What is religious faith?

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What is religious faith?  And how does it differ from faith in a more general sense?  In my years of discussing faith with people from a variety of religious backgrounds, as well as in my readings of theology, I’ve come to understand that people mean at least one of the following four concepts when they use the term “faith.”

  • Belief
    • Example: “I have faith that God exists.”
  • Trust
    • Example: “I have faith that that my child is being honest with me.”
  • Hope
    • Example: “I have faith that everything will turn out ok.”
  • Loyalty
    • Example: “I have always been faithful to my spouse.”

 

Whenever I talk with someone about what they mean by the word “faith,” I always try to ensure that I understand which one (or which combination) of these concepts they’re expressing.  And what I’ve found is that many faith statements, when broken down into their composite pieces, start to sound quite odd.  Consider the following common statement of faith:

“I believe that God exists through faith.”

Could this use of faith include the concepts of “loyalty” or “trust”?  That seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse, as someone would have to believe that God actually exists before swearing fealty to or trusting in God.  And I suspect that folks willing to make the above statement aren’t using faith to mean “hope” here either.  “I believe that God exists through hope” doesn’t seem a particularly compelling foundation for one’s religion.  Which means that we’re left with “belief” as the only remaining option.  That leaves the restructured statement as follows:

“I believe that God exists through belief.”

Restated with greater clarity, the statement becomes a meaningless tautology.  In my experience, this is a very common consequence of asking for more precision when it comes to statements of faith.  And it need not be arrived at through argument or debate.  Politely asking people to break down what they mean by these statements into less ambiguous terms, and periodically summarizing what you’re hearing them say, is often one of our most powerful tools for revealing underlying confusion.  You can even try it on yourself!

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The Muslim Reformation and Obama’s Realism

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I’ve long considered religious faith, when understood as a method of coming to conclusions about reality, to be among the worst problems plaguing humanity.  I’ll expand upon my reasons for that in a future post, but suffice to say I’ve long been motivated to help people reason their own way to this conclusion as well.  I think the world would be a significantly more prosperous, egalitarian, and peaceful place were this to happen.  But recently I’ve begun to think that helping people to move away from religious faith, while still admirable, isn’t alone necessarily the best and only path available to us.

Last year I read the excellent Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.  In it, Nawaz points out how tremendously unrealistic it is to think that the solution to Islamist extremism is to de-convert the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.  And he’s got a point.  Cultural change takes time, especially when the beliefs needing revision are strongly held.  As much as I’d like to say that the solution to Islamist extremism is to engage people in dialogue and help them work through the problems that accompany their religious faith (see Street Epistemology), a broader multi-pronged approach seems more likely to be effective/practical at this point.

As a result, I’ve come to agree with people like Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani,  and Maryam Namazie who favor an Islamic Reformation.  And I’m not the only one.  Well known atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others have shifted their efforts to more unambiguously support Islamic reformers.  (Nawaz’s well-articulated distinctions between Muslims and Islamists appear to have been extremely helpful in this regard.)

Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic presents President Obama as coming to very similar conclusions – albeit from the opposite direction.  From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has echoed the patently absurd notion that Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam.  This, despite the never ending stream of specifically Islamic theological justifications that Islamist extremists offer us through their propaganda on a daily basis.  Or the violence that makes absolutely no sense in the absence of Islamic theology (Throwing gay people from rooftops, the recent attacks on Christians in Lahore, Pakistan during Easter celebrations, or the murder of Asad Shah).

Obama’s concern about naming Islamism as an underlying causal problem appears to be that it could enflame the xenophobic bigotry of the political right in the U.S., further stigmatizing non-violent Muslims and putting them at greater risk of violence.  And that’s certainly a concern I share.  But I agree with Nawaz that failing to be straightforward about the situation at hand only feeds a narrative that Obama – and liberally minded folks in general – doesn’t understand what’s really going on.  And this comes across as classic denialism.  As a result, the only people willing to loudly talk about the problem of Islamism are the xenophobic bigots.  And so, we liberals have ended up ceding the discussion to some of those least capable of constructively addressing the issue.

I am pleased to see that, privately, Obama appears to recognize Islamism as a significant underlying problem.  I’m not convinced that he’ll be publically forthcoming about that during the rest of his term.  Nor am I convinced that either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will publically recognize it if either of the two of them are elected.  But perhaps they might find other, less publicized, ways of supporting a reformation in Islamic theology?  Perhaps they might nudge the prodigious power of the US media voice to support reformers?  Perhaps they might find ways to fund organizations seeking to confront Islamism’s theology, or assist refugee Muslims with assimilating into their newfound cultures?  I’d prefer that this be more broadly coupled with a publically stated opposition to Islamist theology.  But it would be better than the head-in-the-sand denialism of the “nothing to do with Islam” canard with which we’ve so far been inundated.