Faith Defined

Word arguments are tiresome and usually completely unnecessary. One of the most common word-fights between atheists and religious folks is over the word “faith”. The reason for these debates is that people don’t define terms or just simply do not understand the nature of words.

Words are created by humans to facilitate communication. Words depend on common concepts and associations.  An important part of discussion is to have common definitions. Debate and dialogue happen best when each party agrees on their definitions.

Abstract words tend to evolve many different meanings over time. To avoid unnecessary word-fights, I suggest trying put adjectives in from of such words to clarify which nuance of the word we are using.

Below I have listed many uses of “faith” and put an adjective in front of them to keep the nuances clear. BTW, the Greek New Testament word for faith is  πίστις “pistis”

1. ” trust-faith” or “reasonable-faith”

  • Definitions:
    • to expect a positive outcome based on some degree of investment or evidence.  faithful = to be trustworthy
  • Examples:
    • I have faith that my brother will help me if I am in trouble. (I trust my brother because, after all, and has always helped me in the past and is my brother and family is more reasonable to trust than strangers.)
    • I have faith that you are not lying.  (I trust aren’t lying because I can’t imagine why you would lie — you haven’t lied before.)
    • 1 Corinthians 4:2 “moreover it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.

2. ” hope-faith”

  • Definition:
    • an optimistic emotional expectation with some degree of insecurity. [note: hope hints at insecurity, trust hints at reasonableness but both are similar.]
  • Examples:
    • I have faith that stock market will bounce back so that my retirement funds are preserved. (“I hope the stock market bounces back”)
    • I have faith in my husband’s fidelity.  (“I hope my husband won’t cheat on me”)
    • Hebrew 11:1:  “Now faith is the substance of thing hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

3. “low-evidence-faith” , “no-evidence-faith” , “counter-evidence-faith”

  • Definitions
    • Belief that rests on minimal or no logical proof or evidence. Or beliefs held in spite of counter evidence
  • Examples:
    • I have faith that Jesus will come on March 13th 2021.  (I have low-evidence for that date, but I believe his calculations)
    • John 20:27-29:  Then said He to Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger and behold My hands, and reach hither thy hand and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said unto Him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.”

4.  “my-dearly-held-beliefs-faith”, “my-religion-faith”

  • Definitions
    • The body of dogma of a religion.
    • A system of religious beliefs. A set of principles, beliefs or religion
  • Examples:
    • My closest friends all share the same faith. (“My closest friends all share the same “religion“.)
    • He lost his faith, but not his morality .  (He lost his “belief in god“, but not his morality”)
    • 1 Corinthians 16:13 “Watch ye; stand fast in the faith; acquit yourselves like me; be strong.
    • 1 Timothy 6:20-21 “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science, falsely so called, which some professing have erred concerning the faith.  Grace be with thee. Amen.

5.  “a-religion-faith”

  • Definitions
    • a group which holds a common set of beliefs
    • organized religion — a particular religious group
    • Note: #4 & #5 are difficult to distinguish
  • Examples
    • The two faiths were at war with each other. (“Two religions were at war with each other.”)
    • A member of his own faith contradicted him. (“Members of his “religions” contradict him.”)
    • Galatians 1:23:  “but they had heard only that, “He who persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith wich once he destroyed.”

6.  “obedience-faith”, “allegiance-faith”, “commitment-faith”, “loyalty-faith”

  • Definitions:
    • the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement
    • Commitment, Allegiance, Dedication, Loyalty, Fidelity
  • Examples:
    • Keep the faith !  (“Keep the Fidelity !”, “Stay true”)
    • They broke faith with the investors. (They broke their promise with the investors.”)
    • 1 Thessalonians 1:3:  “remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father,”

7The word itself

  • Definition:
    • No definition.  The word itself is just being discussed as a word.
  • Example:
    • When speaking about ‘faith’ …. (“When we talk about the English word “f-a-i-t-h’ “)


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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “Faith Defined

  1. Not sure I understand. Are you saying that being clear of those 4 concepts will help theists and non-theists understand each other?


  2. i think all of these are valid. even in both circles we want to deny #2. the jury is out on many a thing in both science and faith, all we have are theory and praxis to back up our understanding but even those are confined to our limited and enculturated understandings.

    healthy faith however, some how minimizes #2 and encapsulates the others without becoming rigid and inflexible. otherwise we get bitter decons or overzealous fundie suicide bombers. of course, i’d rather the bitter decons than the zealous fundie. 😉

    good stuff!

  3. @ Lorena
    Yes, keeping definitions clear help both parties from wasting time uselessly arguing definitions. Atheists often say that “faith” is bad. As you can see by those definition, Atheists have faith (agreeing with Luke) in all those categories. Sure, Atheists want to think all their beliefs have evidence, but I can guarantee you they don’t. The problem is that Theists are proud of their belief without evidence while Atheists deny it. Does that make sense?

    Luke is a liberal Christian (as far as I can tell), what do you think of his statement, Lorena?

  4. I agree that we all have a little bit of each, from one to five.

    I think the difference is the degree. The church people I know, particularly the older ones, believe ANYTHING. If the pastor–or anyone in a suit–says it, they believe it.

    Yes, atheists believe a number of things by faith. For example, they believe that their credit card won’t be misused at the restaurant.

    They also believe that all studies are honest and the results interpreted fairly, when at least when it comes to pharmaceuticals, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    On the whole, though, I say Christians believe a lot more unproven stuff, based on pure feelings or the authority of the teller, than atheists do.

    Let’s just say that when atheists believe something, they have done at least some research and have reached the conclusion that they can trust.

    Most Christians don’t even bother to research or question anything. Complete blindness.

    Worse yet, some–like the progressive Christians–do the research, understand the stuff isn’t true, and still believe.

  5. @ Lorena — you have made some empirical claims that I think have been tested and I think they are false, but I am not sure. I will have to look.

    I think people–all people–partition certain beliefs off from reason. They do it because it benefits them. But otherwise, they may be highly logical. They may even use a given false belief in very logical means — some theologians and philosophers make this clear.

    I wrote about a thing about the tooth fairy illustrating this.

    Point: very few people are globally naive or reasonable. Theists value reason highly, but they have a few items they leave untouched. But Atheists do the same. I have written, here, that I think it is the use of those partitioned off beliefs that matters.

    I truly wonder if Theists do more illogical thinking on the whole than Atheists. My suspicion is that it is not as much as one would think. But I could be wrong. I am wrong a lot. Maybe if I were a Life-long Atheist I would be wrong less. 😉

  6. “On the whole, though, I say Christians believe a lot more unproven stuff, based on pure feelings or the authority of the teller, than atheists do.” -Lorena

    i would have gone along with this claim until Dawkins and his ilk came along. he doesn’t present an argument in the God Delusion but just makes claims. ppl seem to eat this stuff up uncritically! Dawkins claims religion is cause of all wars and will kill us all… how convienient to be writing that not too long after 9/11. his books are largely theist-bashing diatribes that appeal the prejudices already in place.

    “Worse yet, some–like the progressive Christians–do the research, understand the stuff isn’t true, and still believe.”

    i believe that’s directed at someone… ummm… 😉

  7. Sabio, you said you stopped being a Christian at 18, I think.

    I stopped being a Christian at 42, 4 years ago. I am a lifetime Christian who was a tireless church attendant. I knew so many Christians–of all denominations–that when we went to Christian events, like Missions Fest, my husband, watch on hand, timed how long it took me to find someone I knew. I think my average was 3 minutes.

    I live in a city of 3 million people.

    If you were to hang out with Christians the way I did, you would bump your head until it bleeds upon the hearing the incredible tails they believe.

    There is no way that I would ever swallow that a theist and an atheist have same degrees of faith. There is absolutely no way.

    My “empiric” data about atheists comes from having founded the Greater Vancouver Atheist MeetUp. For 1.5 years I was their leader, lots of them came and went. I know that species well, too.

    Obviously, I didn’t enjoy their company very much, so I quit. Frankly, Christians seem more pleasant to hang out with. There were, of course, a few people I enjoyed. That’s always the case.

  8. societyvs

    “There is no way that I would ever swallow that a theist and an atheist have same degrees of faith. There is absolutely no way” (Lorena)

    I generally agree with this comment – with regards to faith in the sense of having faith in the unknown (no evidence attached)…and believing some pretty incredible tales (ie: like exorcisms and healings).

    That being said, I like the 6 definitions because they need to be in place in conversations – we need definition if we are going to discuss terms in a civil manner. I find with other, more conservative, Christians I dialogue with the defintions we use are not in place and the convo goes all wacky.

    For me, when I look at the definition of faith it encompasses all of the definitions – namely 1 through 4. I tend to lean on the idea of trust as the main emphasis of the bible concerning faith (or number 3) but I am also aware that some things – like prayer – include aspects of 2. Beliefs require some faith (whether that’s trust or the unknown) – it’s inherent in the term belief.

    Fact is, Christians are dealing with a belief in God that is basically number 2 (scant amounts of evidence). I agree with this assertion – it is true. However, in daily living it is more obedience to the teahcings and trust that weigh in as part of the cornerstones of faith versus the unknown factors that require no belief. That being said, it is predicated upon there being a God in the first place.

    But even if there wasn’t a God and I followed the teachings – I am really not at much of a loss in all honesty. My life on this earth has turned out pretty good after all. Maybe this is why I have faith – it seems to work in some ways.

    Side note, Canada is #2 in who reads Sabio’s blog – glad I could help that stat!

  9. Temaskian

    “Worse yet, some–like the progressive Christians–do the research, understand the stuff isn’t true, and still believe.”

    Ain’t that a wonder! 😀

  10. Lorena,

    thank you for your beautiful post, it helps me understand where you’re coming from.

    interesting that the Christians are more pleasant to hang out with despite having more unfounded beliefs. i wonder what’s up with that.

    does knowledge make one arrogant? is wisdom something apart from knowledge? maybe the problem isn’t whether we have the facts or not but in the interpretation of them. some thing facts are fine and succient for living. others look for the meaning and purpose behind the facts. others cower at the facts (like evolution) and create counter notions to cover their own anxiety of their finitude (hence why many fundies believe in the rapture because they don’t have to deal with their own death).

    interesting points to ponder.

  11. does knowledge make one arrogant?

    Not necessarily, some obnoxious atheists are quite ignorant. I’ll give you two examples of atheists.

    (1) The guy was in the middle of some PHd program in biology. He talked non stop. Nobody could put a word in. He knew a lot about biology, but he used his know-it-all attitude for all-things life.

    (2) The guy mocks anything remotely theist without any research, even stuff he knows nothing about, like quantum physics. He watches a lot of movies, and is proud to say that the doesn’t read books.

    I just think that if you’re going to be an a-hole, you will be one regardless of beliefs, or lack there of.

    I think that it has more to do with emotional intelligence, or the ability to get along with others.

    I think some atheists, yours truly included, are geeky and lack pleasant people’s skills. Perhaps we spend too much time reading books?

    Most Christians I knew weren’t too interested in reading intellectual stuff. The women read romances and cookbooks. The guys just did guy stuff. They were totally unconcerned about global warming, or politics, or anything too serious. That’s why they were more fun. Because they didn’t take anything too seriously.

    I must say, though, that as a Christian, I avoided the fanatic, overly fundamentalist ones. I gravitated towards people with my interests, like traveling, dining out, decorating, home improvement, and such.

  12. I must add that I’ve never found atheists that share my interests: sports following, dinning out, traveling, blah, blah. Never.

    They just wanted to talk about there not being a God. That was their whole life. Can you see why I like hanging out with Christians better?

    Any atheist out there who like the Vancouver Canucks and Rafael Nadal? Please, prove me wrong.

  13. Any atheist out there who like the Vancouver Canucks (Lorena)

    I think the better “truth” for that statement would be any “theist”. Cause you definately need some faith to like the Vancouver Canucks. Go SENS……..Woohoooo. 😉

  14. societyvs

    “Cause you definately need some faith to like the Vancouver Canucks. Go SENS……..Woohoooo” (T4T)

    Uh Flames and Oilers fan here – Canucks too West and Ottawa too ‘sh*tty’ plain and simple (lol).

  15. “i just think that if you’re going to be an a-hole, you will be one regardless of beliefs, or lack there of.

    I think that it has more to do with emotional intelligence, or the ability to get along with others. ”

    love it! i completely agree here, thanks for posting! i think IQ is best balanced by EQ. i guess that’s why i like science AND religion. specifically psychology because it’s a blend of both 😉 esp. if you follow Carl Jung like i do.

    thanks for the reply, and GO WASHINGTON CAPITALS! Ovie! Ovie! Ovie!

  16. Shut up everybody. You all suck. Down with the Capitals, the Senators, and the Flames.

    The Canucks are the worst organization in hockey, but I like them anyway. No…the Senators are bad too…. the Phoenix Coyotes come to mind, also.

    Just kidding.

    Glad you like my extremely opinionated, politically incorrect views that more often than not offend other people. Thanks!

    Psychology is my religion. If there were a church that preached psychology every Sunday, I would be there.

    Where are thou, cave master, hiding? Don’t wanna talk about hockey?

  17. sabio

    Hey all, I am at cub scout camp – I will be back in a few days to chat with all the controversy. Peace Out !

  18. @ Lorena
    (1) Cheering for sports teams has always struck me a bizaare and irrational. Sports has been an obstacle in my life since I was young because of people wanting to watch games instead of do activies. Love of cheering for sports seems more bizaare than many religious beliefs at times. Thus, atheists need to tone down their rhetoric about rational belief.

    But mind you, it appears to give all you mean-robbed folks something to get excited about, so , go for it !

    (2) I became a Christian (fervently) at 17 yo and stopped in my mid-twenties. But remember, I have known them for all the years since.

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