On Faith

In recent discussion with Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty, it seems that when he and I use the word “faith” we don’t mean the same thing. Accordingly the following is attempt to clarify what is meant by that word, so that we can all be more assuredly speaking of the same thing. For faith is not, akin to a child’s belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny.

Wikipedia has two entries of interest to us, first on Faith, the second on Christian Faith. From the first,

Many noted philosophers and theologians have espoused the idea that faith is the basis of all knowledge. One example is St. Augustine of Hippo. Known as one of his key contributions to philosophy, the idea of “faith seeking understanding” was set forth by St. Augustine in his statement “Crede, ut intelligas” (“Believe in order that you may understand”). This statement extends beyond the sphere of religion to encompass the totality of knowledge. In essence, faith must be present in order to know anything. In other words, one must assume, believe, or have faith in the credibility of a person, place, thing, or idea in order to have a basis for knowledge.


A certain number of religious rationalists, as well as non-religious people, criticize implicit faith as being irrational. In this view, belief should be restricted to what is directly supportable by logic or evidence and nothing should be believed unless supported by the Scientific method – being itself, ironically, a system of beliefs grounded in faith in positivism. Others say faith is perfectly compatible with and does not necessarily contradict reason. Sometimes faith can be referred to as ignorance of reality: a strong belief in something with no tangible proof, or in spite of opposing evidence.

From the second, the Roman catholic orthodox belief holds that

Faith is a supernatural act performed by Divine grace. It is “the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God” (St. Thomas, II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). And just as the light of faith is a gift supernaturally bestowed upon the understanding, so also this Divine grace moving the will is, as its name implies, an equally supernatural and an absolutely gratuitous gift. Neither gift is due to previous study, neither of them can be acquired by human efforts, but “Ask and ye shall receive.”

. From an Eastern statement of faith (Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology)

The first word of our Christian symbol of faith is “I beleive”. All of our Christian confession is based upon faith. God is the first object of Christian belief. Thus, our Christian acknowledgement of the existence of God is founded not upon rational grounds, not on proofs taken from reason or received from the experience of our outward senses, but upon an inward, higher conviction which has a moral foundation.


We believe that which is inaccessible to outward experience, to scientific investigation, to being received by our outward organs of sense. St. Gregory the Theologian distinguishes between religious belief – “I belive in someone, I believe in something” – and a simple personal belief – “I believe someone, I believe something.” He writes: It is not one and the same thing to ‘believe in something’ and ‘to believe something.’ We believe in the Divinity, but we simply believe any ordinary thing.

N.T. Wright holds that faith in Jesus is the mark of convenant like was Torah and circumcision was for the Hebrew people. So for the Christian faith is more complicated relationship with membership, soteriology, and eschatology than just mere belief.

The second comment above, by the Wiki, might be expounded upon a little by some examples. Mr Kuznicki wrote here (edited for formatting)

  1. that these things are, on some level, impossible for humans to understand and
  2. we should believe them, in some capacity, anyway.

and holds that Now, (1) is never said by a scientist. “I don’t know” is a valid answer in science; “no one can ever know” is not. And (2) is not appropriate either in the sciences.

Actually that is I think a not uncommon sentiment, but has the disadvantage of actually not being true. In modern quantum chromodynamics, asymptotic freedom of quarks means that will never be seen. No experiment will ever see them no bare quark will ever be seen, they are “unknowable” to modern instrumentation, yet we must believe them for their existence has great explanatory powers. The existence of these unknowable things (quarks) and their properties acts to explain lots of other things then make sense. Likewise, modern cosmology has also set certain questions which are asked commonly by people outside of the scope of scientific inquiry. How can this be done if science is to fulfill the “one can never know” category of questions about our universe and in some sense, the assumption that (whatever boundary conditions we eventually decide were “setup” we thereby must believe them setup as required by unknowable agents). If those questions are out of scope, then “one can never know” is the very question science provides. Additionally, the standard model is currently intellectually somewhat unsatisfactory? Why? Well, because it provides no explanation for a fair amount of “fine tuning” of parameters (inputs) into the theory. In the context of the standard model, “we should believe them in some capacity anyway” currently, because they explain basicaly all our experimental results. Even later, more exotic theories of elementary particles at high energies, such as supersymmetry (and it’s breaking) and superspace (fermionic spatial dimensions) place more ideas and “things” effectively out of reach of direct experiment and human experience. So Mr Kuznicki’s statements don’t reflect the current situation in science today.

The main idea I’m trying to put forth are the following, faith is not absent reason nor a suspension of critical faculties to suspend one in a state of belief in things which on reflection are patently false, i.e., “faith in Santa”. Faith is belief in things not experienced or known (or possibly believed which are not possible to know) but which have explanatory powers in connecting things we do know together coherently. Where one believes in mystery (those things which cannot be humanly knowable) there are reasons, e.g., QCD, for believing those things must remain mystery.

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  1. Parableman says:

    Christian Carnival CXXXVI…

    Welcome to the 136th Christian Carnival. For information on what the Christian Carnival is, see here. I’ve decided to arrange the posts this time according to Psalm 136, using the NET. I’m not sure if I like every aspect of this translation, but it’…

  2. no bare quark will ever be seen, they are “unknowable” to modern instrumentation, yet we must believe them for their existence has great explanatory powers.

    Science, though, does not know things merely through sight or instrumentation. It also knows them through their explanatory power. This is a valid form of inductive knowledge — not a certainty, mind you, but a worthwhile way of knowing all the same.

    Faith is belief in things not experienced or known (or possibly believed which are not possible to know) but which have explanatory powers in connecting things we do know together coherently.

    I think this definition is far too broad. Clearly, it is a different sort of statement when you say “I believe in the Trinity,” and when a scientist says “I believe the theory of general relativity to be correct.”

    Nor is this just a gut feeling of mine, this difference between the two. Everywhere around me, I observe people who have faith in different and entirely contradictory things: In Jesus as the resurrected Lord; in the revelations given to Mohammed; in the revelations given to Joseph Smith; in the teachings of the Buddha; in Krishna consciousness; in Scientology. Yet they can’t all be true at once.

    The reason that religious claims endure in this contradictory state is, I think, that there are no real ways to falsify most of them. In general, the things religion cares about the most are also the things for which it’s terribly hard to gather empirical data.

    Nonfalsifiability does not mean that the claims of religionists are true, but on the contrary, that these claims are the answers to improperly formed or badly conceived questions. “What happens to the soul when we die?” is the sort of question for which the evidence cannot readily be gathered. For one thing, it presupposes an enduring soul, for which we have no scientific evidence.

    It takes an act of faith to even ask the question, much less to answer it, and this is regardless of whether you think that the soul goes to the Christian heaven or the Muslim heaven or whether you think it gets reincarnated somewhere else.

    Science has a way of sorting out its claims, and this makes it a different thing from religious faith. It’s not necessarily opposed to religious faith, but it is a certainly a different thing. And it often treats with brutal indifference the few testable claims advanced by religion. This is fortunate, since religions usually seem to apply the same fanciful standards of evidence to their testable claims as they do to their untestable ones.

  3. Mark says:

    The difference as you say between I believe in God the Father Creator of Heaven and Earth … differs from GR is that on the one hand there is a body of experiment demonstrating GR and on the other so faith is not required at all and that scientist will abandon GR without (much) regret if experiment disproves it. However science has explictly passed on the question of creation. So either you have to take it on faith that creation happened but insist that certain questions about that are not “legal”, or take in on faith that a Creator caused it … there isn’t much difference there.

    And yes religion answers provides answers to questions for which positivism will not venture to go. Positivism was abandoned by philosophers because it is so very limited in scope. Positivist science, while affording us technological marvels and mastery of much, also has a severely limited scope of questions it will answer. And while you have decided for yourself that these questions do not matter, you are quite the minority in this view.

    Also, I think you have the matter of science vs religion reversed in the matter of mystery. For unlike your claim that science does not say, you that there are things which man cannot know it definitely does say some things are questions to put to science, which effectively is the same thing. But religion while it claims some things are mystery certainly spends a great effort pondering those same said mysteries.