Myth 1: Faith is a special kind of commitment or confidence: Many people treat faith as a magical force, above and beyond mere belief. Rather, it’s just a highfaluting name for our level of commitment or confidence in a bet or prediction on certain conditional outcomes. For example:
Faith in God: I bet that if I devote myself to God I will get to heaven.
Faith in my wife: I bet that if I treat my wife well she will be true to me.
Faith in science: I bet that if we follow the scientific method we will solve big problems.
Myth 2: “I have faith” is a realistic claim: We treat “having faith” as an optionally transitive verb, like “eating.” Optionally transitive verbs can have a direct object but don’t have to. You can say “I’m eating” or “I’m eating pickles,” pickles being a direct object.
Other verbs are strictly transitive. For example “throwing.” You can’t say “I am throwing.” If you do your listener will ask “throwing what?” looking for the direct object, the thing you’re throwing.
Having faith should be a strictly transitive verb like throwing. You can’t really have confidence in anything or nothing.
Of course it’s a free country. You could say “I have faith in everything,” the word “everything” serving as the direct object, but nobody will know what you’re talking about.
We don’t always have to name the direct object. If you’re playing catch with friend and he stops to eat a pickle, you could say “Throw already!” and he could respond “I’ll throw in a second!” In that case, the ball is the obvious direct object. It goes without saying.
Likewise in conversation about a particular bet, people might say “I have faith,” without naming the object. For example, in response to your pickle-eating friend you could say “I have faith, but could you hurry it up?” Your faith, in this case that your friend will throw the ball goes without saying.
But having faith needs a direct object since betting equally on everything is betting on nothing, and nobody really does that. We bet on certain conditional outcomes as more likely than others.
Myth 3: Faith is the opposite of reason: Some say that where we can’t reason from evidence to proof, we are forced to take a leap of faith, or that faith only applies to beliefs about matters that can’t be proven.
The trouble with that is that reasoning from evidence never proves anything absolutely. Every time we reason from evidence we categorize the evidence as evidence of a certain sort, and then we generalize from it. We might say that the evidence from thousands of years of sunrises proves that the sun will rise tomorrow, but to do so we have to categorize all past instances of sunrises as similar and extrapolate from past to future sunrises. Categorizing and generalizing are interpretive processes and interpretation is never infallible. And anyway, much to the surprise of people living before the 1500’s, the sun doesn’t rise, we rotate into its light. Life is full of surprises.
Consider the turkey who generalizes from the farmer’s categorically reliable practice of arriving at sunrise with food. Just because the farmer arrived with food every time in the past, it doesn’t mean he won’t arrive with an axe instead the day before Thanksgiving.
Reasoning is interpreting and interpreting always involves a leap of faith, faith that you’ve categorized and generalized correctly. All beliefs are bets. Some bets are more reliable than others, but all take some faith in one’s powers of interpretation.
Myth 4: Faith is unbiased seeing: Some people say “I have faith in God” as though it means “I acknowledge the self-evident.” More accurately they should say “I have faith in my belief in God,” confidence in a particular bet. Many people would rather not admit that it’s a belief, one option among many. They can bolster their confidence by pretending that they’re just admitting to what’s real and should be obvious to any clear thinking human being.
We all need high confidence in our big bets, but no matter how high our confidence is, we should always be even more confident that it is a bet, which is why it is useful to admit that our faith is not unbiased seeing, but rather is a bet on a particular belief among many possible beliefs.
Myth 5: Scientist and atheists don’t act on faith: Many science-loving atheists sneer at religious faith, and have what I’ll call an “exempt by contempt” attitude, a sense that the more you sneer at a trait in others, the less you must have the trait yourself.
“Exempt by contempt” is a bad bet. Even the most self-critical among us will be much better at spotting behaviors we don’t like in others than in ourselves.
Anyone who has faith in bets at odds with ours can seem bad to us. We’ll fault them for their faith, not just their beliefs, and, exempt by contempt, we’ll assume that faulting them for their faith, we must not operate on faith.
As a science-loving atheist I have much more faith in science than I have in religion. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have faith—perhaps even more faith than some religious people have. I just have faith in different bets.
Faith is not bad; it’s necessary, and we all have it in something, and the trick is to have faith in better bets. I have faith that there is no God and that science is a path to better, though not infallible bets.
Myth 6: “I have faith in God” is a clear and accurate statement: Faith in God is terribly unspecific. Faith that he exists? That he is a particular kind of God? That he has particular powers? That he’ll do certain things under certain conditions?
There are churches you can’t join unless you have faith in God, but like many clubs that aim to maintain their exclusivity while having lots of members, churches will be ambivalent about declaring their specific faith requirements, claiming to hold very exacting standards while relaxing them in subtle ways. The history of religion can be read as a history of this ambivalence.
Religion is by no means the only arena in which we keep our faith’s strategically vague. “I have faith in my wife,” for example is quite vague. “I have faith in science,” is too. It’s hard to get specific about what bets we have faith in, and though it’s often useful, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to detail the specifics of our faithful bets.
Myth 7: Faith is absolute commitment: We imagine faith ideally as absolute and unconditional and cite as evidence of unconditional faith, people keeping the faith through thick and thin. But the fact that people stick with something through all the thin they’re presented with doesn’t mean they had no conditions. You might give your life for cause you have faith in, but that doesn’t mean you would have stayed faithful to the cause if it meant that your family would be killed or your country nuked. Likewise, you might love and stay with your spouse through extremely rough times, but that doesn’t mean you have no conditions. If your spouse became some kind of monster, your faith would be reduced and your commitment would change.
Myth 8: Faith is a possession, something you have: We don’t say that we feel or experience faith—rather, that we have it, as though it were a possession with us at all times.
Faith in a belief is a habit of thought. A habit of thought isn’t a thought that is on your mind all the time but rather one that you’ll gravitate toward when reminded of the topic of your faith. If, for example, you have deep faith that God exists, it doesn’t mean you walk around all the time thinking that God exists, but that whenever you sense conversation or thought approaching the topic, you’ll free associate to your assumption that God exists.
Your faith in God’s existence is your go-to answer whenever you sense yourself touching upon relevant questions. And yet you won’t notice every question that brushes against your faith.
For example, there are people who declare faith that all behavior in the universe is directly controlled by God, who don’t notice the way that their belief is at odds with their reliance on engineers to design safe jets for them to travel on. If God wanted us to fly, and could control flight directly we wouldn’t need engineers.
Conversely there are people who claim complete faith in science and yet believe in some higher power that guides the universe toward goodness, even though science so far, is at odds with that bet.
We all declare faith in beliefs without thinking through all of the belief’s ramifications for other things we believe. One reason I have faith in science is that it aims to expose and address those ramifications so we don’t end up talking out both sides of our mouths, having faith in opposite bets.
Myth 9: Absolute faith and doubt are compatible, not opposites: Preachers often remind their congregations that one can have absolute faith and yet still doubt, as though there’s nothing incompatible about faith and doubt because, though you may doubt along the way, inevitably you will return to your faith.
This makes promotional sense, like saying “feel free to shop around but in the end I’m sure you’ll be back here to buy,” or like saying “Hey I’m not insisting we rush into partnership. We can move slowly as you like…into partnership.”
Doubt and faith are, at core opposites. To doubt is to be open to alternative beliefs; to have faith is to be closed to alternative beliefs. They are opposite poles of a slider control. The more faith you have, the less doubt you have and visa versa. They aren’t opposite poles on a toggle switch, as if you could ever have absolute faith, or absolute doubt. Faith and doubt are opposite ways of talking about your confidence level, your degree of certainty about specific conditional outcomes.
Myth 10: Declared faith is real faith: Many people have high faith in their own honesty, believing that whatever they say about their behavior is true about it. Elsewhere I’ve described this as “talkiswalkism,” the belief that you walk your talk, so whatever you say about yourself is true.
Many who have faith in their own talkiswalkism think of themselves as exceptionally honest, more honest than others. They have as much skepticism about the next person’s declarations as anyone, but they see themselves as exceptions, exempt from the human tendency toward hypocrisy.
But why would they be more honest than the rest of us? Mostly, they would claim, because they distain dishonesty in others. In other words they employ an exempt by contempt attitude about hypocrisy.
Talkiswalkism is a bad bet. We are all quite capable of declaring faith that we don’t practice. The history of religion and faith in general can be read as the human campaign to get folks to practice what they preach, to put their money where their mouth is, to express, not just espouse their faith.