“People of Faith” : Religious Rhetoric

People of Faith” took off as religious rhetoric in the late 1970s (see this ngram).  It manipulative rhetorical value has only recently stood out to me.   The phrase is sometimes used for any religious believers,  but why not just say, “religious people”?  Well, it is obvious, they wanted a more virtuous expression.  And the cost of this “virtue” is to emphasize that the “faithless” are without virtue — an old, false, bigoted meme.

When used for Christians, it is meant inclusively — even including Christian-want-to-be Mormons and the like (tongue in cheek).  But as Christian churches in the USA and Europe continue to shrink, the word “Christians” captures fewer people.  So to boost their tribal numbers, Christians can use the phrase “People of Faith” and include Jews, Hindus and Muslims into their gang. [I am not quite sure what they do with Buddhists — unless “faith” is used here to just mean “religion”.]

Thus, “People of Faith” is broader, more inclusive than “Christian”. But the phrase makes the majority of Europeans and the many American agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics and atheists into “People without Faith” or “FaithLESS People”. Oh dear. That sounds horrible.  So you can see why they created the new phrase .

Rhetoric is powerful — we need to stay alert. And so to counter this rhetorical manipulative phrase, I can imagine three strategies to manage the phrase:

  1. Reject:  Make fun of the phrase by changing it to something like “People of Superstition”
  2. Co-op: Thus  neutralizing by embracing it: “I am a person of faith too. I have faith in human cooperation and loving relationships.
  3. Adopt:   Agree with the accuser — “Indeed, I am a “person without faith”,  or I am “Faith Free!”

Historically, these are three common strategies to deal with pejorative language — I am sure you could imagine how these strategies have been used to deal with racial terms.

Question to readers: What phrases or strategies can you think of to respond to the divisive rhetorical use of “People of Faith” were it used to imply that you or your child is horribly or pathetically faithless?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

30 responses to ““People of Faith” : Religious Rhetoric

  1. Ben

    Preface the phrase with the word “Pod.”

  2. @ Ben :
    Being a common culture ignoramus, I had to google the phrase and then I realized your allusion: Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Pod People
    Great strategy! Makes me think of “Zombies of Faith

  3. Jen

    Sabio, here in the happy state of being otherwise known as Utah, the vernacular of our time and place distinguishes us “faithless” as non- members. We also have active vs. inactive to separate those still enrolled in this state’s predominant religion. Back in the day, others were simply labeled Gentiles. I kinda like thinking in terms of Borg vs. human.

  4. “People of faith” is implied to be a strength by many, but let’s just call it what it is – belief without evidence.

    The general attitude towards “having faith” is virtuous and until that trend ends I’m afraid non-believers have a hard sell. There’s a lot of emotional baggage attached.

    To borrow a tactic from the “conservative religious right” in the US, we must continue to beat the drum to expose it for what it is until the phrase is redefined.

  5. I think you’re a person of faith as well. You’ve already stated ““I am a person of faith too. I have faith in human cooperation and loving relationships.” as a way to co-opt it. “Free-Thinker” is just a loaded term as Person of faith. It makes the claim that the person is 1. a thinker (not a borg, grounded in evidence, not a pod, like the above claim) and 2. free (not taking in cultural and personal biases). So therefore NO label or short phrase is all encompassing or filled with meaning. Thus the limitations of the spoken and written word.

    We all have faith. Period. We all have aspects of our worldviews that is simply without evidence yet not without reason. Science can tell us how our cars work and what’s wrong with them when they don’t. It can’t tell us why we drove to Boston. It can tell us the precise measurements of how and why water boils yet can’t tell us why we choose green tea over earl grey (mainly because we prolly can’t, we just “felt” like green).

    You state that you believe in human cooperation and loving relationships. Great! There’s ample evidence to show that humans often can’t cooperate or when they do they can visit great atrocities on others. And the term loving relationship is so loaded, I don’t know where to begin. So let’s recap:

    1.) Person of Faith describes a great deal because
    2.) Humans inherently believe stuff that can’t be proven and
    3.) this is just an adjustment of the lines theists use, blind to the fact that non-theists and a-theists use others which draw the line just as well (if not better and more exact) as “people of faith.”

    Tribe, tribe, tribe.

  6. @ Jen :
    Yeah, for Mormons “member” is one powerful word.
    I loved the “Borg” idea: “The Borg of Faith”

    @ zqtx :
    I think you hit the nail on the head. In America where there is still Christian priviledge (which Christians will often deny just like Whites deny White priviledge), the word “faith” carries huge VIRTUE connotations. This is well worth the fight. My children in their school are viewed as unvirtuous. My son, when he was in scouts won the “Scout of the year” award for his upright behavior. A friend came up to me and said, “If people only knew he was an Atheist.”

    @ Luke :
    If, as you say, “we all have faith”, then calling your parishoners “people of faith” means nothing. I am arguing against all the snobbish connotations of this word.

    I agree that everyone has unquestioned assumptions. I have posted on that before. I think you are misunderstand the focus of this post. “People of Faith” is used exclusively and with an implied snobish, self-virtuous implication to those outside their clan. Those who use it, don’t mean “We all have faith” when they say that, and you know that.

  7. Sabio’s Law.

    No, I got that and countered that atheists have their own snobbish and self-virtuous implications to those outside the clan (see the first paragraph as well as recap #3).

  8. Great question!

    I don’t have a problem with slogans like this. For one thing, I rarely hear it used against the secular except with extremists. For another thing, I prefer the term “Man (or Woman) of Science”. No faith can preclude me from discovering medicine, preserving endangered habitats or otherwise making an impact in the world.

  9. @Luke, I feel as though your answer was like the one Gingrich gave when asked why Obama should not apologize for the burning of the Korans. Gingrich said, because Hamid Karzai did not apologize for the death of the soliders at the same time.

    To which the interviewer said: so it’s wrong to be the grown up to take that first step and do the right thing? Do tell – why?

  10. I don’t follow your example.

    What I think you’re saying is that “people of faith” should step up and say “sorry” to “people without faith”? Doesn’t that sound condescending? I mean, even moreso than the whole “tribal label” Sabio is trying to construct here?

  11. No. Based on what you said:

    “this is just an adjustment of the lines theists use, blind to the fact that non-theists and a-theists use others which draw the line just as well (if not better and more exact) as “people of faith.”

    So based on your statement, I have to assume you agree with Sabio, that the term People of Faith draws a line. As you can see by my comment, I don’t think it does. But if you do, then be the grown up and don’t use the phrase.

    However, I saw some contradiction in your first comment. To me, People of Faith is certainly a simple phrase for those who believe in God. However I do not think it is meant to exclude anyone.

    I say this as a secularist, who objects to many aspects of atheism (wrote about that on my blog recently). I think both “sides” have a long way to go.

    (Sorry Sabio, I won’t go on usurping the conversation unless you approve)

  12. I am more along your line of thinking, I don’t think the phrase “people of faith” is inherently tribal. I think “people of faith” can be and 8 times out of 10 is a great descriptor of any and all people. Yet it is context driven. In a church setting, the faith would be Christian. In an atheist setting, it could be secular humanism or science or whatever. I don’t attach a negative “we’re better than you” meaning that Sabio does.

    I was addressing that idea in my comment that you quoted.

    So, as I stated before, I think the co-opt model is the best way to go. Otherwise you just get other “snobbish and self-virtuous” phrases like “free-thinker” and what have you that are merely reactions to a perceived “they struck first” that leads down the same boring yet well-worn path of theist vs. atheist. All it leads to is a pissing contest that leaves everyone wet and reeking of urine.

  13. I love your co-op the phrase suggestion. I think that would be such a good response to someone who is the typical “person of faith.” I would rather build bridges with these folks. I’ve been guilty, I must confess, of the first. On reflection I see that isn’t a constructive way to approach the matter. It makes me seem unapproachable. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  14. @ amelie :
    No, you go right ahead, amelie, I love it when commentors talk to each other here.

    @ Doug B :
    Thanx, glad you found it “thought-provoking” — that was its intent. The question here is to illustrate two ways to deal with the pejorative use of “people of faith” — co-opting or rejecting. I think both styles are very useful. But you are right, they have different effects. And at some times one effect may be better on some listeners than others. It is complex. I am not pointing out which is the best, but pointing at options.

    I was the only one that offered a “co-opt” version today. I actually use the co-opt strategy most often, but sometimes it won’t make a dent. Peace often means that those with privilege win and keep their bigotry strong. Every minority group debates this sort of issue.

  15. @Paul sorry to be dense, not familiar with the term “co-opt model”

    Are you saying you’ve heard the term “free thinker” used in a snide manner? Maybe again it’s context, I’ve only heard it used among groups (sometimes atheists) that want to share ideas based in science. Please note that I object to science being attached to any group or belief, including atheism.

    Anyway, again, sorry if I’m not following.

  16. CRL

    Let’s add another option: adopt and love the term, “people without faith.” Explain that we are happy to be free of blind faith and religion.

    Of course, for better and for worse, it is an inaccurate label. We all have faith, both good and bad, sighted and blind. But this at least sounds better than going on the attack with the phrase, “people of superstition.”

  17. @ CRL:
    Excellent! I forgot, adopting is another option used often to deal with pejorative rhetoric. I will add it to the post — thank you. Or you could adopt it with a modification: “Faith-Free” or “People without Faith”
    The reason I forgot it is first because, as I written elsewhere, we all assume things we can’t prove or have no evidence on.
    Secondly, we are not a “people”, we don’t consider ourselves a tribe any more that “Non-unicornists”, “A-Zeusists”, “A-Krishnavites” are a tribe. If we are united, it is only to resist political and social moves of theists. I was a atheist in Japan but never confronted and so never felt like an ‘atheist’ till I came back here to the USA.

  18. “Secondly, we are not a “people”, we don’t consider ourselves a tribe”
    -yet you are. Comment 1.) pod which you responded, “Yeah! we’re not zombies of faith!” and comment 3) . I kinda like thinking in terms of Borg vs. human which makes you the humans. and comment 4.) stated belief without evidence implying your tribe has evidence for everything they believe. which then stems to your claim “Every minority group debates this sort of issue.” first off, please. And second, this indeed makes you a group and a tribe of which you have rabidly drawn lines in the sand in this comment thread and in the last few posts. Even if you consider yourselves a tribe or a people or not, you are. And you affirm it on this particular thread loud and clear.

    You’re talking outta of both sides of your mouth, Sabio.

  19. CRL

    Yeah. While I might use that in jest, and thought it should be thrown up on the table, it leaves out a lot.

  20. @ CRL
    Yes, neither would I.

    @ Luke,
    I am afraid we disagree. Your ad hominem arguments aren’t helping.

  21. “[I am not quite sure what they do with Buddhists]”

    A Muslim commented something on one of my posts (months and months ago) about how he was a moderate Muslim, his wife was from a Christian background and one of his daughters was Buddhist. To him, they were all “People of the Book.”

    This is another phrase usually for monotheists, similar “People of Faith”, but he seemed to have no problem lumping his own Buddhist into the group. So, to some, these phrases may very well mean “Religious People”.

    I would predict if a group of New Atheists started reciting PZ Meyers’ atheist creed weekly, or swore devotion to Grayling’s “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible”, they’d get more Faith-cred too.

    The old ingroup/outgroup thing in our heads just doesn’t cut it anymore…

  22. Hey Andrew,
    I know many Muslims who consider Buddhists as Kafir who are not even “people of the book”, it depends on the Muslim. A religious muslim married to a Christian is a is probably uncommon, I would imagine.

    Sure, if you use a creed as a test of membership and then expect to treat different others outside your group like not having your children marry them or tell your children the other children are going to be tortured forever after death, it might mean something.

    It is time, as you say, to stop exclusivity and sanctimonious clubs.

  23. Not an ad hominem, it’s a statement on the pattern I am seeing here of circling the wagons and protecting the tribe against the pod-people. I’m happy to be corrected and admit I am wrong.

  24. @ Luke,
    It is Sunday morning. How can you blog. Shouldn’t you be polishing up that sermon. Or does reading blogs like this act as a pick-me up to inspire your morning service?

    Mind you, I am always glad when you pop in, but at 8 am I would think your family would be up, getting ready for church and you’d be looking over the game plan. How do you pull that off? 🙂

  25. Earnest

    I think what Luke might be getting at is the whole “people of faith” thing, as I understand it is an inclusivist ecumenical term. I may be wrong, but I think the intent was to get believers to chill out when cohabiting. It is not designed to be an anti-athiest projectile. At least that’s not how I use the term.

    Let me give an example of a failed attempt to use the phrase properly. I was sitting at a table in a dining hall with two men I knew. One said, “as a muslim I can say that we are brothers as we are both People of the Book.” The other said, “we can’t be brothers. As a Jew I am descended from Japeth and you are descended from Ham.”

    The whole thing was so embarrasing I just got up and walked away.

    I suppose that one could hold us People of the Book folks to task for needing such crutches to not fight amongt each other. But it is presumptive to suggest that the above conversation had anything to do with atheism.

  26. @ Earnest ,
    Thanks for jumping in again.
    I think Luke said some things that are right:
    (a) All phrases have limitation — it is the limitation of language.

    (b) We all of faith is also true in that we all assume things true without evidence. I have written that in past posts. But the word has many meanings where this is false. For instance, to make a virtue out of hold things to be true in spite of persistent contrary evidence is a stance of certain “Faith Religions”. See my post on “defining faith“. Also, the word is often used to just mean “religion”. Again, then “people of faith” is exclusive.

    I think what got us off on a contentious dialogue (on my part) is that Luke did not acknowledge the negative uses or negative implications of “People of Faith”.

    My post acknowledges that the word can be and has been used inclusively but I am also exposing its persistent negative side. Like “People of the Book”, Islam has a horrible history of wrestling with that expression. Some Muslim scholar kept pushing for it to be more inclusive while others used it as an excuse for slaughter.

    Luke wants to say, “Hey, we all have faith, it is all cool.” But that make the phrase meaningless. He may personally be like that, but the phrase is rarely used like that. Here he is defending is flavor of universalist Christianity which is a small group. I am speaking about the vast majority of folks use of the word. By his defending it, he strengthens them.

    Earnest, as you yourself have ridden the Christian wagon so as to feel included in the Circle of Faith and in an attempt to maintain the mirage of being upstanding Community Pillar (not to readers: this is an inside conversation in this paragraph), you know very well how phrases like “believer”, “people of faith”, “Christian” and such are used as social signals for “good”, “trustworthy”, “moral” and such. Indeed it can be used to gather in larger groups, but it is still banking on the old lie that belonging to religion is what makes you a safer, better person. This is an atheist blog and one of my goals is to illustrate this lie no matter how it hides.

    Luke also said: “We all of faith” which is also true in that we all assume things true without evidence. I have written this myself in other posts. BUT I have balanced that by showing that the word has many meanings where this is plainly false. For instance, to make a virtue out of hold things to be true in spite of persistent contrary evidence is a stance of certain “Faith Religions”. See my post on “defining faith”.

    Luke seemed to be reflexively defending the phrase, and I probably reflexively attacked it. In my world (and you know this well, Earnest) Christianity is highly privileged. People with that privilege have a hard time understanding and acknowledging why people without privilege are sensitive to the abusive side of their power.

    Lastly, not only should we fight exclusivism, but also valorizing faith which persists in spite of persistent, consistent negative evidence is something that is worth strongly resisting.

  27. “Luke did not acknowledge the negative uses or negative implications of “People of Faith”
    -I guess because from “my tribe” it’s not negative. However, the phrase is contextual and I can see how it could be exclusive in other circles, but I have never experienced it that way.

    I have said it to many types of people as a way of stating, “We see eye to eye here despite our other differences.” So when you said, ” I have faith in human cooperation and loving relationships.” I would say, “Then we are people of faith” as we both believe this without evidence.

    I simply don’t find the phrase to be abusive. There are far worse phrases out there.

    I value your comment above and it helps me see where you’re coming from. The rational behind the post and largely I agree with you. However, I find it interesting that you keep reminding me that my theology is in the minority. I too have been called some unkind things by the “majority” and sometimes more vehemently than “people of no faith” because “I should know better. You are preaching a false gospel and false teachers are the worst thing a Christian can be.” (Direct quote from an email I received).

    So if this thread is about picking scabs, there’s other festering ones to focus on than this phrase of people of faith, IMHO.

  28. Earnest

    I guess there may be a parallel example of the use of the stars and bars Confederate flag as decoration. Clearly, some feel comfortable socializing in a room decorated with such a flag, whereas others would have involuntary anxiety and anger in the same setting. Interestingly, if the colors were changed from red white and blue to yellow pink and purple the reactions might reverse.

    I think it is fair to suggest the stars and bars flag is an exclusivist symbol. There are those who restrict its display because of the contentious emotions it arouses. I do wonder, though, if belaboring this point suggests that either the “people of the book” should stop calling themselves that, or that some atheists are a bit thin-skinned? If we book people are to stop using the phrase, is there one which is less objectionable?

  29. @ Earnest: Thanx for the comment. I haven’t looked at this post in 5 months — I edited it a bit since I have learned about “ngram” since then.

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