that some people (both among those who agree with me on religious issues and those who do not) might be a little skeptical at this point. Someone might think I am trying to redefine the word faith… and this is understandable. This touches on a fundamental distinction I would like to make, and so I can make it now to avoid as best I can any misunderstandings. The first point I must make is this – words often have more than one definition. There are several definitions of this word I’d like to avoid. When I speak of faith for the rest of this article, the word faith is not a synonym for a religion or belief system. The word faith can be used in that way, but that is not how I want to use it here. I also want to make clear that, while the Bible and the modern church do use the word faith with this definition in mind, there are other meanings. And that isn’t even really the most important meaning of the word in the biblical context, nor in the modern Christian context.

There is another definition of the word faith I’d like to avoid, for a similar reason. Among atheists, and more broadly among non-religious people in general, the word faith arises as a sort of antonym to reason. You can find many authors, including the likes of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheist movement, who define faith as ‘belief without evidence or reason’ or even ‘belief in opposition to evidence or reason.’ I considered compiling a list of quotes to demonstrate this (which I will gladly do if anyone doubts my claim) but I think that most people who would read this far are already familiar with this idea. Again, I reject this definition of the word for the rest of this article. I reject this definition for many reasons, the chief of which is that it is completely foreign to the Bible and the Christian religion. There are a variety of New Testament and Old Testament passages I can quote to demonstrate the importance of evidence in the Christian worldview, but I will save that for another time.

Let’s Stop Demeaning Faith

There is another comment about this particular usage of the word faith. To be clear, faith can be blind. That is certainly possible, and there may well be times when some people do have blind faith in something – to give a non-controversial example, perhaps a gambling addict believing “if I just play one more time, I’ll hit that jackpot…” I think it’s fairly clear that this is an instance of a kind of faith in opposition to evidence. However, I ask of those of you who want to apply that to religions… just stop. Please. It is an insulting stereotype of religious believers that is, in my experience, basically never true. And it is certainly not true in my case.

Just in case an example is needed – imagine if I were to say that “all atheists just hate Christians and want to walk around doing immoral stuff, and that’s why they are atheists.” That would be horrible, wouldn’t it? I would never say anything like that, because it is clearly false. Now, for anyone reading this who thinks that religious people are all just holding on to blind faith… you are doing something very similar. You are essentially implying that well more than half of the world’s population are idiots who are incapable of rational thought. You are ignoring the plain fact that many of the brightest people the world has ever seen – including the likes of Isaac Newton, Galileo, and nearly every other figure in the scientific revolution for that matter – did believe in God, and in Newton’s case, the Christian God. Not to mention the obvious fact that implicitly assuming that all religious believers are stupid or ignorant is an obvious example of false stereotyping. Stop defining the word faith like this, and don’t let other people do so either.

I will give you an actual working definition of faith, the working definition that the Bible uses. So if you’ve been taken in by the silly and malevolent attacks on religion in recent years through a redefinition of the word faith, you can shake yourself free from that.

What is Real Faith?

Before I proceed, let me take a moment to pause and make very clear that I have just made a specific claim that when the Bible uses the word faith, it does not refer to the idea of ‘belief without evidence.’ I still don’t understand why a very large number of people have come to believe this – it is so obviously false when you just open a Bible. Why are the others definitions so wrong and insulting? Well, I’ll give you one very good place to start.

There is not a single place in the entire Bible that the word faith is used. Furthermore, neither Jesus nor any of his contemporaries ever used this word in their lifetimes.

This might seem wrong, but the explanation is quite simple. Jesus did not live in 21st century America. He lived in first century Palestine. English was not a language yet. Obviously, he didn’t use the word faith then, because faith is an English word and people in Jesus’ region and time spoke other languages – in this case, the dialect of Koine Greek is relevant, though there were several languages used in that region at that time. This may seem rather trivial point, but there is a reason I make this point at such length. What we think the word faith means today doesn’t matter at all when talking about the Bible, because what matters is what the author meant. When discussing Christianity and the Bible, we should focus on the intended meaning of the author. To do this, it will be helpful to go back to original languages.

The Bible has two portions – the Old Testament, which was originally written in ancient Hebrew and is held as Scripture by both Jews and Christians (and to my understanding is considered inspired by Muslims as well, with some qualifications) and the New Testament, which details the unique claims and teachings of Jesus Christ and is followed by Christians. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and since I am a Christian and most criticism of the idea of faith where I live is directed at Christians, I choose to look at the word in Greek which today is translated as ‘faith’.

The word in the New Testament translated as ‘faith’ is $\pi \iota \sigma \tau \iota \varsigma$, transliterated as pistis. So, if I am reading my Bible and I want to understand what the word ‘faith’ in my Bible means, I don’t rely fundamentally on modern atheists, modern politicians, or even modern preachers for an answer. Quite frankly, that just doesn’t make sense. Instead, I rely on the ancient languages themselves. And the meaning of the word pistis in Greek connotes the ideas of faith, trust, and confidence. To be a faithful individual is to be a trustworthy individual, for instance.

One thing I’d like to notice briefly – the word pistis does not inherently include the idea of ‘against all the evidence’. Actually it is quite the opposite – the reasons for your convictions are relevant. The word pistis appears in the works of such famed people are Aristotle [1]. The article I have linked at the end of this post provides statement from classical scholars, talking about the use of the word pistis in Greek philosophy. For an example from the resource I have linked (which itself cites classical scholars), here are two quotations from this article on the meaning of pistis in Greek rhetoric.

• Pistis is used to represent the state of mind, namely, conviction or belief, at which the auditor arrives when the correctly chosen aspects of the subject-matter are placed before him in an effective manner. . . .”
• “In its second meaning, pistis is the word used for a methodological technique . . .. In this sense, pistis means the logical instrument used by the mind to marshal the material into a reasoning process. It is a method which gives the matter a logical form, so to speak, and thus produces that state of mind in the auditor which is called belief, pistis. . . “

If you don’t buy that, or want to learn more, then just go read a Greek lexicon and look at the citation I provided. Read the Bible for yourself with an open mind. Email me if you’d like (mathematicalapologist@gmail.com). You not only can have pistis with evidence, evidence-based pistis is an entirely normal use of that word. So if you ever hear someone trying to discredit a religious person by insulting the idea of faith on as entirely irrational, just ignore them. For followers of Jesus, this is the wrong definition, and so their feckless insult does not apply to us. I cannot speak for Muslims or others who use the term faith, though I imagine they probably agree with me. This kind of faith is exactly what we should be using, and for the most part do use, as we go around the world every day. This is a reasonable faith. True enough, you can trust in the truth of something and wind up being wrong, but you cannot dismiss someone merely because they have faith in something, whether religious or otherwise.

Don’t Be Afraid to Have Faith!

My favorite case-in-point of the things I have been saying comes from Professor John Lennox, a mathematician at Oxford. In a debate with the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, who brought up the definition of faith without evidence, Lennox responds “I presume you’ve got faith in your wife, is there any evidence for that?” To which Dawkins responds “Yes, plenty of evidence.” To which the audience responds with laughter [2]. This is the point. That usage of the word faith is exactly the same usage as what the Bible and the modern Christian mean when they use it. This is a commonsense definition, we all know it intuitively. We have faith in our spouses, our friends, our country, the human race, our political party – all kinds of things. And all of these are based on evidence of one sort or another – and yet we still use the word faith.

So now, let’s all be adults and stop demonizing people by redefining or mischaracterizing the words they use. In most cases, I imagine people making that accusation against religious believers stems from ignorance on what religions actually teach, and probably in some cases from a childish inability to listen calmly to someone who doesn’t agree with you. The only other alternative I can imagine is a conscious desire to demean, insult, and mock Christians – but I’ll always give the benefit of the doubt on that. I don’t think very many people really think that way – at least I hope they don’t. I don’t really see any way around that conclusion. We ought not treat our fellow man that way. And I would not want to accuse anyone of a different religious viewpoint of having blind faith either – I may well believe that the reasons that they have are not very good reasons, but that is very different than an accusation of blind faith. We can have discussions about whether our reasons are good ones or not, but I hope that both religious and non-religious people in our modern world can come to a place where we recognize even our opponents as people who have reasons for their convictions, and we can have civil discussions about those reasons instead of relying on insulting each other.

I’d be happy to talk with anyone who disagrees, but I honestly can’t see anything to be argued. This seems like basic common sense and human decency.

And for those of us who follow Jesus, this is crucial. We do not have to hide, because we follow and God who is not afraid of those who claim He does not exist. We actually have books and books of evidence on our side, both scientific evidence and other kinds of evidence, which I have studied for a few years in my spare time and still spend a lot of time studying to this day. I will discuss concrete evidences for Christianity in other articles, including a follow-up to this one about apologetics.

My main takeaway for those who follow Jesus is that we must do a better job of rejecting the notion of blind faith, because I strongly believe (as do many, many others) that it has no place in Christianity.

Citations

[1] “Definition and Examples of Pistis in Classical Rhetoric,” https://www.thoughtco.com/pistis-rhetoric-1691628

[2] A Short Clip of Dawkins & Lennox: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFkGDK_mteQ

More Resources

Dawkins & Lennox – The God Delusion Debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF5bPI92-5o

3 thoughts on “What is Faith?”

1. Tanner Carawan says:

Are there proponents of blind faith? What God did Galileo believe in?

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1. There are unfortunately some, yes, but to my understanding the original source of the idea of religion being primarily blind faith were opponents of religion who were, whether on purpose or not, mischaracterizing it. Historically, you don’t really find that until quite recently

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2. Didn’t realize I forgot about Galileo – he was a devout Catholic his entire life.

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