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Faith vs. Belief

David Cowles

Jun 28, 2022

“Courage is how 'who you are' overcomes 'what you are.'"

A family member recently shared with me some thoughts about the relationship between Belief and Faith…and it got me thinking. We often use the two words as if they were interchangeable, but are they? Consider two sentences: ‘I believe in you’ and ‘I have faith in you’. Interchangeable? In most contexts, yes, but not in all.

‘Belief in you’ might mean, “I believe you have the ability to succeed at the specific task at hand.” On the other hand, ‘Faith in you’ might mean, “I believe that you will do the best you can, now and always because that’s the sort of person you are.” Both ‘I believe’ and ‘I have faith’ tell you about the state of mind of the speaker only.

“I believe” means that I think there is better than even chance that what I’m saying about the world will turn out to be true. “I have faith," on the other hand, tells us nothing about the odds…or the world. My ‘faith’ is a personal decision I’ve made to live my life as though certain things were so.

Example: “I believe that the New England Patriots will win the 2023 Super Bowl.” Questions: (1) What is the foundation for my belief? (2) What is the Truth Value of my belief (i.e., do they end up winning the Super Bowl or don’t they)? Both questions are ‘empirical.'

On the other hand, “I have faith in the New England Patriots” means that (1) I root for the Patriots, always have, always will (identity or ‘habit’); or (2) I’ve done a deep dive into the Patriots’ player personnel and management team (information), and I am very impressed; or (3) the Patriots usually win the Super Bowl so why not this year (induction)?”

When I say, “I have faith”, I’m usually not looking for either verification or falsification. In fact, I might find someone’s attempt to falsify, or even to verify, the content of a statement of faith to be offensive.

When I say, “I believe” and you say, “not so”, you are disagreeing with something, I think. But when I say, “I have faith” and you say, “not so”, you are disagreeing with something I am, something I’ve chosen to be. (I am whoever I’ve chosen to be.) I have chosen an identity for myself. In choosing, I have selectively and critically incorporated (1) what I’ve inherited (biologically and culturally), (2) what I’ve learned, and (3) what I’ve done in my life.

Choosing my identity translates into living my life ‘as if XYZ were true.' If I’m wrong, it’s no skin off my nose, or at least it shouldn’t be. I never promised you a rose garden! I just told you how I would be living my life. How you respond to that, if at all, is entirely up to you.

Faith, whether it be faith in God, faith in comrades, faith in family, etc., is not directly concerned with empirical results; belief, on the other hand, is all about the results, the falsification (or provisional verification) of hypotheses.

Faith is not immediately concerned with ‘truth’'. Faith is not a hypothesis; it can neither be verified nor falsified. Faith is a choice. Of course, Faith cannot be ‘blind faith.' What is called ‘blind faith’ is not faith at all; it’s superstition.

I choose the content of my faith, but I must make my choice ‘in good faith.' For example, you can imagine someone saying, “I believe the earth is flat.” You might shake your head in disbelief, but your interlocutor’s ‘I believe’ does not make you angry; why should it?

Now check the outtakes. In an earlier version, your interlocutor said, “I have faith that the earth is flat.” Feel the hair on the back of your head stand up? Now it is no longer a matter of opinion. ‘Your thoughts are incompatible with mine’ suddenly becomes ‘your being is incompatible with me.'

When I say, “I believe that the earth is flat,” I am implicitly allowing for the possibility (1) that it might not be flat and (2) that others may sincerely and legitimately hold a contrary view. I declare myself open to empirical data that might confirm or debunk the contents of my belief. This is what I believe; prove me wrong!

But when I say, “I have faith that the earth is flat,” I ignore the possibility that you might believe something different or that empirical evidence might better support an alternative hypothesis; and I certainly am not inviting you to ‘prove me wrong.' Faith has nothing to do with evidence. It is possible for a person’s faith to change, but that change cannot be directly tied to a piece of empirical data. 20th century positivists (‘logical’ or otherwise) measure truth by result. Does it work? Does it conform to the data? Not so faith!

I once heard ‘courage’ defined as the determination to act in a certain way, even though there’s no realistic possibility of success. (Take that, positivists!) Courage is how who you are overcomes what you are:

Be courageous, take

the leap. Dream it? Be it!

Faith…not just Belief!*

*Credit to The Rocky Horror Picture Show


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