The problem with “faith”

Well, Tim Tebow’s new memoir is out, and it’s being joyously welcomed by those who think that sanctimonious 23 year-old jocks have something important to say about life. I got to hear some deep thoughts on the book and on the admirable life of young Tebow from the crew of The Stupid Show as I drove around yesterday afternoon, and while I’m fine with people believing what they feel led to believe, I have finally had about enough of what’s being done to the word faith.

Everywhere we turn here in this most evangelical of cultures, we hear that word. Faith. We revere those who “have great faith,” even when they’re not entirely rational about it. This a comparatively recent phenomenon, too. When I was a devoted Southern Baptist boy (as recently as the early ’80s) we talked about faith, sure, but it wasn’t the ubiquitous code word that it has become.

Let’s be clear about something. I’m not carping about what people believe. To be sure, I have done so and will again, especially when those beliefs shape policy that threatens the culture’s well-being, but that’s not what this complaint is about. No, this is more about the appropriation of a word, the sinister re-engineering of its DNA, its encoding as a dog-whistle that ultimately connotes something that’s a bit hypocritical.

Here’s the issue. Think about the contexts in which you hear formulations like “people of faith.” Or, if you’re into sports marketing, “faith nights/days” at the ballpark. Or with Tebow, a “book about faith.” You’ve heard it and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Now, think hard. Who are the people who use this language? Who do they use this language about?

For instance:

  • Are the speakers talking about Muslims? Are they referring to the most radically faithful fundamentalist elements of Islam?
  • Are they talking about Jews?
  • Are the speakers themselves Islamic or Jewish?
  • Have you ever heard the “faith” meme used to praise a Hindu? A Buddhist? A Pagan?
  • How about this. Every once in awhile you’ll hear a religious person make the argument that for some people, science is a faith. Or humanism. Or atheism. I’ve heard the argument made about all three. But, have you ever heard these speakers laud the pro-science, humanist or atheism faithful?

Hmmm. You may be able to answer yes to one or more of these questions, but if so you’re the rarest of exceptions, and even then you’ll have to acknowledge that the instance you recall was a one-in-several-thousand exception to the rule.

Why is this? Simple: the “faith” meme is code for Christian. Specifically, evangelical Christian.

So what, you wonder? What’s the big deal? Nothing wrong with Christians. Most all Americans are Christians. True enough. But the big deal is that the word, used properly, isn’t a Christian word, it’s a general word. Strictly understood, it might apply equally to members of any religion (so long as that religion relies on beliefs that are non-rational). For that matter, you might even use faith to describe non-religious institutions and ideologies, but for the moment I’ll save insulting members of various political parties for another day.

When the word is appropriated and made into an expressly Christian word, though, it becomes a weapon of exclusion. If the tactic goes unchecked, before long only evangelicals have faith. Which shoves non-evangelicals a bit further over into the going-to-hell category. Which is demeaning, denigrating, insulting and dehumanizing. It’s a corrosive, hateful religious othering/outgrouping game that linguistically reinforces one person’s place on the side of the angels and the other person’s allegiance to the forces of evil.

We’ve seen this dynamic before. Once upon a time “patriot” referred to a wide swath of people who loved America. These days you don’t hear the word used to describe anybody but proper conservatives very often, and the intimation is that liberals are anti-American. I vividly recall a time a few years back when a raving moron yelled in my face that there were two kinds of people in the US: Americans and Democrats. He was deluded about a lot of things, obviously, beginning with his erroneous presumption that I was a Democrat. But the message was clear, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding 100 million people in the country who sympathize with the sentiment at some level.

I’m not religious in a sense that most conventional types would recognize, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a stake in it when cynical religio-political groups attempt to turn my language against me and to deposition those with as much claim to spiritual validity as they do (more, in most cases). I’m one guy and I can’t shape the course of linguistic evolution by myself, but I can call people out on their subtle hate-enabling games.

You can, too. And you should.


  • Well said, Sam. Even though I teach at a Catholic institution, I still tell my students that skepticism is an asset in matters of faith. Now I can tell them that linguistic skepticism is an asset, too.

  • I second Denny, except for one part. Assuming that the evangelicals are going to heaven, i’m quite happy in my faithless, going-to-hell category … mostly because i couldn’t stand eternity with all those fuckwads.

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  • Lex: I believe it was Twain who had that remark about “Heaven for the weather, Hell for the company.”

  • I’ve long observed that the religious right homesteads “positive” words, and then asserts ownership. Faith, patriot, majority (as in silent majority,) middle class, etc, etc.

    And you are right it is exclusionary. However, I dont think it is about religion. My hypothesis is that its a nasty form of tribalism, just like the Muslim mess is really about tribes–Pashtun, Arabs, etc. The evangelical Christian religious stuff is just a package of warped beliefs supporting the idea that this tribe is superior to other tribes. Remember, these same assholes were using the Bible to “prove” the validity of slavery a 150 years ago.

    If you abolished Christianity, tomorrow you’d have the United Church of Trees, wherein the Sacred Oak God said he wanted you to drive an SUV that gets 4 mpg because there is no global warming (and he’s a tree, he would know) and you have a divine right to a disproportionate right of the world’s resources, unlike those Palm people in Africa or those Pine people in Europe.

  • Maybe, but whether it’s religious per se or tribalism embedded in religious institutions, it strikes me as all adding up to the same thing, more or less.

  • marshallgibson

    If I gave you the definition of FAITH and the definition of DELUSION, could you tell them apart?

    I think we should start calling a belief in an invisible friend, who lives in the sky, what it really is.

    • Yes, but that isn’t the issue in this particular post. It’s an issue, for sure, but that’s for another day.

    • MG – I’m reminded of a joke that went something like this. A man went to college because he wanted to be a biologist. After studying biology for a few years, he realized that all biology was chemistry, so he changed his major. After studying chemistry for a few years, he realized that all chemistry is physics, and so he changed his major again. After studying physics for a few years, he realized that all physics was mathematics, so he changed his major yet again. After studying mathematics for a few years, however, the man discovered that all mathematics was ultimately philosophy, and so he again changed his major. Unfortunately, after a few years of studying philosophy, he realized that all philosophy was bullshit, and so he dropped out and flipped burgers for a living instead.

      I’ll leave this possible threadfuck at this for now, however, lest I distract even further from Sam’s excellent point.

  • Faith is the antithesis to reason, a destructive force to critical thinking and the quickest way to irrational actions. It becomes a vile and vicious America when so many of its citizens are so far from individual independence by combining a nationalist cause with a Christian identity based on a fallacious faith-based belief system. Faith results in the very foundation of intolerance from its lack of critical thinking. Faith is an act of mental destruction. If there is no evidence for a claim, then accepting it is irrational. Tolerance is a trait that the firm, devout Christian cannot possibly possess.

    “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no other gods before me”, saith Jehovah. Which means in plain English, that whatever any given god and his clergy believe, it must be absolutely, positively true; and whatever any other person or group believes must be absolutely, positive false. Such required dogma in religion for an adherent is impossible without this necessary intolerance that is ultimately displayed as very real expressions of bigotry. This sort of absolutist, perfectionist, two dimensional thinking is the prime creator of the two most destructive human emotions: anxiety and hostility.

    When accepting a statement as true, there are two basic methods. The first is reason. It is when the known evidence points to the statement being true, and when the truth of the statement doesn’t contradict other knowledge. The second is faith. It is when one accepts a statement as true without evidence for it, or in the face of evidence against it.

    There’s a lot of confusion about what exactly faith is. Many people confuse belief with faith. It’s said that if you believe something, you must be taking it on faith. This is a denial of the fundamental distinction between reason and faith. It pretends that evidence for or against an idea is irrelevant.

    The result of using faith consistently is the complete inability to think. Without any criteria for accepting a statement as true, every random idea, whether true or false, would be just as likely to be accepted. Contradictions would exist. No higher-level abstractions could be made. Faith nullifies the mind. To the degree ideas are taken on faith, the process of thinking is subverted.

    Faith is an act of mental destruction. If there is no evidence for a claim, then accepting it is irrational. It is more likely to be false then true (since there are more false ideas then true ones, being that their is only one reality). Building a structure of knowledge on such a flimsy foundation will leave it shaky and unstable. Eventually, even if confronted with evidence against it, one’s mind will be so dependent on the belief that fear of one’s world view collapsing will encourage one to reject the evidence. When this happens, one acts against reality. This is an act of destruction.

  • “The result of using faith consistently is the complete inability to think.”
    “Faith is an act of mental destruction.”

    Adnihilo’s assessment of the role of faith, or people’s dependence on it, represents just as extremist a point of view as that of those he attacks.

    Although I am as lapsed a Catholic as exists, I teach at a Catholic university. Although I profess no organized religion or belief system, I still consider myself a man of faith.

    But I know how to think. I know how to consider scientific data and evidence. I know the difference between rationality and irrationality. I think my writings here since 2005 have amply demonstrated that my spiritual faith and belief in forces beyond my ken and unexplainable through scientific analysis (so far) have not eroded by ability to think — which is the hallmark of S&R.

    Adnihilo, sir, you paint with too broad a brush.

  • Your thoughts on adnihilo aside for a second, in what way are you a man of faith? I can easily see that you’re someone who knows that there’s more to our world than our five senses and our science can fully explain. I’m the same way. And further, you accept that condition as part of your daily life. Again, same here. I imagine if I knew all there was to know about how the universe works my head would explode (when I go to lectures by prominent string theorists, for instance, my head spins for days). But accepting the existence of the not-yet-known isn’t faith, at least not as I understand the term.

    Instead, it’s the height of rationality, it seems. Faith, as most people we’re talking about use the term, is more – it is a belief in something that is not proven, not provable, and structurally irrational. It is a process whereby these highly unlikely tenets of mythology are accepted as journalism, as cold fact, and the empirical world is twisted to fit them.

    This is how I see it, but maybe you have a different take. In any case, I’m asking what you mean by faith, because I’m guessing you and Tim Tebow have different definitions.

  • re. Dr Denny in “Adnihilo’s assessment of the role of faith, or people’s dependence on it, represents just as extremist a point of view as that of those he attacks.”

    Not really an ‘extremist’ view, but more the average atheist view of ‘faith’.

    re. But I know how to think. I know how to consider scientific data and evidence.

    I’m sure you do, however note that I also said ““The result of using faith CONSISTENTLY is the complete inability to think.” As a ‘doctor’, if you really are one with a doctorate or phd of some form, you surely don’t utilize faith over reason on any level of ‘consistency’.

    You fail to explain why you label my take on ‘faith’ as that of an ‘extremist’ other than in your own personal reference. You do not consider faith as a destructive force to critical thinking or reason? You consider faith in its religious connotation as something of value?

  • Samuel Smith, wait, you’re upset because the evangelicals are taking something mainstream and using it to exclude others? Isn’t that their “thing”? 😀 How do you propose taking back the word “faith”?

    Adnihilo, are you a regular reader of Pharyngula?

    Dr. Denny — “I still tell my students that skepticism is an asset in matters of faith” — So does the J school now have a course in the development and application of critical thinking? Or at least a 15-minute video? [e.g., That would be awesome.

  • I don’t know about “taking it back,” but I’m a big fan of calling people on this sort of thing publicly every time it happens. If this happened often enough it would poison the word for this kind of use.

    Not that I expect this to happen. When 90% majorities set out to do something in the name of their god, it’s usually going to get done.

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