Faith, I explained, consists of assent to a proposition that is conceivably false.
Robert is clearly unhappy with this definition. Why? He complains that it “‘levels the playing field’, which is exactly what you intended to do.” In other words, it means that everyone exercises faith, and that just can’t be right.
The fact is, Robert says, “the word also typically carries connotations that do not apply to those who reject the existence of God.” Consequently, it is disingenuous for me to propose a definition that applies to those people too.
Robert explains further in a second comment:
The “ATHEISM IS A RELIGION” mantra is very similar to what you are doing with the FAITH label: You want to apply it to members of the Y group (atheists) who reject many of the connotations that members of the X group (theists) will happily accept. Does your label feel forced? It should.
There is a reason why members of the Y group don’t accept the faith label, and no, it has nothing to do with the fact sometimes they ‘assent to propositions that are conceivably false’.
I appreciate Robert’s comments because they provide an excellent springboard to offer further clarification in the midst of what seems a rather disconcerting confusion.
Words with many meanings
Robert makes the important observation that the word faith has “many … connotations.” That is, faith is a word with multiple meanings.
Of course I’m well aware of the fact, and that is why I seek to avoid the confusion and conflation of meanings by being very precise on the epistemological concept of faith as opposed to the other meanings.
Robert’s problem is that he keeps wanting to conflate those different meanings. This is evident when he writes: “the word also typically carries connotations that do not apply to those who reject the existence of God.” In other words, the word “faith” has some meanings which do not apply to atheists.
Correct. One meaning for the word faith approximates roughly with “religion”. Atheists have no faith in that sense.
But that doesn’t mean that no other meaning for the concept faith applies to atheists. On the contrary, the core epistemological concept does apply to atheists, as I demonstrated.
What Robert needs to do is keep these different meanings separate and recognize that the meanings that have specifically religious connotations are not essential to the core epistemological concept of faith.
An illustration: love
Robert says that my definition “feels forced”. On the contrary, his refusal to distinguish multiple meanings is what feels forced.
To illustrate, let’s think about another word for a moment: love. Let’s say that I define love like this:
A profound affection for another person and desire to see that person achieve well being.
This is my attempt to define the concept of love.
You could say that definition “feels forced” because it means you cannot love root beer and chocolate cake. And you most certainly do love root beer and chocolate cake.
I hope you can see that such an objection would be rooted in a confusion between concepts and words. By providing a definition of the concept of love, I am not aiming to provide a definition that covers every meaning of the word love.
Clearly it means something different to say “I love my family” and “I love root beer”. But the terms are not completely equivocal like “There is a plane in the hanger” and “There is a plane in the woodshop”. There is some shared conceptual content between the two uses of the word love. But when Foreigner sings “I want to know what love is” they are not asking what it means to prefer a root beer on a hot day. So once the discussion has been framed by Foreigner you can consider my definition as a viable candidate for the concept with which they’re concerned. (In this case it would appear that the core concept love is roughly as defined above but that it has analogical extensions which apply to things like root beer.)
As for faith, John Loftus framed the discussion by arguing repeatedly that faith is “irrational”. By doing this he made it clear that he was concerned with faith as an epistemological concept. So when I countered with a definition, I was defining the core concept of faith as an epistemological concept. I recognize that there is shared content between this term and other meanings of the word faith, e.g. faith as religion. But I wasn’t concerned with those senses.
So when you have a word with multiple meanings and you are concerned to define precisely a concept that is embodied in one of those meanings, you are not obliged to define it in such a way that it encompasses all the other family resemblance meanings. Indeed, any attempt to do so is to court not only confusion but absurdity.
Think about it. Foreigner is playing on the jukebox. Todd turns to you, tears running down his cheeks, and asks “I want to know too. What is love?”
Assuming that Todd is interested in learning about a concept at that moment (an assumption which could be mistaken) are you obliged to offer him a concept that encompasses a favorable disposition to consumer items? Clearly not. It is obvious that he wants a definition of the concept that relates person to person, not person to product. The extent to which the former concept has analogical application in the latter relationship is for another day.
And when a person has framed the discussion of faith as an epistemic concept (as Loftus did), when you counter with another definition it is as an epistemic concept.
Ironically then, Robert is the one courting confusion by suggesting that we are obliged to define the epistemic concept of faith in such a way that it encompasses the various meanings of the word faith. That is merely a recipe for muddling up distinct concepts and analogical extensions in one unappetizing greyish stew.
The concept of faith
So it is right and proper to focus on the epistemic concept of faith. The next question is this: have I defined that concept rightly? We can answer that in two steps: general usage and formal Christian usage.
The general usage case for the definition I provided is overwhelming. As I noted, that definition is reflected in the first two meanings for the word faith provided in dictionary.com:
So on this score Robert’s complaint rings completely hollow. Dictionary.com has no problem identifying an epistemic concept that has no essential religious connotations.
What about the Christian tradition?
The Christian tradition is rooted in the Greek concept of pistis. So I suggest a simple exercise for starters. Look up the word pistis in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, or at least a good concordance, and you will find an epistemic concept that maps closely onto the definition of faith that I provided.
Now consider two representative theologians: Pope John Paul II and Augustine (and you don’t get much more representative than that).
The opening line of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Fides et Ratio” states: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….” In other words, faith is part and parcel of good reasoning. The Pope is using the term as an epistemic concept precisely as I am doing.
Augustine did the same when he famously said “I believe in order that I may understand”. In other words, understanding only comes through some epistemic risk, believing that which is conceivably false. Only by taking that risk do I come to understanding.
My definition begins then by sorting out the confusion and conflation of multiple meanings of a word by focusing on one concept conveyed in one meaning. And it does so not arbitrarily but in response to John Loftus’ perpetual confusion about that concept.
I demonstrated that the definition of the concept that I provided is represented in common usage and is rooted in the New Testament and the Christian tradition.
The fact is that the confusion, such as there may be, is not being perpetuated by me. Rather, it is being perpetuated by people who are failing to grasp an epistemic concept because they’ve blurred together the multiple distinct meanings of a single word. I won’t attempt to explain why they do that, but it could be because they don’t want that level playing field.