Christians and atheists often engage in heated debate over the rationality of faith. Unfortunately, those conversations tend to generate more heat than light, not least because the parties to the discussion often end up talking past one another. If we want to make real progress on debating the rationality of faith, we should begin by considering what we mean when we use the word 'faith.' Just what is that concept that we are debating?
The following article on faith is excerpted from the book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. In the book, atheist Justin Schieber and I, a Christian theologian, engage in one long conversation talking about God, the universe, and, well, everything. One of the hallmarks of the book is to stem the tide on the unfortunate tendency to talk past one another by modeling careful listening and generous exchange. In this case, we turn our attention to the meaning and rationality of faith.
Randal: Perhaps we can switch gears at this point and turn to defining faith. Just as there are many different definitions of God, so there are many different definitions of faith. In particular, there are two basic ways the word faith is defined, and they are often conflated in discussions like this. So it's probably worthwhile to be clear on the distinction.
Justin: That's a good point. That word gets thrown around a lot, and it's not always clear what usage is intended.
Randal: In the first sense, faith is roughly equivalent to religion. Insofar as we are working with that definition of faith, it's clear that some people have faith and some don't because some people are adherents to a particular religion, while others have no religious affiliation.
Justin: Right. As with the phrase, the Abrahamic Faiths.
Randal: Yup. In this sense I've got a faith (Christianity), but you don't. And in the second sense, faith is roughly equivalent to trust. In other words, to have faith in something is to trust in that thing. If I have faith in the truth of a proposition, then I trust that the proposition is true. If I have faith in a person, then I am inclined to trust what this person says as being true. If I have faith in my cognitive faculties, like sense perception and memory, then I trust that the deliverances of these faculties are generally reliable.
Justin: That makes sense.
Randal: I think it's important to make this distinction clear because I often hear those without a religious faith (the first definition) insist that they don't have faith in something like the second sense. But this is simply false. Whether you have a religious affiliation or not, everybody must still trust in some truth claims, in particular persons, and in the very cognitive faculties that mediate information about the world to us. There is no view-from-nowhere that allows us to test our beliefs apart from faith. So only some of us have faith in the first sense but everybody has faith in the second sense.