What Is Faith?

Ask five people for a definition of faith and you’ll get seven answers. If only everyone could agree on one definition! Consequently, when someone says “faith is irrational,” discussing the claim is tricky because we may be taking about two different things. It’s a little like me saying “apples are wonderful,” and I’m talking about the fruit, but you hear me talking about computers. So you retort, “apples are crap.” This confuses me because I’ve frequently seen you eat apples for lunch. We aren’t really disagreeing, because we’re talking about two different things.

So we struggle to get everyone on the same page. Christian thinkers may want to define faith as rational, while skeptical thinkers want to define it as irrational. What if we define it in such a way that it could be either rational or irrational? Well, philosopher Liz Jackson does a great job breaking down this crucial concept in an interview with Cameron Bertuzzi over at Capturing Christianity. Jackson doesn’t define faith as automatically rational–a person can be irrational or rational in their faith. And I think she captures many of the intuitions from both sides.

Faith According to Jackson

The video lasts about 45 min, and they discuss more than faith. They cover how it relates to desire, trust, certainty, and action. Jackson also draws an important distinction between personal and propositional faith. In the second half, Jackson looks at several definitions of faith used by well-known skeptics and talks about the problems with each.

For my skeptical friends out there, I’ll be interested to know what you think of her definition of faith and her critiques of the competing definitions. I sometimes worry that when skeptics talk about faith, they put up straw men. If you portray it as inherently irrational, help me understand why that isn’t a straw man.


Some people will object by saying, “Well, what Jackson says sounds nice, but when I talk to an average Christian on the street, that isn’t the definition they’re using.” That’s true. However, I could say the same thing about socialism, capitalism, and lots of other isms. Most people on the street hold a flawed or even incoherent notion of these things. If I wanted to know what socialism is, I would go to an expert or a reputable source. I wouldn’t ask the man on the street.

Another objection: “There are other experts with different definitions.” That is also true. I’m not suggesting that Jackson has provided the definitive account of faith. The question to ask is, “Is this account coherent and does it help make sense of what people of faith experience?” I think it is and it does.

Also notice that Jackson never refers to faith as a “way of knowing” or a method of coming to know things. This is a common misconception, held by many Christians and skeptics. For most philosophers who specialize in these matters, faith is either a mental state or simply an attitude toward a person or proposition.

Worth A Watch

So carve out some time this week to sit down with your favorite snack and beverage, and tune in to this thought-provoking interview. Whether you’re a skeptic or a theist, I think you’ll benefit.

4 thoughts on “What Is Faith?

  1. For those who hate watching documentary videos as opposed to browsing transcripts (like me), here you go. Not an exact transcript, but I think I summarized it acceptably:

    Two differences between faith and belief:

    1) There’s a lot of things that we believe, that we have no desire to be true. But a lot of people believe that having faith that something is true entails desiring that thing to be true.

    2) Faith goes beyond the evidence in a way that belief doesn’t. (Controversial.)

    Jackson’s proposed definition of belief: A belief is a commitment to the world being a certain way.

    Jackson does not provide a complete analysis of faith, but claims that faith is consistent with more counter-evidence than belief, and requires a desire component.

    Interviewer: Faith as trust? (Common in Christian apologetics.)

    Jackson is open to a trust component for faith, especially in personal faith, faith in God. Jackson, in her work, focuses on propositional faith. Faith as trust might refer to a more specific kind of faith.

    Interviewer: You’re preparing to jump out of an airplane with a parachute. You are aware that most people make it out the plane okay with a parachute, but you’re still placing faith [in the person that packed the parachute(?)]. Would that be an example of that more specific kind of faith? [Faith as trust?] Or is it both? Propositional faith and faith as trust?

    Jackson: Yeah, sure.

    Examples of belief, where you’re justified in believing, but you shouldn’t act on that belief. Justified belief in your friend’s spouse is cheating on her, but you shouldn’t act on that belief unless you have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. “Not fully confident in that belief.”

    “Rational” faith: Faith is belief plus a desire component (plus may require less evidence than belief). You’re hungry at night, you both believe and desire that there is food in the fridge, so you go down and check. Example of ‘rational’ faith.

    Jackson says that because faith has the desire component, you are required to act on it in ways that mere belief does not require.

    Interviewer: What’s the connection between belief, faith, and certainty?

    Jackson: Some people say that faith requires certainty, but I don’t think that’s true.

    Interviewer: Well, first, what is certainty?

    Jackson: Certainty means probability 1. 100% probability of being true. 1+1=2, cogitio ergo sum. Some philosophers think that absolute certainty is impossible. (Demon might be playing head-games on you when you do math.)

    Interviewer: Is certainty more like confidence (comes in degrees) or belief (binary, you have it or don’t)?

    Jackson: I use confidence as synonymous with credence, so, yeah, probability, comes in degrees. Certainty is maximal credence.

    Interviewer: Does hope involve certainty or uncertainty?

    Jackson: All you need for hope is a non-zero probability.

    Interviewer: Is hope compatible with certainty?

    Jackson: Hope is compatible with high credence and probability. But maybe not certainty.

    Interviewer: So faith is not synonymous with confidence.

    Jackson: Yes, the idea that faith requires certainty is a misconception. The desire component [explains] why faith does not require high confidence.

    Interviewer: Some people think that everybody has good evidence that God exists, and [atheists] are just suppressing that evidence.

    Jackson: Well, in an ideal world, everybody would have a proper relationship with God and know about God. It would be interesting to investigate what “suppression” means in this context. Is it for themselves, or others? Divine hiddeness. Free will explanation for why God is “hidden”?

    Interviewer: Faith as something propositional, mental state, what is going on in our brain?

    Jackson: Faith might be a mental state like a belief or a desire. But another sense of faith might be faith as an action. A commitment to act in certain ways.

    Interviewer: How could propositional faith go beyond the evidence and still be rational?

    Jackson: Confidence levels are easy to change. Just need variations in evidence. But belief is more stable. Faith is similar to steadfast belief. Faith might go beyond the evidence even more than belief, so might be rational even with low confidence.

    Interviewer: What is evidence?

    Jackson: Evidence affects confidence/probability levels. Evidence is easy to come by, since all is required is even a slight tweak to confidence levels. Evidence in an everyday sense is objective (clues about a murder), for philosophers, body of evidence varies between people.

    Interviewer: Faith as a decision to act? How can that go beyond the evidence and still be rational?

    Jackson: There are cases where it might be very unlikely for something to be true, but still act as if it were true. You have pretty good evidence that somebody is dead, but you still put up ‘missing person’ posters. Depends on desires and what’s at stake. So acting [on a proposition] can still be rational even with low confidence levels. Might still be rational to “go through the motions” of Christianity, even if you have a low confidence in God existing.

    Interviewer: How do fellow philosophers react to your theory of faith?

    Jackson: Some (minority) push-back on the desire component. Trinitarianism is a proposition taken on faith, but no desire component. There might be ambiguity in the term “faith.”

    Interviewer: So, in the majority of cases, faith has a desire component?

    Jackson: Sure, and not always rational to act on faith. If subjective probability of God existing is zero?

    Interviewer: Most common objection to faith is that it’s irrational.

    Jackson: New Athesists… P1. Faith is almost always irrational. P2. Religious figures generally have faith. C. Religious figures are generally irrational. So look at various accounts of faith, and use them to attack P1 or P2…

    Interviewer: How do the New Atheists defend P1? Depends on their account of faith, “faith is pretending to know something you don’t know.” Actual live philosophers have proposed this account, Mark Twain… Just semantic, they just define faith like that…

    Jackson: Yeah, if you stipulate faith as being mere irrational belief, sure, knock yourself out, but then how do you justify P2?

    Sam Harris: Faith is a self-justifying attitude.

    Jackson: Philosophers tend to understand self-justifying attitude as a belief that creates evidence for itself.

    William James: You’re out in the woods, get lost, and you decide that a certain path is the way home. You follow this path, and hit a crevasse. You’re not sure you’ll make it, but not sure you won’t make it. If you cultivate your belief, that will make it more likely that you’ll be able to leap across the crevasse.

    Jackson: But if faith is a self-justifying attitude, why does that make it irrational? Also, does believing God exist make it more likely that God exists? Might work in interpersonal faith, but not so much with propositional faith.

    Interviewer: Other [theories] of faith?

    Jackson: “Faith is something you don’t inquire into.” There’s a lot of things we don’t inquire into. “What did you have for breakfast?” “Eggs.” (Interrogator doesn’t follow through.) And religious believers do follow through and investigate.

    Two more, both having to do with evidence.

    “Faith is just not based on evidence.” “Belief not based on evidence is irrational.” Jackson: If evidence is just something that increases confidence, then most religious believers do have some level of evidence.

    [Interviewer and Jackson goes on tangent about seeming states being evidence or not.]

    “Faith is not based on good evidence:” testimony from religious leader, personal revelation. It’s not empirical evidence!

    Jackson: There is some scientific evidence for God. Fine tuning. So some level of scientific evidence for God. But maybe not many religious believers might not be aware of this evidence [or might not believe based on this evidence.] Also, logic and math are not based on scientific evidence. Induction is essential for science, but not based on science. Moral beliefs are not based on scientific evidence. So not just true that you need scientific evidence for a belief, and it would be self-defeating to claim this.

    Interviewer: So if your belief in God is not based on arguments, rational?

    Jackson: Sure, I’m sympathetic. You don’t need a robust philosophical argument for a belief to be rational.

    Jackson: Pascal’s Wager not about faith, but related. Epistemic permissivism: For certain body of evidence, believing a proposition or its negation could both be rational. Interesting implications for Pascal’s Wager. Two objections to Wager: doxastic involuntarianism and the wager is irrational. I tried to argue in this conference paper is that accept the Wager is rational. Arguments against the Wager fail in interesting way. Stronger responses to the objections… In a permissive case, you have more control over your beliefs than usual. And in a permissive case, may choose to believe a certain way for practical reasons, since the scenario is permissive.

  2. I would say that (as a skeptic) Jackson’s theory of faith is compatible with my own. I have more comments to make later, but I need to head out for D&D night.

      1. My own account of faith is that it’s “the surrender to the possibility of hope.” If we read Jackson as saying that belief plus desire are necessary but perhaps not sufficient conditions for faith, then her theory is compatible with mine.

        The main difference is that my account packs more in, has a more restrictive set of necessity conditions than Jackson’s. That’s mainly because I’m interested in if and why it might be ‘rational’ (for certain values of ‘rational’) to take low objective probability propositions on faith. So my account does a lot of foot-work to establish that kind of belief as ‘rational.’ I don’t think mere desire would be enough to yield that result. The deeper kind of hope involved in my account does entail mere desire, though, so a doxastic surrender to the possibility of hope does entail both belief and desire.

        I would be interested in knowing more about your take on Jackson’s approach, Chris, since in our discussions about the topic, you’ve expressed more of a faith-as-trust take. Do you have any objections to Jackson’s account? If so, they might apply to my own theory as well.

        If you like, I suppose I could actually sit down and write up my theory of faith at some point 🙂 Knowing that I’d have at least one interested reader would provide some motivation. As a preview/disclaimer, my current working title for such a hypothetical monograph is “Faith as a Weapon Against Religion.”

        I would point out that if we accept belief plus desire as a norm of belief that requires a lower degree of evidence than mere belief, then that would constitute a subjective norm of belief, of the sort I spoke in an earlier post’s comments.

        To recap, I think if we could apply subjective norms of belief to religious belief, then that would take a lot of heat out of religious discussions.

        To a large extent, epistemic norms are generally ‘tyrannical’ – anything not forbidden is mandatory. (With “epistemically permissive” scenarios, if any, being exceptions that prove the rule.) For example, it’s widely accepted that knowledge is the norm of assertion, and that truth is a condition of knowledge. So if I assert ‘p,’ and you assert ‘not p,’ at least one of us is in the wrong. Perhaps the wrongly asserting party is blameless (e.g., asserting based on a justified but false belief), but, still, at least one of us is wrong, and the conversation might be directed to figuring out which is the offending party (with it being possible that both of us are in the wrong – I might believe truly that p, but be unjustified in that belief).

        But if we could apply a subjective norm of belief to religion, then it could be perfectly permissible for one person to believe ‘p,’ and another to believe ‘not p.’ It would no longer be necessary to show that you’re wrong in order for it to be possible for me to be right. Your divergent belief would not bring my belief into question. I would need to do some work if I want you to share my belief, but that’s a different story.

        If adding desire to belief did result in a lower required degree of evidence for permissible belief, then that would constitute a subjective norm of belief. The norms of desire are generally much more permissive than epistemic norms. I like pasta, my friend hates pasta, and both attitudes are perfectly permissible. The norms of rational behavior that arise from these differing desires are subjective, not objective – ceterius paribus, I ‘should’ seek out pasta, and my friend ‘should’ avoid pasta.

        Sadly, I don’t think that mere desire lowers the degree of evidence required for a belief to be epistemically rational. Mere desire does affect if it’s rational to act-as-if a proposition is true, and I think that’s what at work in Jackson’s Midnight Snacker case. The Midnight Snacker’s hunger doesn’t make him any more justified in believing there’s sandwich-fixings in the fridge than his evidence already makes him, but that hunger does make it more rational for him to go downstairs and check. I don’t think the Midnight Snacker’s belief qualifies as an article of faith, since there’s not the sort of existential hope vs. existential despair that would require a leap of faith.

        I do think the parachute case is an example of faith at work. The subject has an a-lief (animal belief) that jumping out of a plane will kill them, despite their rational b-lief (human belief) that doing so with a parachute is reasonably safe. That a-lief means that a despair-possibility is psychologically live for the subject, and their rational belief in the security of the parachute means that a hope-possibility is psychologically live as well. The subject is psychologically able to choose between ‘surrendering’ to hope or ‘surrendering’ to despair. And it would be rational, both epistemically and ‘ethically,’ for the subject to choose to ‘surrender’ to the possibility of hope and form the belief that they will be survive if they jump out of the plane with the parachute. And I don’t think the subject would be merely acting-as-if if they did so.

        Jackson’s account of faith does suggest that Trinitarianism is not an article of faith, if the subject does not desire Trinitarianism to be true. I actually agree that it would be difficult for Trinitarianism to be an article of faith! I would say that Trinitarianism is usually an example of what I would call mere religious belief. I would wager that, for most Trinitarian Christians, it’s an article of faith only in the sense of faith-as-allegiance: it is something that you must believe in order to be a member-in-good-standing of your religion, where ‘religion’ is understood as a human-created social institution that requires endorsing certain beliefs as a condition of membership. It might be possible for Trinitarianism to be a true article of faith for some individuals, but some reasonably odd circumstances would have to be at work in order for that to be the case.

        The reason why the working title for my hypothetical monograph on faith is “Faith as a Weapon Against Religion” is that I would like to distinguish between articles of faith and other kinds of religious belief. Some propositions can permissibly be taken on faith, following a subjective norm of belief. In such cases, the believer should be largely insensitive to counter-evidence, and it would be dirty pool for a skeptic to demonstrate to the faithful that those articles of faith are false. But other religious beliefs are not articles of faith, and the believer should focus their powers of skepticism on those beliefs (and it would be permissible for a skeptic to help them in that investigation).

        Furthermore, some examples of mere religious beliefs might be ones that create the psychological conditions that make certain leaps of faith necessary! To provide a somewhat toy example, if a subject believes that both they and the world is in a fallen state, then it might be ‘rational’ for them to accept that proposition that salvation is possible on faith. “God exists” might be a necessary condition for salvation being possible, so that, in turn, would be an article of faith. But what is their justification for believing that the world is in a fallen state? It would be difficult to establish that proposition as an article of faith. And if that proposition is not an article of faith, then it is fair game for skeptical investigation. If that proposition is shown to be false, then that could mean that the possibility of supernatural salvation is no longer the sole source of hope for the subject. In which case, it might be possible to remove “God exists” from the subject’s list of articles of faith, and it would be permissible for the subject to skeptically study the evidence for and against that proposition. In real life, I imagine what’s involved in the Christian mindset is a bit more complex than that, but at least it would be a place to start any inter-faith dialogues.

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