Faith Is Not A Virtue

I don’t see a form of faith that is accurately described as “virtuous”.

There is “Faith as Hope”, “Faith as Assumption”, “Blind Faith”, “Faith as Extrapolation/Induction”, and “Faith as Awe/Wonder”. All of which are very different things that just happen to sometimes be referred to as “faith”.

Discussions about it can get very muddled. It is like talking about “right” as “the opposite of left”, then in the next sentence using “right” to mean “the opposite of incorrect” without even realising it. English happens to use the one word to refer to drastically different concepts. People realise this with the word “right”, but few seem to notice it with words like “faith”.

Faith as Hope

The colloquial “I have faith in you”, sense of the word that describes a passion or hope for something (hence a “crisis of faith” being a moment of despair).

Faith as Foundational Assumption

Foundational assumptions are the area of a branch of philosophy called “epistemology” that asks questions such as “what do I know,” “how do I know it”, “what should I believe”, and “what am I justified in believing”. In this field there are various schools of thought about what concepts are so fundamental that they cannot be broken down any further and so must be assumed before we can think about anything. For example, I may have to assume that my senses give me an accurate picture of the real world, simply because otherwise I can’t even get off the ground to start thinking or learning about anything at all.

Blind Faith / Faith as Blindness

Related to assumptions is a meaning of “faith” that goes one step further than a foundational assumption: It is the belief in a claim in the absence of evidence, and a rejection of all evidence to the contrary – this is what is called “blind faith”. Tim Minchin summed it up well:

“Science changes its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.” He was talking about this form of “blind faith”, and I think we can all think of examples of people doing this.

Faith as Extrapolation/Induction

“Your faith in science is just as blind as the faith of any fundamentalist.”

“Faith” within science as the problem of induction. This is an old philosophical problem that goes something like:

“I have boiled water a thousand times in a thousand different situations, and it always boils at 100 degrees celsius. Therefore, water will always boil at 100 degrees” But the problem of induction is that we don’t really know that. All we can say with 100% certainty is that water has in the past boiled at that temperature – we haven’t yet done the water boiling that will happen in future. Any sample size in any experiment is still only a finite number, and therefore a miniscule fraction of the infinite samples we refer to when we claim to know what something will always do.

This is discussed in the philosophy of science and if this question interests you then you should definitely read Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong”, or watch this summary:

Faith as Awe/Wonder

And finally, “faith” as a feeling of awe, mystery, and wonder about the universe/life. As you can imagine, this is not a religious phenomenon, but something that is shared across all cultures, beliefs and lack thereof.

You will notice that all of these forms of “faith” (except Blind Faith) are secular in the sense that atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and scientists accept them and make use of them. So maybe the heavy association between “faith” and religion isn’t really justified.

But of all these forms of “faith”, none are virtuous. Some are vices, and others are simply necessary for knowing anything about the world. If someone is trying to encourage some kind of faith, then I would be immediately suspicious of that.

2 thoughts on “Faith Is Not A Virtue

  1. Dominicus, you seem to have overlooked faith as an acceptance of authority. This is at the core of much, maybe most religious faith in established religions, and the Catholic Encylopedia actually states that explicitly : . Depending upon your personality type, for many this may be the most important aspect of all. btw, ‘spirituality’, whatever it might mean, seems to be something different from faith, even when they are fellow travellers.

  2. Ah, quite right. Thank you. Which raises a very interesting point in itself: Both critical thinkers and religious fundamentalists will have certain levels of trust in what certain people say. We both assess people as being credible or not and use this as a substitute for investigating the actual evidence. “Faith in Science” can refer to when people like myself cite climate scientists and trust their word rather than reading the actual papers, or trusting a doctor’s advice rather than trawling through medical papers. But identifying credible authorities is, I think, a necessary heuristic in dealing with the unfathomably large quantity of information relevant to human decisions (though it is a stochastic process that will inevitably let some things slip through some percentage of the time). I think the difference lies in the means by which we assess the credibility of the source: Our set of tools and our library of red flags. Eg I suspect “agreeing with me” is a high-ranking criterion in the evaluation methods of fundamentalists. Hmm, perhaps this would make a good topic.

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